232. "Virtues in a Democracy," Oliver F. Williams, C.S.C
and John W. Houck (Eds.), Catholic Social Thought and the New World
Order, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, (1993). pp. 285-297.
The Virtue of Virtues
If a community recognizes a set of moral values and commitments as compelling, as
virtues, these become the foundations of moral discourse in that community. Other statements,
new moral claims, and so on--as long as they are not absorbed into the set of shared virtues--have
no or little standing. And, while there are frequently differences in interpreting the exact
meanings and implications of prevailing virtues, for instance, how much is due to charity?,
virtues do provide sound and shared foundations for consensus formation, community endeavors,
public policies and moral standing. For example, in the traditional European Jewish
shtetl studying the scriptures was accorded high virtue. It left little doubt as to which activities
were to be extolled and merited the seat nearest the preferred Eastern (oriented to Jerusalem) wall
of the synagogue. It was not a question of the rights of one subgroup versus those of others but a
community-wide recognition of the virtue of commitments to the scriptures.
Also, in communities that subscribe to shared virtues (or communitarian values),
contentiousness and litigiousness are curbed as relatively clear and shared criteria are available to
resolve differences. Finally, the cynicism of "anything goes as long as it satisfies a deal among
the interpreted parties," is avoided.
The Fear of Consensual Morality
Despite all these apparent merits, the concept of virtues troubles many who are
committed to democratic values. While some of their misgivings are misplaced or overstated,
they point to considerations and measures that those who wish to embrace the language of virtue
best attend to.
One frequently raised objection to the notion of virtues (as well as to communitarian
values), is that they are "majoritarian" ("communitarian really means majoritarian," Glasser,
1990). That is, that once a community comes to share a set of values, these will be used to
suppress dissent and minorities, to violate individual and civil rights. (The lack of a secure place
for individual and minority rights is a criticism leveled against Alasdair MacIntyre, one of the
champions of the language of virtues [Thigpen and Downing, 1987, p. 643].) While historically,
this fear grows out of the roots of the American existence, a society fashioned by dissenters
escaping dogma, it is a legitimate concern for all democracies.
Actually there are two versions of the concern that are often intertwined and mutually
reinforcing but should be kept apart for both analytical and policy purposes. One concerns the
polity; the other--the community. Within the polity, it is feared that a government will follow a
simplistic notion of democracy: it will impose public policies and rules that the majority favor
without regard to other rights (e.g. imposing prayers in schools). In the words of John Rawls,
"A public and workable agreement on a single and general comprehensive conception [of the
good] could be maintained only by the oppressive use of state power." (Rawls cited in
Hollenbach, 1989, p. 79.) While this is not a problem necessarily or exclusively caused by the
concept of virtues, it can be exacerbated by the elevation of shared consensus to the status of
virtues. Historically this happened in the U.S. when abortion and divorce was morally
condemned and difficult to obtain legally.
Even when the government is not involved, and when there are no votes and hence no
"majoritarian" positions or threat, a parallel concern is raised and not without reason: it is argued
that when a community shares one set of virtues that are strongly endorsed and urged upon the
members, even without the power of law, only through the community mechanisms of social
pressure and ostracism--these can exert great pressures on those who deviate, whether these are
gay or conscientious objectors or individuals who refuse to join a strike or boycott and so on.
Salem during the witch trials, Geneva during the heyday of Calvinism provide historical cases in
point. More recently, the press has referred to the dangers of Neo-Puritanism, which they
characterize as excessive public concern over personal behavior. (The London
Economist, July 20, 1991; Time, August 12, 1991)
Libertarians and laissez faire conservatives hence tend to favor a community without a set
of over arching values, and build instead of the social (not merely economic!) merits of a world
in which individuals are the only judges of their own conduct, each choosing what is best and
hence personally right for them, from how much to work to whether or not to have a family to
ride a motorbike without a helmet and to even use addictive substances.
