264. "The Good Society," The Journal of Political Philosophy, Vol.7. No. 1, (March 1999), pp. 88-103.


by Amitai Etzioni

1. The good citizen or good person?

A recent, very tempered debate between William A. Galston and Robert P. George brought into relief the importance of a concept neither employed, that of the good society.(2) Galston argued, drawing on Aristotle, that we ought to differentiate between the good citizen and the good person. The pre-liberal state, he added, was concerned with the good person; the liberal state is one that limits itself to the cultivation of the good citizen. George, true to his social conservative position, countered that he does not see a great need or compelling merit in drawing a sharp distinction between the good citizen and the good person. Before I suggest a third position, a few more words of background.

Galston is representative of a communitarian variation of classical liberal thinking. Liberals limit themselves to ensuring that individuals develop those personal virtues that they need to be good citizens of the liberal state, for instance the ability to think critically.(3) In contrast, social conservatives maintain that it is the role of the state to promote not merely citizenship but also the good person, not only skills needed to participate in the polity, but also social virtues--those that make the society a good one.

George Will champions this position, arguing that people are self-indulgent by nature: left to their own devices, they will abuse their liberties, becoming profligate and indolent as a result. People need a "strong national government" that will be a "shaper" of citizens, and help them cope with the weaker angles of their nature.(4) William Kristol and David Brooks argue that anti-government themes provide too narrow a base for constructing a winning ideological political agenda. Conservatives, they conclude, need to build on the virtue of America, on the ideal of national greatness.(5)

Religious social conservatives have long been willing to rely on the powers of the state to foster behavior they consider virtuous. The measures they favor include banning abortion most kinds of porn, making divorce more difficult, curbing homosexual activities, and institutionalizing prayers in public schools. Additionally, both religious and secular social conservatives have strongly advocated longer, more arduous prison terms for more individuals, for more kinds of crime, favoring especially life-sentences without the possibility of parole and death sentences. These penalties often are applied to people of whose business and consumption the state disapproves (a large proportion of those in jail are there for non-violent, drug-related crimes) rather than for failing to discharge their citizen duties or actually endangering public safety. These are, on the face of it, not citizen issues but good-person issues. The term "good state" appropriately summarizes this position because far from being viewed as an institution that if extended inevitably would diminish or corrupt people, the state is treated as an institution that can be entrusted with the task of making people good. That is, while it is not at all suggested that the state is good in itself, it is indicated that the state can be good--provided it acts to foster virtue.

Before moving on, it should be noted that among social conservatives, as among all such large and encompassing schools of thought and belief, there are important differences of opinion. It is relevant for the discussion at hand to note that there are many social conservatives who are less state- and more society-minded, such as Michael Oakeshott and a group associated with the Heritage Foundation called the National Foundation for Civic Renewal. That there are strong and less-strong social conservatives does not, however, invalidate their defining characteristic. To put it differently, thinkers who would rely mainly on the society and on persuasion to promote virtue by my definition are not social conservatives, but rather have one of the defining attributes of communitarians.

Both the liberal and social conservative positions have rich, well-known histories, and profound roots in social philosophy and political theory. While I will not retrace their often-reviewed intellectual foundations here,(6) I refer to one item of the sociology of knowledge: Each of these two positions can be viewed as addressing a particular historical constellation. The liberal position speaks to both the authoritarian and dogmatic environments in which it was first formulated by Locke, Smith, and Mill, as well as the totalitarian experiences of the twentieth century. At its core is a profound concern with the overpowering state and established church, especially if these institutions muster not merely superior and encompassing force but also actually succeed in acquiring an ideological mantle of virtue. The liberal position, which arose as a rejection of the good state, tended to reject all social formulations of the good.

Contemporary social conservative positions, by contrast, address the loss of virtue that modernization and populism have engendered, and reflect a profound concern with rising moral anarchy. While such concerns have been raised since the beginning of industrialization (if not before), they have particularly re-intensified since the 1970s. It is this condition that religious fundamentalism seeks to correct, whether the fundamentalists in question are Muslims, Orthodox Jews, or some members of the religious right in the United States.

The third position, the communitarian one, which focuses on the good society, addresses the same socio-historical conditions that motivate contemporary social conservatives, but provides a fundamentally different response. Much like its liberal cousin, the communitarian position rejects state regulation of moral behavior. Liberals, however, typically take this position because they favor moral pluralism; that is, they hold a broad conception of tolerance that includes the "right to do wrong." In the words of Michael Sandel, they "take pride in defending what they oppose."(7) Communitarians, by contrast, advocate state restraint because they believe that the society should be the agent responsible for promoting moral behavior. Thus, while the communitarian alternative I outline here may seem similar in certain limited respects to both social conservative and liberal positions, it nonetheless should be clear that its focus on the good society is conceptually distinct from both of these.

