I’ve read that the archaic Greeks had a narrow view of courage. They thought courage was a virtue that could only be expressed by a man in war. We’ve made moral progress since then. We now understand that courage is about an appropriate willingness to confront risk and danger. Courage can be exercised anywhere (not just on a battlefield) and by anyone (even a woman or a child).
It’s time we stop clinging to a similarly archaic and narrow view of civic virtue.
Though most people are not civic republicans, most people accept the civic republican view of civic virtue. The republican conception of civic virtue holds that the places to exercise civic virtue are largely restricted to politics and activities on the periphery of politics, including such activities as voting, running for office, campaigning for candidates, engaging in political deliberation, writing letters to senators and editors, volunteering, community organizing, serving in the military, and working at “public service” jobs.
This is too narrow a conception of civic virtue. Civic virtue, like courage, can be expressed anywhere, and through a wide range of activities outside politics. More strongly, being a good citizen and doing one’s part doesn’t require that you participate in politics at all. (I won’t argue for this last point here today, but you can see chapter 2 of The Ethics of Voting for more.)
When I first became interested in civic virtue, I did a literature search, looking to see how different political philosophers and political theorists of different ideologies defined the term “civic virtue”. To my surprise, despite their heavy disagreements about other issues, nearly all of them defined the term the same way. They say a person has civic virtue to the extent that she is disposed to promote the common good over purely private ends. (This definition leaves open a number of questions, such as whether we’re talking about the common good of the city, nation, or world.)
I noticed many political theorists arguing as follow: “Civic virtue is the disposition to promote the common good. Therefore, a good citizen will participate actively in politics.” Most of them thought this was a conceptual point. They thought it just followed from the definition of civic virtue that civic virtue requires political participation.
But of course it doesn’t follow. If civic virtue is the disposition (and perhaps ability) to promote the common good, this leaves open where and how a person will exercise civic virtue. On this definition, if it turns out that the best or only way for citizens to exercise civic virtue is through politics, that’s a substantive, interesting point, not a tautology.
One liberal insight is that people can and do promote the common good through private, non-political activities. If so, then if you want to promote the common good, you can do so through private, non-political activities. Given the definition of “civic virtue” standard in the literate–given the very definition of “civic virtue” republicans themselves use–it follows rather straightforwardly that you can exercise civic virtue through private, non-political activities.
Call this the extra-political conception of civic virtue. Its basic insight: Lives other than so-called “lives of service” serve others. You can serve society by running a business that makes products people want and which helps make others wealthier. (That is, by doing normal business stuff, not just by doing corporate philanthropy.) You can serve the common good by becoming a good artist or musician. You can enrich others’ lives and serve the common good just by being a nice person.
I’m not a reliable blogger, as you may have noticed. Part of the problem is that I’ve become a democratic theorist, and so most of what I write and think about isn’t directly related to this blog’s theme. (Also, the re-reading Nozick thing fizzled out once I started having to deal with a complicated move from RI to DC.) But over the next few weeks, I plan to blog about civic virtue. In particular, I’ll start up again by discussing my article “For-Profit Business as Civic Virtue,” which holds that a person can exercise civic virtue by running or working for a for-profit business.
Note: Some readers might think the claim that you can express civic virtue outside of politics is self-contradictory. I’ll come back to your worries in future posts. Because we have many libertarian readers, some of you may think this stuff is just obvious. It should be obvious. Yet, I know from having discussed this material with a many different audiences that if you think it’s obvious, you’re in the minority. Most people think it’s absurd. That’s why this is good fun: people’s commonsense beliefs about civic virtue cause them to reject as absurd something they should accept as obvious.