Genuine liberalism, which sprang from the philosophy of Enlightenment, has always been suspicious about community. Universalism, and in particular the universality of moral judgments, was one of the achievements of the Enlightenment, and an essential element of Liberal thought. Such Universalism is manifested in political statements such as the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, as well as in philosophical essays written by thinkers such as Locke, Rousseau and Kant. Universal morality, according to liberal tradition, cannot recognize any community other than the community of all mankind. The concrete group demands of its members a particular loyalty, which subverts universalism; it is a partition between the individual and the universal.
However, this is not the only way to think about community. I shall attempt here to shed light on a different type of Enlightenment, one that illuminates a different path to Universalism. This different enlightenment has its ancient roots in Aristotle, and its modern manifestations in the teachings of Hegel, Marx, Landauer and Buber. Its most recent spokesmen are some of the Communitarian theorists. Following them, I shall argue that Community can indeed be a partition that hides the Universal, but it is also an essential component of a mediated Universalism, and hence, of a Universalism worthy of our loyalty.
In order to understand the objection of classical enlightenment to Community, we need to understand its attitude toward Universality, and especially its answer to the question: "How can we perceive the Universal". There was never an agreement among the thinkers of Enlightenment concerning the content of universal truth. This did not hinder them from assuming that such truth actually exists. This is since for them, the fundamental issue was not "what is the universal truth" but "how can we know it".
How can Man grasp the universal? The answer given by classical enlightenment was quite unanimous: through rational thinking. Reason was considered the agent that could beget knowledge of the universal truths and values. Every man is endowed with reason. Therefore every man could, at least in potential, recognize the content of ethical imperatives. He could achieve such knowledge (and in fact ought to achieve it), by himself, without any help from teachers, guardians and mediators. In his "Meditations", Descartes says that since he had found out that everything his teachers taught him was doubtful, he decided to ruin once and for all all his previous beliefs, in order to find something that is certain. He then embarked on a mental journey to find certain truths all by himself. A hundred years later, Rousseau spoke of the "General Will" which is embodied in every citizen's mind, and is supposed to guide him in moral and social decision making. Unlike Descartes, Rousseau did not totally discard of teachers: a wise and benevolent social educator – the legislator – was needed in order to bring society to a state in which its members could think and act as citizens: to listen to the voice of reason and to suppress their natural inclinations. But the legislator in Rousseau's theory is a ladder that should be discarded after climbing: in a good civil society there is no need for a legislator, or rather, the legislator exists in each and every citizen, in the form of his "General Will".
The direct contact that should be formed between the private citizen and the universal laws (through the citizen's General Will) is the reason for Rousseau's opposition to any kind of political factions and parties. Such interest groups can not represent the General Will. They are, at best, a mere generalization of some (or many) private wills. Citizens, when divided into parties, lose their direct contact with the Universal (or rather the other way around: when people who live together lose contact with the Universal, they form political parties). We can assume that this is also true for small, partial communities. For Rousseau, the state, created by the social contract, is the only legitimate community. The crucial point here is not the size of this community (one might remember that Rousseau spoke in favor of very small states). The crucial point is that the community, or the state, is not regarded as mediating between men and the Universal, but the other way around: the knowledge of the Universal, embodied in the mind of every citizen, is what enables the existence of the state. This objection to parties and groups also characterized other classical thinkers of the "Social Contract" theory. The contract that creates the political community is a contract of individuals, not of groupes; and only such a community can be an implementation of the Universal. Small groups and non-contractual communities belong to the private sphere of human life – a sphere which should perhaps be tolerated, but is problematic with respect to moral judgment and conduct.
Thus, the philosophers of the enlightenment sought (or rather: assumed) a direct link between the individual and the universal, with its absolute truths and values. But after hundreds of years of modernity we fear that maybe Thomas Hobbes, the dark prophet of modern times, was right from the beginning. Maybe the "universal" that the individual reaches by himself is a mere generalization of private interest, which is essentially relative, and can not be articulated in absolute terms. Maybe human condition, under the rule of individuality, is a race in which, as Hobbes himself put it (And I quote from Hobbes 'Human Nature'):
"To consider them behind is glory,
To consider them before is humility.
To fall on the sudden, is disposition to weep,
To see another fall, is disposition to laugh.
Continually to be out-gone, is misery.
Continually to out-go the next before is felicity.
And to forsake the course, is to die."
The only thing absolute in such a race is the sum of the game: zero. This does not mean that human beings are not endowed with reason. On the contrary: Hobbes viewed reason as something essential to man. But reason can not discover any absolute or objective truths or values. There is no such objectivity do discover. Under this assumption, we are left with subjective reason alone. In his book "Eclipse of Reason" Max Horkheimer showed how subjective reason drives humanity towards madness, and Western civilization towards a catastrophe.
Descartes' giant leap has ended up, after almost four hundred years, in a sense of collapse and loss. This brings us back to Descartes' starting point: in his search for universal truth, Descartes did away with every "Other", other human beings that is. Maybe this was his fundamental mistake. Before we can elaborate on this issue, we must consider a somewhat different subject, less frequent in the teachings of the forefathers of enlightenment. Up until now we have asked "how can one achieve knowledge of the universal and absolute truths and values?" Let us assume for a moment that such knowledge has been achieved, and ask: how can this knowledge be transformed into a personal guide for practice or, in other words: how can one develop a sense of commitment to universal absolute values?
