Article Text

Authoritarian versus responsive communitarian bioethics
  1. Amitai Etzioni
  1. Correspondence to Dr Amitai Etzioni, The Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies, The George Washington University, 1922 F St NW, Suite 413, Washington, DC 20037, USA; etzioni{at}


A communitarian approach to bioethics adds a core value to a field that is often more concerned with considerations of individual autonomy. Some interpretations of liberalism put the needs of the patient over those of the community; authoritarian communitarianism privileges the needs of society over those of the patient. Responsive communitarianism's main starting point is that we face two conflicting core values, autonomy and the common good, and that neither should be a priori privileged and that we have principles and procedure that can be used to work out this conflict but not to eliminate it. Additionally, it favours changing behaviour mainly through the creation of norms and by drawing on informal social control rather than by coercion.

  • Bioethics
  • communitarianism
  • autonomy
  • common good
  • public health
  • philosophical ethics
  • quality/value of life/personhood
  • social aspects

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Communitarianism is often viewed as the polar opposite of liberalism, as seeking to pre-empt individual choices by relying on communal normative criteria and authorities. Common good considerations are to replace respect for autonomy.1 Accordingly, for example, people with infectious diseases are to be incarcerated, the way Cuba deals with those who contract HIV.2 Organs of those who have died or have been executed can be harvested, because doing so serves a compelling public interest. I refer to this way of thinking as authoritarian communitarianism. (A less radical version of this kind of communitarianism strongly privileges the community even if does not fully dismiss considerations of autonomy or liberty.) Authoritarian communitarianism has been championed by the leaders and some public intellectuals of East Asian nations, especially Singapore and Malaysia.3 4

One major reason many, especially in the West, reject this kind of communitarianism on normative grounds is that they hold autonomy in high regard. Another reason is methodological, a reason that deserves to be briefly discussed because it points to a rather different kind of communitarianism. The methodological point draws on the precept that sound normative positions cannot be derived from one overarching value. Societies are complex beings, composed of people who hold different values and have different needs and interests. It follows that one is much more likely to reach a normatively defensible position if one draws on multiple values, rather than presumes that one value pre-empts or trumps all the others. Moreover, one should not be unduly troubled by the resulting tensions and contradictions that result from drawing on multiple values, such as liberty and equality, or, in the case at hand, autonomy and the common good, among other core values. We shall see that there are fruitful ways to work out these differences—without making all other values subordinate to one.

This methodological approach is embodied in another branch of communitarianism: responsive (or liberal) communitarianism.i This communitarianism seeks to balance autonomy with concern for the common good, without a priori privileging either of these two core values. And it seeks to rely on society (informal social controls, persuasion and education) to the greatest extent possible and minimise the role of the state (law enforcement) in promoting compliance with the norms that flow from these values. Thus, preference should be given to programmes that encourage people to have their HIV status tested, ensuring that the test results remain confidential, and readily available to the patients—rather than requiring such tests or conducting them without knowledge of the patients. Responsive communitarianism is often confused, or treated as part and parcel, with authoritarian communitarianism, though the two differ as much as social democratic socialism differs from Soviet socialism.

I should note in passing that this essay does not lay out the communitarian position why a thick concept of the good is justified, because this position has been spelt out repeatedly, subjected to critical examinations, and these criticisms have been responded to. Rather than rehashing these arguments, this essay builds on the points previously made, that the case for a thick concept of the common good can be entertained. Those whose views differ may nevertheless find some interest in the following discussion because it shows the value of making the said assumption for bioethics.

Although responsive communitarianism's starting point is the recognition that the tense relationship between autonomy and the common good must be worked out rather than assuming a priori that one of these core values trumps the other, the treatment should be expected to differ from one society to another and among different historical periods. Thus, in totalitarian societies and theocracies, such as those in Singapore and Iran, those who advocate the balance that responsive communitarianism favours would need to promote autonomy, while in societies in which individualism is rampant such as the United States was in the 1980s, the advocates of responsive communitarianism would need to promote more attention to the common good. That is, societies often need to move in opposite directions from one another to achieve the same balance.

