Civic Culture and Modern Philosophy
Philosophy and Civil Society

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Theme: How modernist civic culture identified the normative standpoint of citizenship with true selfhood
ESSAY 5: The Modernist Civic Moral Ideals of Authenticity and Autonomy
 

 

 

 

 

 

For modernist civic culture, the motivation to develop civic attitudes was provided by a call to a certain type of self-realization.
















 

 

 

 

 








Lockean forms of civic culture became virtually indistinguishable from the culture of possessive individualism.











 

 

 










The modernist civic ethics of authenticity represented the motives and standpoint proper to the citizen as those that would be left after all particularistic cultural accretions have been stripped away.











 

 

 

 

 

 






The modernist civic ethics of autonomy represented adoption of the normative standpoint of citizenship as the only way to escape subjection to historically contingent communitarian identities.











 

 

 

 

 

 







The civic ethics of autonomy was laced through with an ascetic sense of the futility and vanity of particularistic desire.













 

 

 

 

 

 

 






Modernist liberal civic culture tended to present the culture of citizenship as a totalizing culture to which all particularistic ethnic, class and religious cultures were subordinate both cognitively and morally.

 
 
Modernist civic culture as the culture of self-realization

          In any civic culture, the linguistic and representational resources that help make the normative standpoint of citizenship intelligible to citizens also provide resources for motivating them to make the effort required to develop civic identities and to cultivate civic virtues. An effective civic culture must make clear not only what it means to be a citizen, but also why it is good to be a citizen.

          The civic culture shaped by modernist liberal political theory provided motivational resources supportive of citizenship that were drawn from its unique interpretation of the standpoint proper to civic identity. Modernist liberalism characteristically answered the question of the nature of citizenship in two ways: (1) with respect to political authority, citizenship is a political standpoint analogous to the standpoint that might be imagined to prevail among free and equal individuals in the natural condition, prior to their voluntary submission to political authority; and (2), with respect to beliefs and values, citizenship is a political standpoint analogous to the radically detached cognitive standpoint of the pure theoretical knower.

          In both of these ways of defining the nature of citizenship, modernist liberal political theory represented the normative standpoint of citizenship in essentialist terms. It represented civic identity as the anthropologically and metaphysically prior identity of human beings as such. The answer offered by modernist liberalism to the question of motivation -- the question of why anyone should go to the trouble of developing civic identities and cultivating civic virtues -- was dictated by its essentialist conception of citizenship.

          Its answer was that free and equal individuals, radically autonomous minds, define what all human beings everywhere really are. Thus, for the civic culture shaped by modernist liberal political theory, the motivation to develop civic identities and cultivate civic virtues was provided by a call to a certain type of self-realization, where the move from communitarian identity to civic identity was represented at once as a move from the generic to the individual and as a move from the particular to the universal.

Lockean vs. Kantian ideals of self-realization

          The two different wings of modernist liberal political theory -- Lockean and Kantian -- tended to offer slightly different versions of this essentialist and universalist interpretation of the normative standpoint of citizenship. However, the effect of both versions of civic ethics was to undermine the validity of and even to disparage particularistic cultural world views and value systems.

          Lockean (or social contractarian) forms of liberal political theory tended to specialize in representing the move from communitarian identity to civic identity as a move from the generic to the individual, i.e., as a move from the subjection of persons to various kinds of group authority and norms to the standpoint of the free-standing individual imagined in social contract narratives.

          For this reason, forms of modernist civic culture heavily influenced by Lockean liberal theory -- in particular, the civic cultures of England and America -- tended to motivate development of civic attitudes by motivating the development of a kind of individualism that easily conformed to the logic of market systems of production, where economic competition licensed behavior that often placed individual self-interest above loyalty to local cultural community. At the extreme, Lockean forms of civic culture became virtually indistinguishable from the culture of possessive individualism.

          On the other hand, Kantian forms of liberal political theory tended to specialize in representing the move from communitarian identity to civic identity as a move from the particular to the universal, i.e., as a move from the immersion of persons in merely contingent and local cultural world views to the standpoint of the all-embracing and purely self-determining individual identified with the autonomous objective knower.

          For this reason, forms of modernist civic culture heavily influenced by the Kantian or rationalist style of liberal theory — say, the civic culture of France — tended to motivate development of civic attitudes by motivating a quest for a condition of pure, universalist self-determination, a quest that was no less hostile to the restrictive laws of the market than to the constrictive values of local ethnic, class, and religious cultures.

The civic ethics of authenticity

          Civic culture influenced by Lockean forms of liberal political theory motivated the development of civic attitudes by sanctioning purely self-interested and acquisitive motives, motives imagined to be consistent with those of the solitary individual in the natural condition of perfect liberty. Lockean liberalism attributed to these motives historical and anthropological priority.

