Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Home Alone

Loneliness grows. Studies show that Americans have fewer friends and are spending more time alone. I’m not posting this to embrace communitarianism (which I dislike as a word and as a movement) or anything else, but just to say this is evidence of the downside of understanding rights in too unmediated a way--or too detached from the truth about our social, political, and religious natures. Thanks to Paul Seaton for originally calling this article to my attention.

Discussions - 10 Comments

Most striking is the reference to the low number of close friends respondents in the ASR study reported, along with the large percentages of people reporting no or only one close friend (usually their spouse).

You spoke at a Nisbet conference, right Dr Lawler? Do you really dislike communitarianism?

Let me just say that there is truth to the article. The article predictably brings foward a sort of post-modern critique of capitalism/american consumerism...there is something here. The truth on the other hand is that people don’t necessarily have to succumb to the dire consequences of alienation...people can make time for friends if they want to do so. A lot of people do so. The million dollar question: Is there free will?

Is there any way that we can come to terms on the question of mediated rights? I do not like the distinction you are drawing. I think it is an inversion. I think the Europeans are the ones with an understanding of mediated rights, I think the Americans should be the ones with an understanding of abstract rights. I think it is the Europeans that understand rights as necessarily linked to the "true" social, political and religious natures of man. Now granted that from your perspective I can see how the Europeans do not have mediated rights...that is because the Europeans have reached conclusions about the social, political and religious natures of man that you think are untrue. From my perspective this does not mean that they are unmediated...this means that they are mediated wrongly. This is to say that there is a hell of a lot of philosophy and history that works to precisely ontologize/mediate European rights. And this is the difficulty and danger I see in putting this foward as a robust and illuminating distinction. In fact the study you link to has "European" Post-modern thinking underlying it... so to my way of thinking if you are saying that this is "the downside of understanding rights in too unmediated a way--or too detached from the truth about our social, political, and religious natures" you are really just putting forth a "european" critique of american individal/abstract rights.

To my way of thinking american rights rest on the utopian experiment of according dignity to the individual by respecting his rational capabilities(what the Strauss quote implied to me, and my own previous construction.) This means that individual rights cannot have a necessary ontological contruction favoring a particular "religion"(freedom of religion) or favoring a particular political party(freedom of political expression) or even a necessary social arrangement(we are free to be married or join the priesthood or go live in our own private Idaho.) In short what seperates American unmediated abstract rights is that they don’t pruport to speak a truth about particulars...since these are left open to individual dignity...deliberation and essentially choice. This is not to say that along the way we might not comprehend ourselves as having duties and fact along the way we will by virtue of the choices we make put paint on the canvas, so to speak.

Every american will thus have a mediated way of understanding how he relates to his rights, his country and his God...and hopefully the duty will be stronger for being self-chosen(or so Jefferson trusted.)

The problem with the Europeans was while they were all tripping over themselves to reject the monadistic individual and his tabula rasa rights...they attempted to put foward Utopia after Utopia that mediated rights in such a way as was most destructive. But this is always because they insisted on mediating rights according to the social political and religious "truth" put foward by the great philosophers of the Western Cannon: be it Rousseau, Hegel, Plato or Marx and the thousands of others who sought to be lawgivers...

I realize my stupidity in confronting such great thinkers...I also realize my emptiness and naivete in putting foward my libertard claims. I am at pains to show that I do not think man can live detatched from the truth about his relation to the community and society at large. So I definately understand the downside of understanding rights(I should prefer relations, friendships, organizations, community) in too unmediated a way. But I should hasten to add that I won’t back down. Inalienable rights are completly unmediated...such is the nature of our experiment...which is what essentially seperates it from all other Utopias and experiments.

I’m not a follower of Nisbet, but I share some of his concerns. I dislike communitarianism the lax movement associated with Etzioni etc., I also am not that sympathetic to the "after virtue" sessionist crowd who take their cue from MacIntyre. But you’re right, of course, wm: My remark in the text oversimplified things a lot.