2. The core, not the whole

That a good society formulates and promotes shared moral understanding rather then merely pluralism, is far from value-neutral. This does not mean, however, that a good society sets an all-encompassing or even "thick" moral agenda. I discuss first the special nature of the formulation of the good by a communitarian society and then its limited scope.

Much has been written about whether or not there are sociological needs and moral justifications for social formulations of the good. The discussion, it has been stressed, concerns the public realm, namely the formulations that guide the state, which in turn may impose them on those who do not see the goodness of these formulations.(8) I refer here to shared formulations that arise out of moral dialogues among the members of the society, initiated by secular and religious intellectuals and moral authorities, community leaders, other opinion makers, and nourished by the media.(9)

Developing and sustaining a good society does require reaching into what is considered the private realm, the realm of the person. (Indeed, it might be said, that this "is" where the society is in the first place). A good society, for instance, fosters trust among its members not solely or even primarily to enhance their trust in the government or to reduce burdens on the general public (for example, the problem of litigiousness), but rather to foster what is considered a better society. (What is "better" can be accounted for in utilitarian terms--for instance, by observing that in a society with a higher level of trust among its members there will be less white-collar crime--as well as in deontological ones, a notion I do not pursue further in this article.(10)) Other examples: a good society may extol substantive values such as stewardship toward the environment, charity for those who are vulnerable, marriage over singlehood, having children, and showing special consideration to the young and elderly. These are all specific goods with regard to which the society, through its various social mechanisms, prefers one basic form of conduct over all others. For instance, contemporary American society considers commitment to the well-being of the environment a significant good. While differences regarding what exactly this commitment entails are considered legitimate, this is not the case for normative positions that are neglectful of, not to mention hostile to, the needs of the environment.

To suggest that the scope of the private realm needs to be reduced, however, does not mean that all or even most private matters need to be subject to societal scrutiny and control. Indeed, one major way the communitarian position differs from its totalitarian, authoritarian, theocratic, and social conservative counterparts (referred to from here on as holistic governments) is that while the good society reaches the person, it seeks to cultivate only a limited set of core virtues rather than to be more expansive or holistic. A good society does not seek to ban moral pluralism on many secondary matters. For example, American society favors being religious over being atheist, but is rather "neutral" with regard to what religion a person follows. Similarly, American society expects that its members will show a measure of commitment to the American creed, but is quite accepting of people who cherish their divergent ethnic heritages, as long as such appreciation does not conflict with national loyalties. Unlike totalitarian regimes, American society does not foster one kind of music over others (both Nazis and communists tried to suppress jazz). There are no prescribed dress codes (e.g., no spartan Mao shirts), correct number of children to have, places one is expected to live, and so forth. In short, one key defining characteristic of the good society is that it defines shared formulations of the good, in contrast to the liberal state, while the scope of the good is much smaller than that advanced by holistic governments.

3. Reliance on culture; its agencies.

Aside from limiting the scope of its moral agenda, the good society differs from its alternatives in the principal means by which it nurtures virtue. The basic dilemma that the concept of the good society seeks to resolve is how to cultivate virtue if one views the state as an essentially inappropriate and coercive entity.

In addressing this question, it is important to note that reference is not merely or even mainly to obeying the relevant laws, but rather to those large areas of personal and social conduct that are not governed by law, as well as to those that must be largely voluntarily carried out even if covered by laws, if law enforcement is not to be overwhelmed. At issue are such questions as what obligations parents owe to their children, children to their elderly parents, neighbors to one another, members of communities to other members and to other communities.(11)

The means of nurturing virtue that good societies chiefly rely upon often are subsumed under the term "culture." Specifically, these means include (a) agencies of socialization (family, schools, some peer groups, places of worship, and some voluntary associations) that instill values into new members of the society, resulting in an internal moral voice (or conscience) that guides people toward goodness. (b) Agencies of social reinforcement that support, in the social psychosocial sense of the term, the values members already have acquired (especially interpersonal bonds, peer relations, communal bonds, public visibility and leadership). These provide an external moral voice. And (c) values fostered because they are built into societal institutions (for instance, into marriage). I explore first the moral voice (internal and external) and ask whether it is compatible with liberty, and then the question of how the role societal institutions play in the good society differs from that they play in the civil society.

