One on One: Regulating the pursuit of self

Amitai Etzioni says balance is key to resolving conflict between individual rights and the common good.

Etzioni 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy of Noam Armonn)
Etzioni 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy of Noam Armonn)
'The current financial crisis highlights the failure of individualism in controlling itself," asserts American sociologist Amitai Etzioni, in Israel last month to deliver the Shalem Center's annual Zalman C. Bernstein memorial lecture in Jewish political thought. It is precisely for this reason that Etzioni - director of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at The George Washington University and head of the Washington, DC-based think tank, the Communitarian Network ( - founded his movement in the early 1990s. In response to what he viewed as an era of excessive emphasis on the self - the Reagan-Thatcher years, to be precise - the former Columbia University professor and subsequent senior adviser to Jimmy Carter's White House took ideological action. Though not thrilled at the time with the only name he and his group could come up with to describe their concept of societal balance, Etzioni is now nevertheless satisfied that its essence has taken hold. In fact, he claims, it is best embodied in the philosophy espoused by newly elected US President Barack Obama. Born Werner Falk in Cologne in 1929, Etzioni fled to Mandatory Palestine from Nazi Germany in the 1930s. He served in the Palmah, and studied under Martin Buber at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he completed his BA and MA degrees. His doctorate is from the University of California at Berkeley. He has published 24 books, most recently Security First: For a Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy. And, as its title suggests, its author is no pacifist. But he's no fan of the Bush doctrine either. So, though - as he says during an hour-long interview at the Tel Aviv Hilton - "I would send troops into Sudan tomorrow," he doesn't believe the world is or necessarily should be Westernizing. Nor, he says, "should we send the Marines into Libya, which no longer sponsors terrorism, because it denies human rights." It all boils down, he reiterates, to "my favorite word - balance." You define "good societies" as those which achieve the right balance between individual rights and the common good. Can you give an example of a society that fits your description? No society has found a perfect balance. In effect, societies fall off the horse, so to speak, in one of two directions. For example, the United States and Britain in the 1980s - under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher - went in the direction of extreme individualism. On the other hand, in Japan, the social pressure to behave in a certain way was and is still enormous, with women and minorities having very limited rights and the handicapped having none. In this case, it is not so much the state that is overwhelming, but rather the community. The Scandinavian countries are correctly perceived as having a happier balance. In general, the social market reflects this notion of the necessity for some kind of a balance between capitalism, individualism, pursuit of self and some kind of social regulation. Your mentioning Reagan and Thatcher in the context of individualism would indicate a focus on economics. Aren't there other realms which involve the pursuit of individual rights? Indeed. Security, for instance, which is now a burning issue. Here, too, you have to find a balance between protecting privacy and ensuring national security. What makes this particularly complicated is that different countries are under different levels of threat. Most people would agree that during the Bush administration, the US went overboard in terms of its security measures, and that we are now entering a kind of correction period, during which individual rights will be protected better, especially the right not to be tortured. To Israelis, the US seems quite lax where security is concerned. People enter and exit bus and train stations freely, without having bags checked, for example. Yet you say that the Bush administration went "overboard." Why? Israel is under an unparalleled level of threat - one that I believe is not really coming from the Palestinians, but rather from Iran. All the rest is chicken feed compared to the Iranian nuclear threat. I'm exaggerating to make a point, but the rest is lower than traffic accidents. Iran is actually putting the future of the Jews and Israel at stake. The US is not threatened in that way. The attack on the homeland was unprecedented, but it didn't constitute an existential threat. Even so, Israel has forgone using torture, following a Supreme Court decision on the matter. But, until last month, the US engaged in massive torture. Not all rights should be ranked in the same way. Rights which directly protect your physical being are of a higher order than, say, reading your e-mail. All such additional rights presuppose that you are alive. When you're dead, privacy and freedom of speech are meaningless. Under the Bush administration, kidnapping, torture and assassination were not only widespread, but legitimated. That is what I mean by its having gone overboard. Would you be of the same opinion if it were Nazi Germany that the American administration was contending with? Are there no methods made legitimate precisely by virtue of the millions of lives they save and safeguard? This goes back to the issue of