Democracy, Academic Philosophy

Schlivic Virtue and the Table-Pounding Objection

In various places I have argued that a person can exercise civic virtue without any engagement in politics whatsoever. The duties of citizenship and the goal of promoting the common good need not and for many people do not call them into the public sphere.

Many people regard this as a non-starter. Sure, as I mentioned in a previous post, the consensus definition of civic virtue among political theorists and philosophers leaves open whether one has to participate in politics to exercise civic virtue. (They define civic virtue as the disposition (and ability) to promote the common good over purely private ends. This definition leaves it open whether a person of civic virtue will participate in politics, and whether one can exercise civic virtue through private activity.) But a person could just complain that this shows the consensus definition is mistaken. One could just pound the table and insist that civic virtue, by definition, requires political engagement.

The table-pounding response seems like a bad move to me.

The reason is that it comes at a high cost. You see, most people who think about and write about civic virtue believe all of the following characterize civic virtue:

  1. “Civic virtue” refers to those dispositions that make a person inclined to “do her part” in society, and to “pay her debts” rather than free ride.
  2. Civic virtue tends to make you a good member of the community, and a person cannot be a good community member without it.
  3. From Wikipedia: “Civic virtue is the cultivation of habits of personal living that are claimed to be important for the success of the community.”
  4. Civic virtue is generally important and valuable.
If you insist that civic virtue, by definition, requires political engagement, or that civic virtue, by definition, can only be exercised through political and quasi-political activities, then you’ve got a problem. By insisting that it’s not an open question whether civic virtue requires politics, you then make it an open question whether 1-4 are true of civic virtue.
From my paper in JBE:

Suppose one pounds the table and insists that to exercise civic virtue, by definition, requires significant political engagement. The person making this objection just insists that whether civic virtue involves political engagement is not an open question.

This objection has significant costs. I take it that civic virtue makes one a good community member. If one insists that, by definition, civic virtue requires political engagement, my response is that that one can be a good community member by engaging in public-spirited non-political activity. A public-spirited person who promotes the common good through non-political means might lack civic virtue, but instead have “schlivic” virtue. Let us say that schlivic virtue is the disposition and ability to promote the common good by non-political activity. If one insists that it is not an open question whether civic virtue involves political engagement, this just implies that it is an open question whether, in order to be a good community member, one should have civic virtue, schlivic virtue, or some combination of the two. Table-pounding over definitions gets the objector nowhere.

I think we should take the claim “civic virtue requires political engagement” not as a tautologous, definitional, or conceptual claim, but instead as a substantive, interesting claim that comes at the end of a real argument. I examine (and, I believe) refute the best arguments for this claim in the first two chapters of The Ethics of Voting.

  • I would add that the table-pounding definition of civic virtue implies that people who are silenced, or marginalized, or disenfranchised are less capable of civic virtue than those who are not silenced.

  • Hyena

    I examine (and, I believe) refute the best arguments for this claim in the first two chapters of The Ethics of Voting.

    Hopefully, you’ll provide a summary.

    But let’s say I pound the table on civic virtue and insist “not without political engagement you haven’t”. There seems to be two options in your framework: I restrict “civic virtue” or expand “political engagement”. I would argue that the latter course is more correct, especially if we want to drag up the ancient past, when we had more duties as citizens. In fact, this seems to be a more plausible direction: that civic virtue requires political engagement, that we can’t exercise civic virtue because our states are too politically restrictive.

    But we could also argue that civic virtue isn’t some timeless quality. It has little relevance in the modern world because it was a technical competency no longer needed; like the virtues of a good COBOL programmer, it may be largely obsolete.

  • I don’t know how much of a substantive issue there is here.   It’s not clear there is some stable concept or understanding of civic virtue for which one can find an analysis.  The conception of what civic virtue requires evolves along with changes in political order.

    You guys can go on arguing among yourselves about what your “rights” and “duties” are.   But some of us are going to go on promoting a vibrant, broad-based and participatory democratic society, and will promote along with such a society the adoption and inculcation of ideals and moral norms among the citizenry that are most conducive to the long-term success of democracy.   And those norms include broad, shared participation in the hard work of governance.