4. The moral voice and liberty

One main instrument of the good society, the mainstay of "culture," is the moral voice, which urges people to behave in pro-social ways. While there is a tendency to stress the importance of the inner voice, and hence good parenting and moral or character education, communitarians recognize the basic fact that without continual external reinforcement, the conscience tends to deteriorate. The opinion of fellow human beings, especially those to whom a person is attached through familial or communal bonds, carry a considerable weight because of a profound human need to win and sustain the approval of others.(12)

The question has arisen whether compliance with the moral voice is compatible with free choice, whether one's right to be let (or left) alone includes a right to be free not only from state controls but also social pressure. This issue is highlighted by different interpretations assigned to an often-cited line by John Stuart Mill. In On Liberty, Mill writes, "The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion."(13) Some have interpreted this statement to suggest on its face that the moral voice is just as coercive as the government. Similarly, Alexis de Tocqueville, years earlier, wrote that "The multitude require no laws to coerce those who do not think like themselves: public disapprobation is enough; a sense of their loneliness and impotence overtakes them and drives them to despair."(14) If one takes these lines as written, the difference between reinforcement by the community and that by the state becomes a distinction without a difference. One notes, though, that de Tocqueville is also known for having highlighted the importance of communal associations in holding the state at bay. As I see it, it is essential to recognize not only that there is a profound difference between the moral voice of the community and coercion, but also that up to a point, the moral voice is the best antidote to an oppressive state.

At the heart of the matter are the assumptions one makes about human nature.(15) If one believes that people are good by nature, and external forces merely serve to pervert them, one correctly rejects all social input. It follows that the freer people are from all pressures, the better their individual and collective condition. If one assumes that people possess frailties that lead to behavior that is damaging not only to self but also others, the question arises of how to foster pro-social behavior (or the "social order"). Classical liberals tend to solve this tension between liberty and order by assuming that rational individuals whose interests are mutually complimentary will voluntarily agree to arrangements that provide for the needed order. Communitarians suggest that reasonable individuals cannot be conceived of outside a social order; that the ability to make rational choices, to be free, presumes that the person is embedded in a social fabric. Moreover, communitarians posit that there is an inverse relation between the social order and state coercion: tyrannies arise when the social fabric frays. The moral voice speaks for the social fabric, thereby helping to keep it in good order.

Aside from being an essential prerequisite of social order and hence liberty, the moral voice is much more compatible with free choice than state coercion. The internal moral voice is as much a part of the person's self as the other parts of the self that drive his or her choices, the various tastes that specify the person's pleasures. The external moral voice, that of the community, leaves the final judgment and determination of how to proceed to the acting person--an element that is notably absent when coercion is applied. The society persuades, cajoles, censures, and educates, but that final decision remains the actor's. The state may also persuade, cajole, and censure, but actors realize a priori that when the state is not heeded, it will seek to force the actors to comply.

Some have questioned whether the moral voice is never coercive. In part, this is a definitional matter. When the moral voice is backed up by legal or economic sanctions, one must take care to note that it is not the moral voice per se, but rather these added elements that are coercive. Also, it is true in the West that in earlier historical periods, when people were confined to a single village and the community voice was all-powerful, a unified chorus of moral voices could be quite overwhelming even if it is not technically coercive, as physical force is not used or threatened. (It clearly can still be so in some limited parts of the West, and most assuredly in other parts of the world.) However, most people in contemporary free societies are able to choose, to a significant extent, the communities to which they are psychologically committed, and can often draw on one to limit the persuasive power of another. And the voices are far from monolithic. Indeed, it is a principal communitarian thesis that, in Western societies, moral voices often are, by and large, far from overwhelming. In fact, more often than not, they are too conflicted, hesitant, and weak to provide for a good society.(16) In short, highly powerful moral voices exist(ed) largely in other places and eras.

A comparison of the way the United States government fights the use of controlled substances and the way American society fosters parents' responsibilities for their children highlights this issue. The war against drugs depends heavily upon coercive agents; the treatment of children, by contrast, relies primarily upon the moral voice of members of the immediate and extended family, friends, neighbors, and others in the community. Admittedly, the state occasionally steps in. Yet most parents discharge their responsibilities not because they fear jail, but rather because they believe that this to be the right way to conduct themselves, notions that are reinforced by the social fabric of their lives.

The difference between the ways societies and states foster values is further highlighted by comparing transferring wealth via charity to taxes; between volunteering to serve one's country and being drafted; and between attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and being jailed for alcohol abuse.

The basically voluntaristic nature of the moral voice is the profound reason the good society can, to a large extent, be reconciled with liberty, while a state that fosters good persons cannot. It is the reason the good society requires a clear moral voice, speaking for a set of shared core values, which a civic society and a liberal state do not.

