Civic Culture and Modern Philosophy
Philosophy and Civil Society
Communitarian moral ideals, identities, and conceptions of the good life are ordinarily not first perceived as objects of choice.
In modernist civic culture, the liberal priority of the right over the good was interpreted as an anthropological and metaphysical priority.
Modernist liberal civic moral ideals, assigned the task proper to any civic moral ideal, naturally possessed a character very different from communitarian moral ideals. Civic moral ideals serve in the cultural production of free and equal individuality. Accordingly, both the civic ethics of authenticity and the civic ethics of autonomy were silent on the question of what sort of happiness to pursue or what the nature of the good life ultimately is. Both mandated only that happiness be pursued in a certain way -- namely, as a pursuit whose object was freely chosen by the individual.
However, communitarian moral ideals, identities, and conceptions of the good life are ordinarily not first perceived as objects of choice. Ordinarily, they are understood as ways of being rather than as matters of choice. The communitarian identity of a person is simply who he or she is. A communitarian world view is understood to describe simply the world as such. The moral language associated with a particular communitarian moral ideal is identified simply with the language as such that is spoken by the community.
Full cultural citizenship, on the other hand, requires the introduction of difference in all these spheres. It requires persons to develop the capacity to make a distinction between communitarian and civic identities, between their particularistic cultural world view and the world as such, between the primary moral language that they speak and the language that they share with citizens who speak different primary moral languages. But the capacity to perceive and apply these distinctions does not amount to the adoption of a new conception of the good or of a new comprehensive world view.
Accordingly, neither the civic ethics of authenticity nor the civic ethics of autonomy mandated acceptance of a specific conception of the good. What they did mandate was the development of a capacity to speak a primary moral language from a standpoint external to every primary moral language -- the standpoint of the free individual, the standpoint of a speaker capable of viewing every primary moral language as if it were a freely chosen second language.
Authenticity, autonomy and the priority of the right over the good
This general feature of all civic moral ideals accounts in part for the peculiarly abstract and reflective character of the civic ethics of authenticity and autonomy.
The civic ethics of authenticity required of its followers not the choice of a specific conception of the good, but rather a choice of a conception of the good that conformed to their own intrinsic individual natures or selves. This promoted, of course, a belief in the existence of such a thing as an intrinsic individual nature or self and encouraged the pursuit of its discovery.
In the same way, the civic ethics of autonomy required of its followers not the choice of a specific conception of the good, but rather a choice of a conception of the good whose pursuit could be rendered consistent with the principles or rules inherent in pure theoretical and practical reason. This promoted, of course, a belief in the existence of such universal human faculties and encouraged attempts to discover their principles.
At this point, we begin to bring into view what made the civic ethics of authenticity and autonomy distinctive and distinctively modernist as civic moral ideals. What made these moral ideals distinctively modernist was the interpretation of the normative standpoint of citizenship that they drew from modernist liberal political theory. Modernist liberal political theory attributed to the normative standpoint of citizenship an anthropological and a metaphysical priority.
Lockean (or social contractarian) versions of modernist liberalism viewed the standpoint of free and equal individuality as the standpoint proper to the natural condition -- i.e., the condition of all human beings prior to political association and, in some versions, prior to any form of association at all. Kantian versions of modernist liberalism viewed the standpoint of free and equal individuality as the standpoint proper to the autonomous faculty of human reason -- i.e., the standpoint governed only by the universally binding laws of pure theoretical and practical reason. In both cases, the relationship between civic identity and communitarian identity was defined as a relationship between the humanly essential and the accidental.
This way of attributing anthropological and metaphysical priority to the normative standpoint of citizenship governed formulations of modernist liberal political theory’s most general and distinctively modernist moral doctrine -- the doctrine of the priority of the right over the good. In different ways, both the civic ethics of authenticity and autonomy embodied this doctrine.
The depreciation of the good as moral standard
The doctrine of the priority of the right over the good states that the free pursuit of happiness must be subject to limits as defined by law that is applicable equally to all individuals as individuals. This doctrine is designed to rule out morally any political and legal order in which moral rightness -- i.e., an action’s conformity to law -- is defined by the conformity of action with some particularistic conception of the good.
