Is Citizenship in Jeopardy? The Concept Must Evolve

14 Apr 2015

David Thunder seeks to rehabilitate the ethical standpoint in political philosophy in his book 'Citizenship and the Pursuit of the Worthy Life' (Cambridge University Press, 2014). He discusses the work with STI.

STI Experts

What led you to write a book about citizenship?

I have always been interested in how ethical values affect the quality of our public life, broadly construed – that is, the atmosphere, culture, and values that we share with other people in our villages, cities, and nations. And it seems to me that the notion of citizenship captures a whole series of issues connecting what we care about as persons with how we interact in the public sphere, for example how we reason in public, the distinction between public and private life, political corruption and integrity. The future of civilization depends on how successful we are at passing on to future generations the skills and attitudes necessary to cooperate and live peacefully with their peers, and traditionally, these values are captured in the language of citizenship.

What is the basic thesis of your book?

My book is a response to the longstanding modern tendency to separate the whole sphere of ethics – the nature of the good life, people’s highest aspirations in life — from the sphere of politics and statesmanship. Ever since Machiavelli, followed by Hobbes, Locke, Kant, and right up to Rawls and beyond, there is a marked pattern in modern political thought of treating political morality as more or less independent from the question of the best way of life. My basic thesis is that this insulation of public life from ethical values is a big mistake, since it puts in jeopardy not only our integrity as persons but also the legitimacy and long-term survival of our political communities. In response to this predicament, I aim to rehabilitate the ethical standpoint in political philosophy, by defending the legitimacy and importance of giving full play to our deepest ethical commitments in our civic roles and developing a set of guidelines for citizens who wish to enact their civic roles with integrity.

Who are your main intellectual opponents in this book?

Any robustly ethical interpretation of citizenship must confront some formidable philosophical opponents. Two that stand out are John Rawls (esp. Theory of Justice 1971) and Reinhold Niebuhr (esp. Moral Man and Immoral Society 1932), because they are especially representative of the modern separation between ethics and politics. Against Rawls, I argue that his attempt to rule out “thick” conceptions of the good as sources of illumination for principles of justice is implausible because principles of justice share many of the difficulties surrounding conceptions of the good, including their deeply contested character. Against Niebuhr’s attempt to drive a wedge between ethical “purity” and political pragmatism, I argue that he significantly overstates the conflict between ethics and political responsibility; and that ethical and political life are not in fact governed by different types of morality, but by the same basic moral values (e.g. unselfishness, justice, courage) prudently applied to different contexts of action.

What do you hope to achieve by writing this book?

I hope that those who read this book, whether academics, businesspersons, or the general public, will be led to question certain assumptions that are extremely influential in our contemporary academic and popular culture, in particular the notion that we can deal with political and legal problems without thinking through their fundamental moral and philosophical foundations. Although we are unlikely to achieve full consensus on the moral foundations of our shared public life and institutions, we cannot avoid having that conversation. Without that conversation, a certain interpretation of morality will prevail and go unchallenged, often parading under the guise of moral “neutrality”—which I believe is impossible in any case. It is critically important - especially at a time when there is so much confusion about the value of democratic institutions, and such a drift toward populist forms of politics -that we create a space for serious reflection about why politics and civic life matter.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing citizenship in the world we live in?

Today we are facing a series of rapid changes in our social order, including rapid advances in communication and transportation technology, unprecedented mobility of capital and persons, the spread of violent and fundamentalist political ideologies, the decline of religion as a source of public morality, and the coexistence of diverse cultural and political identities within the same social spaces. These developments put a lot of pressure on traditional notions of citizenship, which tend to be based on a fairly rigid and geographically bound notion of national belonging, and often take for granted a shared fund of values of civility, tolerance, and rule of law. If we insist on these traditional ideas of citizenship, we will not be able to produce a shared sense of loyalty and belonging in culturally diverse and geographically mobile societies, and risk descending into spirals of distrust and even violence among different groups. Thus, the big challenge going forward will be to reimagine citizenship in more flexible and mobile terms, and to find the resources to transmit a shared fund of public values to groups that may not share the same history or religious heritage.

Citizens often feel helpless in the face of systemic and global problems facing their society. Do you have any words of encouragement for them?

It is true that in a global and interdependent society, individual citizens can often feel helpless to make a difference. But I think part of the reason for this sense of discouragement is that we have a strong bias toward thinking that “making a difference” in our society must involve large-scale social reform. People often underestimate the value of the impact they can have in their local communities, schools, universities, or businesses, by simply acting responsibly both in their home life and in their community and professional life, proposing constructive ideas, taking initiatives geared toward the common good, and so forth. Even making friends with your neighbors and arranging neighborhood talks about issues of local concern, or simply setting up a film club, can be ways to build bridges of trust and promote a more healthy civil life. Just think of how the Polish resistance to Communist oppression was mounted—largely through underground theaters and poetry readings. Everyone has something to contribute, however modest, and it would be a big mistake to only value contributions to community life that make an immediate “splash” or make the headlines of our newspapers.

David Thunder is a Research Fellow at the University of Navarra's Institute for Culture and Society (Religion and Civil Society Project). He participated on STI's Experts Meeting "Understanding Modern Humanitarianism: Conditions, Consequences and Critical Concerns", held in Barcelona on January, 2015. "Citizenship and the Pursuit of the Worthy Life" is his lastest book.

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