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 circumscribed.

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, p. 94)

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. 77)

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.

Protecting Rights

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, 1991])

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.

Communitarian Pluralism?

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 good.

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 positions advanced.

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 is contested).

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 strained.

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 well:

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 individual rights.

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 group.

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 Responsibilities, and most recently the author of The Moral Dimension (New York: The Free Press, 1988).

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