In effect, responsive communitarianism, which arose in the USA in 1990, was a direct response to the Reaganism and Thatcherism of the 1980s, and the findings of Robert Bellah and his associates (later echoed by Francis Fukuyama and reinforced by Robert Putnam) that the USA had become excessively individualistic.4–7 That is, it sought to move the US and the UK (and other relatively liberal societies) towards a more balanced position, one that pays more mind to the common good. Responsive communitarianism in Southeast Asia calls for more liberalism.

It is might be a mistake to refer to this position as valuing pluralism, because it does not suggest that different values hold for different societies in different historical periods. The core values are the same. Only the direction societies need to modify their normative profile in order to move towards the ideal one, one of a carefully crafted balance between autonomy and the common good, is contextual.

To put it in different terms, strong rights presume strong responsibilities. The right to be tried by a jury of one's peers assumes that the peers will agree to serve on a jury. The right to healthcare assumes that people will realise they have to vote for taxes to be imposed to pay for such services, and so on. There are also common goods that are morally compelling, for instance, our stewardship of the environment. To discharge our obligations to these goods entails assuming social (and interpersonal) responsibilities. I turn next to explore the implications of these communitarian precepts for bioethics.

Earlier treatments of communitarian bioethics

Medicine is overwhelmingly non-communitarian in the sense that it rarely concerns itself with the common good. The individual patient's good is at the centre of nearly every discussion. Moreover, one is hard put to find a bioethicist who considers him/herself a communitarian. Those who do draw on communitarian deliberations do so mainly to criticise the excessive reliance on the value of autonomy but typically not to embrace concerns for the common good (Michael Gross, personal communication with the author 2009; Mark Kuczewski, personal communication with the author, 2009).

Indeed, the few early communitarian examinations of bioethics focused on the observation that American bioethicists tend to err on the side of considering the patient as an individualistic being and view autonomy as the supreme value, according to which the patient's right to personal choice is paramount. Daniel Callahan quotes Joseph Fletcher, stating that bioethics is based on ‘the idea of personal choice as the highest moral value and the struggle against nature as medicine's most liberating mission’.8 Ezekiel Emanuel, in his essay on the care of incompetent patients, points out that the understanding of the ‘best interests’ of a patient allowed in this individualist vision of healthcare is based upon the degree of pain a procedure would inflict on that person.9 Jeffrey Blustein explains this conception of autonomy in healthcare, stating, ‘It rests on a picture of the person as a separate being, with a distinctive personal point of view and an interest in being able securely to pursue his or her own conception of the good’.10

Communitarianism in this context is often viewed as the polar opposite position of the focus on autonomy. Thus, for instance, Tom Beauchamp writes that communitarianism ‘holds that public policies should be derived primarily from communal values, the common good, social goals, traditional practices, and the cooperative virtues’.11 Lawrence O Gostin defines communitarianism as a tradition that ‘views individuals as part of social and political networks, with each individual reliant on others for health and security. Individuals, according to this tradition, gain value from being a part of a well-regulated society that seeks to prevent common risks.’12

Similarly, Veena Das looks to a communitarian conception of bioethics to allow bioethicists to ‘find alternative anchoring concepts to those of patient autonomy’.13 Gboyega A Ogunbanjo and Donna Knapp van Bogaert define communitarianism as ‘a model of political organisation that stresses ties of affection, kinship, and a sense of common purpose and tradition’.14 Finally, Michael Gross points to Israel as a communitarian state, which means it is ‘a society imbued with a high degree of collective consciousness, mutual concern and interdependence’.15

In the terms used here, these precepts of communitarian bioethics lean in the direction of authoritarian communitarianism, or at least leave the door open to such interpretation because they are not explicitly anchored in recognition of the cardinal normative standing of autonomy– as well as that of the common good.