          They were conceived of as authentic human motives -- i.e., authentic by comparison with the arbitrary, artificial, and often hypocritical motives that govern the behavior of individuals as members of particular cultural communities. Civic culture influenced by Lockean liberal political theory thus tended to support what I shall call a civic ethics of authenticity.

          In the civic ethics of authenticity, the normative standpoint of citizenship was represented as the authentically human standpoint. To be a citizen in the full cultural sense was to be a fully authentic human being, a human being whose identity was firmly grounded in the original and inevitable human standpoint of the natural condition, the condition of all human beings prior to their subjection to the artificial limits imposed by the arbitrary authority of particularistic cultural and political communities.

          The civic ethics of authenticity represented the motives and standpoint proper to the citizen, i.e., to the free and equal individual, as the motives and standpoint native to all human beings, those that would be left after all particularistic cultural accretions have been stripped away. Of course, different theorists of the civic ethics of authenticity conceived of the content of authenticity differently depending upon their conception of the state of nature. For Hobbes, human authenticity was identified with the competitive struggle for physical survival, for Locke, with industrious labor aimed at the accumulation of property, for Rousseau, with the primeval innocence and spontaneity of animal life.

          The point is that, however the ideal of the authentically free and equal individual was conceived in any particular case, realization of that ideal definitely required the citizen to consider all obligations and identifications derived from membership in particular ethnic, class, or religious communities as secondary, superficial, dispensable and even as spurious.

The civic ethics of autonomy

          Civic culture influenced by Kantian forms of liberal theory tended to invalidate and disparage particularistic cultural values in a slightly different way. Kantian liberal political theory represented the relationship between civic and communitarian identities as analogous to the relationship between the autonomous rational self-consciousness and the conditioned empirical self-consciousness of foundationalist epistemology.

          Just as the quest for certainty in modernist epistemology was represented as a quest for self-determination, a quest to escape the realm of belief grounded only upon tradition and the authority of others, so also, for Kantian varieties of liberal political theory, the project of developing civic attitudes was represented as a quest for moral independence, a quest to attain freedom from motivations deriving only from the accidental circumstances of biology, upbringing, and fortune.

          While Lockean forms of liberalism characterized the process of achieving full cultural citizenship as a stripping away of cultural accretions to reach an original core individuality, Kantian forms of liberalism characterized the process as an ascent from a conditioned particularistic identity to an autonomous universalized identity.

          Civic culture influenced by Kantian liberal theory thus tended to support what I shall call a civic ethics of autonomy. In the civic ethics of autonomy, the normative standpoint of citizenship was represented as the only fully self-determining human standpoint, the only standpoint available to persons who wish to escape subjection to historically contingent communitarian identities. Those historically contingent communitarian identities, as viewed by the civic ethics of autonomy, were shaped not only by arbitrary, but also by hopelessly particularistic moral standards, standards promoting rivalry and conflict among the different cultural communities adhering to them.

          To be a citizen in the full cultural sense, then, was to take over individual responsibility for one’s own identity and moral standards, but in such a way that the self-determining individuality thereby attained was one that was free of all historical particularism and, for that reason, constituted the sole hope for moral unanimity and social peace.

          The civic ethics of autonomy thus called into question the moral validity of particularistic conceptions of the good in an even more powerful way than did the civic ethics of authenticity. Just as the modernist doctrine of the autonomy of reason had the effect of discrediting all truth claims that could not be supported by the cognitive methodology it mandated (the “scientific method"), so also the civic ethics of autonomy had the effect of discrediting all moral standards that were identified with particularistic cultural traditions and that could not be justified by appeal to the metaphysical ideal of moral autonomy.

          This meant that persons who were motivated to become citizens in the full cultural sense under the influence of the civic ethics of autonomy were faced with a difficult choice. To the extent that their lives were given direction and meaning by moral ideals and world views associated with some particularistic cultural community, they were forced either to abandon those ideals and world views or to reformulate them in ways that stripped them of their historically contingent and particularistic content.

The ideal of autonomy and the ascetic depreciation of particularistic desire

          Schleiermacher’s reinterpretation of Christian theology, heavily influenced by Kantian thought, became the model for this sort of doctrinal reformulation. In his project of making adherence to Christianity once again intellectually and morally respectable in the eyes of its cultured despisers, Schleiermacher stripped Christian doctrine of all elements that were not in principle accessible to all human beings everywhere, identifying Christianity not with a set of truth claims regarding events that occurred during the Roman occupation of Judea, but rather with a privileged personal experience that was analogous to, if not identical with, personal experiences available to members of all religions.

          Members of particular cultural communities who were not willing to reformulate their local moral ideals and world views in this way seemed as a result not only to be excluded from full cultural citizenship, but also to be excluded by the civic ethics of autonomy from the cultural mainstream, condemned as cultural and political sectarians incapable of both responsible citizenship and self-determining individuality.