    • Anonymous

      Here and in many other comments you write as if you think democracy is an intrinsic value to be pursued simply for its own sake. I don’t know if this is you actual belief or simply the product of an imprecise style, but in either case it is plainly an error. It is very easy to imagine societies governed by impecably democratic principle that are deeply unattractive from any reasonable moral perspective. At its best, democracy can be a means of promoting the rule of law (a point emphaisized many times by Hayek). At its worse, it can resemble the Jim Crow South, or something even much less attractive.

      So, what makes some democracies Good and some bad? As many classical liberals have noted, it is respect for property rights. Richard Pipes makes this pojnt eloquently in his excellent book “Property and Freedom,” at p. 281:

      The right to property in and of itself does not
      guarantee civil rights and liberties. But historically speaking, it has been
      the single most effective device for ensuring both, because it creates an
      autonomous sphere in which, by mutual consent, neither the state nor society
      can encroach: by drawing a line between the public and the private, it makes
      the owner co-sovereign, as it were. Hence it is arguably more important than
      the right to vote (footnote omitted).
      In his book,

      • Here and in many other comments you write as if you think democracy is an intrinsic value to be pursued simply for its own sake.
        No of course not.  Democracy is a political system, not one of the ultimate ends of human desire and existence.  It exists to perform a function, and therefore it derives whatever value it has from the degree of its success in promoting the conditions that enable human beings to obtain the things they ultimately want.

        Democracy is useful because it promotes:

        1. A broad distribution of the goods produced in a society.   In general, the amount of goods being equal, overall utility is enhanced by a broad distribution of goods, and diminished by very unbalanced distributions of goods.  Also, unbalanced concentrations of goods tend over time to suffocate economic activity, piling wealth up in hordes of indolent savings and preventing them from being being put to work and invested in new productive activity.   I have expressed my view several times that laissez faire free market activity, despite its many benefits, has as a natural effect over time the  increased unbalancing of the possession of goods and the flow of goods into pockets of concentrated wealth.   In other words, free market activity unchecked by redistributive countermeasures and socially enlightened regulation is self-destructive.
             Democracy can promote a fairly broad distribution of goods because political decision-makers tend to use political power to promote their own interests, and so only when political power and decision- making are broadly distributed will political decisions promote the interests of the many rather than the few.  It is no accident that the most prosperous societies in history are the modern Western democracies, all of which provide their citizens ample scope to create, innovate and produce, but also regulate their economic activity in various ways to promote the general welfare.

        2.  Broader and deeper citizen understanding of the workings of the  society.  People in democratic societies are always discussing politics.   They do it incessantly, and constantly exchange information about the news and important political changes.   They also incessantly discuss problems and theories related to their common lives and interests, and even philosophical problems about how the world works.   The reason they are always doing this  is because they are both called on and permitted to participate in political decision-making, and thus tend to look at the world  from the perspective of an adult decision-maker, with responsibility for other people. 
               Liberty protections without democracy do not produce this effect as fully, because if people are utterly lacking in power their discussions about the workings of society are pointless and do not issue in action.  Without democracy, the ruled degenerate into a slavish and ignorant flock, with deeply unrealistic attitudes about how their society actually works.  Libertarians, just to take one example, would never devote so much mental and verbal energy to the discussion of the politics of freedom in 2011 if they did not believe that these discussions had some import – that is, if they did not believe that they actually possessed the power, working in coalitions, to steer the society in their preferred direction.   You may think there is a lot of ignorance anyway in our society, and you are right.  But I think it pales in comparison with the intellectual grossness of the multitudes in non-democratic societies.
              That the average working man or woman in modern democratic societies often has reasonably informed opinions on, say, his state’s ongoing budget debate, or his town’s deliberations on a new sewer system, or the federal governments decisions on whether to go to war is a tremendous triumph of democratic civilization.  It is one that the neo-libertarian democracy-haters unfortunately take for granted, and would roll back if they achieve power.
               So in short, democracy leads more than do other systems  to the energetic production and proliferation of knowledge.  And since knowledge has both great instrumental and intrinsic value, democracy promotes something of great value.

