Reconstructing Civic Culture
Philosophy and Civil Society
The civic ethics of authenticity and autonomy mandated not the attainment of a particular object of desire, but rather the practice of a certain way of pursuing any particular object of desire whatever.
What I have called the rhetorical turn in contemporary liberal political philosophy addresses the issue of the intelligibility of liberal doctrine and of liberal democratic citizenship itself. There is such a thing as an intelligibility issue for a post-Enlightenment civic culture because modernist liberal political theory interpreted liberalism as a comprehensive doctrine or totalizing world view. Such a conception of liberal doctrine misrepresents both its scope -- i.e., the range of life issues it encompasses -- and its rhetorical function. A political or rhetorical conception of liberal doctrine corrects both of these misrepresentations and therefore, as a component of a postmodern civic culture, can clear away some of the purely conceptual obstacles to the realization of full cultural citizenship.
In the same way, there is such a thing as a motivational issue for a post-Enlightenment civic culture because the motivational resources provided by modernist liberal political theory depended on viewing liberal moral ideals in universalist and essentialist terms. Such a conception of liberal moral ideals misrepresents the real grounds for the desirability of their realization. Moreover, this universalist and essentialist misreading of liberal moral ideals provided motivation by subtly disparaging the moral ideals of particularistic cultural communities. This aspect of modernist liberalism is particularly damaging to the project of forging an overlapping consensus among those cultural communities in support of liberal democratic political institutions.
Just as what I have called the rhetorical turn in contemporary liberal thought speaks to the issue of intelligibility, so what I have called the teleological turn addresses the issue of motivation. The issue of motivation has to do with the persuasive power of any form of liberal democratic civic culture. It is one thing to understand the nature of citizenship; it is quite another to perceive as something desirable the development and exercise of the moral and intellectual capacities proper to citizenship.
Modernist liberal conceptions of civic moral ideals did not represent them in terms of their desirability at all. The civic ethics of authenticity and autonomy were expressions of the general principle of the priority of the right over the good. The modernist liberal conception of this principle specified that the criterion of moral rightness -- i.e., the conformity of action to law -- must not be drawn from any particularistic cultural conception of the good life. The criterion proper to civic justice, in other words, must not have any particularistic cultural content. Moral rightness cannot be based upon the mere desirability of a particular way of life.
Moral rightness had to be defined, therefore, in absolutely universal terms, as a matter of conformity to universal law -- law applicable to all persons everywhere and at all times. This modernist conception of moral rightness produced an interpretation of liberal moral ideals that was excessively formalist in character. The civic ethics of authenticity and autonomy mandated not the attainment of a particular object of desire, but rather the practice of a certain way of pursuing any particular object of desire whatever. The moral ideals of authenticity and autonomy mandated a certain how of action and not a particular what of desire.
From the priority of the right to the priority of the civic good
These modernist liberal moral ideals have lost their persuasive power. That persuasive power was derived from the belief that it was indeed possible to specify a criterion for moral rightness that was free of all contamination from any particularistic conception of the good, a criterion for civic justice that was applicable to all times and places. But with the discrediting of this belief, the liberal moral ideals of authenticity and autonomy also lose their normative and persuasive power.
If every criterion of moral rightness is contaminated by particularistic historical and cultural conditions, then so also is the liberal democratic moral criterion of rightness. The criterion of civic justice too must be derived from some particularistic conception of the good, from affirmation of the desirability of some particularistic way of life. The teleological turn in contemporary liberal thought takes this recognition as its point of departure. The liberal doctrine of the priority of the right over the good must be interpreted in teleological terms. It must no longer be read as a doctrine establishing a set of universally obligatory laws or principles as constraints on the pursuit of happiness.
Rather, it must be recast as a doctrine asserting the priority, under certain circumstances, of a particularistic object of desire, a particularistic happiness ideal, over other equally particularistic objects of desire and happiness ideals. This means that we must learn to see liberal democracies as perfectionist regimes of a very special type. A liberal democracy, that is to say, is a form of political association aimed at the realization of a substantive, particularistic conception of the good and the success of any particular liberal democracy is to be measured by the degree of its success in providing conditions for the attainment of that good. The liberal state thus cannot in principle be properly conceived of as occupying a standpoint that is culturally and morally neutralist.
The persuasive power of a postmodern form of liberal democratic civic culture will depend on the clarity and insight of its definition of the nature of this civic good. A teleological conception of liberal doctrine must provide that definition. What is the unique good that can be achieved only through the attainment of full cultural citizenship? Why is the attainment of full cultural citizenship desirable? What sort of case could be made to any nominal citizen that could succeed in persuading him or her to undertake the difficult moral and intellectual work involved in developing and exercising the capacities proper to liberal democratic citizenship? There are two points to consider in answering these questions.
Shortcomings of modus vivendi motivation
First, a conception of the civic good, to be effective as a component of civic culture, must be represented as a final and not merely as an instrumental good.