To briefly illustrate the generalisations introduced so far: a liberal bioethics may stress that patients should be free to instruct their physicians not to disclose their conditions to others (although exceptions may be recognised, such as when we deal with minors, infectious diseases or attempts to commit homicide). The patient should also be free to sign a do-not-resuscitate statement or refuse other treatments, disregarding the values and feelings of the patient's family and surely of his community. Communitarianism is then depicted as the opposite position, in which the family can instruct the physician not to disclose to the patient that his condition is terminal, can demand continued healthcare services, and so on. However, in the terms here employed, this second position is a form of authoritarian communitarianism, because it is centred around the values of the community and disregards the value of autonomy. A responsive communitarian would favour seeking to work out the conflict between the patient and the family without a priori privileging either, examine the mechanism for such treatment of conflict and determine what is to be done if the conflict cannot be resolved by the parties directly involved.

Some of the early writings by bioethicists about communitarianism do reveal recognition of the two, sometimes conflicting, core values–autonomy and the common good–although they do not necessarily employ these two terms. Thus, Callahan defines communitarian bioethics as seeking to ‘blend cultural judgement and personal judgement’.8 Thomas H Murray writes that many theorists believe ‘the solution is not to abandon autonomy… But autonomy can only be a part of the story about how we are to live together, how we are to make families and communities that support the growth of love, enduring loyalties, and compassion’.16

Gilbert Meilaender too seeks not to give up the language of rights in bioethics but believes that alongside the ‘rights talk’, we also need to have a ‘morals talk’.17 (The term ‘rights talk’ was introduced by responsive communitarian Mary Ann Glendon to stress the excessive tendency to frame normative claims in rights terms).18

Mark Kuczewski recognises explicitly that we are dealing here with two rather different kinds of communitarianism. He compares ‘whole tradition communitarians’ and ‘liberal communitarians’: the former requires an acceptance of the full cloth of a single tradition and does not allow for compromise or even significant communication across the borders of communities, while the latter stresses ‘respectful moral deliberation’ as a way to communicate and coordinate moral expectations across traditional boundaries.19

Tom Beauchamp and James Childress' sixth edition of their influential text holds that communitarianism rejects a universal standard of justice, that of rights, and views moral principles as particularistic to each community.ii However, one can reconcile liberalism and communitarianism by respecting universal principles: by recognising the validity of universal individual rights—but also holding that, in addition, people have particularistic social responsibilities that they ought to discharge their obligations to the common good. I turn below to discuss the steps available when these two principles conflict.

Before I proceed, I must digress to explicate the term ‘the common good’. It refers to those goods that serve shared assets of a given community. Examples include preserving national monuments, supporting ‘basic’ scientific research, advancing national security, protecting the environment and promoting public health. Contributions to the common good often offer no immediate benefits to any one individual, and it's often impossible to predict who will gain from them, or to what extent, in the longer run. Often, investment in the common good is carried out because we considered such investment the right thing to do, not because we expect we personally—or even our offspring—will benefit from it.iii (I do not provide such an explication for autonomy, because its meanings are so often discussed in Western literature and are included in the discussion of bioethics already cited.)

Society (community) versus state

Responsive communitarianism holds that the more one can rely on norms rather than laws, and on public education, moral persuasion and informal social controls, rather than on law enforcement—the better the society. (Better in the normative sense of the term, in that it is ethically preferred, rather than, say, on the basis of cost-benefit analysis, although such analysis can have ethical implications that should be taken into account.) The main reason is that societal processes can change preferences and lead to truly voluntary compliance, while coercion leaves opposing preferences intact. It hence invites attempts to circumvent the law and tends to generate a sense of alienation.20

A telling example is the way Prohibition was introduced versus the ban on public smoking. The enactment of Prohibition was not preceded by the building of a normative consensus and instead relied heavily on law enforcement. It failed to suppress the use of alcohol and greatly increased the corruption of the American legal and political system. Moreover, it is the only constitutional amendment that was ever repealed. In contrast, although it took some 25 years to build wide societal support to ban smoking in public spaces, once these laws were introduced, they served to lock in an already very well established norm, which is almost completely self-enforcing.