Every particularistic cultural community is governed by a set of rules to which all members are subject. These rules, usually informal and unspoken, coordinate and direct the action of community members in their common pursuit of a particularistic conception of the good. These rules derive from and express the totalizing world view and life ideal that all community members share.
In a monocultural political community, i.e., in a community that is culturally homogeneous, there is usually no distinction between the legal order and the moral order grounded in particularistic cultural values and rules. In such a monocultural political and legal order, moral rightness, as the conformity of action to law, is determined by the conformity of action to a particularistic conception of the good and a particularistic cultural world view. Think, for example, of traditional Islamic law or of any other regime in which the legal order rests upon a foundation of particularistic religious belief.
The doctrine of the priority of the right over the good establishes and requires a distinction between moral rightness and the conformity of action to a particularistic conception of the good. Liberal democracy assumes cultural heterogeneity. A civic community is generally a multicultural rather than a monocultural community. For this reason, a liberal democratic political and legal order must apply a criterion of moral rightness distinct from criteria derived from or dependent upon any of the particularistic world views adhered to by the cultural communities that comprise it.
The doctrine of the priority of the right over the good, then, affirms the priority of this criterion of moral rightness over all criteria derived from communitarian moral ideals and world views. But because the liberal democratic criterion of moral rightness is not derived from or based upon communitarian moral ideals, every liberal democracy must offer some account of precisely how the specifically liberal criterion of moral rightness is to be explained and justified. Modernist liberal formulations of this doctrine linked the criterion of moral rightness to philosophical theories that attributed an anthropological and metaphysical priority to the normative standpoint of citizenship.
Modernist liberal political theory thus claimed to derive the liberal democratic criterion of moral rightness from the nature of things. It identified the civic standpoint of free and equal individuality as the universal and essential standpoint of all human beings, whether that standpoint be defined in Lockean terms as the standpoint proper to the natural condition or in Kantian terms as the standpoint proper to the faculty of autonomous reason. For modernist liberalism, then, the liberal doctrine of the priority of the right over the good was to be read as a doctrine affirming nothing more controversial than the philosophically obvious priority of the humanly universal and essential over the humanly arbitrary and accidental.
The metaphysical interpretation of the priority of the right over the good
The civic ethics of authenticity and autonomy offered different versions of this reading of the doctrine.
On the one hand, Lockean styles of liberal political theory conceived of the humanly essential -- i.e., the natural condition -- as a condition of liberty, a condition free of all cultural and legal constraints on individual will. But if the natural condition is a condition of liberty, then, in order to claim derivation from that condition, any legal constraints on the free-standing individual’s will could be imposed only by gaining the individual’s uncoerced consent. For Lockean styles of liberalism, then, the individual’s uncoerced consent became the ground of the principle of right.
The basic content of the liberal criterion of moral rightness was then defined as the basic rules of cooperation that an individual in the natural condition of liberty would freely accept as binding. In accordance with the doctrine of the priority of the right over the good, adherents of the civic ethics of authenticity would then be licensed to pursue the conception of the good consistent with their own intrinsic individual natures (i.e., the qualities that would emerge spontaneously in the condition of natural liberty), subject only to the constraints imposed by the rules of association that would be voluntarily adopted by all free-standing individuals pursuing the same formal goal of authentic self-realization.
On the other hand, Kantian styles of liberal political theory conceived of the essential -- i.e., a faculty of pure reason subject only to its own logical and practical laws -- as a condition of pure self-determination, a condition free of all constraints except those dictated by reason itself. But if pure self-determination is the mark of the faculty that constitutes human nature, then, in order to claim the authority of autonomous reason, any legal constraints on the individual’s will must be consistent with the principles of pure theoretical and practical reason.
Thus, for Kantian styles of liberalism, conformity with the rules intrinsic to the universally human faculty of autonomous reason becomes the ground of the principle of right. The content of the liberal criterion of moral rightness can be determined by an examination of the principles of pure practical reason. A will that accepts the constraints imposed by a criterion of moral rightness derived wholly from the principles of pure practical reason actually obeys only itself and thereby remains autonomous.