One readily available and familiar type of answer to the question as to why liberal political arrangements are desirable -- the answer offered by so-called modus vivendi versions of liberal doctrine -- conceives of that desirability in purely instrumental terms. According to modus vivendi liberalism, the benefit offered by liberal forms of political association becomes apparent above all in situations of protracted political and cultural conflict. That benefit is civil peace. Faced with the threat of unremitting civil war, it is in the mutual interest of all the opposing parties to find some way to live and let live. When no single community is strong enough to impose its cultural and political will on all others, then a prudent political compromise, some institutional means of sharing political power more or less equitably, will be the best outcome any group can hope for.
This kind of answer, basic to all forms of modus vivendi liberalism, is perhaps less a philosophical response to the question of motivation than it is an instinctive political strategy triggered by conditions of chronic cultural and civil strife. For modus vivendi liberalism, citizenship is indeed a good, but merely an instrumental and not a substantive or final good. Citizenship defines a relationship between members of different particularistic cultural communities that establishes a regime permitting peaceful coexistence among those communities.
For modus vivendi liberalism, liberal political institutions have as their cultural basis a compromise among antagonistic cultural communities, a compromise that places certain limits on the public conduct of their members in exchange for a guarantee of noninterference by outsiders on questions of how those communities handle their internal affairs. For modus vivendi liberalism, then, citizenship is a good only as a means to an end -- i.e., the pursuit of a particularistic way of life in peace. The interest any citizen would have in that status would be basically similar to the interest a person would have in securing any other resource necessary for the realization of his or her conception of the good life.
As a sort of minimalist case for the establishment of liberal political arrangements, of course, modus vivendi liberalism can be a conceptually coherent and effective persuasive strategy, particularly in times of great civil conflict. But the problem with modus vivendi liberalism is that it is far too minimalist to provide the basis for an effective civic culture and a program of civic education.
Modus vivendi liberalism sees the standpoint of citizenship as qualitatively indistinguishable from the standpoint of membership in a particularistic cultural community. To be a citizen means simply to observe certain behavioral constraints -- the behavioral constraints specified by the law, i.e., by the liberal state -- over and beyond the behavioral constraints imposed by any membership in a particularistic cultural community. Those additional constraints are observed in the interest of maintaining social conditions conducive to the peaceful pursuit of private happiness.
Thus, for modus vivendi liberalism, the standpoint of citizenship represents a merely external and accidental modification of the standpoint of membership in a particular cultural community. But the standpoint of citizenship can never be properly understood in this minimalist way. Active and effective citizens can never be produced and supported by a civic culture appealing to such a minimalist conception of citizenship. In fact, because this minimalist conception of citizenship requires no internalization of the perspectives and principles that make legal constraints on behavior intelligible, it cannot even produce citizens dependably obedient to the law.
Adoption of the standpoint of citizenship requires at the very least the capacity to comprehend the most general principles on which the laws of a liberal democracy are based. Those principles, whatever their specific content in any given liberal democracy, affirm at least that all citizens are to be treated as free and equal individuals. The capacity to comprehend those principles requires more than the mere readiness to submit to the law as part of a compromise aimed at achieving private goals -- it requires some internalized understanding of the perspective articulated by the principles, the perspective within which citizens are indeed viewed as free and equal individuals.
An internalized understanding of this perspective involves the learning of skills and the development of attitudes and dispositions that are new, i.e., that cannot be reduced to merely external and accidental modifications of attitudes and dispositions proper to members of particularistic cultural communities. In short, liberal democratic principles of justice and political arrangements cannot really be understood where no cultural basis exists for the development of a bond of civic friendship among all citizens.
Modus vivendi conceptions of liberalism cannot provide such a cultural basis. While it is certainly better for warring groups to stop killing each other and find some basis for mutual accommodation, a peaceful society composed of groups living at peace together in a state of mutual isolation, suspicion, and incomprehension would bear little resemblance to an ideal liberal democracy.
With the waning of the normative and persuasive force of the modernist liberal moral ideals of authenticity and autonomy, modus vivendi liberalism has emerged as one of the few motivational resources left to modernist civic culture. But the meager resources of this impoverished and minimalist form of liberalism cannot contribute much to the reconstruction of liberalism and the invention a viable postmodern civic culture. What we need is a new and far more positive way of addressing the issue of motivation, of answering the question of the value of citizenship -- a new way of understanding the sense in which citizenship is not merely an instrumental good, useful insofar as it furthers the pursuit of private happiness, but also a final and substantive good desirable in itself.
Motivating the formation of an overlapping consensus
A second point we must keep in mind is that the motivational resources proper to the liberal democratic public sphere are necessarily limited.
Civic culture is a "thin" culture. The conception of the civic good that depends on the cultural resources available only within the public sphere, i.e., within the perspectives shaped by the basic political arrangements of any liberal democracy, is bound to be insufficient by itself to provide the sort of motivation required to support large numbers of citizens in their pursuit of full cultural citizenship. The motivational resources that cannot be provided from the cultural perspectives proper to the public sphere alone must be provided from the cultural perspectives of particularistic cultural communities.
