Chantal Mouffe on the Common Good

As I mentioned in the last post, Chantal Mouffe looks for a “third way” between Rawls-ian individualism and (what she understands to be) Sandel-ian collectivism.

Mouffe spends considerable time adapting to the communitarian critique of liberalism, claiming, “liberalism’s exclusive concern with individuals and their rights has not provided content and guidance for the exercise of those rights.” [1] The thought of civic republicanism, however, which she sees exemplified in the work of Michael Sandel, is too collectivist and oppressive for her. Such a scheme doesn’t adequately respect the freedom of individuals and the pluralism intrinsic to contemporary societies. [2]

Mouffe’s solution is to find a way to hold the public/private split in tension, thinking that “identification with…[the] rules of civil intercourse creates a common political identity among persons otherwise engaged in many different enterprises. This modern form of political community is held together not by a substantive idea of the common good but by a common bond, a public concern.” [3]

Her solution is unconvincing. She hopes to find a way to create solidarity and a sense of civic virtue, something liberalism struggles to do, while avoiding a substantive and singular notion of the common good. However she ends up presenting something that seems like all the world to be a form of civic republicanism. Mouffe claims under her proposal that, rather than a substantive conception of the good, “what binds them [citizens] together is their common recognition of a set of ethico-political values.” [4] How can such a set of values exist apart from a some sort of (at least) pseudo-substantive understanding of the common good? I don’t think it can.

I think it’s more accurate to see the field like this: Rawlsian liberalism sits on a “thin”/minimalist theory of the good (only thick enough to provide and protect autonomy); civic republicanism sits on a “thick”/substantialist conception of the good. [5] Mouffe, it seems, attempts something in between the two. It might be better to say, then, that Mouffe proposes a restrained conception of the good, a conception thick enough to provide civic virtue but not meticulous and comprehensive. And I really don’t see much daylight between this and what someone like Sandel is presenting.

 

________

[1] Chantal Mouffe, “Democratic Citizenship and the Political Community,” in The Return of the Political (London: Verso, 2005) 65.

[2] Ibid., 62.

[3] Ibid., 67.

[4] Ibid., 69.

[5] I think Mouffe presents an inaccurate understanding of Sandel’s project. She refers to him as if he wants to enforce a meticulous and comprehensive notion of the good on each and every member of society. Not only is this not actually his proposal, at the time Mouffe wrote this essay he had contributed very, very little of what could be considered a constructive proposal. I think she jumps to conclusions about him that are unfounded and have been disproved since.

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