balance between the level of threat and the response to it. Because the threat is lower in the US, and the violence implemented in response is particularly high, there is an imbalance. If the level of threat were jacked up, of course the equation would change. So, yes, I would allow for more stringent methods if the US were under existential threat. We can argue over whether the Nazis did or did not pose an existential threat to the US. But if they did, yes, we would allow for more action. The problem with torture, aside from the fact that it is a particularly gross violation of human rights, is that it is often ineffectual. But that's a utilitarian efficiency argument for a different discussion. Why did you call your movement "Communitarianism"? That's actually an interesting story. I started a little group in 1990, and I tried to find a word to counter excessive individualism. Communitarianism is actually associated with... Communism? Well, yes, when it first came up in the mid-19th century, it was associated with communism in East Asia. So we had a very long debate about whether to use it or not. But we just couldn't come up with another term that would speak for community and common good. And we hoped that our kind of neo-communitarianism would succeed in becoming a kind of a symbol for this other approach. It's a particularly key point at the moment, because there is no philosophy that better describes Obama's position than communitarianism. But nobody wants him to label it thus, because it immediately evokes the image of East Asia, Singapore and Japan. So, it may have been an imperfect choice of a term, but now we're kind of stuck with it. What constitutes a "community"? A community has to have two attributes: a web of affection and a shared moral culture - a sense of right and wrong which is distinct to that culture. Friendships are one on one, but a community consists of a crisscrossing pattern of several people who are collectively and affectionately bonded to each other, like a large family. Many groups use the word to describe themselves. According to your definition, is it not a misnomer to call gays or blacks communities? Well, everybody uses that term, because it's a positive one - you know, the business community, the global community, etc. Not all statistical or demographic categories constitute communities, because they're not all bonded together, and don't all share the same set of values. To the degree that they do, they form a community. But is there one Jewish community? Are there six? Still, I think that among gays and lesbians, for example, there are strong communities, but I doubt that they make up a one community. What is an example, then, of a community that actually fits your definition? That's easy: the kibbutzim. Even today - after having been forced to alter their entire way of life, if not philosophy, for economic considerations? And even in the past, when there were serious arguments among kibbutz members about communal children's houses and other issues? The kibbutz has certainly evolved a great deal since the early days of pure communitarianism - though, to be accurate, only half of them had communal children's houses. And anyway, having communal children's houses is not a prerequisite of my definition. But, giving an American example: Practically all ethnic communities form strong communitarian bonds. For instance, Jews come from Russia to the US, and what happens? They are met by a representative of the Jewish community; they are supported; they're given homes; they go to nightclubs with each other and so on. The same applies to the Vietnamese. But would you say these groups share a value system? I would say yes, but the question is how thick it is. In any group, you find those who don't exactly fit in. But basically, the sense that they are a tribe is strong. Now "community" always seems to have warm, fuzzy connotations, but communities are not necessarily good. They can be centered around very negative values, like the Nazis. And communities can be discriminatory, because as soon as you have members, you have nonmembers, which means there is exclusion. That's why communities must be balanced with respect for rights. What role does religious faith play? One problem created by modern, materialistic, hedonistic society is a spiritual vacuum. And spiritual vacuums invite something to fill them. Where there are no moderate, sensitive responses - like in Zen Buddhism, if you like, or Sufism in Islam - you get radicalism. This could take the form of communism, for example, or radical Islam. If you go back to the fact that communities need shared values, the question is how you edit them. They're not frozen in time; they're living documents, so to speak. In all our countries, there is intense moral dialogue going on, in which the community at large gets really involved. What my data show is that if you follow those discussions over time - discussions which, when they're going on, sound like screaming fights - you see the development of a new shared moral understanding. It's not necessarily the right one, but it's shared, which is what a community needs in order to be a community. For example, when Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963, she was raising issues that would lead to a gradual change in what Americans consider the proper relations between men and women. Not all agree that the change is for the better, of course. The Southern Baptists, for example, passed a resolution a few years ago that women should graciously submit to their