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Community: The Tie That Binds.

Mary Rousseau has written an important work on community. In this text she considers the contrasting foundations and effects of communitarian society versus contractual society. Citing several examples of concrete choices she relentlessly seeks to demonstrate that community is the only real choice that faces people who want fulfilment in their lives.

Rousseau considers the roots of the meaning of community within language, in the ancient philosophical problem of the one and the many, and in Enlightenment philosophers such as Hobbes. Citing her own orientation as coming from Aristotle, St. Thomas, and existentialist philosophy, she then lays a foundation for the claim that altruistic love is the indispensable basis for community.

Developing Aristotle's third kind of friendship as based on the concern for the good of the other more than the good of the self, Rousseau describes the way in which acts of friendship enable an individual to overcome an ontological and psychological loneliness. A decentering of the self allows a person to want what is good for the other's sake rather than for one's own sake.

After having established her fundamental concept of community, Rousseau then elaborates a contrast between communities and contracts. Contractual bonds are described as primarily egotistical associations, in which people seek their own fulfillment and use others as an end to their own utility or pleasure. The radical individuality of social contract theory, which had its roots in Enlightenment thought, views human associations as power struggles amid conflicts of rights. In this situation what is useful is some aspect or quality of the other self. So contract society depersonalizes the other by turning him or her "into an object rather than a subject, into a means rather than an end, and into a thing rather than a person" (p. 55).

Rousseau next considers what binds people together in communities. She offers two different suggestions: first, that individual, separately existing human beings have a common source or Creator, common goal, and common exemplar; and second, that sincere persons, who may not have a faith in a transcendent God, may nonetheless share a common goal of the search for truth. Rousseau calls these religious or humanist beliefs the "tie that binds" persons together in communities. She concludes that "any basis for genuine community must consist in some prior link of its potential members to a common transcendent reality" (p. 98).

In subsequent chapters the basic argument of the text shifts from a focus on ontological and psychological dynamics of community to ethical and legal duties, obligations, and norms. Placing an emphasis on the importance of an interior attitude which is either "altruistically or egocentrically motivated," Rousseau concludes that all acts either promote community or destroy community. Consequently, community is not simply one option among others, but it becomes an obligation of all human beings. She concludes: "Community is our basic moral absolute, not a matter of preference or a value that is relative to time, place, or circumstances" (p. 115). Law, when properly understood, becomes a guide to find the way toward altruistic love, toward building up specific communities of persons. Her work concludes with the attempt to demonstrate in practical examples ways in which decisions do or do not express this understanding of community.

The book is written in a very readable style. It flows easily from one point to the next, and would serve very well in an undergraduate university course as a text. There is a considerable amount of repetition of the basic lines of thought, so that the reader can follow the argument of the author. At times the nuances or specific details of qualifications of arguments are left out. Nonetheless, this is an excellent and well-written book which gives very much needed sharpness to the debate about contract societies and communal societies, and about our own obligation to make particular kinds of moral choices.--Prudence Allen, Concordia University.
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Author:Allen, Prudence
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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