Similarly, responsive communitarianism urges that long before one considers mandatory HIV testing, let alone forcefully isolating people who have contracted HIV, one is obligated to engage in public educational campaigns that encourage such testing and to work with the communities of those most at risk to encourage their members to be tested. And rather than open a market in human organs to incentivise more people to donate organs, which are in short supply, one should appeal to people to make the gift of life.21 22 A colleague who read a previous draft of this essay introduced here the debate between those who see the world through the eyes of rational choice and seek to reduce all conduct to self interest, and those who hold—as I do—that people are indeed influenced by incentives and disincentives, but also by moral considerations, which change their preferences. It is not possible to deal with this debate here, and I have treated it extensively elsewhere.23

At the same time, responsive communitarianism does recognise that there are conditions under which the state must be involved, although it is best used as the last, rather than the first, resort. For instance, when people infected with a highly communicable disease that has fatal consequences do not heed calls to remain at home until they cease to be infectious, the state has an obligation to enforce their quarantine. Historically, this issue has arisen with regard to the treatment of people with leprosy, tuberculosis and, more recently, SARS and H1N1.

Gostin provides a powerful study of this communitarian issue with regard to a bioterrorist attack or a severe medical emergency.12 He points out that excessive concern for autonomy and neglect of the common good have led to a focus on individualised achievements in healthcare at the cost of severely underfunding public health infrastructure and ignoring the needed adaptations of public health laws.12 As a result, public health agencies do not have the capacity to ‘conduct essential public health services at a level of performance that matches the constantly evolving threats to the health of the public’.12 At the same time, public health law has fallen off the radar and is now ‘highly antiquated, after many decades of neglect’.12 Finally, the debate about the role of the government in providing healthcare, reignited in the USA by the Obama administration, has some strong communitarian dimensions, as does the reliance on community rating versus ‘cherry picking’.

Which community?

The term community is often associated with small, traditional, residential communities, such as villages. However, in the modern era, communities are often non-residential and based on ethnicity, race, religious background or shared sexual orientation. Moreover, people are often members of more than one community. Finally, it is often productive to consider communities as nesting within more encompassing communities, such as local ones within the national one. People are hence subject not merely to tension between their personal preferences and the values and norms promoted by their community but are also subject to conflicting normative indications from various communities.

The family can be viewed as a small community. In bioethics, strong champions of autonomy, as well as some feminists, suggest that each adult member of the family should make her or his own choices, and that other members of the family should have no status in these decisions.10 (The treatment of incompetent people is considered an exception.) In contrast, discussions about severely ill neonates whose parents seek to allow the infant to die because it will benefit other siblings tend to attach considerable weight to the welfare of the family as a whole (Michael Gross, private communication with the author, 2009).

John Hardwig's argument moves us far towards a responsive communitarian position. Hardwig holds that ‘the interests of patients and family members are morally to be weighed equal’ and ‘to be part of a family is to be morally required to make decisions on the basis of thinking about what is best for all concerned, not simply what is best for yourself’.24 It is an issue that arises often in matters that do not directly concern health: for instance, the effect of divorce on the children of the couple. In a bioethical context, the issue is well illuminated by a popular book, My Sister's Keeper.25 It depicts a situation in which various members of a family, the family's very existence and the quality of the relationships among family members are all deeply affected by the sacrifices called for by the medical condition of one member.

Hardwig adds, ‘That the patient's interests may often outweigh the conflicting interests of others in treatment decisions is no justification for failing to recognise that an attempt to balance or harmonise different, conflicting interests is often morally required’.24 He leans somewhat in the authoritarian direction when at one point he claims that ‘considerations of fairness and, paradoxically, of autonomy therefore indicate that the family should make the treatment decision, with all competent family members whose lives will be affected participating’.24 Thus, a less authoritarian position would suggest that, for instance, if nine out of 10 family members agree that treatment should be stopped for a given member, but the member—who is competent—rejects this conclusion, the family's wishes should not carry. However, the person does owe the family members a careful consideration of their values, reasons and needs.