5. Virtues in social institutions

The other main instrument of the good society are social institutions. While the moral voice often is correctly referred to as "informal," because it is not encoded in law, and is integrated into one's personality and interactions with others,(17) societal institutions are formal and structured. Institutions are societal patterns that embody the values of the particular society or community.(18) A large volume of interactions and transactions are greatly facilitated in that they are predated by social forms upon which actors draw. Contracts are a case in point. Not only can actors often build in whole or in part on texts of contracts prepared by others, but the actors find the very concept of a contract and what this entails in terms of mutual obligations and the moral notion that "contracts ought to be observed" ready-made in their culture. While these institutions change over time, at any one point in time many of them stand by to guide social life, especially in well- functioning societies.(19)

Social institutions are important for the characterization of the difference between the good society and others, because most institutions are neither merely procedural nor value-neutral; in effect, most are the embodiment of particular values. For instance, the family, a major societal institution, is never value-neutral, but always reflects a particular set of values. This reality is highlighted by the reluctance of the Catholic Church to marry divorced people, attempts by several organized religions to encourage people to prepare better for their marriage (e.g., through pre-marital counseling), and to strengthen their marriages (e.g., by means of counseling, retreats, and renewal of vows). All these institutionalized endeavors reflect the value of marriage--and a particular kind of marriage--that society seeks to uphold.

Similarly, societies do not merely provide public schools as neutral agencies for the purpose of imparting knowledge and skills. Public schools typically foster, despite recent tendencies to deny this fact, a long list of values, including empathy for the poor, interracial and interethnic and other forms of mutual respect (beyond merely tolerance), high regard for science, secularism, patriotism, and stewardship toward the environment. That societies foster specific values, through their institutions, is crucial for the understanding of the limits of conceptions of the civic society.

6. A civil AND good society

A comparison of the good society with the civil society provides a clearer delineation of both concepts. It should be noted at the outset that these terms are by no means oppositional. The good society is simply a more expansive concept. Thus, far from being uncivil, it fosters additional virtues beyond the merely civil. To put it differently, the two concepts are like concentric circles, with the smaller circle representing the domain of civil society, and the larger that of the good society.(20)

While there is no single, agreed-upon, definition of civil society, most usages of the term reflect two institutional features and the values they embody. One is a rich array of voluntary associations that countervails the state and that provides the citizens with the skills and practices that democratic government requires. Another is holding of passions at bay and enhancing deliberative, reasoned democracy by maintaining the civility of discourse.

In a special issue of the Brookings Review dedicated to the civil society, editor E. J. Dionne, Jr. characterizes the civil society as (a) "a society where people treat each other with kindness and respect, avoiding the nastiness we have come to associate with 30-second political ads and a certain kind of televised brawl." And (b) a collection of voluntary associations that includes Boy and Girl Scouts, Little League, veterans groups, book clubs, Lions and Elks, churches, and neighborhood crime watch groups.(21) Most discussions stress the second feature. "Bowling alone" has become somewhat of a symbol for this line of thinking. Robert Putnam argues that bowling with one's friends (which he terms alone) is less sustaining of civil society than bowling as members of a bowling league because such leagues are part and parcel of the voluntary associations that civil society requires.(22)

From the viewpoint of the discussion at hand, the most important aspect of these characterizations of civil society is that they draw no difference among voluntary associations with regard to any substantive values that are fostered by bowling leagues, book clubs, Little Leagues, or any other such voluntary associations. I am not suggesting that these associations are actually without specific normative dispositions. Little Leagues, for instance, may cherish a healthy body and sporting behavior (or--winning at all costs); book clubs foster respect for learning and culture, and so on. But from the viewpoint of their contribution to civil society they all are treated by champions of civil society as basically equivalent; none is, normatively speaking, inherently morally superior to the other. In this particular sense, they are treated as normatively neutral.

Certainly champions of civil society do recognize some differences among voluntary associations, but these are limited to their functions as elements of the civil society rather than their normative content. For instance, voluntary associations that are more effective in developing citizen skills are preferred over those that are less so. But the actual values to which these people apply their skills is not under review nor are other substantive values the associations embody. Thus, the civil society does affirm some values, but only a thin layer of procedural and/or tautological ones; it basically affirms itself. Hence, the civil society (and the associations that constitute its backbone) cherishes reasoned (rather then value-laden) discourse, mutual tolerance, participatory skills, and, of course, volunteerism. Yet these values, upon closer examination, do not entail any particular social formulations of the good. They do not suggest what one best participates in or for, what one should volunteer to support, or which normative conclusions of a public discourse one ought to promote or find troubling.