Michael Novak maintains that democracy has value in much the same way that capitalism
does: both work on the principles of aggregating individual choices. Arguing that the common
good is too complex for the government or any other large social institution to grasp, Novak
believes that government should not attempt to legislate morality, or what is "good for society."
David Hollenbach summarizes Novak's view of the polity in this way:
Thus the best path toward the common good is not one that proceeds by intending
the good society as a whole. Rather, the free market institutions
of democratic capitalism create the conditions in which an invisible
hand will coordinate the pursuit of individual self-interest...
in a way that maximizes the social good... (Hollenbach, p. 72)
And just as there are a series of personal values that sustain a capitalist system --
individual virtues such as hard-work, thrift, ingenuity, discipline and mutual respect -- there are
also individual virtues that sustain a democracy, such as toleration of one another and
commitment to liberty. These democratic virtues are justified on the grounds of enlightened self-interest, as are the capitalist virtues. In sum, for classical liberals such as Novak and modern
liberals like Hook, democracy, and the virtues that give life to it, have value in a systemic
fashion: they promote the private pursuit of fulfillment for the ultimate repository of "virtue" --
the individual. For that reason, a democratic polity may foster democratic virtues even as it
avoids social or community-wide virtues.
As I see it, we should not scrap the quest for shared virtues and communitarian values,
and the social mechanisms to affirm them, because nothing makes for more government and
ultimate coercion (that is, the demon libertarian and laissez faire conservatives properly fear)
than the absence of shared morals, backed by strong commitments. Once virtues are eroded,
social and civic order must by default, rest more and more on government regulation, controls
and police force. Thus, if a community ceases to define drug abuse and alcohol abuse, violence
or greed as unacceptable behavior, it is left solely to the state to protect citizens from these
abuses and from one another, an often untenable task. Communities require moral foundations to
minimize the role of the government and make those roles it must play--possible and properly
Moreover, a community without value commitments is a jungle of warring or selfish
parties, indeed no community at all. Banfield depicted such a village in his The Moral Basis
of a Backward Society (1958). In this village, the poverty and backwardness, he concluded,
is largely explained by the villagers inability to act together for their common good, or for any
end transcending the immediate interest of each family (ibid. p. 10).
In short, what is clearly needed is a political and moral conception that
accommodates the protection of minorities and individuals rights without giving up the concept
of communitarian virtues.
Communitarian Virtues and Democracy
Communitarians believe that the invisible hand cannot hold a nation together by itself.
Moreover, they argue that the libertarian view leads to an insidious complacency about the moral
and spiritual health of the republic. Philosopher Michael Quirk writes,
It is ironic that the terminal illness of Marxism -- its flat rejection of
appeals to morality and its deification of a "system" on the side
of history -- may also infect its chief political rival: liberal,
late-capitalist democracy has its own brand of utopianism, a utopianism
all the more naive for disguising itself as pragmatic realism. (Quirk,
Communitarians point out, for instance, that the libertarian faith in one present-day
democratic virtue -- the right to privacy -- provides no legitimate grounds for the prohibition of
racial discrimination in private housing, businesses and clubs. In the communitarian view,
communities and the political institutions representing them must make ethical and social issues
a common concern, especially given the continuing erosion of central values and social
institutions, such as the family, in the post-modern era.
In contrast to the individual-driven faith of libertarians, communitarians argue that
persons are social creatures. Personal fulfillment is contingent on social ends and interaction.
Virtue, therefore, is not a private affair; virtue signals appropriate conduct in society. And as
virtue is a social affair, it also becomes a political concern, because, in the words of Aristotle, "a
state exists for the sake of a good life, and not for life only..." (Aristotle cited in Hollenbach, p.
Virtue serves two important communitarian purposes. First, as a commonly-held moral
compass, virtue provides persons and social institutions with direction as they grapple with the
political, economic and social issues of the day. Secondly, a consensus about virtue also
legitimate the polity itself by providing, to paraphrase Cicero, public accord about the nature of
justice and the need for the public pursuit of the summum bonum, the common good. Given
virtue's central place, communitarians maintain that the polity must make the moral health of the
community its concern and take appropriate social, political and legal steps to support virtues and
the social institutions, such as the family, that sustain them.