Jeffrey Blustein also articulates a responsive communitarian position. He holds that while final decision-making authority ought to remain with the patient, medical personnel and society ought to focus on integrating family members into the decision-making process to support the patient's ability to determine the best option—taking into consideration the interests of those most important to him or her.10

When bioethical communitarian considerations turn to more encompassing communities, especially to transnational ones, a whole host of additional issues arise. They often centre around the question of which community's values should prevail. These issues have been debated with regard to numerous topics, ranging from female circumcision to the testing of new drugs overseas. Whether one can apply here the dual approach of combining respect for the cultural autonomy of various cultures and the concern for a global common good is a topic that must be left for another discussion. The same holds for the numerous inter-community issues that arise when national culture, values and laws conflict with the culture, values and habits of various immigrant groups or confessional groups that are members of the same broader society.

Ezekiel Emanuel points out that the various criteria for what is in the best interest of the patient are affected by what a given community considers ‘the good life’: ‘This solution derives from communitarianism, a philosophy that incorporates the truths of utilitarianism and liberalism, but transcends both by arguing that ethical problems can be resolved only by accepting a public conception of the good life while rejecting the conception of the good particular to utilitarianism’.9 Emanuel favours allowing each community to determine its own concept of the good life on the grounds that (a) it is impossible to answer this question on neutral grounds and (b) we are a pluralistic society and hence should respect the values of various member groups such as Orthodox Jews and the gay community. This position is very much in line with a communitarian position; however, it raises the question of whether there is room for nationwide or even transnational communal criteria and policies.

As I see it, the answer is diversity within unity. On some issues, it is clear that the most extensive community—often the nation, but increasingly also transnational communities such as the EU, and in some cases even the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights—should and does provide the normative criteria. On other matters, diversity of the kind Emanuel depicts is fully appropriate. And, in still other instances, one should expect disagreement about what ‘belongs’ to the community at large and what to smaller, member ones. Examples of those that are best guided by the most encompassing communities are issues that concern basic rights (few would leave it to local communities to rule whether gay patients or members of a given racial minority should be denied service) and the moral claims that urge people to donate organs, blood and time. In contrast, allowing different groups to rely on faith healers up to a point is an example of local community values influencing biomedical decisions.

In the USA, an example of communities defining ethical care concerns the conditions under which parents can deny medical care for their children. Some states mandate treatment when it is a question of life and death, regardless of the parent's request to forego care, while others allow extreme latitude in the decision-making options of parents, including choices made about lifesaving interventions. In contrast to this state-by-state determination of critical care decisions, there is a nationwide consensus that in matters less than life or death, parents should be allowed to refuse treatment for their children in order to maintain their personal perception of ‘the good life’.

In short, diversity within unityiv provides a responsive communitarian model of granting some discretion to member communities while also maintaining select values of the most encompassing conceptions of the common good. The fact that, in some matters, it is unclear which community should prevail does not obviate the merit of this design, which stands out when one compares the diversity within unity position to those that favour the national state—or favour turning these matters into the domain of each member community.

A continuum

So far I have treated the three positions as if they were separate camps: the strong champions of autonomy (especially libertarians, but also quite a few contemporary classical liberals), authoritarian communitarians and responsive communitarians.v However, in actuality, there are various gradations within each camp and among them.

A volume of essays commissioned by the Bush Administration Council on Bioethics contains various nuanced positions, though most tend to be written by social conservatives who lean in the direction of authoritarian communitarianism.26 Thus, most authors consider immoral those choices that they see as conflicting with their views of human dignity, including women's right to choose to have an abortion, termination of medical services for those dependent on mechanical intervention to stay alive, and stem cell research. Moreover, they favour using the powers of the state to ban such choices.

