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. Read more »

Civility and Public Reason

Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

ArgueAccording to a prevailing conception among political theorists, part of what accounts for the legitimacy of democratic government and the bindingness of its laws is democracy’s commitment to public deliberation. Democracy is not merely a process of collective decision in which each adult citizen gets precisely one vote and the majority rules; after all, that an outcome was produced by a process of majoritarian equal voting provides only a weak reason to accept it. The crucial aspect of democracy is the process of public reasoning and deliberation that precedes the vote. The idea is that majoritarian equal voting procedures can produce a binding outcome only when they are engaged after citizens have had ample opportunity to reason and deliberate together about matters of public concern. We claimed in last month’s post that democracy is all about argument; this means that at democracy’s core is public deliberation.

In a democracy, public deliberation is the activity in which citizens exchange reasons concerning which governmental policies should be instituted. This activity is necessary because democratic decision-making regularly takes place against a backdrop of disagreement, where different conceptions of public interest conflict. It is important to note that although reasoning always has consensus among its goals, democratic deliberation is aimed primarily at reconciling citizens to the central reality of politics, namely that in a society of free and equal individuals, no one can get everything he or she wants from politics. As democratic citizens, we disagree about which policies will best serve the public interest, and so, when democracy makes collective decisions, some of us will lose – our preferred policy will fail to win the requisite support. Yet democratic laws and decisions are prima facie binding on us all, even when they conflict with our individual judgments about what is best.

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