Reconstructing Civic Culture
Philosophy and Civil Society
While it is true that the cultural and political perspective proper to the public sphere is a perspective on the whole of society, it nevertheless encompasses the whole only with respect to one issue in the universe of human concerns -- the issue of civic justice.
According to Rawls, liberalism as a political doctrine takes as its subject the basic institutional structure of society. A particular conception of civic justice defines a specific way of ordering that basic structure. Needless to say, the way in which this question is answered by citizens of any particular liberal democracy has an impact on every aspect of their lives. The basic institutional structure of a liberal democracy shapes an entire way of life. It define rights, liberties, and protections. It assigns duties and responsibilities. From the basic structure of society are derived rules that govern the relationships between employer and employee, husband and wife, parent and child, merchant and customer.
To determine the basic institutional structure of a society is to structure these relationships. Because questions about the basic structure of society involve every aspect of life and affect every citizen, the perspective that must be adopted in answering those questions, i.e., the perspective proper to the liberal democratic public sphere, is a perspective on the whole society. The legislator, the elected official, the civil administrator, the judge -- these roles above all require that the individuals assuming them adopt this perspective on the whole.
This perspective on the whole, however, encompasses the whole of society only with respect to one issue -- the issue of civic justice. The basic structure of society structures the relationships between employer and employee, husband and wife, parent and child, merchant and customer, but only with respect to the question of whether the definition and the functioning of these relationships are just, i.e., are in accordance with the fundamental conception of civic justice embodied in the basic political arrangements of society.
On the other hand, each one of these relationships have their primary setting within a more encompassing context of life issues -- the general life issues of sex, friendship, work, suffering, sin, death, and salvation -- a context in which civic justice is but one issue among others. Thus, while it is true that the cultural and political perspective proper to the public sphere is a perspective on the whole of society -- i.e., encompasses all citizens and affects all their relationships and activities, it nevertheless encompasses the whole only with respect to one issue in the universe of human concerns. A political or rhetorical conception of liberal doctrine addresses only this one issue. Comprehensive doctrines or totalizing world views, on the other hand, speak to them all.
The relative independence of the norms of civic justice
Liberal democracy is distinguished from other forms of political association by the way it makes questions of civic justice answerable independently of the global answers given to other life issues. The citizens of a liberal democracy, in a continuous process of public deliberation, decide how they will organize their cooperation. Whatever decisions they may make in any particular case, the point of agreement from which they begin their deliberation is the principle that political or civic justice is not to be determined by the criteria established by one or another global response to the entire context of human life issues. This relative independence of the issue of civic justice finds its expression in the liberal doctrine of the priority of the right over the good. Within the entire context of human life issues, only civic justice, as conceived by liberal doctrine, can be given this kind of independence.
In decisions involving judgments about sex, friendship, work, suffering, sin, death, and salvation, human beings apply criteria drawn from one or another comprehensive conception of the good life. Decisions about these questions normally require reference to ultimate purposes and goals -- some conception of what life is finally all about, some conception of what is of lasting importance, some more or less clear specification of priorities. Particular decisions by individuals about these questions determine and reflect their membership in particularistic cultural communities.
The criteria applied in such decisions are normally drawn from and guided by shared traditions of coherent and comprehensive belief -- traditions that attempt to provide a coherent set of responses to the full range of human life issues, so that responses to the issue of sex or reproduction cohere with responses to the issue of friendship or companionship and responses to the issue of work, and so on.
In questions of political or civic justice, however, liberalism requires citizens to apply criteria drawn from a source that lies external to any particularistic cultural tradition or community. They must measure the justice of their relationships and their actions not by reference to criteria drawn from one or another shared conception of the good, but rather by reference to criteria drawn from a set of agreed-upon principles of civic justice that govern their cooperation.
Liberal doctrine pertains to the part rather than the whole of life, then, in this sense that it concerns only that sphere defined by the principles of civic justice. It is important to note that, more strictly, liberal doctrine pertains not just to a part of life, but to a part of a part. The issue of civic justice is only one aspect of the general life issue of justice. The general life issue of justice arises from the human need for a socially confirmed sense of dignity or self-respect.