In accordance with the doctrine of the priority of the right over the good, then, adherents of the civic ethics of autonomy would be licensed to pursue any particularistic conception of the good at all, so long as in their actions they observed the limits imposed by a legal order grounded in the principles of pure practical reason, i.e., grounded in the basic rules that the autonomous will gives to itself.
Thus, the civic ethics of authenticity and the civic ethics of autonomy amounted to two different universalist and essentialist interpretations of the liberal doctrine of the priority of the right over the good. Both of these civic moral ideals offered powerful rhetorical resources for motivating the development of civic attitudes and virtues, rhetorical resources drawn mainly from their essentialist and universalist philosophical underpinnings. The aim of both of these civic moral ideals was to produce in citizens the capacities proper to full cultural citizenship. Persons who have developed the capacities proper to citizenship are those who understand and act in accordance with the liberal doctrine of the priority of the right over the good. In their judgments and actions, such persons apply the liberal criterion of moral rightness and give precedence to it over any competing criterion of moral rightness deriving from particularistic conceptions of the good.
Personal self-realization as the condition for full cultural citizenship
In order to understand let alone apply a liberal conception of moral rightness, however, citizens must first achieve an understanding of themselves as free and equal individuals. If persons who have become citizens in the full cultural sense can be identified by their acceptance and application of the liberal criterion of moral rightness, the condition for their attainment of full cultural citizenship is the attainment of a civic identity, the attainment of a standpoint involving a certain detachment from or externalization of their communitarian identities and moral ideals.
The task of a civic moral ideal is to provide rhetorical resources powerful enough to persuade citizens that this detachment from and externalization of their primary moral identity and moral language is a goal worth pursuing. The essentialism and universalism of modernist liberal political theory provided the civic ethics of authenticity and autonomy with two powerful and simple themes that could be exploited in this persuasive effort.
Unfortunately, these themes could be exploited effectively for persuasive purposes only by drawing a contrast between civic and communitarian moral ideals that at least implicitly tended to depreciate and disparage particularistic cultural beliefs and practices. Given the anthropological and metaphysical priority attributed to the normative standpoint of citizenship by modernist liberal political theory, modernist civic moral ideals could claim that the ideals of authentic and autonomous individuality were written into human nature itself.
To be an authentic individual meant to choose a way of life or conception of the good that conformed to the essential properties of one’s own real self — i.e., those properties that would presumably have emerged spontaneously in the natural condition of liberty, a condition free of all arbitrary cultural and political constraints. To be an autonomous individual meant to choose a way of life or conception of the good that conformed to the universal principles of pure practical reason and therefore to take one’s direction and bearings not from prince, Pope, habit, or appetite, but rather from laws deriving from principles inherent in one’s innermost metaphysically real self.
Further, to the extent that a person had become either authentic or autonomous in these senses, they could claim also to pursue a way of life essentially unstained by all cultural particularism or ethnocentricity, a way of life not only accessible in principle to all human beings equally, regardless of the accidents of ethnicity, class, and religion, but also expressing most purely the universal nature of humanity as such.
This essentialist and universalist conception of the ideals of authenticity and autonomy provided ample and powerful means of persuasion to modernist civic culture. These modernist civic moral ideals represented free and equal individuality not as a cultural requirement for full membership in a particular contingent and very unusual sort of political community, but rather as a standpoint conforming both to human nature as such and to the individual nature of each human being — a perfect wedding of the universal and the particular.
Thus, in becoming an authentic or an autonomous individual, a person could claim not only to have fully realized his or her innermost metaphysically real self, but also to have thereby achieved identification with all human beings everywhere.
On the other hand, the civic ideals of authentic and autonomous individuality painted a rather grim picture of those who failed to realize these ideals. If authentic individuals are those who have discovered and realized their own true selves, then inauthentic individuals are those who have been shaped passively by the social and cultural environment, those who have mistaken as their real selves the internalized descriptions applied to them by others. If autonomous individuals are those who are governed by rules issuing ultimately from their own intrinsic rational nature, then heteronomous individuals are those who are governed by rules imposed by external and arbitrary authority — those who are in effect metaphysically enslaved by accidental cultural and political arrangements.