One main difference between these bioethical social conservative positions and the outright authoritarian ones is that the scope of decisions these conservatives seek to curb by relying on the law is much narrower than the range of choices countries such as Iran, Singapore and China, seek to ban, at least in their strongest ideological periods. Furthermore, one must note that even liberals and responsive communitarians justify banning some choices—for instance, those involving marketing foods that contain carcinogenic ingredients or acts that poison the environment. All this serves to illustrate that we are actually dealing with a continuum composed of both the scope of choices and the main means used to foster them. Moreover, as already indicated, the historical context must be taken into account in searching for the responsive communitarian balance. Thus, if there is a major pandemic, the point of balance will shift to more restrictions than when there is no such threat. The underlying rationale is that while there are some matters on which the circumstances should have no effect (eg, rejecting eugenics), for most issues, relative harm is relevant, determined both in utilitarian and deontological terms. Thus, if a given measure limits autonomy to a minor extent but provides great public value, these attributes favour this measure. HIV testing of newborns has limited adverse effect on privacy, and it saves lives. In contrast, allowing employers to purchase the medical records of potential employees has major privacy implications and very little, if any, public benefit.

Procedures and criteria

Responsive communitarians must concern themselves with procedures and criteria that allow one to work out personal decisions and public policies in the face of conflicting values. (This is less of a challenge for those who take the position that one value, such as autonomy or the common good, trumps all others. They can put the onus of finding exceptions on those who feel differently.)

A major way to proceed is through moral dialogues. Examinations of actual processes of consensus building, especially when they concern normative matters, show that individual preferences and judgements are largely shaped through interactive communications about values—that is, through moral dialogues that combine passion with normative arguments and rely on processes of persuasion, education and leadership. Moral dialogues focus more on values than on facts. Although passionate and without a clear starting and ending point, they often lead to new shared moral understandings. Such dialogues led to the formation of a new sense of duty to protect the environment, to reject racism and sexism, to oppose the war in Vietnam and many other such society-wide shared understandings.

The redefinition of death that took place in the USA illustrates the ways moral dialogues work. In 1968, an ad hoc committee at the Harvard Medical School published a report that defined an irreversible coma as ‘brain death’—a new definition of death. The report, put together by academics and medical professionals, did little to redefine the public perception of death. However, in 1972, a young woman named Karen Ann Quinlan fell into a persistent vegetative state. After weeks of life support, her parents asked that she be taken off the machine and be allowed to die. The hospital refused, so the parents sued. Although Quinlan's case did not meet the definition of brain death, her case brought the issue to national attention.26 There followed extensive and widespread dialogues in various communities spurred by the media, out of which gradually grew a consensus accepting brain death as a morally acceptable definition of end of life and substituted this definition for the previous belief that one ought to do ‘all one could’ to keep one's loved ones alive.

The communitarian moral dialogues differ significantly from the ‘rational democratic deliberations’ discussed and favoured by Leonard M Fleck among others.27 The term ‘rational’ implies that the deliberations are based on empirical findings and logical conclusions, and the term ‘democratic’ implies that the results reflect the preferences of the electorate. They are also expected to be ‘cold’ and rather impassionate. In contrast the moral dialogues under discussion here concern values and help shape rather than reflect people's preferences. Above all, they concern what has been called ‘otherworldly’ matters, for which there are no rational statements but are matters of belief, are non-rational. For example, the argument over whether the death penalty is justified would be rational if it were driven by the consideration of whether or not the data show that this penalty reduces violent crime. It is subject to non-rational, moral dialogue to the extent it is driven by considerations of whether it is ever morally acceptable for the state to deliberately take a person's A prime example of such a moral dialogue is the dialogue about what is implied by our commitment to human dignity, a major subject of a report by the President's Council on Bioethics published under the title Human Dignity and Bioethics.