The rule of justice is "equals to equals." This means that persons who are considered equal (in some respect and in accordance with some measure) should be treated equally. To be socially confirmed in one's self-respect, i.e., to be treated justly, one must be treated in ways that are perceived to be equal to the treatment of other persons who are considered to be of the same status and rank. In defining status and rank, criteria must be applied. Some criteria that define differentials of status and rank are drawn from intrinsic features of particular life activities or life issues.
Thus, with respect to the life issue of sex or reproduction, rank and relative worth are determined by beauty, strength, fertility, and so on. With respect to the life issue of friendship or companionship, rank and relative worth are determined by family relationship, common interests, and personal compatibility. With respect to the life issue of work, rank and relative worth are determined by talent, economic resources, and industry.
In addition to these criteria of rank and status drawn from intrinsic features of particular life activities and life issues, other criteria are drawn from the ranking systems defined by different conceptions of the good or cultural traditions. In different cultural traditions, the various life issues are assigned different degrees of importance for the overall meaning and purpose of life.
In some cultural traditions, sin and salvation are accorded supreme importance, while sex and reproduction are ranked lower. In other cultural traditions, work and friendship are given primacy over both sex and salvation. These cultural differences determine the culturally-defined status and rank of any particular individual with respect to any particular life issue and life activity. General features of human life -- such as age, health, gender, and race or birth -- will affect an individual's rank or status differently depending on membership in different cultural communities.
Accordingly, if the general life issue of justice, i.e., the issue raised by the need for a socially confirmed sense of self-respect, is a matter of securing equal treatment for persons of equal rank or status, then this issue will be decided in most cases by resort to local, culturally determined ranking systems, for it is such local ranking systems that define with respect to most life issues what constitutes equal status and rank in any given case.
Let us call issues of justice that are resolved by resort to such local, culturally sensitive ranking systems issues of communitarian justice. In matters of communitarian justice, the reverse of the liberal principle holds -- i.e., the good has priority over and defines the right. In matters of communitarian justice, the rule of justice, "equals to equals," is given its concrete application and content by reference to one or another local conception of the good.
However, with the establishment of liberal political institutions, the issue of justice is defined in a new way. Of course, even in a liberal democracy, most questions of justice remain questions of communitarian justice. But liberal political institutions introduce a new set of criteria for determining rank and relative worth. We have called issues of justice that are resolved by resort to these new criteria issues of civic justice. Liberal doctrine pertains only to that sphere of life defined by the proper application of the criteria of civic justice.
Liberal doctrine thus pertains not only to a part of life, to one life issue among many, but, more exactly, to a part of that part, to the life issue of justice as civic justice. Issues of civic justice are resolved not by resort to ranking systems belonging to one or another particularistic cultural community, but rather by resort to a set of agreed upon principles underlying the institutional structure of a liberal democracy. These principles constitute the criteria of civic justice, the criteria according to which the rule of justice is applied to define the equal status and determine the equal treatment of citizens.
Of course, the specific principles that determine the specific criteria of civic justice will differ from one liberal democracy to another. Those specific principles are always a matter for decision by citizens. They are subject to revision. There can be no "theory" of civic justice that could claim to define the principles of civic justice for any particular liberal democracy in advance of the political process through which those principles are actually found acceptable. However, while the principles of civic justice cannot be defined in advance of that political process, if they are to qualify as principles of liberal or civic justice, they must be consistent with the conception of equality inherent in the notion of citizenship itself.
A citizen is a human being whose rank or status is determined by reference to the basic structure of a modern constitutional democracy. As citizens, in their relationship to the state and to the basic structure of society, human beings are not distinguished by reference to their membership in particular ethnic, class, or religious communities. They are not distinguished by reference to their race, age, or gender. Thus, in their relationship to the basic structure of a liberal democratic society, human beings are taken simply as individuals.