The thinkers of the enlightenment took this commitment more or less for granted. They assumed that if a person understands the absolute imperative, adherence to this imperative would necessarily follow. The reason for this is that these philosophers implicitly or explicitly identified the "self" (the Ego) with the faculty of rational thinking. Acceptance of the outcome of rational thinking – the moral values which were rationally deduced – was considered merely as loyalty to one's self. Such loyalty was taken for granted: no rational being would knowingly act against themselves, and thus against reason. The moral theory of Immanuel Kant is the most brilliant articulation of this view, which has close affinity to Plato's old doctrine about the inability of knowing the good without wishing to practice it. We know today that two out of the three assumptions in this argument are false (or at least questionable). I do not want to question the assumption that knowledge of the absolute is gained through rational thinking. However, rational thinking is only one part of our personality, not necessarily the dominant one, or the one meant by the word "I". Furthermore, loyalty to one's self is not something simple or obvious. The writings of Hegel, Marx, Freud, Fromm and others have taught us various ways in which a person may betray himself or be alienated from his "true self". Hence, knowledge of the universal values simply is not enough. We must still ask how one develops loyalty and adherence to such values (We might recall that even Plato had neglected his doctrine – or at least questioned it – in his last dialogue, "The Laws").
This is, first of all, a question for moral education. Absolute values are abstract, and loyalty can only be learnt through a gradual ascent from the concrete to the abstract (This brings to mind Lawrence Kohlberg's theory of moral development). A person learns to be loyal to his family, before he learns to be loyal to his country, to humanity as a whole, or to the moral principles of Kant. Thus, the concrete "Other", the peer group or the community, are essential in order to develop a sense of loyalty. Of course, there is a danger that the educational process will come to a halt too soon: that a person will only develop loyalty to a particular group, and never reach a level of loyalty to the universal. One can even say that most human beings never transcend beyond some sort of "Gangsters' morality" and reach the universal. But this only serves to strengthen my point: if man can not be trusted to go beyond his group interests, how can he be trusted to go beyond his private interests? If he can not ascent from the concrete to the abstract, why should we assume that he has the capacity to close the enormous gap between the individual and the universal all by himself?
But the question of adherence to universal values is not just a question of moral education. It is also a question of morality per se. To put it simply we should ask: is such adherence an a-priori moral virtue? A humanistic point of view can only beget a negative answer. A humanist can not uphold platonic realism (at least not an extreme version of such realism). She must admit that only attitudes or behaviors towards concrete human beings can be considered as good (or bad) from a moral point of view. Perhaps one can enlarge the group of the "beneficiaries" of morals so as to include animals or even plants (as in Buddhism for example), but you can not go any further. Institutions, ideas and concepts do not feel, suffer, hope, fear or rejoice. Hence, an adherence to an abstract value, which can not be understood as an adherence to the happiness or wellbeing of concrete living things (or a community of concrete living things) can not be considered moral. At best it has no ethical significance. At worst it is downright evil.
The above considerations do not mean, however, that we must abandon the enlightened commitment to universal values or to rational thinking. The conclusion I am aiming at is not a romantic, or even existential or postmodern denial of universalism. The important controversy is not between universalism and particularism, but between two kinds of universalism. We might call it mediated and non-mediated (or hollow) universalism. While the pioneers of the enlightenment believed in an immediate connection with the universal, there is a different vision concerning Man's connection with the universal. This vision has its ancient roots in Aristotle, and was promoted by modern thinkers such as Hegel, Marx and Martin Buber. Its most recent spokesmen are Communitarians such as Amitai Etziony, Alasdair MacIntyre, Robert Putnam and Robert Bellah. These philosophers considered Man as a "zuon politicon" in the deepest meaning of the phrase. Man, according to them, is not sufficient for himself physically or mentally. It is not that universal ethical judgments are unreachable, or that reason is not the proper vehicle to reach them. It is that reasoning, especially moral reasoning, is not something that can be done in solitude. In the first book of the "Politics" Aristotle states that human beings are unique in their ability to speak about good and evil, just and unjust, "and it is partnership in these things that makes a household and a city-state". The immanent connection between speech and reason, which is implied by the Greek word "logos", is made explicit in the theories of the modern philosophers mentioned above (and indeed theories of some very different philosophers, such as Ludwig Witgenstein). In order to grasp the universal, and in order to rationally understand moral values, one needs a concrete other: a partner for discussion. It should be emphasized that such discussion must be real and concrete. Even Descartes held in his writings, from time to time, imaginary (or "methodical") conversations. But if you believe that truth is attained through speech, the discussion can not take place merely in one's head. It has to be real and public, a form of communication. And partnership in such a discussion is a form of community.
It is a very different community than the one formed by the social contract. According to Rousseau, such community is possible only after its would-be-members have internalized the absolute "General Will". The community we are now speaking of is formed before the final conclusion about the absolute has been reached. It is a mean to achieve such a conclusion (which, although being universal and rational, is never truly "final").
Furthermore, the community is the mediator through which men and women learn about commitment, and learn to commit themselves. Commitment to concrete human beings (or a group of human beings) can indeed hinder commitment to the universal, but it is doubtful that a commitment to the universal is possible (or even good) without commitment to concrete human beings. Community can separate Man from the Universal but it can also serve as a mediator, raising Man toward universality. It can serve, if you will, as a stairway to heaven.