This is the import of the concept of an overlapping cultural consensus. In any liberal democracy, most of the motivational cards are held by the particularistic cultural communities that comprise it. Members of those communities are also citizens, some of them citizens in the full cultural sense -- i.e., citizens who have a clear understanding of the nature of the civic good. It is the civic responsibility of such citizens to shape their local cultural traditions in ways that support the development of civic moral and linguistic capacities.
In addition to whatever motivational resources provided by the general civic culture, these citizens must identify and strengthen the doctrines, themes and practices within their local cultural traditions that can provide additional normative and persuasive resources in support of liberal moral ideals. Different cultural traditions possess such resources in different degrees. But where such resources are weak or absent they can always be strengthened or invented. This is the sort of cultural work that must be carried out by citizens if an overlapping consensus supportive of liberal political arrangements is to be realized and maintained.
I want to focus here on the motivational resources that might be drawn from the cultural perspectives proper to the liberal democratic public sphere alone. The motivational resources offered by the public sphere, i.e., by the perspectives shaped by participation in civic life, address all citizens in a moral language that all citizens can speak and understand.
These motivational resources are "non-denominational." They make a case for the civic good that presupposes only adherence to the ideals of one particular form of political association -- liberal democracy -- and are otherwise independent of all reference to particularistic cultural belief. Even if such a case for the civic good can never be motivationally sufficient, it must be the starting point for the project of constructing an overlapping consensus, for the work of shaping particularistic cultural traditions in ways that support liberal moral ideals presupposes an understanding of the good ultimately served by such work.
What, then, is the nature of the civic good that can be expressed in moral language all citizens, regardless of their other beliefs and moral ideals, can equally embrace?
Rawls's teleological conception of moral personality provides a basis for an answer to this question. This conception of moral personality defines the traits that every citizen must assume to be possessed by other citizens when engaging in civic discourse. Rawls distinguishes two such traits, which he calls moral powers: (1) the capacity to pursue rationally a conception of the good, and (2) the capacity for an effective sense of justice.
Conceptually inseparable from these two moral powers, according to Rawls, are two highest-order interests in exercising and fully developing those powers. A highest-order interest is one that is given priority over all other interests. In any ranking of interests, it is given the highest ranking. This means that a citizen, i.e., one who must be expected to possess the traits proper to moral personality, is one who in fact ranks his or her interests in this way, identifying as his or her highest interest the interest in the full development and exercise of the moral powers proper to citizenship, even if the pursuit of that interest requires the sacrifice of interests or desires generated by membership in one particularistic cultural community or another.
Rawls's answer to the question of the value of citizenship thus would be given in terms of this conception of the highest-order interests proper to moral personality or full cultural citizenship. The status or role of citizen is good not merely instrumentally, as in modus vivendi liberalism -- i.e., not merely because it is useful for the realization of a particular, non-civic conception of the good life.
Rather, for those who are citizens, for those who have adopted the standpoint of citizenship and have acquired the traits of moral personality, full cultural citizenship is a substantive, final, or intrinsic good. Once a human being has acquired the traits and developed the highest-order interests belonging to moral personality, then, for that person, the legal status of citizenship is good in itself because only through the possession of that status can the highest order interests proper to that status be achieved.
However, to the extent that Rawls's conception of moral personality addresses the question of the value of citizenship, it addresses that question only from the standpoint of those who have already developed the moral powers proper to that status. Citizenship is a final good only for citizens who are citizens in the full cultural sense. But what about those who have not yet fully realized the ideals proper to the status of formal citizenship, i.e., who have not yet acquired the moral powers and highest-order interests specified by the conception of moral personality?
What sort of case for the value of citizenship could be made to those who still regard it externally, from the standpoint of membership in one or another particularistic cultural community? It is above all such citizens that a civic culture must effectively address. Modus vivendi liberalism carries considerable persuasive power when viewed as an argument addressed to an audience with this pre-civic or external standpoint. But it is precisely this external way of raising the question of the value of citizenship that is relevant when considering the issue of motivation.
Civic education is a persuasive enterprise. It is addressed to those who have not yet fully developed the moral powers proper to citizenship. It is addressed to those whose self-understanding continues to be shaped primarily by the ranking systems of particularistic cultural communities. This means, of course, that the motivational resources of civic culture are addressed at every to moment to every citizen, because no citizen can ever claim to have fully developed or to have exercised unfailingly the moral powers proper to citizenship.
Civic education is aimed at motivating nominal citizens to acquire the moral powers and highest-order interests that define citizenship in the full cultural sense. From this point of view, the question of the value of citizenship becomes the question of why any member of a particularistic cultural community, any adherent of an exclusivist, totalizing world view, would want to embrace the status of citizenship and develop its appropriate powers, interests and perspectives.
Rawls's conception of moral personality supplies an adequate provisional conception of the civic good. But it remains much too abstract to make clear its attractive power. Why would any human being desire to develop fully a sense of civic justice and a capacity to pursue rationally a conception of the good? Assuming the provisional acceptability of Rawls's conception of moral personality as an adequate conception of the civic good, what is at stake for anyone in the question of whether or not that civic good is actually attained? This is the question that the teleological turn in postmodern liberal political philosophy requires us to answer.
Page last edited: February 04, 2002
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