Further, the differentials of status, rank and relative worth that come into play for various purposes when human beings are viewed as members of ethnic, class, and religious communities have no relevance when they are viewed simply as citizens. Thus, in their relationship to the basic structure of liberal democratic society, human beings are viewed as possessing equal status or rank, whatever may be their rank or status in other contexts.
Further, the personal goals and commitments assumed by human beings as members of particularistic ethnic, class, or religious communities define their identities as members of those communities. But when viewed in relationship to the basic structure of a liberal democratic society, the identities of human beings are defined only by rights and duties, liberties and constraints applying to all citizens equally as specified by law. In that relationship, human beings are understood as being free, i.e., free to alter their purely personal goals, commitments, and identities at will.
In their relationship to the basic structure of a liberal democratic society, then, human beings are viewed as free and equal individuals. When addressing and acting toward one another explicitly in this way, i.e., as free and equal individuals, human beings explicitly assume the attributes and standpoint proper to citizenship. In addressing one another as citizens, human beings adopt standards of relevance that render differences of race, age, gender, ethnicity, social class, and religious belief irrelevant. The specific principles of civic justice adopted at any given time by any particular liberal democracy may vary widely in their content. But, to qualify as principles of liberal or civic justice, they must be consistent with this normative conception of free and equal individuality inherent in the very notion of liberal democratic citizenship.
Towards an overlapping consensus supportive of a de-totalized public sphere
In any case, it is clear that liberal doctrine, understood in this way as pertaining only to matters of civic justice, pertains only to the part rather than to the whole of life. In the same way, the liberal democratic public sphere, as the sphere defined by a common interest in civic justice, must also be represented as encompassing issues relevant only to a restricted set of concerns.
Conceived of in this way, the public sphere cannot be represented as a sphere providing on its own resources sufficient to provide a cultural basis for social stability and unity. The interest in civic justice, however intense, is simply too abstract, too culturally "thin" to generate the deep commitment to civic values and the strong feelings of civic friendship required for social stability and unity. The cultural resources required for the generation of such commitment and feeling must be drawn from the resources of the various cultural communities that make up any particular liberal democracy.
But if, conceived in this way, the liberal democratic public sphere cannot be represented as culturally self-sufficient, neither can it be represented as mandating acceptance of a totalizing cultural world view as a condition for full cultural citizenship, a totalizing world view that is competitive with or hostile to the cultural world views and life ideals of particularistic cultural communities. Conceived of in this way, the cultural perspectives proper to the public sphere cannot present an obstacle to the formation of the overlapping cultural consensus necessary for the survival of any postmodern liberal democracy.
The de-totalization of the cultural perspectives proper to the public sphere thus can make an important contribution to the intelligibility of postmodern liberal democratic citizenship. Rawls's conception of the overlapping cultural consensus that must provide the cultural basis for social unity and stability effectively reverses the relationship of dependence between the public and private spheres. Speech and action within the public sphere must be modified accordingly.
If the cultural perspectives proper to the public sphere encompass only matters relevant to the issue of civic justice, then the public sphere can no longer be understood as a secularized and secularizing setting within which the drama of human life as a whole is played out, a totalizing cultural domain demanding acceptance of its moral and cognitive ideals in the name of social stability and unity. Rather, the liberal democratic public sphere must find its cultural foundations beyond itself, by appeal to beliefs and values that have their home outside the domain of political life. Liberal doctrine in the future must be understood and formulated in such a way as to make that appeal successful.
This is not to say, however, that, with the de-totalization of the public sphere and of liberal doctrine in general, all tension is removed between civic and communitarian moral ideals. But the tensions that remain have more to do with questions of motivation with questions of intelligibility.
The motivational dependence of civic culture on communitarian cultures
Civic and communitarian moral ideals, after all, serve very different life functions. The ideal of civic justice, for example, will always in some measure conflict with ideals of communitarian justice. The criteria proper to communitarian justice are specified by the totalizing world views of particularistic cultural communities. These cultural communities are communities of shared aspiration and interest. Such communities are ultimately rooted in the soil of biological life. They develop distinctive styles of reproduction, nourishment, labor, speech, and mutual care that are at the same time styles and modalities of human desire. These totalizing world views or conceptions of the good have as their function the nurturing, direction, and support of that desire.