American institutions already reflect an ingenious answer to the need to combine
consensus making and the moral power of virtues with a democratic polity. Instead of allowing
unrestrained sway to policies that reflect majorities, we have the well known "balancing"
institutions, whose task is not only to curb one another to limit the general power of each, but
specifically in order to protect the rights of individuals and minorities. The same protection is, of
course, accorded by the courts, above all the Supreme Court, and the Constitution itself not only
as a force that directs law enforcement, regulatory, administrative and other agencies but also as a
moral/social, normative factor. (William Galston, in an important paper presented at the l991
American Political Science Meeting, provides an excellent discussion of that point, especially by
pointing out the role which "supermajoritarian" requirements built into American democracy
play in this country. That is, for a number of significant political measures, simple majorities
cannot define what is of merit or virtue while, say, overriding a presidential veto. [Galston,
In short, the American political system is far from a simple democratic government if one
means by that, as it is all too often put, the rule of the majority, or of the people by the people for
the people. Constitutional democracy is, of course, characterized in part by defining areas over
which "the people" or the majority may not set policies, whatever its size.
The fall of Rome is usually the metaphor of choice for harbingers of imminent cultural,
social and political collapse. Communitarians maintain (along with Cicero and Augustine) that
the fall of Rome was precipitated by a decline in the sense of public virtue. Modernity, they add,
is destined to go Rome's way if the libertarian insistence on individual free-choice and state
"neutrality" when it comes to matters of virtue, like protecting the family, continues. Theologian
David Hollenbach shares many of the communitarian fears, and draws upon one of the greatest
"Fall of Rome" theorists -- Augustine -- to outline his vision of the role that virtue should play in
a democratic polity. But Hollenbach is also concerned by the tradition of oppression and
discrimination in premodern republics; he thus sees a third way between the shoals of
libertarianism and authoritarianism.
Augustine's City of God, according to Hollenbach, is the perfect republic. There, citizens
are united by a common conception of faith, virtue and the public end. This, however, is just the
kind of polity -- a community of faith -- which makes liberal apoplectic. Augustine, however,
disarms this criticism by suggesting that citizens in a republic should not confuse the City of God
with the City of Man. Man's highest hopes for fulfillment must lie with heaven: to make an
earthly republic the repository of man's final hopes for the summum bonum would be idolatrous.
Therefore, the civil realm should (and can) only be the realm of the proximate and the possible
An earthly approximation of the good, for Hollenbach, may be found when a community
defines a plurality of "common goods." This plurality of common ends and virtues, supported by
social mores and the force of law, will provide the community with an integral sense of unity
without giving undue emphasis to any one virtue. He cites Jeffrey Stout to make the case that "no
sphere [of historical existence] can rightly occupy the position of be-all-and-end-all in our lives
without throwing the rest out of proper proportion -- neither vocation, nor family, nor voluntary
association, nor private projects, nor politics." (Stout, cited in Hollenbach, p. 84) Rather, every
sphere that contributes in a meaningful way to virtue that the community holds high is entitled to
social and political support. By rejecting a unitary relationship between religion and politics
while encouraging a plurality of common ends, Hollenbach hopes to meet communitarian hopes
while allaying libertarian fears.
The Limits of Pluralism
Many, like Hollenbach, argue that pluralism sustains the delicate balance between the
will of the majority and consensual virtues, and the constitutional safeguards. On the community
level, it is argued, if there is no one orthodoxy but several competing truths, the fervor of each
will be restrained and people of different moral persuasions and commitments will each find their
own set of virtues (various religions, or set of secular moral values). And, regarding the polity, it
is often suggested that if various politically active groups advance different sets of values, no one
majoritarian position will arise. Policies then would reflect compromises among the various
However, as I see it, pluralism and virtues do not accommodate each other readily
because pluralism mitigates commitments and provides no moral foundations for community-wide consensus per se, no over-arching values and criteria for working up differences other than
such mechanical and uncommitting notions as splitting the differences and nose-count. On the
contrary, when there is a number of value commitments, all of which are considered legitimate,
all commitments become relative and weak, and there remains only practical, no principled,
grounds for community-building, shared values and policies. In effect, this "de-ideologizing" is
precisely what the opponents of virtues and proponents of pluralism seek.