Particularly telling are recent calls to find a common ground and to deliberate in a civil manner--two contentless elements of civility often evoked whenever civil society is discussed. Commonality is celebrated on any grounds as long as it is common. And the proponents of civility seem satisfied as long as one adheres to the rules of engagements (not to demonize the other side, not raise one's voice, etc.), and as long as the dialogue itself is civil, regardless of what actually is being discussed.(23)

For the civil society, an association that facilitates people joining to play bridge has the same basic standing as NARAL or Operation Rescue; members of the Elks share the same status as those of the Promise Keepers; and bowling leagues are indistinguishable from NAMBLA, whose members meet to exchange tips on how to seduce boys who are younger than eight. Indeed, beyond league bowling (and bridge playing), other mainstays of "social capital" that Putnam found in those parts of Italy that are more soundly civil and democratic than others were bird-watching groups and choral societies.(24) Bird-watching groups may enhance respect for nature and choirs may cherish culture (or certain kinds of culture over others), but this is not the reason Putnam praises them. As Putnam puts it, he extols them because "[t]aking part in a choral society or a bird-watching club can teach self-discipline and an appreciation for the joys of successful collaboration."(25) So could most if not all other voluntary associations.

In short, from the basic standpoint of the civil society, one voluntary association is, in principle, as good as any another.(26) They differ greatly, however, from the perspective of the good society, precisely because they embody different values. Thus, to the extent that American society cherishes the notion of interracial integration, it views the Urban League and NAACP as much more in line with its values than the Nation of Islam, and the Ripon Society more so than the Aryan groups--all voluntary associations.(27)

The concept of the good society differs from that of the civil one in that while the former also strongly favors voluntary associations--a rich and strong social fabric, and civility of discourse--it formulates and seeks to uphold some particular social conceptions of the good. The good society is, as I have already suggested, centered around a core of substantive, particularistic values. For instance, different societies foster different values or at least give much more normative weight to some values than other societies that exhibit a commitment to the same values. Thus, Austria, Holland, and Switzerland place special value on social harmony, acting only after profound and encompassing shared understandings are achieved. Many continental societies value the welfare state, lower inequality, and social amenities more than American and British societies do, and also put less emphasis upon economic achievements.

Similarly, the question of whether or not religion is disestablished is far from a procedural matter. Many democratic societies that establish one church (e.g., Anglican in the United Kingdom, Lutheran in Scandinavia) also allow much greater and more open inclusion of a specific religion into their institutionalized life than does American society. The presence of crucifixes in Bavarian public schools and the routine pronouncement of Christian prayers in UK schools both illustrate this point. Promoting these religious values is deemed an integral part of what is considered a good society.

I digress to note that none of the societies mentioned are "good" in some perfected sense; they are societies that aspire to promote specific social virtues, and in this sense aspire to be good societies. The extent to which they are successful, and the normative evaluation of the specific virtues one society promotes as compared to others, are subjects not studied here because this would requires an extensive treatment that I have provided elsewhere.(28) All that I argue here is that good societies promote particularistic, substantive formations of the good; that these are limited sets of core values that are promoted largely by the moral voice and not by state coercion. The conditions under which the particular values fostered earn our acclaim is not studied here.

To summarize the difference between a good and a civil society regarding the core institution of voluntary association, one notes that while both kinds of society draw on these associations, these play different roles within these two societies. In civil societies, voluntary associations serve as mediating institutions between the citizen and the state, and help cultivate citizen skills (ways to gain knowledge about public affairs, form associations, gain a political voice, and so on); they develop and exercise the democratic muscles, so to speak. In the good society, voluntary associations also serve to introduce members to particularistic values, and to reinforce individuals' normative commitments. Thus, while from the perspective of a civil society a voluntary association is a voluntary association, from the view of a good society, no two voluntary associations are equivalent. The regard in which voluntary associations are held ranges from those that are celebrated (because they foster the social virtues the good society seeks to cultivate), to those that are neutral, to those that--while voluntary--sustain values divergent from or even contradictory to those the society seeks to foster.

7. The implications of varying definitions

I now consider briefly the various definitions of civil society offered by particular scholars to further highlight the differentiation between the civil and the good societies.