Wherever human desire and aspiration must be nurtured, there also must hierarchy and rank exist. Characteristic of communities of aspiration and common interest are relations of command and submission, dependence and domination. In such communities, various forms of servitude, hierarchical social organization, and segregation based on age and gender are typical. The moral ideals sponsored by such communities are designed to give form and direction to the lives of individuals by shaping desire in specific ways. Those ideals define hierarchies of excellence and achievement that determine the rank order of the individuals subject to them. Nothing could be more foreign to such communities than the civic moral ideals of freedom and equality.
Here the issue of motivation arises. Properly understood, civic culture is always a partial and a countervailing culture. Civic culture is the culture proper to the public sphere. It is a "thin" culture, addressed to only one general life issue, i.e., the issue of civic justice. Civic culture differs radically in purpose from communitarian cultures. It does not provide an interpretive framework for life as a whole. It does not define a standard reproductive style, a ideal of family life, or a set of answers to life's deepest questions. It does not provide hierarchies of excellence and achievement designed to nurture and direct human desire and aspiration.
Rather, civic culture has but one function. It must provide the cultural resources sufficient to render intelligible the liberal democratic moral ideals of individual freedom and equality and to motivate citizens to pursue those ideals. When a civic culture successfully carries out this function, it does not create a new particularistic community of aspiration and common interest that stands opposed to other particularistic cultural communities. It does not create a new totalizing communitarian culture that provides a global conception of a complete and flourishing human life. Rather, when civic culture functions effectively it provides citizens with the linguistic and moral capacities to meet the requirements of civic justice -- i.e., to treat one another as free and equal individuals in accordance with a set of agreed-upon principles or rules. These civic capacities do not exist apart from the capacities required for the successful pursuit of goals defined by communitarian culture. They exist only as a modification of those capacities.
Civic culture, then, as a partial and countervailing culture, presupposes and remains dependent upon communitarian culture. It cannot stand by itself. The modernist liberal project of constructing a civic culture that could be misunderstood as something like a communitarian culture resembles the project of making the tail wag the dog. This is what Rawls's doctrine of the overlapping cultural consensus tells us. It tells us that the relationship of dependence between civic and communitarian culture established by modernist liberal political theory must be reversed. A civic culture, to carry out its function successfully, must draw upon the traditions and moral ideals of the particularistic cultural communities it addresses. What the notion of an overlapping cultural consensus does not do is tell us how this can be done.
The civic moral ideals of individual freedom and equality are not only partial and "thin" as moral ideals. They also can be unsettling to adherents of communitarian cultures. Civic moral ideals can be dangerous. Citizens in the full cultural sense are those who have developed the capacity to put aside the ranking systems and hierarchies proper to their communitarian cultures and to address other citizens within the public sphere as free and equal individuals. But to put aside communitarian ranking systems and hierarchies is at least to place limits on their otherwise all-encompassing claims to authority. Liberal civic culture can often appear to adherents of communitarian cultures as a culture that requires the abandonment of all ranking systems and the overturning of all hierarchies.
Whereas the specific conflict between civic and communitarian cultures produced by modernist liberalism can be overcome by the de-totalization of the public sphere, this other conflict -- the conflict between civic and communitarian ideals of justice -- is intrinsic to the relationship between civic and communitarian cultures. Civic culture is a countervailing culture. It seeks to modify the speech, action, and very identities of the adherents of particularistic communitarian cultures in ways that can be unsettling.
If civic culture is to be effective in producing these modifications, it must be persuasive. But what means of persuasion are available to it? If civic culture seems to threaten the abandonment of all ranking systems and the overturning of all hierarchies -- ranking systems and hierarchies required for the nurturing and direction of human desire -- how can adherents of particularistic communitarian cultures be convinced that it is worthwhile to undertake the considerable moral and intellectual task of becoming citizens in the full cultural sense?
Page last edited: February 04, 2002
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