husbands. But the community at large, in its laws and behavior, has reflected a change in its moral understanding of what it considers proper relations between the genders. It, too, keeps being edited. Some feminists think it's done and we should move on; some think we haven't gone far enough; some think we've moved too far. But the fact that the margins don't agree does not change the fact that the core has fundamentally changed. The same goes for race relations, as Obama's election demonstrates. Concern for the environment is a particularly interesting case of this kind of change, because a whole new moral obligation was created where none had existed before. You point to the Southern Baptists, as if to say that only the fanatically religious don't accept Friedan's view. Are you not aware of the rise of more mainstream objections to what has become of the relations between men and women? Fair enough. But you're too much of an intellectual to play the sociologist here. There are thousands of variations on each theme. There are radical feminists and less radical feminists. There are women who don't want to be called feminists. There are post-feminists. But you're taking the lens too close. If you step back a little, you can see a shared understanding that in the 1950s, women's rights were not honored. If you go back farther, women weren't even entitled to vote. But the movement of history has been in the direction of greater equality. There have been profound changes in the consensus. In the end, the arguments are in the margins. Can you envision such a profound change in the consensus within the Muslim world? What I see is a struggle between the majority of Muslims, who are moderate, and the minority, who are radical. But the moderates are not pro-rights. I call them "illiberal moderates," because they reject violence and tolerate differences, but they are not willing to accept the Western agenda. Are you saying, then, that no Muslim version of Betty Friedan can emerge? They have emerged, but they don't take. Implicit in the notion that all civilizations will go through the same dynamics is that they are all going to see the light and become Western - as Bernard Lewis, Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama believe. I think this is both empirically and morally wrong. Furthermore, it presents a very tall bar to clear. We would be much better off lowering that bar, and saying that states first of all should not kill each other - or their own people - and then we'll talk about the rest. The same I would say about Hamas. If tomorrow they were willing to recognize Israel's right to exist - if they were to stop killing us and we them - we could still allow for them to be religiously strong. They could still divorce a woman by saying "I divorce you" three times. Then comes the question of whether we have to insist that they accept our notion of women's rights. Look what happened in Libya. [Muammar] Gaddafi gave up on sponsoring terrorism and on nuclear weapons. But he's horrible on rights. So, human rights groups say we can't allow this guy to stay in office; we have to impose sanctions and so on. To them I say, if Iran did what Libya did, would we be satisfied? You bet we would. We'd be dancing in the aisles. This is not because I don't care about human rights, but that should be the second stage. But do your assessments really take universal human nature into account? In his 1776 book The Wealth of Nations, the father of modern economics, Adam Smith, said that channeling man's natural impulse toward self-interest properly creates a system which is best for the common good. Would you say that he was a realist, while you are an idealist? My book, The Moral Dimension, deals with this whole issue. Adam Smith was so wrong that he himself argued with it in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. [Though this book was written in 1759, before The Wealth of Nations, Smith revised it several times throughout his life.] This is a completely erroneous concept of human nature. We are part God, part beast. We have both good and bad impulses. And we can nurture the moral one to curb the beastly one. Which goes back, again, to my favorite word - balance. So, you can have someone so greedy that he makes $550 million and has to steal another $100 million. Or you can have people like Obama, who gave up on a lucrative law career to become a community organizer. As someone who taught at Columbia University for two decades, what was your position on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speaking there? I think it was useful, because it clarified who he is. I also think that though there is an obligation to allow someone to speak, there is no obligation on the part of an institution to invite him to do so. So, should Columbia have invited him or not? I don't see it as a great issue. I share the American notion that unlimited freedom of speech is still much better than banning what is being said. So, you think it's better to allow Nazis to march in Skokie [the Chicago suburb heavily populated by Holocaust survivors] than it is to ban Muslim head scarves in French schools? The short answer is yes. Should Israel bomb the Iranian nuclear reactor? Unfortunately, Israel cannot do the job by itself. According to people in the know with whom I've spoken, such an operation would require about 1,000 missions. But would Israel have the moral right to do it? Oh, without the slightest doubt. Would you recommend that Obama and Israel's next prime minister do the job together? Yesterday.