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Groups in ConflictReview - Groups in Conflict
Equality Versus Community
by Donald Franklin
University of Wales Press, 2008
Review by Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D., CCC Reg., SAC(Dip.)
Mar 29th 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 13)

Contemporary political and ethical theorists struggle to negotiate an ever tenuous compromise between two conflicting threads of moral obligation. On the one hand, a general tenet of political and ethical thought is the egalitarian doctrine that attributes equal value (and hence equal moral obligation) to all human beings. This doctrine requires impartiality in addressing the needs of all persons, broadening the ethic of care to embrace the entire human family, and not merely those to whom we are bound by personal and group loyalties. On the other hand, a second but equally core liberal value is the principle that individuals have the right to do what they like with their property, according to their personal values and the values embraced by their communities. Forced to an inevitable compromise between the two opposing but essential threads, Westerners seem most prone to moral failure at the impartialist pole, systematically unbalanced in their response toward needy others who stand outside their loyalty zones.

In Groups in Conflict: Equality versus Community, Donald Franklin performs a thorough analysis of these two conflicted conceptions of the good, seeking to unearth a deeper grounding, a more fundamental value that might resolve our moral schizophrenia and permit us to serve both the particular obligations of the personal realm and the general obligations of the political realm. For the principle of partiality to cohere with the doctrine of impartiality, grounded in the concept of equal human worth, argues Franklin, our ethics/politics must be beached in worthy purposes, rather than worthy people. We must appreciate the intrinsic good of human relationships and communities, rather than valuing merely the particular comrade or our particular loyalty group. The delicate distinction must be made between the good of friendship and the good friend, if human solidity is to triumph over myopic particularism.

The new deeper grounding of ethico-political theory, in human bonding as such, solves two difficulties that commonly arise in politics and ethics, one that inheres in particularism and the other that afflicts egalitarianism. When the nature of the good inheres in the particularism of the community, communal values can overshadow the rights and autonomy of diverse individuals, limiting tolerance for individual difference for the sake of the shared group identity. On the other hand, the too-strict application of the principle of impartiality limits the differentiation that is necessary to stimulate, distinguish and reward the exceptional individual and her extraordinary deeds. The fact is, according to Franklin’s argument, some individuals and groups do embody sufficient value to justify their differentiation. An impartiality of purpose over person would enable societies to isolate a problem individual to her disadvantage in order to allow fellow citizens to flourish; it would permit disproportionate rewarding to distinguish the naturally gifted, so as to induce those exceptional persons to exploit their talents to the benefit of the whole group. Such discriminatory practices could be awarded to disproportionately to friend and kin as long as their purpose was to sustain higher values and higher performance within the group, thus serving an impartially valuable relationship or community.  

Franklin’s argument closes by highlighting two general errors in contemporary political and ethical theory: first, that personal and group morality lies beyond external critique; and second, that impartiality should be preeminent at the political level. When we jettison these two errors, argues Franklin, we arrive at a striking and compelling conclusion: some individuals and groups simply are more valuable, contributing more to the common good of the human world than others do. Extraordinary merit should not be sacrificed to an inflexible egalitarianism, any more than the needs of the distant hungry should be eclipsed by obligations to the ingroup. What is needed is a minimal just framework of equality within which a healthy flexibility permits ample differentiation, for the sake of encouraging and rewarding according to individual and group conceptions of the good.   

Writing within the contemporary liberal political climate, Franklin shows remarkable courage--foolhardiness?--with his thesis that some people and groups do matter more than others.  Since imperialists extended the Great Chain of Being thesis to differentiate among human cultures for the purpose of colonial adventures of labor and resource control, most of us have come to harbor a gut-level antipathy for applying value judgments to human groups. Franklin’s argument is convincing because even his partiality thesis appeals to us at the meta-level of general human characteristics, resonating with our common propensity for loyalty toward the ingroup and our apathy (if not repugnance) toward the outgroup. It is a fact of human nature that we do favor our loved ones over others. Franklin gives us a powerful and valid reason for doing so: outsiders are not damaged by our lack of favoritism, whereas the self-esteem of loved ones is at risk when we deprive them of special consideration.

So a fully human ethic must be fair to all--impartial--but must also take into account that the human world is composed not merely of abstractly equal and interchangeable human beings, but is layered with partiality; we are surrounded by special people who have special needs and special talents that legitimately lay special claim to our hearts and resources. The argument is highly convincing--until we think of its practical applications. Franklin gets to these very real moral conundrums by the end of the book. How should modern developed nations fairly adjudicate among the competing claims of ingroup and outgroup, given the flood of legal and illegal immigrants arriving on their shores each year from underdeveloped countries?

Franklin’s argument, in Groups in Conflict, is highly complex and meticulously unfolded, a delicious challenge for the politico-ethical scholar, though probably beyond the skill of a general audience. The book’s title seems a misnomer, for much of the book, until the climax of this rigorous philosophical argument lands us at the immigration dilemma, when the reader comes to appreciate: yes! It has all been about the groups in conflict--ingroups tussling with outgroups over limited space, jobs, and other resources!

 

© 2011 Wendy C. Hamblet

 

Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D., CCC Reg., SAC(Dip.), Associate Professor, Liberal Studies/University Studies


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