There is little doubt that citizens who were exposed to and who took seriously moral discourses employing these modernist distinctions between authentic and inauthentic, autonomous and heteronomous individuality had little trouble in telling which of the presented alternatives it was most desirable to be.
Self-realization, citizenship, and the dethroning of communitarian moral ideals
Thus, the modernist civic moral ideals of authenticity and autonomy offered abundant rhetorical resources for motivating citizens to achieve full cultural citizenship. But they carried disadvantages and dangers as well. Both the civic ethics of authenticity and the civic ethics of autonomy were subject to self-destructive dialectics or confusing paradoxes rooted in their essentialist and universalist claims.
For example, in their claims to universality, both of these civic moral ideals made ethnocentrism or cultural particularism a bête noire. Yet nothing could be more ethnocentric than Western claims to cultural universalism. Persons motivated to attain authentic or autonomous individuality because they were attracted by the universality of this ideal were thus defeated at the very moment when they achieved their goal.
Again, in their claims to embody only the essential, both of these civic moral ideals impugned the culturally arbitrary and circumstantial. Yet the ideals of authentic and autonomous individuality were purely formal. They mandated only a way to be and not specifically what to be. In choosing specifically what to be, i.e., a specific conception of the good or a specific way of life, a person has only limited options, options that just happen to be available at a particular place and time -- that is to say, options that are arbitrary and circumstantial. Persons motivated to attain authentic or autonomous individuality because they were attracted by its claims to embody only the essential were thus defeated at the very moment when they achieved their goal.
These paradoxes reflected more fundamental contradictions and more dangerous implications lurking deep within the universalist and essentialist logic of modernist civic moral ideals, contradictions and implications whose culturally and politically destructive impact are only now beginning to be widely felt. As we have seen, for the moral ideals of authenticity and autonomy, the paradigm of the authentic and autonomous person is the person who no longer recognizes as final the authority or legitimacy of any culturally particularistic moral ideal, recognizing instead only those claims to moral authority based upon purely universal principles.
Given this understanding of authenticity and autonomy, it follows that the paradigm of the inauthentic and heteronomous person is the person who in fact does recognize, as final and sufficient, claims to moral authority based only upon particularistic cultural beliefs and practices. The problem is that the vast majority of human beings on this planet happily fit this paradigm of inauthenticity and heteronomy. The remainder, i.e., adherents of the moral ideals of authenticity and autonomy, also fit this paradigm (though unhappily) insofar as the claims to moral authority asserted by those modernist civic moral ideals are also based upon particularistic cultural beliefs and practices -- the cultural beliefs and practices of modernist Western liberal democracies.
The self-negating logic of authenticity and autonomy as moral ideals
Thus, the universalist and essentialist logic of the modernist civic moral ideals of authenticity and autonomy carried within itself the seeds of a blanket condemnation and depreciation of all moral ideals, both communitarian and civic, as inauthentic and heteronomous. The more seriously the universalist and essentialist claims of modernist civic moral ideals were taken, the more suspicion was generated about the cultural particularism of even those moral ideals.
During the last fifty years, with the discrediting of Enlightenment conceptions of reason and knowledge, we have added to this internally-generated suspicion the full weight of a growing skepticism about the purely intellectual foundations of modernist civic moral ideals. The net effect of these developments today -- the net effect of the three hundred-year hegemony of the modernist civic ideals of authenticity and autonomy -- is a growing doubt about the value of all moral ideals, a doubt whose entire strength is drawn paradoxically from the culturally particularistic modernist belief that moral ideals in general, to be theoretically justifiable and therefore worthy of respect, must be grounded upon purely universal principles.
Thus today, at the end of the roughly three hundred-year reign of modernist liberal political theory, the continuing influence of the civic ethics of authenticity and autonomy pushes us in the direction of a generalized cultural nihilism, a generalized sense of the groundlessness and unjustifiability of all moral ideals. Ironically, the very ideas that for three hundred years served to motivate development of the capacities proper to citizenship now serve to confuse and undermine the pursuit of any moral ideal whatever. It is this consequence of modernist liberalism that above all must be addressed by the project of inventing a postmodern civic culture.
Page last edited: 01/28/02
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