It might be argued that in a society in which little is done on a shared basis, as in a
frontier society in which everyone who seeks change can go and find their ways in unsettled
territories, there is no need for a community values, consensus and virtues. There can be though
little doubt that for a society like contemporary America that has a long list of matters to which it
must attend collectively such as defense, public safety (crime), to the environment, and global
competitiveness, and one that lost the basic moral/social foundations of a shared social and civic
order--pluralism per se will not suffice.
Pluralism-Within-Unity; Virtues With Rights
As Seymour Martin Lipset writes, "The stability of any given democracy depends... upon
the effectiveness and the legitimacy of its political system." (Lipset, 1959, p.77) Both the
effectiveness and legitimacy of a democratic society depend upon a measure of unity. Yet many
democratic societies, especially the United States, confront the fact of ethnic, religious and social
pluralism. How can we then sustain an effective and legitimate republic?
An answer is to be found in the concept of pluralism-within-unity. It recognizes that
diversity can not be unlimited and that some ultimate values must be shared for the diversity to
be contained. These provide the foundations for shared policies and criteria for settling
conflicting claims. These virtues include, first of all, a set of ultimate values such as compassion
for the poor, concern for the viability of the family, and concern for the environment. (The fact
that these values are fuzzy at the edges it is not necessarily detrimental, because as long as the
basic commitments stand, societies have various ways to work out the specific meanings of such
values; this ceases to be the case, when the values are directly challenged or their basic meaning
Second, the shared values or virtues are to include a legitimation of democracy and
tolerance of diversity within the shared framework, and of individual standings and hence certain
basic rights (Langan, 1990). This point should be stressed: individual rights do not rest on
individuals, somehow born or endowed with them, but on a community-shared morality that
legitimates and otherwise sustains them. In the polity, community values and virtues take the
form of recognizing a public interest or interests above and beyond the plurality of special ones.
Both of these points deserve some elaboration.
The first issue is frequently raised in discussions of bi-cultural education. Pluralists stress
the merits of allowing, even encouraging, people of different ethnic, cultural, and racial
backgrounds, especially immigrants, not only to learn in their language and tradition, say
Spanish, rather than be forced to shift right away and learn all subjects in English, but also to
maintain separate traditions and learning (e.g black English) and to maintain parallel tracks of
values and commitments, without a commitment to a shared, over-arching, educational program.
Thus in Miami, a Cuban-American can complete 12 years of school in a Spanish program
without ever mingling with other Americans or learning about American core values, at least not
without a strong Hispanic orientation. These educational programs are compatible with the
concept of a "rainbow" society, in which a variety of equally legitimate "colors," with different
traditions and virtues are to co-exist next to one another.
We suggest that such unbounded pluralism, one that cuts into ultimate values and shared
virtues, is not compatible with maintaining a moral, social and civic order, with providing a
community with a set of criteria to sort out differences and form a consensus, and hence
incompatible with the democratic process. Pluralism is compatible with community and virtue as
long as it is limited to maintain sub-traditions, as long as they all recognize areas of
communalities that frame the community as well as mutual tolerance and respect of the
various plural traditions. Thus, no socio-political difficulties arise if various groups adhere to
different folk dances, songs, food tastes, religious beliefs, and social manners (say at weddings
and funerals). No melting pot is needed, here. However, when these groups cease to share a
commitment to one community, society, or nation, the unity that needs to contain pluralism, is
For example, in a debate with a representative of a major Hispanic group on William F.
