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Etzioni (George Washington Univ.) continues his elucidation and defense of “communitarianism” begun in such previous works as The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Democratic Society (1997). Communitarianism holds that a good society must maintain a balance between individual rights and the common good. Since the 1960s or so, concern for the common good has given way in the US to “excessive deference to privacy.” Etzioni believes it’s time to correct the balance. Certainly aware of the importance of privacy, Etzioni lays out specific criteria to be met and stringent processes to be followed when rights are to be curtailed. There must be a real, not hypothetical, danger to the common good. The danger must first be dealt with, without restricting privacy rights if possible. When rights are curtailed the action should be minimally intrusive, and undesired side effects must be guarded against, e.g., if widespread HIV testing is found necessary, efforts must be made to enhance the confidentiality of medical records. Taking this framework, Etzioni examines five areas of public policy, among them mandatory HIV testing of infants, the public listing of sex offenders (“Megan’s Laws”), and medical- records privacy. Predictably, in all but the last, where he argues that there should be more protection, he finds a minimal diminution in individual rights justifiable. Sex offenders, for instance, do have their rights curtailed when their presence in a community is made public, but the benefit to the community is worth it. These substantive chapters are intriguing, yet overall there is not much new here. Etzioni has plowed this field often, and the basic premises of his argument are not improved upon. Curiously, he continues to paint privacy with broad strokes, with too little regard for the nuances of that term. Is it hedonism he decries, or selfishness? Are demands for rights all symptomatic of a disregard for the public good? Such issues remain unexplored. ($100,000 ad/promo, Author tour)

Pub Date: March 31st, 1999
ISBN: 0-465-04089-6
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Basic
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 1999


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