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Rosenblum: Membership and morals

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Rosenblum. 1998. Membership and morals: The personal uses of pluralism in America. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

In Brief

Rosenblum argues that liberal democracy requires a certain set of virtues (e.g. "modest law-abidingness, willingness to work to support oneself, and ... self-control," pg 13). However, this book is not about ethics--it is about "where and how character is shaped" (19). To what extent does pluralism (i.e. membership in voluntary associations) develop the needed virtues? How do different kinds of associations (including those with an antiliberal or antidemocratic purpose) affect individual moral development?

There is a paradox to liberal democracy: It requires a certain set of (democratic) virtues, yet it must tolerate any set of virtues--even undemocratic ones. Does the existence of racist, elitist, and other illiberal associations undermine democracy? This is Rosenblum's central question.

Thus, she addresses (1) the "political question of how much congruence" between public (governmental, e.g. through schools) and private (in civil society) development of ethics is "necessary and justified in a liberal democracy, and (2) whether it should be legally enforced" (19). That is, must a liberal democracy require that all associations (public and private) embrace liberal ideals?

Liberal Anxiety

Rosenblum calls this paradox "liberal anxiety" (pgs 10-15), which is the fear that liberal society is self-subverting. If liberal society requires the freedom to form associations as we please, then people are free to form illiberal and intolerant associations and fight against liberalism. Yet liberalism dies if the population does not hold liberal values. Madison addressed this problem in Federalist 10: Factions are a problem, but we can't eliminate them and remain free, so we must allow them. Rosenblum's question: under what specific circumstances must we allow them?


Put differently: Do voluntary associations need to mirror liberal democratic values fully? (This is "congruence," discussed in ch. 1; her answer later is "no.") Even if they do, to what degree should this congruence be compelled by the state? For example, should the government force Boy Scouts to accept gays, or Jaycees to accept women, or religious groups to accept people who blatantly violate the group's teachings, or a white supremacist group to allow blacks to join without discrimination?

Chapter 1

This chapter sets up later discussion. It looks at "Hegel's moment" first and outlines two major current approaches found in the literature on liberal democratic theory: congruence and mediation.

The "congruence" approach says that all associations must fully embrace liberal democratic values, as these values are learned in such associations and carried into public life. Thus, workplaces must be fully democratic, families must have an equitable division of paid and unpaid labor, religious groups must be prevented from using anything other than secular arguments if they participate in politics, etc (40). The major logical shortcoming: "Every variation on the congruence theme rests on the assumption that dispositions and practices shaped in one association spill over to other contexts" (38). Also: This approach leads to prescriptions requiring "powerful central coordination by government" (41), a profoundly illiberal idea (using "liberal" in the classical libertarian sense, that is--something that the author is generally not doing).

The "mediating associations" approach is the social capital view (e.g. Putnam): what matters is the density of associational life, not its specific character. We learn to cooperate, share, and trust through these organizations. They do not need to perfectly embrace the fullest set of social democratic values. Incongruence, in this approach, can be a good thing (42), as it means there is true diversity and organizationis for everybody. The problems: like the "congruence" approach, this approach doesn't fully explain how cooperation and trust are transferred from private associational life to the public sphere (43). This approach's prescriptions are generally either (1) government should support associational life (e.g. with tax cuts) indiscriminately; or (2) government should neither regulate nor support any group--it should only enforce the freedom of individuals to leave an association (45).

General criticism: both approaches ignore the lesson of "Hegel's moment" (though she could have been clearer about what she means by this.)

As a final note, she points out that the previous approaches stressed the existence of associations--but she wants to focus on the actual experience of pluralism as key. In the next chapter, she will therefore look into the "dynamics" of membership (47).

Chapter 2

Why the "dynamics" of membership (i.e. the "experience" of pluralism, not just its "existence") matter:

  1. You can't predict a particular group's outcome on individuals based on its structure or mission--each individual will respond differently to the same group.
  2. Deviance is as important in sociology as conformity, so we can't assume that pluralism will produce conforming norms (roughly summarized).
  3. We can't assume a spillover of virtues from one setting [an association] into another (e.g. public life). (47-49). The only thing we do know that all organizations have in constant is that they increase individuals' capacity for cooperation, even if they don't increase cooperation itself (50).

The "Morality of Association": Association always has one predictable affect: it increases your ability to to trust and cooperate. The process is founded on reciprocity within the organization. (Argument based on Rawls; pg 50-51).

The Question of Congruence, again: congruence with liberal democratic virtues (within private associations) is not necessary for cooperation to happen. For example, hierarchy isn't necessarily an impediment.

Liberal expectancy: as long as people are free to leave associations or join new ones, associations will gradually "Protestantize," that is, become more liberalized. People living in a liberal democracy will come to embrace liberalism (no explanation as to why this is true), and then these liberal values will spill over into associational life (no explanation as to why--compare with pg 47-49), so that people will either reform or abandon illiberal associations (55-58).

Two key points: First, developing capacity for cooperation through associations does not necessarily lead to liberal democratic virtues--indeed, "force and fraud" also require cooperation (59). Only an increased capacity for cooperation is guaranteed. Second, associational life does not necessarily strengthen liberal demoratic virtues, either.

Entry and Exit: Exit must be free. Associations only have their laudatory effects--and are only justifiable--if people can freely exit them. Being truly free sometimes requires some radical change. For example, Amish won't be truly free to leave unless we start requiring Amish farmers to pay one another a minimum wage and contribute to social security (page 60).

