The Nature of Civic Culture
Philosophy and Civil Society
Civic and communitarian moral ideals differ by virtue of the very different cultural tasks they perform.
Any liberal democratic civic culture must provide resources for motivating persons who enjoy the legal status of citizens or nominal citizenship to develop the capacities proper to full cultural citizenship. What I have called the rhetorical turn in postmodern liberal political philosophy speaks to matters of intelligibility. Citizens cannot aspire to the realization of ideals they don't understand. The rhetorical turn opens the way to a new understanding of the moral ideal of citizenship, one no longer encumbered by analogies and metaphors drawn from now discredited traditions of modernist epistemology and metaphysics. But the issue of motivation remains.
Once we have gained a new understanding of the moral ideal of citizenship, one no longer burdened by the multitude of confusions produced by modernist liberal political theory, we still must generate from this new understanding resources for motivating citizens to pursue realization of that moral ideal. What sort of motivational resources might a postmodern, post-metaphysical interpretation of liberal doctrine offer?
To answer this question, we must keep in mind the general features of the characteristic way this issue was addressed by modernist liberalism. Modernist liberal political theory generated two primary motivational visions of the normative standpoint of citizenship -- what I have called the civic ethics of authenticity and the civic ethics of autonomy. These two civic moral ideals must be distinguished carefully from the sort of moral ideals generated by particularistic cultural world views -- or, what we might call communitarian moral ideals.
These modernist civic moral
ideals differed from communitarian moral ideals in an number of noteworthy ways. Perhaps
most importantly, they differed in the way that all civic moral ideals differ from
communitarian moral ideals, i.e., by virtue of the very different cultural tasks civic and
communitarian moral ideals perform. Let us briefly examine here these two very different
The secondary moral language of civic culture
Modernist civic moral ideals must be distinguished from communitarian moral ideals in general because, like all civic moral ideals, they had a very different sort of cultural task to perform. The task of a civic moral ideal is to present the normative standpoint of citizenship -- the standpoint of free and equal individuality -- as an ideal worthy of realization, an object of desire worthy of attainment. This is a tougher sell than it might seem.
Liberal democratic civic culture is always a countervailing culture. It is addressed to citizens who have already been shaped in their desire and self-understanding by the moral standards of the particularistic cultural communities to which they belong. The inculcation of communitarian moral ideals begins virtually at birth, in the context of family life. Because families generally belong to larger ethnic, class, and religious communities, the values and world views proper to those communities are transmitted by the earliest processes of socialization. They are learned along with the learning of a first language and begin to shape desire, feeling, and self-understanding long before powers of critical reflection develop.
By comparison, civic educational processes generally begin to be felt (if at all) relatively late. The language associated with civic moral ideals is always a second moral language and, as is always the case in the learning of a second language (unlike the learning of a first language), the effort involved in learning it requires special justification. Thus, civic moral ideals are a tough sell because they always address an audience previously and continuously shaped by diverse and conflicting communitarian moral ideals.
But they are a tough sell also for a more important reason. Civic moral ideals are not designed to replace communitarian moral ideals. The process of adopting and internalizing civic moral ideals is not a process of conversion from one totalizing conception of the good life to another. Rather, civic identity exists only as a modification of communitarian identity. The secondary moral language associated with civic moral ideals is parasitic upon the primary moral language associated with communitarian moral ideals. The secondary moral language presupposes and remains dependent upon the primary, but renders that primary moral language richer, more complex, and more ambiguous.
Full attainment of a civic
identity requires the adoption of a standpoint and a set of norms that remain in a more or
less permanent state of tension and conflict with the standpoint and values proper to
communitarian moral ideals. For liberals, this state of tension and conflict is good.
Explaining to non-liberals why it is good is something else.
The totalizing character of communitarian moral ideals
Civic moral ideals are not designed to replace communitarian moral ideals because the normative standpoint and moral language proper to citizenship pertains only to membership and participation in the public sphere of a liberal democratic political community, a community that encompasses a multiplicity of diverse cultural communities.
Such a political community comes into existence in order to achieve and maintain the conditions for a just and free pursuit of happiness. It would be pointless for such a civic community to come into existence only then to force upon its members a particular ideal of happiness. A liberal democracy leaves that question largely undecided. It does not require its members to pursue any specific totalizing conception of the good life.
On the other hand, the opposite is true in the case of particularistic cultural communities. They are defined by a global way of life, governed by an encompassing conception of the good, united by a common sense of what is important in life and what is not. Their traditions of belief and practice provide an interpretive framework within which the fundamental issues of human life -- sex, friendship, work, suffering, sin, death, and salvation -- are given specific order and meaning.
From the viewpoint of the civic community, such cultural communities exist in order to nurture, direct, and support the pursuit of happiness. Such communities generate moral ideals, ranking systems, hierarchies, virtue concepts, and standards of excellence that shape and order human desire. It is always to an audience whose desire and self-understanding has previously been and is continuously being shaped by such communities that civic moral ideals must persuasively speak. The message that they must successfully deliver is not an easy one either to hear or to accept.
The members of particular
ethnic, class and religious communities are first of all, say, French, bourgeois, and
Catholic. Such communitarian identities are inseparable from the communitarian moral
ideals and local traditions that have produced them. The moral language proper to such
identities and moral ideals is teleological — i.e., it defines the most basic and
encompassing perspective of life as a field of aspiration, in terms of a hierarchy of
ends. It assigns meaning and rank to human qualities and actions by referring these to a
final good. This moral language provides the vocabulary and generates the descriptions
that guide everyday life.
Civic identity as the capacity to externalize communitarian moral ideals
Civic identities and civic moral ideals differ above all in this respect. The civic community exists in order to secure the conditions for a just and free pursuit of happiness. The moral language associated with civic moral ideals is a moral language that provides the vocabulary and generates the descriptions appropriate to this political purpose. It is the moral language proper to the public sphere of a liberal democracy. Within the public sphere, citizens, who are otherwise members of particularistic cultural communities, meet and cooperate in order to realize and maintain the conditions for a just and free pursuit of happiness.
As participants in the liberal democratic public sphere, citizens must not understand themselves primarily as French, bourgeois, and Catholic (or whatever), but rather as free and equal individuals. In order to become citizens who are qualified to participate in the public sphere and to act positively to achieve the goals proper to it, they must learn to treat themselves and one another as free and equal individuals -- i.e., as persons whose identity and rank is not wholly or finally determined by identities and ranks assigned to them within particularistic cultural communities. The task of civic moral ideals is to provide the motivational resources that nurture, direct, and support this civic transformation of desire and self-understanding.
As we have noted, this is a large order. The dispositions and attitudes that a civic moral ideal must nurture and support require of citizens a complex moral, intellectual, and linguistic balancing act. While affirming and remaining deeply committed to their communitarian identities and moral ideals, they must be able to externalize or put aside those identities and ideals sufficiently to speak to, respect, and act in concert with fellow citizens whose communitarian identities and ideals differ greatly from theirs.
Attainment of this capacity to put aside or to unplug the primary moral language and moral identity that give meaning and direction to everyday life is an extraordinary moral and linguistic accomplishment. The struggle to achieve the insight and judgment necessary to develop this capacity fully is fraught with danger and difficulty. This struggle is the source of the moral pathos of citizenship. The rhetorical task of a civic moral ideal is to produce in citizens a desire for this accomplishment strong enough to permit them to persevere in this struggle.
Page last edited: 01/20/02
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