        I believe the creation and maintenance of property rights is also a generally useful institution, and that such rights should not be altered lightly once in place.   People need to have some reasonable level of security about their possessions in order to cultivate the value of those possessions and put those possessions into play in productive activity.  But these rights should not be regarded as absolute, and from time to time require adjustment to serve other social goods.  I personally prefer regulatory measures that promote equality not by transfers and seizures of property that has already acquired – although that is sometimes necessary as well –  but by regulatory moves that aim at preventing grossly unequal distributions of property from arising in the first place.   It is always more painful to a person to lose what he already has than to fail to acquire it in the first place, and its a good thing to prevent unnecessary pain.

        • Anonymous

          I am glad you realize that democracy is just an instrumental value. Unfortunately, most of the goods that you attribute to it are actually a function of the rule of law and not democracy per se, although I think most classical liberals see democracy as a potentially valuable means of strengthening the rule of law. Thus, I have no idea what you are referring to when you say “neo-libertarian democracy haters.” This is just silly, I do not hate democracy. I just realize (per Hayek) that it can be horribly abused when not constrained by other values. What was so great about the Jim Crow South? It was a gross abuse of the rule of law, but a democracy, i.e. a tyranny of the majority.

          I don’t share your view that a purely libertarian society will produce great inequalities compared to your ideal–but since this is an empirical question I don’t know you to prove it and thus don’t want to argue the point. However, when you endorse democracy as a means of promoting greater material equality, you are granting to the state the power to determine a wide range of economic outcomes, thus opening the door, as argued by Pipes and Hayek, to great danger.

          In societes with well-established cultural traditions hospitable to the rule of law, this meddling need not devolve into outright tyranny, but may nevertheless be very bad. The current retirees under SS and Medicare have received many trillions more in benefits than they paid into the system. including implied interest. These funds have been taken from future generations or borrowed fromn the Chinese. It is a mathematical certainty that the government cannot honor the promises it has made. When this becomes obvious to the masses, there will be hell to pay. I don’t know exactly how it will all turn out, but it will not be good. One viiolation of the rule of law may lead to others.

          Final (side) note. In many previous posts you have decried natural rights arguments as a priori mumbo jumbo, while here and elsewhere you say things like “overall utility is enhanced by a broad distribution of goods…” But, utility is a moral value and those who wish to promote it are known as utilitarians. An so far as I know, God did not endorse it as a value that everyone should bow down to. So, utilitarian need an argument for their first principles just as natural rights theorists do.

          • The current retirees under SS and Medicare have received many trillions more in benefits than they paid into the system, even including implied interest. These funds have been taken from future generations or borrowed from the Chinese. It is a mathematical certainty that the government cannot honor the promises it has made. 
            There is no such mathematical certainty.   These programs are essentially transfer programs.   At any time during their operation, those who are relatively young, healthy and productive are supporting the sick and the aged.   In the next generations, the same will be true.   Whether those future generations will be able to make good on current promises with ease or with difficulty, or will be forced to alter those promises, depends primarily on our  economy’s rate of growth and increases in productivity.  That is, it depends on how rich those future generations turn out to be.

            They amount people paid into the programs through FICA and other taxes is irrelevant.  Social Security and Medicare are not savings plans.   The payments people make into the programs are not set aside for their own future care.   Those tax payments were used to care for the sick and elderly who were around at the time the payments were made.   The flow is always from current taxpayers to current beneficiaries.

            The question will always be the same.  In every generation, what people will have to ask themselves is, “Given our current levels of wealth, and given our current numbers of sick and retired people, what proportion of our income should we set aside for their care?”

            Hayek is too much of a skeptical pessimist about the ability of political communities to make smart decisions and investments with public funds.   The world is full of incredibly valuable assets created by governments spending public funds intelligently, and in an economically pro-active and far-seeing way.   Many of these assets would not and could not exist if everything was left up to private entrepreneurs and investors.