Associational life helps compensate for some of the shortcomings of democracy in America. Specifically, it helps people gain self-respect by finding a forum where they fit in and can be equal with others. A problem, though, is that not all groups are equal, which would imply that entry must be fully open to everybody. She goes on to show, however, that allowing groups to set their own limits on who may join does not undermine the self-respect that people can gain by joining.

All this argument (above) assumes that adults continue changing their moral views beyond childhood. She presents a defense of this idea starting on 65.

Chapter 3: Religious Associations: Constitutional Incongruence

Religion has always been very important in US political life, especially as institutions go, since the First Amendment has always been viewed as especially applicable to religious groups.

The nonestablishment clause has been difficult, though. It raises two tricky questions. The easier one involves symbolic endorsements (Christmas trees, holidays, etc.): how do you avoid establishing an official religion on the one hand, and avoid establishing atheism as an official religion on the other?

The more difficult questions involve church autonomy and exemptions from zoning, discrimination, tax, and other laws.

Autonomy: Judicial decisions about who controls church assets have rarely made front pages, but are important because they determine whether the courts will get involved in who runs the church and how. Historically, Lord Eldon's rule was the "departure from doctrine" test: if two parties contested control of church properties, the party adhering most closely to historical doctrine won. However, this test required the law to determine what was doctrine and what was heresy. After a few stages of evolution (80-81), we ended up with our current doctrine of "neutral principles": if the church made a formal contract or agreement over property, hierarchy, hiring, etc., the courts would enforce it. Otherwise, the courts would defer to the church hierarchy.

Exemption and Accommodation [or: when churches should be exempt from nondiscrimination law:

Viability: Free Entry = No. Judicial action should not seek to change religious tenets, or declare that some tenets are "minor." In Brown v. Dade Christian Schools, the Dade schools had a religious view against interracial marriage and association, and therefore wanted to segregate their private school. The Supreme Court ruled against Dade. Rosenblum shows the problem of the rulings logic by paraphrasing Justice Goldberg: "After conceding that according to church tenets, departure from the command to segregate would constitute disobedience to God, he refuses to concede that disobedience would endanger salvation! He invents his own theology." Basically, he assumes that forcing integration will not impair the church's "viability" or its hold on its faithful. The major problem: "The power to change the membership of a bona fide private association is unavoidably the power to change its purpose, its programs, its ideology, and its collective voice" (97).

"Totalistic" Religion and "Exit": By totalistic she refers to groups that "immerse members in the organization and take up every moment of their lives," e.g. an Amish community or the "Alamo Foundation." Problem with these groups: although you are in principle free to leave, do they render you incapable of surviving outside the association? In Alamo Foundation v. Secretary of Labor, the Labor Dept charged Alamo for failure to pay minimum wage in its businesses. These businesses were run by the church to raise funds, and members often volunteered at them--and members did not support the Labor Dept's case. However, the Court ruled that the members were "entirely dependent on the Foundation for food, shelter, and clothing, and that they worked in expectation of these benefits, which were wages in another form," so they had to be paid according to Labor guidelines-and they could then donate their income back to the church voluntarily. Rosenblum agrees, for it seeks to ensure real freedom of exit. Similarly, Amish employers are rightly required to pay into Social Security, even if Amish elderly don't accept SS checks--because otherwise, those leaving the community have no claim on Social Security, and that would render them less than free to leave.

Churches often have "unintended moral consequences" (like positive externalities). For example, religious groups have learned to make alliances (with both other churches and secular groups) to advance their causes, to litigate, to vote, to campaign, to pursue public debate, and to protest. When they seek an exemption for themselves, the advance general rights and freedoms. They build mutual respect. At the same time, churches can be "aggressively oppositional" and can be a safe place to express illiberal ideas--yet on the whole, churches have many positive social effects.

Chapter 5

Rosenblum argues that compelled association from above--forced congruence--cannot serve as a tool to enhance liberal democracy. Unless "exclusion from an association denotes second-class citizenship" (p 162), government-mandated membership policies are detrimental to the promotion of self-respect through associational life. The case of Roberts vs Jaycees, in which state needs for congruence outweighed the right of an expressive association to restrict membership, is given as an example. Reasons are as follows:

  1. Exclusionary, incongruent groups may function as "safety valves" for discrimination
  2. Associations may lose their character as an association if denied the right to decide their own membership.
  3. Second-class citizenship is not the same as second-class membership. The concept of second-class citizenship is based on inferior public standing. Examples are denial of voting rights, gerrymandering to dilute a group's vote, denial of property rights, etc. The author argues that second-class membership standing and its implications within the association are not necessarily carried over into public life. Compelled association only alters the association's self-chosen purpose and is symbolic of a government stepping out of bounds to encroach on liberal freedoms.
  4. Self-respect is not determined by public standing. Personal dignity is not mediated by recognition from exclusive groups; to think so, Rosenblum argues, is to deny the ability of people to develop self-respect outside restricted associations. By the same token some are able to enhance self-respect through welcome membership in exclusive groups.

The author says that undemocratic, discriminatory associations (such as white supremacist groups or male-only organizations) are not a problem for liberal democracy--in fact, they may serve functions that enhance democracy overall. What we need to worry about is disassociation. The fact that membership is declining in many associations indicates a push towards self-exclusion that can be threatening to liberal democracy.

Research on similar subjects


Rosenblum, Nancy (author)American PoliticsCivil SocietyMoralitySocial CapitalReligion and PoliticsDemocracy and Society

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