Michael Novak provides a straightforward, value-neutral definition of the civil society. He writes:

The term for all these nonstatist forms of social life--those rooted in human social nature, under the sway of reason--is civil society. That term includes natural associations such as the family, as well as the churches, and private associations of many sorts; fraternal, ethnic, and patriotic societies; voluntary organizations such as the Boy Scouts, the Red Cross, and Save the Whales; and committees for the arts, the sciences, sports and education.(29)

In a book often cited in this context, Berger and Neuhaus view mediating structures as a key element of the civil society and define mediating structures as follows:

...those institutions that stand between the private world of individuals and the large impersonal structures of modern society. They "mediated" by constituting a vehicle by which personal beliefs and values could be transmitted into the mega-institutions. They were thus "Janus-faced" institutions, facing both "upward" and "downward." Their meditations were then of benefit to both levels of social life: the individual was protected from the alienations and "anomie" of modern life, while the large institutions, including the state, gained legitimacy by being related to values that governed the actual lives of ordinary people.(30)

This definition is essentially value-free. It does not distinguish between different mediating structures according to the specific normative foundations or values they extol. A federation of labor unions might fulfill the mediating function as well as one of industrialists; a group of churches as well as a league of atheists; an association of stamp collectors as well as the Sierra Club. At one point, Berger and Neuhaus address this issue of value-neutrality with more directness and candor than any of the other sources examined. The two clearly state that a mediating structure is a mediating structure regardless of its values, even if these might be nefarious, criminal, or otherwise wholly objectionable. Indeed, in the revised edition of their book, Berger and Neuhaus fully concede the limitations of their concept:

Possibly, though, we were a bit carried away in our enthusiasm for these institutions, overlooking the fact that some of them definitely play nefarious roles in society. Thus, strictly speaking in terms of our definition, the Mafia, the Ku Klux Klan, and the social branch of an organization seeking to get the government to negotiate with visiting aliens in UFOs could also be described as mediating structures. They do, indeed, mediate between individuals and the larger society. It just happens that the beliefs and values thus mediated are criminal, immoral, or just plain crazy. We would suggest now that there are (to put it plainly) both good and bad mediating structures and that social policy will have to make this differentiation in terms of the values being mediated.(31)

While Berger and Neuhaus are best characterized as social conservatives, John Rawls is considered by most to be a liberal. Regarding the issue at hand, however, he seems to hold a compatible view. Indeed, Rawls even seems to go a step further, not only implying that the various mediating institutions are morally equivalent, but also suggesting that the entirety of civil society--not merely the liberal state!--is little more than a neutral zone in which various virtues compete, and in which none is prescribed or even preferred as a matter of societal policy. (I write "seems" to indicate that I do not join here the very elaborate debate concerning what Rawls says, really meant to say, and how he changed his mind from one volume to the next.) The following quote seems to me to speak quite directly to the issue at hand, and it is this Rawls I address here:

...all discussions are from the point of view of citizens in the culture of civil society, which Habermas calls the public sphere. There, we as citizens discuss how justice as fairness is to be formulated, and whether this or that aspect of it seems acceptable... In the same way, the claims of the ideal of discourse and of its procedural conception of democratic institutions are considered. Keep in mind that this background culture contains comprehensive doctrines of all kinds that are taught, explained, debated against one another, and argued about--indefinitely without end as long as society has vitality and spirit. It is the culture of daily life with its many associations: its universities and churches, learned and scientific societies; endless political discussions of ideas and doctrines are commonplace everywhere.(32)

This text is compatible with the notion that a civil society is not a good society because it does not promote one "comprehensive doctrine," but rather provides simply the forum in which a plurality of such doctrines can be debated "indefinitely without end," within the numerous voluntary associations. Civil society is thus desirable because it affords and sustains endless debate, thereby precluding any general consensus on the good to which society at large can subscribe and attempt to foster in its members. In that sense, the "endless" element is not merely dismissive but actually essential.

Michael Walzer, often considered a communitarian, espouses the same basic viewpoint very clearly:

I would rather say that the civil society argument is a corrective to the four ideological accounts of the good life than a fifth to stand alongside them. It challenges their singularity but it has no singularity of its own. The phrase "social being" describes men and women who are citizens, producers, consumers, members of the nation, and much else besides--and none of these by nature or because it is the best thing to be. The associational life of civil society is the actual ground where all versions of the good are worked out and tested...and proved to be partial, incomplete, ultimately unsatisfying.... Ideally, civil society is a setting of settings: all are included, none is preferred.(33)

Walzer clearly distinguishes the civil society from the good society. Indeed, at one point he makes mocking reference to a potential slogan for civil society, "join the associations of your choice,"(34) arguing that it entails a less than morally-compelling and mobilizing vision. Walzer regrets that the anti-ideological nature of the civil society makes it unable to inspire citizens, but implies that this feature is necessary to prevent the idealization of the state. I will return to the importance of this point, which reflects a fear, implicit in Walzer's remarks, that the social formation of the good will lead to authoritarianism, if not totalitarianism.(35)

