Communitarian Ethos for Technology

Nicholas Kristoff is returning to the New York Times but for a few months between October 2021 and early spring 2022 he was a candidate for Governor of Oregon, my home state. His candidacy would have caught my attention no matter what he said at launch or how he described himself but I was intrigued that he called himself a communitarian candidate.

I haven’t spoken with Kristoff (yet, she writes hopefully) but it seems a reasonable guess that he meant the political branch of communitarianism. Amitai Etzioni has played a significant role in articulating this version of the concept, beginning with a book he authored in the early 90s and the program he launched at George Washington University’s Institute for Communitarian Studies.

The website describes the Institute as the “world’s leading center for communitarian policy research and is a research institute dedicated to finding constructive solutions to social problems through morally informed policy analysis and moral dialogue.” The four tenets of the Etzioni school of communitarianism are: human dignity, liberty, responsibility, and open discourse.

Robert Bellah, co-author of one of my favorite books, “Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life”, adds detail to what he called “democratic communitarianism.” He cites four values. Interestingly, the first value is based on the “sacredness of the individual” but maintains this can be “realized only in and through communities, and that strong, healthy, morally vigorous communities are the prerequisite for strong, healthy, morally vigorous individuals.”

If you search for basic definitions of “ethos,” there’s a good chance you’ll find that writers assume the Greek ethos placed high value on the individual.

Bellah’s remaining values complement this first one, addressing the importance of solidarity, complementary associations, and the “idea of participation as both a right and a duty.”

I find much of value in these sources but none quite addresses what I see in communitarian ethos. They also do not easily translate to a vision for tech architecture although social networking platforms, the biggest included, talk about their potential in the language of solidarity and healthy communities.

I think the fundamental difference between them and the “ethos” of my heritage is that we start from community. Or, more precisely, we start with a sense of interconnectedness and balance. From a social values perspective, it’s not hard to see why we would emphasize economic justice/share and share alike values and non-violence as crucial.

Many years ago I wrote a paper for my Jurisprudence professor Jerome Hall on the Mennonite articles of faith that expand on these values. Effectively, how to be in the world. My bond with Professor Hall was forged in his first-year survey of criminal law course after he spoke of how communal values in indigenous nations obviated the need for complicated criminal codes. I wish he were still alive so I could test some of my theories of communitarian ethos and tech architecture.

I have covered some of the specifics in previous posts. Here I am simply distinguishing communal values that spring from the sacredness of interconnections within community from individual value enhanced through participation in community. I see the former as lending itself to a more sophisticated form of tech architecture than web-enabled social networks.

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