Public Morality, Civic Virtue, and the Problem of Modern Liberalism

Public Morality, Civic Virtue, and the Problem of Modern Liberalism

by T. William Boxx
     
 

Reflects on the relationship between virtue and politics in today�s liberal democratic society.

Liberalism, the central political philosophy of American and Western society, is a philosophy based on human freedom, equality, and the natural rights of individuals. Yet liberalism needs character-forming influences if it is going to succeed. In light of the

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Overview

Reflects on the relationship between virtue and politics in today�s liberal democratic society.

Liberalism, the central political philosophy of American and Western society, is a philosophy based on human freedom, equality, and the natural rights of individuals. Yet liberalism needs character-forming influences if it is going to succeed. In light of the growing apprehension about moral decline, civic strife, and basic incivility, this volume explores the question of how the public morality and civic virtue upon which our liberal democratic society depends, and which seems in short supply, can again be rejuvenated and sustained.

Contributors:
Peter Berkowitz
Walter Berns
Mark Blitz
Douglas J. Den Uyl
Jean Bethke Elshtain
Daniel J. Mahoney
Wilfred McClay
Gilbert Meilaender
David Walsh
Christopher Wolfe
Catherine Heldt Zuckert

Editorial Reviews

First Things
Very solid stuff.... An attractive package for classroom and for study.
Gertrude Himmelfarb
These essays constitute a powerful and provocative exploration of the moral foundations—and moral ambiguities—of both liberalism and democracy.
Harvey C. Mansfield
Liberalism began as a movement hostile to religious and moral fanaticism, yet it has a morality of its own to protect and foster. Here is a fine book of essays, each forcefully argued, all reasonably diverse, asking whether liberalism can be true both to its origins and to its moral needs. Can we be moral and still remain liberal?
Robert T. George
In the wake of the Clinton scandals, no one needs reminding that public morality and civic virtue are problems for modern liberalism. This splendid volume brings together some of our nation's finest moral and political thinkers to explore the capacity of the liberal tradition to guide contemporary civic practice. Liberals and conservatives alike will find their analyses and prescriptions insightful and challenging.
William A. Galston
This book offers a range of thoughtful responses to one of the most important questions we face today: How should civic virtue and human excellence be defined and fostered in a modern liberal democracy? In an era in which both civic engagement and common decency are in retreat, everyone interested in the perpetuation of liberal democracy can profit from these challenging essays.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780802847546
Publisher:
Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
Publication date:
03/28/2000
Pages:
233
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.97(h) x 0.66(d)

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Preface (from pages xi-xii)

This book is a reflection upon the fundamental principles, institutions, and norms of American and Western society in light of the growing apprehension about moral decline, civic strife, and basic incivility. In recent years these concerns have prompted increasing questions about the philosophical foundation of America's political and social order and, more pointedly, liberalism's culpability for these circumstances. In particular, how is the virtue and moral character upon which our liberal democratic society depends and which seems in short supply, to be rejuvenated and sustained?

The term "liberalism" refers to the principles and conditions of the free society as distinct from the more narrow, although not unrelated, politics of contemporary American life in which those known as "liberals" compete with their "conservative" opponents. Liberalism is the paradigmatic political philosophy of the West, a philosophy based on human freedom and equality and the natural rights of individuals that government exists to protect. The American founders drew upon these philosophical principles in declaring their independence from Britain and establishing our constitutional order.

But the liberal tradition does not encompass all of America's social heritage. There is an older tradition, one which particularly characterized America's origins and historical development—and that is religion or what is often referred to as the Judeo-Christian tradition. Biblical religion and church-based social life contributed profoundly to the moral character and vitality of American society and, indeed, played no inconsiderable role in shaping the political life of the developing country. Historically, the American government, although a liberal constitutional order, encouraged general religion and moral education while avoiding sectarian and doctrinal entanglements, thus presupposing the necessity of moral-cultural tradition.

The relationship between virtue and politics in liberal philosophy is a strained one. Liberalism seeks to give maximum freedom to individuals to live their lives as they see fit without undue interference by either government or other institutions of society. Yet, it is observed, liberalism needs character- or virtue-forming influences that by definition require some level of social authority over individual conduct to be effective. Thus, it would seem to many that a liberal political order needs to somehow find peace with social institutions and practices based on belief and moral tradition without abandoning its principles of freedom and equality of all individuals. That conundrum is at the heart of the most contentious political and social disagreements of our times; and the particular issues involved will not be resolved without an accommodation at the philosophical level—that is, between liberty and moral-cultural tradition.

The free society was a great advance in human affairs allowing for the kind of human flourishing not seen before. But freedom is only meaningful within a context of personal and civic responsibility and social order. Without virtue, freedom becomes license and self interest narrowly defined, so that a generally-held sense of the common good and civic unity is lost, and in the long run, self-government itself becomes tenuous. Thus we are led to ask, how can liberal political philosophy be shown to revitalize virtue and order, or should we look to the moral-cultural tradition or both; and how are these distinct but overlapping spheres of society to relate?

We enter a new American century with many questions, perhaps, it must be admitted, not all of which will be resolvable. We will no doubt have to continue to live with a degree of ambiguity as the price of human freedom. But it might be hoped that reasonable people of good will can more readily agree that public morality and civic virtue are essential characteristics of the free society and that the institutions and practices of public life, as well as private, cannot be indifferent to their encouragement.

The authors of this book are all formidable scholars who have thought deeply about these things. From their own philosophical and disciplinary perspectives and with varying approaches to liberal philosophy and social order, their works serve to further a national dialogue on behalf of a free and responsible society, which is the goal of this book.

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Gertrude Himmelfarb
These essays constitute a powerful and provocative exploration at the moral foundation-and moral ambiguities-of both liberalism and democracy.

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