William Sullivan stresses that the realm of associations and organizations that are part of neither the market nor the state makes up the "much-invoked" idea of the civil society.(36) He points out that these aforementioned bodies are not free-standing, but rather "interwoven" with the state and the market, a point well taken.(37) But Sullivan too sees no apparent need to draw moral distinctions among the various voluntary associations that comprise civil society. Particularly telling is his description of the various civil virtues which these associations are supposed to promote in their members: "public engagement, reciprocity, mutual trust, tolerance within a general agreement about purposes."(38) Once again, while these values certainly are important, they serve to sustain good citizens and make the civic society work, rather than promote a particular moral vision that a good society seeks to foster.

The definition of civil society, it should be reiterated, is anything but conclusive. And there are some commentators--most of them social conservatives--who pack into their notions of civil society elements of what I have referred to as the good society. Gertrude Himmelfarb, for example, argues that only a renewed and remoralized civil society can effectively curb such immoral behaviors as drug addiction, illegitimacy, neglect of the elderly, and the like.(39)

But the definition of civil society seems to resist such expansions. As the preceding examples suggest, when commentators invoke the concept, they typically do so in a more restrictive manner. Indeed, the very effort by Himmelfarb and others to expand the scope of civil society highlights the need for an additional concept that can capture this added normative element. The good society can well serve in this capacity.

We often can learn a great deal about social doctrines and political theories by examining the alternatives they seek to engage. (For instance, Max Weber's volumes on comparative religion clearly speak to the economic determinism associated with Karl Marx.) The civil society thesis addresses the fear that social formations of the good will be imposed by the state on a wide front. It does so by advocating a great restriction of the public realm, and by opposing collective fostering of virtues (all those not directly subservient to the civic society or liberal state). The crisis that modern societies increasingly have had to face for the last generation is that of the moral vacuum, an emptiness that religious fundamentalism has sought to fill. This challenge is variously referred to as the loss of meaning or virtue, the crisis of culture, and the deterioration of values. This spiritual void, however, cannot long be left unfilled. If not addressed by values that arise out of shared moral dialogue, it will be filled, as we have already seen in large segments of the world, by command and control theocracies. Democratic societies can be expected to continue to be vigilant against the return of overpowering secular governments--a threat countered by a rich fabric of civil institutions. However, given the challenges posed by fundamentalism in the Moslem world, in Israel, and by various Christian, right-wing movements, concerns for the civil society may well need to be supplemented by concern about the nature of the good society. If societies must uphold some substantive values, what will these be beyond the narrow band of largely procedural commitments that civil society presently entails? This is the question the next generation faces, a question flagged by the concept of a good society, a society that fosters a limited set of core values and relies largely on the moral voice rather than upon state coercion.


1. The author is especially indebted to Robert George for comments on a previous draft. Andrew Wilmar provided research assistance and editorial suggestions. The author additionally is grateful to Andrew Altman, David Anderson, Bruce Douglas, and Thomas Spragens, Jr. for their comments on a draft of this paper. He was also helped a great deal by Barbara Fusco and Tim Bloser.

2. The debate took place at a meeting organized by David Blankenhorn at the Institute for American Values.

3. Galston differs with many liberal colleagues, for instance Amy Gutmann, in terms of the scope of such citizen-virtues that he would have the state promote if such cultivation violates the values of a community. Thus, he would respect the Amish culture and not make their children attend public high schools, while Gutmann would override it in the name of the citizen requirements of the liberal state. There is much more to this debate between liberal communitarians and liberal-liberals but all I seek to highlight here is that both sides presume that the state limits its virtue-cultivating concerns to citizenship; the difference between the sides is limited to the scope of personal virtues that good citizenship requires. See William Galston, Liberal Purposes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) and Amy Gutmann, Democratic Education (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987).

4. Will is seconded by Walter Berns of the American Enterprise Institute, who argues that one cannot fold conservatism's ideals into the notion of "freedom," and by Elliot Cohen, who maintains that the last thing the Founders envisioned was a "feeble government." See George Will, "Conservative Challenge," Washington Post, 17 August 1997, c7. William J. Bennett stresses that while there is much to lament about big government, he is deeply troubled by conservatives' "increasing and reckless rhetorical attacks against government itself." He draws on Benjamin Franklin, who is said to have understood that "the strength of the nation depends on the general opinion of the goodness of the government," not a phrase often employed by economic conservatives. See William Bennett, "Rekindling Our Passion for America; Cynicism About Government Programs Cannot be Allowed to Quell Our Love of Country," Los Angeles Times, 28 October 1997, 7.