The difference between rational deliberations and moral dialogues is further illustrated by the following examples. The deliberations about the effects of smoking were affected considerably by data, especially about the effects of second-hand smoke. At the same time, other dialogues that seemed to be data-driven were largely about moral positions. For instance, whatever the data show about the effects on promiscuity of the availability of condoms in nurses' offices in high schools (and about the effects on drug addition of the distribution of clean needles) seems not to affect much the opinions of those opposed to these policies. They mainly retreat to a different line of argumentation, namely that such actions send the wrong message to the rest of society. (It should be further noted, most deliberations are not purely of one kind or the other, but many seem to be mainly empirical and logical, and many others largely moral dialogues).

A reviewer of a previous draft of this essay posed here a very worthy challenge. He wrote: ‘I may, for example, fully recognise that US$ 250000 for a bone-marrow transplant for me (at age 70) is far too expensive to be in the common good. But if it's my only chance of survival, how can my values and priorities be rearranged so that I not only accept with resignation … but embrace the conclusion that I should not have a transplant in order better to utilise the pooled resources in my insurance plan (public or private) to serve other anonymous ‘covered lives?’ The example implies that the way to bring to bear considerations of the common good is to change the preferences of the patients. This is indeed a major way. Some older patients are made to feel guilty because they are reminded that they spend a great amount of scarce medical resources in the last year of their life, and often to little benefit. Some are made to feel that they are ‘a burden’ on their families, another communitarian consideration. Moreover, while some families discourage these sentiments, others enforce them for of self-serving reasons. Also people infected with SARS stayed home, under voluntary self-confinement, in order not to infect others—although it limited their freedoms. And at least according to one authoritative source, physicians in the UK convince patients, after a certain age, that they should not seek kidney dialysis or chemotherapy.28

Above all, the balance between autonomy and the common good is often not subject to free choice by the patients. Thus, some ethicists, most notably Daniel Callahan, called for providing only ameliorative care after a certain age.29 And of course which services are reimbursed versus which are not, have major effects on the said balance.

Another way to work out the balance between autonomy and the common good as it applies to specific matters is to leave these issues to courts or to legislatures. Should people be required by law to vaccinate their children? Under what conditions may people be subjects of research? Can one require people who have been arrested—but not yet convicted—to yield their DNA, the way their fingerprints are collected? These and many other bioethical considerations are best first subject to moral dialogues, assisted by bodies such as ethics committees in hospitals or the President's Council on Bioethics, but—especially given the growing volume of such policy matters—some may have to be worked out by courts and legislatures.

Finally, responsive communitarian bioethics leads one to suggest criteria that moral dialogues, judges, and lawmakers may draw upon. One is the relative adverse impact on the two core conflicting values that flow from the adoption of a given policy. That is, when autonomy must be much curbed for minor gains to the common good, responsive communitarianism suggests autonomy should be given the right of way, while public policy should lean in the opposite direction if the gains to the common good are substantial and the sacrifice of autonomy is minimal.vii

These criteria would help explain the position articulated by Tom L Beauchamp, who argues that society should switch its conceptions of the public and private good in terms of euthanasia and organ donation. Euthanasia, currently considered an issue where the public determines its application, ought to be a private matter, according to Beauchamp, because that is the logical conclusion of a culture that allows patients extreme latitude to determine their treatment up to (but currently not including) death, with the assumption that personal care choices have more impact on personal autonomy than they do on society at large.11 At the same time, organ donation, with its widespread implications for the wellbeing of the community, ought to be moved out of the realm of personal decision-making and into the public arena, putting the focus on the public good, which is more impacted by organ-donation decisions than is individual autonomy.11

Other criteria indicate that one ought to find ways to absorb the side effects. For instance, if one introduces a policy that calls for testing newborn infants for HIV, special care must be taken to keep the results confidential, lest the mother lose her job, housing or insurance.viii

Third values

So far I have limited the discussion to two core values because these are the ones that define the main differences among liberals, authoritarian communitarians and responsive communitarians. However, bioethical judgements obviously can and do draw on additional values, and the ways these can be treated in this context remain to be discussed. Much of this discussion must be deferred to a future publication because it requires rather extensive deliberations. However, the main issue at hand can be illustrated by pointing to the four values often quoted by bioethicists, drawing on the influential work of Tom L Beauchamp and James F Childress, Principles of Biomedical Ethics.1 These are respect for autonomy, non-maleficence, beneficence and justice.30