          The civic ethics of autonomy in this way pressured all particularistic cultural communities to conform to its rule on pain of being vilified as enemies of reason, freedom, equality, moral progress, and social peace. But the civic ideal of individual autonomy also introduced an even more potent and insidious way of undermining the authority of particularistic moral standards by introducing an ascetic theme into modernist civic culture.

          Any sort of ascetic impulse was comfortably alien to the civic ethics of authenticity. The civic ideal of authenticity motivated persons to achieve full cultural citizenship by throwing off the restraints upon their desire and behavior produced by particularistic moral standards. The goal was represented as a return to the imagined standpoint of the free-standing individual who inhabited the state of nature, the condition of perfect liberty. The civic ideal of authenticity was thus entirely compatible with an affirmation of unbridled material self-interest and this-worldliness.

          On the other hand, the civic ethics of autonomy was laced through with a sense of the futility and vanity of particularistic desire. For the civic ethics of autonomy, human contingency and finitude were the real enemy. To the extent that the civic ethics of autonomy expressed this ascetic impulse, living a life in pursuit of some particularistic ethnic or religious conception of the good was viewed an activity akin to polishing the doorknobs on the Titanic. All historically conditioned conceptions of the good expressed only inclinations and interests governed by particularistic biological, psychological, social, and economic needs.

          From the standpoint of the civic ideal of moral autonomy, all such needs were faceless and merely generic. Action governed by them stripped human life of the dignity and worth proper to fully individualized human life -- i.e., the ideal life of the citizen. In view of this ascetic evaluation of contingent and finite human life, particularistic moral ideals and world views thus could be judged not only as divisive and irrational, but even as intrinsically futile and meaningless.

The politics of ethnic and religious identity as a revolt against modernist civic moral ideals

          In different ways, then, and in different degrees, both Lockean and Kantian forms of modernist liberalism -- both the civic ethics of authenticity and the civic ethics of autonomy -- called into question the validity of particularistic moral ideals and world views. Both Lockean and Kantian varieties of modernist liberal political theory represented the normative standpoint of citizenship in essentialist and universalist terms. This essentialist and universalist conception of civic identity certainly provided cultural resources for motivating citizens to undertake the difficult work of developing the intellectual and moral capacities proper to citizenship.

          Modernist civic culture influenced by the civic ethics of authenticity and the civic ethics of autonomy affirmed civic identity as anthropologically and metaphysically more fundamental than communitarian identity. This generated a motivation to develop civic identity that identified the pursuit of civic identity as an inward search for a “true" self. Communitarian identity was thereby defined as a “false" self, a self distracted from its real vocation by the conformity to arbitrary moral ideals and world views demanded by particularistic cultural communities as the price of membership.

          Modernist liberal civic culture thus tended to present the culture of citizenship as a totalizing culture to which all particularistic ethnic, class, and religious cultures were subordinate both cognitively and morally. The contemporary consequence of this subordination is that, as the Enlightenment world view that gave modernist liberal conceptions of citizenship their persuasive power progressively loses its credibility, we are now experiencing in reaction a reassertion and resurgence of particularistic cognitive and moral belief.

          The impact of modernist liberal civic culture upon religious communities was to weaken orthodox claims to the possession of exclusive doctrinal truth and absolute moral standards. The impact of modernist liberal civic culture on ethnic and class communities was to weaken particularistic identification. But today, as modernist liberal civic culture gradually loses its motivational power, we see the emergence everywhere of a new politics of orthodoxy and a new politics of ethnic and class identity, where demands are raised that particularistic cultural values be given priority over civic values.

          This is the consequence of modernist liberalism that will no doubt prove the most difficult to overcome as we today undertake to lay the basis for a postmodern liberal democratic civic culture. This is not to say, of course, that a liberal democratic civic culture can ever be free of the conflict between civic identity and communitarian identity. Given the moral and intellectual demands of liberal democratic citizenship, such conflict is inevitable. As I have noted, attainment of the normative standpoint of citizenship requires persons to develop a capacity to put aside the moral ideals and world views that define their communitarian identities whenever they enter the public realm. Citizens must be able to distance themselves from the most basic commitments that otherwise govern their action and give meaning to all aspects of human life.

          This balancing act is truly a fantastic requirement, a requirement that only relatively few citizens in any particular liberal democracy will satisfy with great distinction. But modernist liberal civic culture made that balancing act even more difficult by representing the relationship between civic and communitarian identity as something approximating an either-or choice. If a viable postmodern civic culture is to be invented, this needless difficulty must be removed. In our rethinking of liberalism as a form of political association, we must come to see the relationship between civic and communitarian identity, whatever its ineradicable difficulty, as a mutually supportive rather than as a competitive relationship.

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