Buckley, Jr.'s show "Firing Line," I suggested that while it is fine for various ethnic groups in the
U.S. to maintain their languages as a second language (from Hebrew to Japanese), they all need
to learn English. The Hispanic representative argued that we all live in an Hispanic hemisphere
and hence we should all first learn Spanish and then those that wish--may learn English on the
side. This notion cuts into the bonds of unity. (Language often has this power; it still divides
Belgium and Canada; while the Swiss make do with several, it is only following a thousand years
of warfare among the various language loyal cantons).
In the same vein, later in the same debate on "Firing Line," the representative of the
Hispanic group declared that should the U.S. engage in war in the Latin America, say Nicaragua
(this program took place before the U.S. intervention in Panama), Hispanic-Americans ought to
refuse to fight. Similarly, some black Americans opposed participating in the war in the Persian
Gulf because they saw it as a black-against-black confrontation. At a Harlem rally, the Reverend
Al Sharpton proclaimed, "We will not fight our brothers in the Middle East." (The New
Yorker, March 18, 1991.)
Typically, communities cannot tolerate pluralism on these issues when sizable groups are
involved (they can and do tolerate a few conscientious objectors). Ravitch (1991, p. 36) put it
If there is no overall community, if all we have is a motley collection of
racial and ethnic cultures, there will be no sense of the common
good. Each group will fight for its own particular interests, and
we could easily disintegrate as a nation, becoming instead embroiled
in the kinds of ethnic conflicts that often dominate the foreign
news each night.
There is no clear established list of what belongs in the share frame vs. in which areas
pluralism is welcome or essential. Indeed, the specific list may differ from one community to
another (e.g. many European countries include good Samaritan laws, we do not [Glendon,
1990/1, p. 10]) as long as the realm of virtues is sufficiently powerful to provide a containing
capsule to the centrifugal forces of the various plural parts. A shared set of basic moral values, a
language, some shared national symbols and values, a commitment of mutual tolerance and to
democracy as a "good" and not merely as a procedural devise, seems to be essential and found in
most if not all functioning democracies. These shared values are noticeably absent in other
societies as different as the USSR is from Nigeria. The jury is out about India, where the weak
set of share virtues is reflected in massive intergroup violence and frequent violations of
In the polity, the same issue arises with reference to the concept of the public interest.
Unbounded pluralists have argued that there is no need for a concept of public interest and that
none is possible (Truman, 1964, p. 50). Politics, they argue, is an extension to society from a
market concept, as special interest groups vie with one another over the direction of public
policies (Key, 1958, p. 166). The state is merely a point that reflects the results of the relative
power of the various special inputs (Milbrath, 1963, p. 345). While it is true that the notion of
public interest is often raised, unbounded pluralists argue that these statements are mere
ideological ones that each special interest groups mouth to advance its particular cause
(Horowitz, 1979, p. 4); that public interest cannot be even defined.
In contrast I argue that a concept of public interest, recognizing that some virtues rest in
the commons, is needed to correct and balance the political centrifugal forces as it is necessary in
the community to balance the moral/social effects of pluralism there (Etzioni, 1984). Moreover,
one can determine when a group advances the needs of its members and when it serves the public
at large according to who benefits from the action. Thus, the Sierra Club, a leading
environmentalist group, on the basis of its stated goals, is clearly a public interest group. On the
other hand, if it really does dedicate itself, as Tucker (1982) argues, to gaining privileges for its
upper-middle-class members, say untrammeled mountains to ski on, it clearly is a special-interest
In conclusion, communitarian virtues -- virtues shared and underwritten by a community -- are not incompatible with true democracy. Rights can be protected if communitarian virtues
include tolerance for one another and above all, a clear demarcation of the areas which
deservedly lie in the public realm and those which ought to be left to individual choice and sub-group preferences. Moreover, various political mechanisms, especially the Constitution, serve to
sustain the creative tension between spheres of commonality and social virtues and spheres of
individuality and personal virtues.
Amitai Etzioni is the editor of The Responsive Community: Rights and
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