The meaning of autonomy in a bioethical context has already been covered by the quotations in the first parts of this essay. Non-maleficence also focuses on the wellbeing of the individual patient: do no intentional harm. Beneficence, the third principle, is defined as an obligation to advance the healthcare interests and welfare of others—because we have ourselves received benefits.31 Again, the focus is on the individual. Justice, the fourth principle, raises a host of complicated issues that so far have not been addressed by communitarians of either kind.

In the context at hand it is important to note that even the nuanced and enriched set of normative principles developed by Beauchamp and Childress does not include a concept of the common good, above and beyond the concept of justice—for instance, conditions under which individuals have to accept various sacrifices for the good of all. A thicker definition would include common goods that command our moral respect, such as the protection of the environment, basic research, homeland security and public health.ix These kinds of concerns that Gostin—and communitarians more generally—have about preventing the spread of infectious diseases, responding to bioterrorist attacks, protecting the environment, balancing preventive and acute medical treatments, and determining the extent to which one can foster or force limits on individual choices for the public good, do not find a comfortable home in the most widely followed bioethical texts. Hence, concern for the common good, responsive communitarians would argue, should be added to the already existing core values on which bioethics draws.


I am indebted to S Riane Harper and Julia Milton for research assistance on this essay and two reviewers for very stimulating comments on a previous draft.


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  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • i The responsive communitarian position was first articulated by a group of scholars and activists in the early 1990s, including William A Galston, Mary Ann Glendon, Philip Selznik, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and Amitai Etzioni. They issued a platform that found many endorsers across much of the political spectrum; the platform text can be found at∼icps/RCP%20text.html. See also: Amitai Etzioni, The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Democratic Society (New York: Basic Books, 1997); and Amitai Etzioni, Genetic Fix: The Next Technological Revolution (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co, Inc, 1973); ‘Communitarianism,’ The Oxford Companion to Politics of the World (London: Oxford University Press, 2001): 158. For a critical treatment see Elizabeth Frazer, The Problems of Communitarian Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

  • ii James Childress is a founding endorser of the Responsive Communitarian Platform, which can be found at

  • iii For additional discussion see Alex John London, ‘Threats to the Common Good: Biochemical Weapons and Human Subjects Research,’ The Hastings Center Report 33, No. 5 (2003): 17–25; Mark G. Kuczewski, ‘The Common Morality in Communitarian Thought: Reflective Consensus in Public Policy,’ Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 30, No. 1 (2009).

  • iv For more discussion see: Amitai Etzioni, ‘Diversity within Unity,’ 21st Century Opportunities and Challenges: An Age of Destruction or An Age or Transformation, ed. Howard F Didsbury, Jr. (Bethesda, MD: World Future Society, 2003): 316–323.

  • v In addition there are often cited works by academic communitarians, especially Charles Taylor, Michael Sandel, and Michael Walzer. These authors oddly almost never use the term communitarianism, do not consider themselves communitarians, and do not explain why they do not relate to a philosophy they are often associated with.

  • vi For more discussion, see Ch 8 in Amitai Etzioni, The New Golden Rule (New York: Basic Books, 1996).

  • vii For more discussion, see: Amitai Etzioni, The Limits of Privacy (New York: Basic Books, 1999).

  • viii For more discussion, see: Amitai Etzioni, Limits of Privacy (New York: Basic Books, 1999).

  • ix Some authoritarian communitarians try to maintain that their privileging of the common good, even if it is enforced by the state and affects a wide array of behaviour, does not conflict with autonomy—as long as the individuals voluntarily do what they are supposed to! Beauchamp and Childress carry out a similar manoeuvre from the other side of the equation, arguing that one can readily accept obligations to the common good—as long as they have been ‘autonomously accepted’.

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