The Nature of Civic Culture
Philosophy and Civil Society

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Theme: How development of a capacity for civic freedom introduces a certain complexity and ambiguity into the pursuit of the objects of desire
ESSAY 5: Civic Freedom and Its Discontents
 

  

 

  

 

If the minimalist citizenship of modus vivendi liberalism can be burdensome to many, then even more difficult is practice of the full cultural citizenship that alone insures the success of liberal democratic political institutions.







 

 

 

 

 

 




 

 



The fact that monocultural societies generally avoid problems focusing on questions of the meaning and purpose of life makes it easy to understand why among citizens of liberal democracies there is never a shortage of communitarian nostalgia for the monocultural way of life.














 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



 

 

 



Civic freedom requires that persons make the Socratic distinction between the good by itself and any particular conception of the good to which they might adhere at one time or another.
































 

 

 

 

 

 

 



 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 



Development of a capacity for civic freedom can become, if badly managed and understood, an open invitation to despair.

 
 
Citizenship: A difficult and peculiar way of life

          Answering the question about the intrinsic value of citizenship is no easy task. Citizenship is in many ways a difficult and peculiar way of life. Even the minimalist citizenship called for by modus vivendi liberalism -- the citizenship that requires no more than the cultivation of an attitude of live and let live, a posture of benign mutual indifference in the name of civil peace -- can be difficult for many who have strong commitments to totalizing life ideals. Such people often find intolerable the experience of being surrounded by people of alien belief and behavior, even when the political arrangements producing that experience otherwise hold important advantages.

          If such minimalist citizenship can be burdensome to many, then even more difficult is practice of the full cultural citizenship that alone insures the success of liberal democratic political institutions. The most complete development of the two moral capacities defining full cultural citizenship -- i.e., the capacity to pursue rationally a conception of the good and the capacity for an effective sense of justice -- introduces tensions and complexities that far exceed those produced by the requirements of simple modus vivendi tolerance.

          To answer the question of the intrinsic value of citizenship, we must understand anew how the inherent benefits of full cultural citizenship outweigh the burdens that come with it. The abstract question of the nature of the civic good can thus be reduced effectively to the question of what sort of case can be made for the desirability of full cultural citizenship in the light of the unsettling and even dangerous process involved in its attainment. Before attempting to lay out such a case, let us make sure we understand clearly the sort of burdens and dangers that attend the pursuit of civic moral ideals.

The tranquil world of monocultural solidarity

          At first glance, the discontents of citizenship seem painfully obvious. Viewed from the standpoint of a citizen of a modern constitutional democracy, a life passed within the cultural framework of a single ethnic, class, or religious community -- say, a peasant village -- seems to have an enviable sort of simplicity and tranquility. Life within such a community is passed among people with the same general view of the world, people who share the same set of values and who agree in principle about the proper way to address the general human life issues of sex, friendship, work, suffering, sin, death, and salvation.

          Identities in such communities are shaped by stable and well-known assignments of duties and responsibilities. Conduct is evaluated by ranking systems, by virtue concepts, by standards of excellence and achievement, that are relatively unambiguous and unquestioned. Human desire is nurtured and given definite direction toward a clear and generally attainable set of goals.

          In such monocultural communities, the everyday speech addressed to others from this standpoint gains a special intelligibility, effectiveness, and even profundity through its constant implicit appeal to and dependence upon a host of shared and unspoken background assumptions. Within such communities, whatever other problems arise to disrupt life and cause suffering -- plague, invasion, oppression, famine -- this monoculturalism generally prevents the emergence of problems focusing on questions of meaning and purpose, value and responsibility.

          This fact alone makes it easy to understand why among citizens of liberal democracies there is never a shortage of communitarian nostalgia for this monocultural way of life. The establishment of a liberal form of political association breaks open irreparably the tranquil world of monocultural solidarity and exposes its former inhabitants to a whole new range of problems focusing precisely on questions of meaning, purpose and value -- what I will call problems of narrative coherence and intelligibility.

          To understand how these problems arise with the transition from membership in a closed monocultural community to citizenship in a liberal democracy, let us briefly examine the educational process necessary to make that transition. I want to consider first one aspect of the process in particular: the process through which a capacity for civic freedom is developed. What sort of transformation in outlook, character, and self-understanding is necessary if a capacity for civic freedom is to be acquired?

The nature of civic freedom

          What I call a capacity for civic freedom is linked to one of the two powers of moral personality distinguished by Rawls -- the power to pursue rationally a particular conception of the good. We must note carefully the full significance of two of the terms central to the definition of this moral power.

          First, the power in question is the capacity to pursue a particular conception of the good rationally. Second, the power in question is the capacity to pursue a particular conception of the good. Properly understood, these two terms together define what makes this capacity specifically a capacity proper to citizenship in a liberal democracy.

          To pursue a particular conception of the good rationally is to pursue a life plan or life ideal critically rather than blindly or obsessively. This means not only that the methods selected for the attainment of the life ideal are subject to critical scrutiny, but also that reasons for the pursuit of the life ideal itself also require examination.

          Further, to pursue a particular conception of the good as a particular conception of the good is to pursue a life plan explicitly as one among many other possible life plans rather than as an inescapable fate or a divinely ordained mission. This means that the life ideal being pursued is explicitly understood as an option, as an object of choice. To pursue a life plan either obsessively or as an inescapable fate is not to pursue it freely. Thus, the moral power to pursue rationally a particular conception of the good can be described as the capacity for civic freedom. Rawls tells us that

. . . citizens are free in that they conceive of themselves and of one another as having the moral power to have a conception of the good. This is not to say that . . . they view themselves as inevitably tied to the pursuit of the particular conception of the good which they affirm at any given time. Instead, as citizens, they are regarded as capable of revising and changing this conception on reasonable and rational grounds, and they may do this if they so desire. Thus, as free persons, citizens claim the right to view their persons as independent from and as not identified with any particular conceptions of the good, or scheme of final ends.1

          Accordingly, in order to move from the standpoint of a member of a monocultural community to the standpoint of liberal democratic citizenship, a person must acquire the capacity for freedom, the capacity effectively to define him- or herself independently of any single life plan or life ideal. Developing this kind of independence is far easier said than done. Its basic requirement is that persons make the Socratic distinction between the good by itself and any particular conception of the good to which they might adhere at one time or another.