          • Anonymous

            Two final thoughts, then you are welcome to the last word. You have correctly described the operation of our entitlement programs, but your optimism about their future would put Forest Gump to shame. When SS was on the drawing board, there were 16 workers per beneficiary, now the number is 3, headed lower. Also, retirees are now living longer than contemplated when the program was established. The current level of benefits, retirement age, etc. are not sustainable.

            There is a similar story for Medicare. It is a non-controversuial fact that retirees take 3x out of the system in benefits relative to what they contribute. One way or the other, this excess must come out of the hide of others, and is thus also unsustainable. The net effect of these two situations is that the crazy, far-right, libertarian think tank, “USA Today,” calculates that we have made $61.6 trillion worth of promises that are currently unfunded. The article is here:
             http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2011-06-06-us-owes-62-trillion-in-debt_n.htm. If you would like to pretend that we can somehow grow our way out of this mess, well, that’s your business.

            Finally, in an earlier comment you waxed eloquent about the power of democracy to promote knowledge and literacy about the issues of the day. But, the truth is different. When people make decisions about products/services that they will purchase–cars, mobile devices, individual health plans–they tend to do a great deal of research because they alone will be stuck with the consequences (good or bad). When people vote they know they are one of many millions voting, and their chances of actually affecting the outcome are essentially nill.

            This is why participation rates are low (rationally), and why a substantial portion of the population can’t name the Vice President, a single Supreme Court justice, a single cabinet member, etc. (see “Jay Walking”). This is why–based on the very value you cite–democracy shouild be restricted to those decisions where it is impossible to accomodate individual choice, i.e. military defense posture and policy, the substance of the criminal laws, etc. For an extended argument along these lines, see Mark Pennington’s excellent book “Robust Political Economy.”

          • When SS was on the drawing board, there were 16 workers per beneficiary, now the number is 3, headed lower. Also, retirees are now living longer than contemplated when the program was established. The current level of benefits, retirement age, etc. are not sustainable.
            The last sentence is not evidentially or logically supported by the first two sentences.

            It is a non-controversuial fact that retirees take 3x out of the system in benefits relative to what they contribute. One way or the other, this excess must come out of the hide of others, and is thus also unsustainable. 

            Again, the conclusion drawn, following the word “thus” is not supported by the previous part of the paragraph.   Of course retirees take more out of the system than they contribute.  That’s the way it’s supposed to work.

      • Here and in many other comments you write as if you think democracy is an intrinsic value to be pursued simply for its own sake. I don’t know if this is your actual belief or simply the product of an imprecise style, but in either case it is plainly an error. It is very easy to imagine societies governed by impecably democratic principles that are deeply unattractive from any reasonable moral perspective. 

        Just quickly, I don’t think it’s so plainly an “error” to hold that democracy is intrinsically valuable.  At the very least, your final sentence doesn’t demonstrate it to be an error.  That democratic societies can be deeply unattractive means only that democracy is not sufficient to make a society morally attractive all-things-considered.  But this is compatible with democracy’s being intrinsically valuable.  ‘Intrinsic” refers to the source of the value and not its weight.

        • Anonymous

          Just for laughs, let me offer the following argument. My dictionary defines intrinsic as “belonging to a thing by its very nature: intrinsic merit. I think this is consistent with your comment. If something has value by its very nature, then wherever it is present there should be some positive value, at least a trace of it, even if all things considered we would evaluate the situation as negative. Imagine a truly horrific example of a tyranny of the majority in which it has enslaved, killed and tortured some disfavored but innocent minority through entirely democratic means. If democracy is intrinsically valuable, there should be something good about this. I can’t perceive it, and so democracy is not intrinsically valuable.

          • Yes, I think that’s basically the right use of “intrinsic,” so no quarrel there. I think that’s a term that is commonly misused, so my main interest was in clarifying that point, rather than in defending the value of democracy per se. Your revised argument is better. My guess is that a serious democratic theorist who wanted to defend their position from it would challenge the implied claim that a society in which the majority has “enslaved, killed, and tortured some disfavored but innocent minority” is genuinely democratic in the sense they wish to defend. People like Thomas Christiano or Amy Gutmann who defend democracy mean something more robust by that term than mere majoritarian political institutions.