5. See David Brooks and William Kristol, "What Ails Conservatism," Wall Street Journal, 15 September 1997.

6. See Amitai Etzioni, The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Democratic Society (New York: Basic Books, 1996).

7. Quoted in William Lund, "Politics, Virtue, and the Right To Do Wrong: Assessing the Communitarian Critique of Rights," Journal of Social Philosophy 28 (1997): 102.

8. See Ibid., 108-9

9. See Etzioni, The New Golden Rule, 85-118.

10. See Ibid., 217-57; Robert Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton, The Good Society (New York: Vintage, 1991); and Walter Lippman, An Inquiry Into the Principles of the Good Society (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1943).

11. The difference between states and societies is surprisingly often ignored. When the communitarian platform was translated into German the term "member" was translated as

"Bürger." When it was pointed out that bürger means citizen, a participant in the state and not the society per se, it turned out that there is no term that readily allows to express this distinction in German. The word "Mitglieder" refers more to a dues-payer or someone who belongs, but does not have the rich evocative power of the communitarian notion of membership brings to mind.

12. See Dennis Wrong, The Problem of Order: What Unites and Divides Society (New York: Free Press, 1994).

13. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, ed. David Spitz (New York: W.W. Norton, 1975), 71.

14. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Henry Reeve, ed. Phillips Bradley (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), volume 2, 261.

15. This is a huge subject mentioned but not examined here. For discussion of the author's views relating to the issue at hand, see The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Democratic Society (New York: BasicBooks, 1996), 160-188.

16. For further discussion, see Etzioni, The New Golden Rule, 85-159.

17. See, for instance, Robert Sampson, Stephen Raudenbush, and Felton Earls, "Neighborhoods and Violent Crime: A Multilevel Study of Collective Efficacy," Science, 15 August 1997.

18. For an excellent analysis of institutions and their role in the good society, see Bellah et al., The Good Society, op. cit.

19. This subject recently has received a great deal of attention in legal scholarship, usually under the heading of "social norms." See, for example, Richard Epstein, "Enforcing Norms: When the Law Gets in the Way," Responsive Community 7 (1997): 4-15.

20. See Avishai Margalit, The Decent Society, trans. Naomi Goldblum (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996).

21. E.J. Dionne, Jr., "Why Civil Society? Why Now?" The Brookings Review 15 (1997): 5.

22. Robert Putnam, "Bowling Alone, Revisited," The Responsive Community 5 (1995): 18-33.

23. See James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (New York: Basic Books, 1991).

24. See Robert Putnam, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).

25. Ibid., 90.

26. The relevant differences are instrumental, rather than principled or normative (for example, the relative size, the level of public education, etc.).

27. See Suzanna Sherry, "Without Virtue There Can Be No Liberty," 78 Minnesota Law Review 61 (1993). A somewhat similar point is made by the noted civic theorist Benjamin Barber. While Barber is a fan of voluntary associations generally, he warns against those that are so "privatistic, or parochial, or particularistic" that they undermine democracy. He writes: "Parochialism enhances the immediate tie between neighbors by separating them from alien 'others,' but it subverts the wider ties required by democracy--ties that can be nurtured only by an expanding imagination bound to no particular sect or fraternity." See Benjamin Barber, Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 234-35.

28. See Etzioni, The New Golden Rule, 217-57.

29. Michael Novak, "Seven Tangled Questions," in To Empower People: From State to Civil Society, ed. Michael Novak (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 1996), 138.

30. Peter L. Berger and Richard John Neuhaus, "Response," in To Empower People: From State to Civil Society, ed. Michael Novak (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 1996), 148-49.

31. Ibid., 149-50.

32. John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 382-83.

33. Michael Walzer, "The Concept of Civil Society," in Toward a Global Civil Society, ed. Michael Walzer (Providence: Berghahn Books, 1995), 16-17.

34. Ibid., 25.

35. For further discussion and criticism of this conception of civil society, see Jean Cohen, "Interpreting the Notion of Civil Society," in Toward a Global Civil Society, ed. Michael Walzer (Providence: Berghahn Books, 1995).

36. William Sullivan, "Institutions and the Infrastructure of Democracy," in New Communitarian Thinking: Persons, Virtues, Institutions, and Communities, ed. Amitai Etzioni (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995), 173.

37. Ibid., 173.

38. Ibid., 173.

39. See Gertrude Himmelfarb, "The Renewal of Civil Society," in Culture in Crisis and the Renewal of Civic Life, eds. T. Williams Boxx and Gary M. Quinlivan (New York: Roman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.), 67-75.

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