Citizenship: contributing to the common good in a time of ethical pluralism

How can communities and the individuals that comprise them be inspired to cultivate a shared civic ethos in order to lay the foundations for a more vibrant and cooperative civic life? In this interview with the Social Trends Institute, political scholar David Thunder elucidates how his latest collection of essays The Ethics of Citizenship in the 21st Century addresses this challenge.

In your last book, Citizenship and the Pursuit of the Worthy Life, you argue against the modern separation between ethics and political morality.  Is this volume related to that argument?

In crafting this collection, I had in mind the pressing need to draw more compelling connections between our participation in political communities and the “warp and woof” of our ordinary life, as fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, co-workers, educators, churchgoers, and what have you.

The core concern being addressed in this volume is, what is it like to be a citizen in the 21st century, and how can our civic participation be rendered fully intelligible and justifiable in light of our broader ethical aspirations, our noble desires and hopes, our most meaningful relationships and projects?

How can ‘citizenship’ even be defined in a globalized world?  What does the term describe for the purposes of your work?

That is an excellent question. To the extent that political communities are diverse on the one hand, and constantly shifting in composition and cultural make-up on the other, inevitably the meaning of citizenship will vary both across different communities and internally within communities over time.

Citizenship is generally associated with membership in a community that is, under some description, self-governing. It entails a cooperative relationship with other members of said community, a relationship marked by some sense of loyalty, solidarity, and a shared sense of belonging. Membership in a more or less self-governing community draws with it a set of rights and responsibilities, participation in a shared narrative, devotion to certain common goods, among other things.

The difficulty arises when you have a political community that contains groups of people with very different views about the fundamental principles of social morality and who do not share the same narrative about the meaning of their life.

That is the challenge of cultural and moral pluralism that Western, and increasingly also non-Western, societies, are confronting, and this issue is addressed by practically all of the authors of this volume, in one form or another, because it is a challenge that no political thinker can today afford to ignore.

If there is a crisis of ethical values that “give shape, form and meaning to modern social life,” what is to be done about it and by whom?

The crisis of ethical values that “give shape, form and meaning to modern social life” has a complex genealogy. Some of its underlying causes are the decline of religion, with its traditional power of galvanizing and protecting shared customs and social norms; the rise of individualistic lifestyles, or the “cult of the individual,” who devotes himself almost exclusively to his own career and fulfilment, with little thought for the common good or the needs of his fellow citizens.

There is also the increasing cultural and moral differentiation that we see, in part due to the polarization between intensely religious and more secular citizens, in part due to the influx of immigrants with other cultural and moral values, and in part simply due to the consequences of individuals taking their own paths without following any collective moral authority beyond their own conscience.

What is to be done about such a crisis? This is a huge and difficult question, which I cannot possibly answer here in a satisfying way. Certainly, one important step is to come to a deeper understanding of its underlying causes, and to begin to articulate some principles that might guide us out of this messy situation. I hope my book, Citizenship and the Pursuit of the Worthy Life, and this latest edited volume, make some modest contribution to that task.

But ultimately, the answer lies with citizens and social groups scattered across the nations of the world, as well as with policymakers and civic leaders. The types of answers people give will obviously depend on their own capacities and opportunities for action.

People in positions of leadership may be able to inspire communities to make changes to their internal structure and ethos so as to begin to heal the moral rifts between citizens, and cultivate a shared civic ethos, if not nationally, at least within the affected group.

Church leaders and their faithful can, in teaching and above all through example, cultivate a love of truth and justice within church communities, which inevitably overflows into citizens’ relationships and activities beyond the church.

Ordinary citizens can do their part by educating themselves and their children about the common good and about lifestyles and virtues that can overcome some of the divisive and socially destructive effects of individualism. If people acquire human virtue in the family and in educational institutions from an early age, in addition to well thought through ideas about justice, public service, and the common good, they will be equipped to participate responsibly and to contribute to their political and professional communities in a magnanimous rather than small-minded or calculating way. This will lay the foundations of a more vibrant and cooperative civic life.

Finally, at the institutional level, my own opinion is that the bulk of political functions should be delegated to the local level, so that the people affected by decisions can give their input to them, and thus learn how to build a polity together.

The Ethics of Citizenship in the 21st Century. Editor and Contributor. Springer, 2017. ISBN 978-3319504148

Dr David Thunder has been a Research Fellow at the University of Navarra's Institute for Culture and Society(Religion and Civil Society Project) since September 2012. Prior to this appointment, he held several research and teaching positions in the United States. His research, which primarily engages the work of late modern and contemporary political philosophers, attempts to come to a deeper understanding of the lived experience of persons who seek to live meaningful and worthy lives in community with others.

This article is an abridged version of an interview published by the Social Trends Institute and is republished here with permission.


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