          This distinction is generally absent in monocultural communities. Its absence in fact defines monocultural community. The particular conception of the good life pursued by members of such communities is indistinguishable from the good itself. It is not a conception of the good life that they pursue, it is simply the good life. The members of a monocultural community bear identities that are wholly defined by the particularistic standards of excellence, the virtue concepts, the ranking system, the ascriptions of rights and duties grounded in the totalizing world view of their community.

          Those who have been shaped by a single monocultural life ideal typically cannot conceive of themselves or imagine their lives apart from it. They typically understand the local cultural vocabulary they use to describe self and world not as one cultural vocabulary among others, but rather as the vocabulary that alone expresses the very nature of things. Members of other communities, to the extent that their ideals and behavior cannot be comprehended by this vocabulary, seem hopelessly alien.

          Full cultural citizenship requires a break with this sort of monoculturalism. Citizens must acquire the moral power to pursue a particular conception of the good as a particular conception, i.e., as one among others. They must learn to distinguish the good as defined by their current particularistic life ideal from the good as such.

Civic freedom as potentially a road to despair

          The first step in the process of developing this power, the first step in the process of civic education, is learning how to address properly the Socratic question, "What is the good as such?" The capacity for freedom, the realization of full cultural citizenship, grows as the experienced distance grows between the good as such and one or another local conception of the good. As the experienced space between local good and the good as such increases, the citizen grows in the capacity to separate his or her own identity as a citizen from attributions based on the ranking system, virtue concepts, and standards of excellence defined by any one particularistic conception of the good.

          This space is the space of civic freedom, the space of civic discourse. Within this space, citizens grow in the capacity to describe and address one another in terms of categories that do not give precedence to any one particularistic life ideal over others. They learn to address one another as free and equal individuals. Adherents of incommensurable world views or life ideals often find one another's speech and behavior alien and unintelligible. However, as they learn to meet and address one another within the space of civic freedom and civic discourse, a special sort of mutual understanding and even friendship becomes possible, even though full mutual understanding beyond that space may remain impossible.

          Attainment of this capacity for civic freedom is always a matter of degree. The difficulty involved in acquiring this capacity for freedom is that it involves at the same time both independence from and adherence to a particular conception of the good. The capacity for civic freedom does not imply an absence of wholehearted commitment to a particular conception of the good or a renunciation of membership in a particular ethnic, class, or religious community.

          On the contrary, the practice of civic freedom assumes such commitment and presupposes such membership. We must remember that the perspective proper to the practice of civic freedom does not contain in itself cultural resources rich enough to provide the basis for a comprehensive life ideal. Civic freedom, as a component of the civic good, applies to the part and not to the whole of life. Accordingly, attainment of a capacity for freedom cannot be taken as the sort of good that could ever rival the totalizing conceptions of the good proper to particularistic cultural traditions. Even less can it be identified with the good as such.

          The function of totalizing world views is to nurture human desire as a whole and to direct it toward some achievable set of goals. This sort of direction cannot come from the practice of civic freedom. Civic freedom, as a component of the civic good, exists only through its difference from every particularistic happiness ideal. To move from the standpoint of a member of a particularistic cultural community to the normative standpoint of citizenship, a person must both retain his or her adherence to one or another particular conception of the good, while at the same time adopting an attitude of critical independence toward all such adherence, viewing such adherence in all cases as subject to revision and revocation.

          A capacity for civic freedom thus requires an almost self-contradictory attitude in the pursuit of a particularistic conception of the good. It requires both a continuing commitment to a particularistic life ideal and, at the same time, an affirmation of its revocability, an affirmation of the purely voluntary nature of that commitment.

          What makes this stance difficult is the central role played by totalizing life ideals in the nurturing and direction of human desire. Human desire flourishes most completely not by being satisfied, but rather in the anticipation of its satisfaction. Human desire is a form of animal desire that is intensified by the expectation of fulfillment and diminished by the expectation of frustration.

          In despair, for example, a sense of the futility of all desire diminishes desire itself, engendering apathy and self-destructive impulses. On the other hand, a sense of promised future satisfaction has the opposite effect, enlivening the senses and making the experience of desire itself ever more desirable. All this is to say that human desire is a form of animal desire that is bound up with a representation of time -- with primacy given to the representation of the future. Human desire, for this reason, flourishes most completely when the objects of desire are clearly identified, attainable, and unquestioned in their desirability.

          It is the biological function, so to speak, of comprehensive doctrines or totalizing life ideals to provide this identification of the objects of desire and to represent those objects as attainable. The development of a capacity for civic freedom makes the exercise of this function, at the very least, more difficult and complex.

          Civic freedom requires that the objects of desire be represented as optional and that the choice of those objects be represented as revocable. To the extent that human desire flourishes most completely when its objects are viewed as unquestioned in their desirability, civic freedom, by attaching in this way at least a question mark to every object of desire, can undermine one of the primary conditions for the flourishing of desire. Development of a capacity for civic freedom can thus become, if badly managed and understood, an open invitation to despair.

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  1 John Rawls, "Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical," Philosophy and Public Affairs 14 (1985), pp. 240-241.

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