Civic Virtue without Politics

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.

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Author: Jason Brennan
  • Anonymous

    Nice post, Jason. Nice to have you back. Now if only this guy Daniel Shapiro would start blogging again…

  • Hyena

    Yeah, my question was anticipated: what makes the extra-political virtuousness mentioned “civic” rather than just virtuous generally?

    • Anonymous

      I’m looking forward to more on this type of question as well. It seems a fair amount of this implies that the whole question of what is virtue is contextual so it requires some modifier to state the context. And now we’re going to work with the modifier to expand the context.

      The other aspect reminds me of a question posed when I was in school: “What is the line between market and government?” We seem to be asking a similar question here: What’s the defining limit of civic?

  • I guess I have to take you at your word that “most people” you have discussed this issue with think it is “absurd” that civic virtue can be expressed outside of politics.  But it seems to me to be a commonplace among the communitarian and civic republican crowd that civic virtue consists in those moral habits or practices of individuals that sustain the community or the republic,  and promote its good, and that the direct participation in politics is only one element of those practices.

  • This is a quick before-work comment, so I didn’t have time to read your article prior to commenting. (I’ll do so later today when I have time.) I have no real problem with the idea of people exercising civic virtue outside the context of politics; this seems pretty much common sense to me. However I have to wonder how far one can stretch this idea in practice.

    For example, suppose I’m a businessperson who owns a successful for-profit enterprise, employs lots of people, invests in my community, etc., but my business is such that it causes negative externalities for society as a whole (e.g., I’m a cigarette manufacturer, heavy polluter, whatever — pick a suitable example here). Am I still exercising civic virtue under your definition?

    Or even suppose I’m not a businessperson at all: I live off inherited wealth and spend my days in idle consumption. However I am a business owner of sorts (e.g., I’m a shareholder in various profit-making enterprises) and through my investments in profit-making businesses and my consumption of the products of such businesses I am helping to sustain the overall free enterprise system that drives prosperity for others and provides them meaningful employment. Am I exercising civic virtue in doing so?

    Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems that you’re intending “civic virtue” to mean something more than just participating in the market system without engaging in “force or fraud”. If so, this reminds me of the ideas Michael Strong, John Mckey, and others were promoting in the book “Be the Solution”, or of Umair Haque’s distinction between “thin value” vs. “thick value”, between “profit that is economically meaningless, because it leaves others worse off, or, at best, no one better off” and “sustainable, meaningful value … that makes people meaingful better off”. But maybe I’m misinterpreting you here…

    • Having read the article I think I can now answer my own questions, referring in particular to your claim (5) in the introduction: In the first case (the harmful business) I could reasonably claim that civic virtue is not being exercised because the business activities in question do not “tend sufficiently to promote the common good”. In the second case (the wealthy idler) I could reasonably claim that civic virtue is not being exercised because (among other things) the person in question does not have the right motivations.

      I really like the article and agree with its conclusions, and (to answer my third question) it does in fact seem to be generally in sync with the Strong/Mackey/Haque/ approach that I referenced.

  • Anonymous

    One point I’d add: A lot of causes we consider “liberal” have migrated from the government to nongovernmental organizations, corporations or plain old private life. People are recycling — not because the government tells them to (though some governments do) but because it makes sense. NGOs such as the Carter Center and Bill Gates’ organizations are doing wonderful work in Africa and elsewhere. And even the bad old oil companies are investing in cleaner energy — in part because it makes long-term economic sense, in part because it’s the “nice” thing to do. While people do libertarian-style good outside politics, we have Tea Party types in politics who are dismissing science and other inconvenient facts. They’re running state governments that benefit greatly from federal largesse they claim to be fighting against. So who’s a more virtuous libertarian? The lefty who has disengaged from politics and has turned attention to academia and nongovernmental activism? Or the Tea Party folks clamoring to get into government and get what’s theirs?

  • Fernando Teson

    Good post, Jason. I would only add that my intuition is exactly the opposite of the civic republican’s: someone who is REALLY concerned about political participation is LESS likely to be virtuous.

    • Bas van der Vossen

      I agree: a very interesting (and important) post.

      I would add one thing, at least with respect to some classical view. Parts in Aristotle, e.g., suggest that political participation is part of the good life. But typically political “ambition” was disapproved. I too am inclined to reject the former, but it is a strong claim.

      • Fernando Teson

        I don’t know what to say about the sincere grass-roots person who idealistically wants to improve the world. Maybe she is a virtuous person. But I am convinced that the professional politician and the professional political activists are the opposite of virtue. Their job, by definition, is to forcibly enroll others in their projects, to seek gains through coercion and not though voluntary transactions. I’ve never been seduced by this Aristotelian idea, that the more you participate in the public forum the better person you are. Rather the opposite seems more plausible. Think about two citizens. The first one is sitting there trying to figure out what he can produce that others need. The second one is trying to convince the government to force people to do what they don’t want to do. Other things being equal, I ask, who is more virtuous?

      • Jason has some interesting and provocative things to say about this question in a paper coming out in Social Philosophy and Policy early in 2012.  I hope he blogs about it here!

  • Steven Horwitz

    Excellent post. I would just note that this conception of virtue is one that assumes (rightly IMO) that consequences matter more than intentions.  It further assumes (again rightly) that the word “civic” refers to all the ways in which we interact in the social world – including, but not limited to, both the polity and the agora.  It’s good not to let the term “civic” or “public” be equated only with the polity.

  • pjg9g

    Great post. It really is irritating that we call “public servants” those people who, in reality, demand that we serve them, by providing them a salary and submitting to their decrees.

    • Anonymous

      That’s a little off. Most public servants are making less than they could be making in private (nonsensical, self-serving Cato “studies” notwithstanding). Teachers are obligated to teach, and when you call 911, they HAVE to show up. Sounds like a servant to me.

      • You definitely should watch the series ‘Yes, Minister’ and ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ and then please reconsider your post.

    • What a juvenile crack.   Most people in government jobs – elected or unelected – are just people with jobs.   Their salaries just come with the jobs.   If you want to fire them, then march on down to your legislature and get to work on voting them out of office.  Of course that means you might have to get over any dispositions you have to whine about the evil Democracy that runs the country.

      • Anonymous

        That only applies to the elected representative. There’s a whole bureaucracy behind our elected official that has been growing and growing over the years. Termination of employees from these positions is not a trivial action — in many ways shrinking the bureaucracy is more problematic than replacing the representatives (if that’s even an accurate description these days).

        The bureaucracy is an element of the State that other’s didn’t mention to your earlier question.

  • CFV

    Interesting post. Two points. The first one is methodological: a conceptual point is not necessarily tautological. Some people believe that by conceptual analysis of terms you can reach some substantive conclusions.  For example, take your definition:

    “Civic virtue is the disposition to promote the common good. Therefore, a good citizen will participate actively in politics.”

    Suppose you accept the antecedent. Then you seem committed to accept that a good citizen should promote the common good if you accept that a good citizen is someone who exercises civic virtue.
    This, of course, leaves open which activities or actions do or do not promote the common good, but at least, we can say that the selfish prosecution of one’s own purposes does not fit our conceptual analysis of the term “civic virtue”. This analysis does not exclude political participation as such, although it does seem to exclude, for example, political rent-seeking.

    The second point I want to make is more substantive: as far as I can see, to claim that for-profit business is a form to exercise “civic virtue” you need to reject Mandeville’s Fable of Bees.

  • I, for one, want to express my hope that your Nozick read-through is only delayed, and not permanently tabled.  It was a great idea, and the first few posts were of terrific value.

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