The Catholic University of America

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Aug 17 2010

No Civility, No Democracy

Democracy requires from its citizens special virtues, without which it fails. Foremost, democracy needs citizens virtuous enough to transcend self-interest in pursuit of what is good for the republic as a whole. For traditional Catholic thought, that good of the whole is called “the common good.” In this sense, democracy depends upon citizens in possession of civic virtue that directs them to the common good. But, the list of needed virtues for democracy does not stop there. For example, coupled with a devotion to the common good, democracy’s citizens require a complex of virtues that support mature independence and sovereignty among the citizenry. Such virtues enable citizens properly to participate in the public square as the “citizen rulers” that the word democracy defines them to be. They must have sufficient strength of character and independence of mind and will to govern and not to be governed—not to be governed by the mob, not to be governed by the state, not to be governed by the fads and fashions of the politics of the moment, and not to be governed by their own parochial interests. Citizens’ strength of character and freedom of mind, moreover, require virtues that undergird the political conditions in which they thrive. Sometimes called “liberal virtues” (in the sense that Locke and Jefferson are liberal) these include, among others, civility. Often pooh-poohed as a thin or procedural virtue, in fact, civility is potent and vital to democracy. It was civility and similar liberal virtues that resolved the chaos and violence of the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe—thereby giving rise to modern democratic governments. Indeed, civility is enshrined in the understandings of rights that are the foundations of modern democracies.  What are freedoms of thought, religion, press, and assembly if not institutions reflecting presumed civility? (...)

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5 comments - Posted by Stephen Schneck at 4:49 PM - Categories: Government & Civil Society