I think that we often glorify and magnify the communalism of the past beyond what it truly was. Old time images of tight knit communities seem to me more myth. Coming from a rural area, I see that the old time lifestyle is extremely isolate; just family and a few neighbors and thats all. Close friends are generally within family and a rare one or two from the outside. I believe that I have many more close and non-family friends than my parents ever did. Of course shrinking families force us to look eslewhere...

I sort of agree with the last two posters, but with a caveat. I think the current decline in "social capital" is an outgrowth of our choices...socializing is demanding, and the Internet, TV, etc. is much easier. We have only ourselves to blame.

But...this points out the fallacy that "liberty" or "choice" is always optimal for social well-being (a version of the "invisible hand" logic). Not so. Mother Nature has forged us as a social need has been the gravity that held us together. While modern affluence gives us the wherewithal to live very individualistic lives, we sense something missing...something important. Another way of saying this is that affluence allows us to pursue our own selfish appetites without compromising with our friends, families and neighbors, it leaves us feeling empty and alone because we need the feeling of well-being that comes with belonging and social constraint.

Solution? I don’t have one...

I agree that we only have ourselves to blame and we shouldn’t romanticize some mythic agrarian path. And of course I agree that there’s no easy solution or that it’s impossible to have all good things at once.


I have a quick question for you about the paranthetical remark in your post. What is your beef with communitarianism? I have a feeling your take is that it tries to make us too home in this world--that it believes that the human condition can be made to be sufficient and salutary of itself.


syen--well, right...communitarianism characteristically deals with paradoxes and tensions intrinsic to our nature or condition by ignoring them. excellent point.

This has to also be about mobility and how we choose to structure community in America and even the world. Given the ease with which we can move around the world in cars on a daily basis, in the course of our day, we might be in many different places, dealing with different communities. Then there is the ease with which one can move one’s home. We can move to another neighborhood, or even a different state or country and it is really not that hard. We have embraced such change as part of our pursuit of happiness. We pursue that in a physical sense too.

Looking back, we see such movement in modern history, (and is that what might define modern history?) as new worlds opened, so have people moved to fill them, leaving community behind. Making community where we land may not seem practical, as we may move on again, or our neighbors or friendly connections might. Then there is never any true relationship, as such a relation may move on for any variety of reasons relating to that pursuit of happiness. Even children may move away. Rural areas lose young people at an amazing rate, as they need to move to gain useful work. This relates to #5 of John’s and has been true for a long time.

How do people see familial or community relatioships over time? When my in-laws visited Sicily, going to the town where their grandfather was born, the whole place was full of Pitrones, and yet those Sicilian Pitrones all denied being to related to American Pitrones. They did not know the lines of consanguinity. They knew people had gone away from the town, but once gone, those people ceased to exist. The birth record really meant nothing. Yet, for my in-laws, that record meant that this was the familial source, and therefore, all there of the Pitrone name must be some kind of relation.

Then too, isn’t our constant movement the source of the new kind of community that is appearing? I mean the MySpace, and Internet game, and even blogging communities, that we give ourselves to now? We may as well engage in these sorts of communities, because our neighbors are nothing like permanent, and besides, they might not like the way I care for my lawn. I am on MySpace because former students, other young people who like me for whatever reason and even my own children see that as a means to maintain a connection over the miles. It is not an excellent mode of communication, but I can blog there, or send a bulletin, and my "community" all know what I am thinking or doing and can comment either publically or privately. I tend to respond to them privately, while they like comments to be public. I think they may be right, because it communicates to the larger “community”.

My father claims that TV does the same thing, and complains because I do not watch it. He says TV gives us a cultural context, but I think not. There are so many options there, which is also true of the Internet communities, that even in watching, we may choose to opt out of the cultural norm. But I do not at all see what my father finds satisfying in his TV community. Yet he is not gregarious, but I am. My world is full of real people and their lives, some of whom complain at the time I spend here, at the computer, with this disembodied community. Which comes back to that issue of what one wills to do with one’s time.

We just may never have come to satisfactory terms with this being one of the many exchanges we have made, trading one kind of happiness for another. I refer us back to dain’s points in #6, which I think mostly true. We mostly just have ourselves to blame. But it is a matter for "ourselves" and not just you or me.

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