          • Anonymous

            Yes, and as the use of “democratic” begins to more closely resemble “rule of law” in Hayek’s sense or “the preservation of rational agency” in a Nozickian sense, I have less and less difficulty regarding it as something intrinsically valuable.

  • The duties of citizenship and the goal of promoting the common good need not and for many people do not call them into the public sphere.

    At the risk of perhaps seeming too flippant about what it is an important topic, so what? It seems to me that this assertion is based on little more than the patently obvious idea that there is no single specific activity that defines civic virtue. Instead, it seems clear that “the duties of citizenship and the goal of promoting the common good” require us to do something, but that there is a set of activities that can be selected from. As long as any activity or set of activities is sufficient, but not necessary, for a finding of civic virtue, then an individual may safely forego any single one of them.

    Therefore, it seems to me, that it is more productive to lay out the constellation of supports for civic virtue, and explain why they, alone or in sets, are sufficient for a finding, rather than argue why any given activity is unnecessary. For starters, the positive argument pretty much renders moot the negative point, while at the same time not providing an opening for an claim to civic virtue through inaction.

    • The Woman

      Well put, Aaron!

      I for one am completely willing to grant the without-political-involvement definition.  I am also willing to turn on it if someone on the other side comes up with a better argument (which I might be able to make, myself, if I cared, but I don’t).  I have no dog in that race.

      However, Jason, in your repeated allusions to “private activity” and “promoting the common good” have me  increasingly suspicious that your motive is ultimately to try to define economic participation and/or wealth creation as civilly virtuous.

      That’s going to be a harder sell.

      Let me say that I deeply, profoundly believe that businesses (and the individuals who constitute them) can do great good by how they conduct themselves in going about their business.  Note the difference here: the virtue rests in how business is conducted, not in the conducting of business per se.

      ‘Cause, let me tell you: I have occasion all the time to have conversations with people who think they get some kind of moral gold star just for having a job, and not stealing from people as a way of life.  I work in Corrections, and these people are felons, going through rehab and entering the licit economy.  So when I hear someone putting on airs about how virtuous they are for  working I’m not real impressed.

      In Corrections, we differentiate between prosocial and antisocial behavior.  Getting a job, conducting business without multiplying externalities, participating in the marketplace without force or fraud, is definitely prosocial.  But expanding the definition of “civic virtue” to include all of prosociality is to water-down the term “civic virtue”, and I think that would be unfortunate.  Virtue should refer to more than merely avoiding vice in making one’s own way in the world.

      • I had similar concerns to yours, however I think he’s setting the bar for exercising civic virtue a bit higher than just normal business-related activities. To quote from the article: “For a citizen to exercise civic virtue through business activities, contributing to the common good must be one of her principal goals, if not her only goal.” “To have civic virtue, a citizen must be disposed to promote the common good even at the expense of her self-interest.” (Though this expense may be only potential and not actually realized in practice.) “Someone exclusively or predominantly motivated by profit cannot have civic virtue …, because civic virtue requires a sufficiently strong motivation to promote the common good.”

        My main takeaways from the article are a) that one could potentially exercise civic virtue via private business activities (i.e., that this isn’t ruled out by consensus definitions of civic virtue, the common good, etc.), and b) that this would involve more than simply “[getting] a job, conducting business without multiplying externalities, [and] participating in the marketplace without force or fraud”.  Beyond that no claims are made: “I am not arguing in this article that anyone has actually exercised civic virtue through business activity.”

        I see this article as analogous to proving that the existence of a certain mathematical entity would not be inconsistent with an accepted set of axioms, but then not going on to prove the actual existence of the entity, much less provide a method to construct it. In that sense I’m guessing it’s the first step in what I presume will be an ongoing series on this topic (at least I hope so, because I think it’s an interesting and relevant one).

        • The Woman

          Frank, from what article are you quoting?  Those statements don’t appear here.

          • My apologies, I was referring to the paper “For-Profit Business as Civic Virtue” in the Journal of Business Ethics.  (It’s not behind a pay-wall so you can read it as HTML or PDF.) He linked to it in the original post but not this one.

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