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:
- “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.
- Civic virtue tends to make you a good member of the community, and a person cannot be a good community member without it.
- From Wikipedia: “Civic virtue is the cultivation of habits of personal living that are claimed to be important for the success of the community.”
- Civic virtue is generally important and valuable.
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.