Civility as a Reciprocal Public Virtue

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Constitutional democracy is a system for conducting politics under conditions where citizens, understood as free and equal persons, disagree profoundly about what is good. Naturally, such disagreements extend to politics itself. That is, we expect democratic citizens to disagree, sometimes even sharply, about the fundamental aims and aspirations of government and its policies. The moral claim underwriting democracy holds that each citizen’s status as a free and equal person is respected when collective political decisions are made by way of a system that affords to each an equal say.

Still, in a democracy, we also expect disagreements over politics to extend beyond Election Day. Even after the votes are counted, citizens are nonetheless entitled to continue arguing over the wisdom, prudence, and even the justice of democratic collective decisions. What’s more, ongoing democratic engagement in the form of continuing scrutiny of political affairs is expected of citizens.  Participation in ongoing political discussion is among the democratic citizen’s duties.

If democracy calls citizens to engage regularly in political discussion, there will be among them ongoing political disagreements. Disagreements over things that matter often get heated, sometimes even hostile. And yet political disagreement in a democracy must be conducted in a way that manifests a fundamental respect for each citizen’s status as a free and equal person. In a democracy, no citizen is inherently another’s boss or subordinate; and all of our political interactions as citizens must reflect that basic moral commitment.

Given this, there must be rules governing political disagreements and disputes among citizens. As the function of these rules is to preserve respect among free and equal citizens amidst disputes over things that matter, they must take the form of moral requirements. That is to say, political engagements among disagreeing democratic citizens are governed by norms, and when a citizen violates a norm of proper exchange, she not only fails at appropriate engagement, she also renders herself criticizable. Accordingly, we can say that when a citizen exhibits a stable disposition to abide by the norms of proper engagement, she thereby manifests public virtue.

The norms of proper political engagement and their corresponding virtues are appealed to on a regular basis throughout our polity.  When the President characterizes those he perceives to be his critics as “very dishonest people”; he thereby appeals to the norm and virtue of honesty. Charges of bias and partiality uphold the related virtue of evenhandedness. And so when one criticizes a news organization, be it CNN or Fox News, or any other institution, for being one-sided or for being a mere bullhorn for a singular political perspective, one is backing a norm of this spirit.

All this said, it is important to distinguish between public virtues that are first-personal and those that are reciprocal.   An analogy with garden-variety moral virtue will be helpful. Consider a virtue like moderation. This virtue establishes a standard of conduct that requires of the individual temperance in the pursuit of enjoyment. This standard is first-personal. What it requires is not contingent on the presence of other temperate people; the virtue of temperance applies to individuals as individuals, and demands of them individual moderation, even in the presence of immoderate company. Another example of a first-personal virtue is courage. The courageous person must stand firm in fearful situations, even in when surrounded by cowards. To be sure, precisely what course of action courage requires might depend on one’s company and what they are currently doing; nonetheless, that others are cowards does not license anything less than courage from the courageous person. Again, courage, as a first-personal virtue, applies to the individual.

Now contrast these first-personal virtues with virtues of a different kind. These virtues do not primarily attach to individuals, but instead govern groups of individuals or are exhibited in relations between them. That is, they establish a standard of conduct for us rather than simply for me and you. Here’s a playground example. We teach our children the policy “keep your hands to yourself”; and in order to refer to those who stably embody this norm, we can fabricate a term for the corresponding virtue. Let’s say that a child who exhibits the stable disposition to keep his hands to himself, thereby exhibits the virtue of being “ungrabby.” But notice that the policy of keeping one’s hands to oneself establishes a standard of conduct for those on the playground; more importantly, it is in virtue of its collective application that individuals are bound to comply with its requirements. Consequently, when Billy violates the norm by grabbing Danny, and Danny retaliates, it would be absurd to criticize Danny for failing to keep his hands to himself. With Billy’s violation, the collective norm is suspended, and in extricating himself, Danny does not himself break the rule. Indeed, Danny might nonetheless embody the virtue of being ungrabby; his action against Billy does not show otherwise. To better capture this, notice that the norm “keep your hands to yourself” is an abbreviated version of the more complex norm “keep your hands to yourself on the condition that others are keeping their hands to themselves.” We see, then, that the norm and its corresponding virtue are reciprocal; they establish a standard of conduct that applies to groups, and individuals are required to abide by the norm, as long as others generally do so as well.

Notice that in this playground case, the norm does not indicate what one is permitted to do in response to its violation. Surely there are certain retaliatory acts that Danny could perform against Billy that would be inappropriate or even impermissible. That Billy’s violation suspends the collective norm does not afford to Danny moral carte blanche to response however he wishes. Though his retaliatory response does not itself constitute a violation of the “keep your hands to yourself” norm, Danny may still retaliate in ways that render him worthy of criticism, perhaps even punishment. So Billy’s grabbiness may warrant Danny giving him a good push to get him off, but it doesn’t warrant a crushing blow to the head. That’s clear, but given that there are many other acts between these two poles in extremity, it requires judgment and some context to determine where the line is between the acceptable and unacceptable.

Return now to political engagements among disagreeing democratic citizens. We said above that in order to remain democratic, these engagements must exhibit a fundamental respect for the freedom and equality of all citizens; and in order to exhibit this respect, engagements must be governed by certain norms. Citizens who manifest the stable disposition to satisfy the relevant norms thereby exhibit public virtue. Now, clearly, some public virtues are first-personal. As a citizen, one’s engagements with others must manifest the public virtues of honesty and evenhandedness. That one’s fellow citizens are inveterate dissemblers does not license one to be dishonest or biased. In fact, when dishonesty is widespread, honesty and evenhandedness are all the more important.

However, other public virtues are reciprocal. They prescribe modes of conduct to us – that is, collectively. Accordingly, individuals are required to exhibit these virtues only when they are embraced and practiced by the group. Where the norm corresponding to a reciprocal public virtue is generally violated within a group, the virtue itself is rendered inactive, as it establishes a standard of behavior only under the conditions where the norm is collectively embraced.

There has been a great deal of commentary of late about the public virtue of civility, much of which stems from recent episodes where prominent people associated with the President were subjected to arguably rude behavior by critics of the current administration. In fact, Breitbart has done those keeping score (on the Right, at least) a favor by keeping a ‘Rap Sheet’ of incivility directed toward conservatives and Trump supporters, and National Review warns that “without civility, we turn toward chaos.” In light of the interest in the question, there is surprisingly little said about what precisely civility requires. We have previously argued that civility is not a matter of being polite and calm. But we need not rehearse that argument here. Our present point is that, whatever the specifics may be about what it requires of us, civility is a reciprocal public virtue. It is rooted in a collective standard of conduct regarding democratic engagements among citizens who disagree. No citizen is required to manifest the virtue of civility within a community that generally disregards it. And this is especially so when those who are wielding the institutional power of the government fail to do so. In our view, democracy in the United States is far past the point where civility can be appealed to as a requirement for citizens’ political engagements; and so we see no sense in which citizens are criticizable for degrees of incivility. However, as in the playground case above, it remains an open question what citizens may do in light of the fact that civility is no longer required.