The Language of Civic Republicanism

It’s an honor to participate in this online discussion of Jim’s and Linda’s book, Ordered Liberty, which offers a theory of liberal constitutionalism that seeks to mediate tensions between rights, responsibilities, and virtue.  Their work is always engaging, learned, and timely.  I’m pleased to have the opportunity to share some thoughts about it.

There are many provocative concepts worth pushing on, but I thought I might begin by observing that it is possible to read their thoughtful book as requiring the use of civic republicanism as the primary language through which to fight over constitutional rights.  If this is correct, I would begin by asking the question: what work does the language of civic republicanism do in their theory?

Jim and Linda posit that fostering responsibility for oneself and responsibility to others (family and community) characterizes the general project that may be undertaken by the state.  At times, this “formative project” is called “securing the capacities for democratic and personal self-governance.”  So, again, how much lifting does the ideology and rhetoric of republicanism accomplish?

One possibility is that civic republicanism organizes constitutional debate.  It operates as a set of rules of exclusion, putting certain kinds of arguments off limits while including other kinds of arguments if they are properly constructed.  Departing from communitarians and natural law theorists, Jim and Linda believe that moral arguments are permissible in constitutional debate so long as they have been translated into the language of civic republicanism: a speaker doesn’t refer to comprehensive moral doctrines, but instead resorts to some set of liberal values, or virtues.

If civic republicanism merely organizes a conversation, then it may be doing little more than establishing a range of possible outcomes, all of which might be compatible with the goal of inculcating some agreed-upon set of virtues and responsibilities.  The authors’ discussion of home schooling suggests that, after taking the extremes off the table (a right to home school without qualification/ no right to home school), there are any number of possible policy arrangements that might inculcate responsibility and virtue.  Similarly, in discussing BSA v. Dale, Jim and Linda don’t quite come out and say the case was wrongly decided or rightly decided, but are content to suggest ways in which the opinion might have taken autonomy and responsibility better into account.  This hesitation could be treated as evidence that, once extreme solutions are taken off the table and the language of virtue and responsibility is used in some minimally proficient way, their theory is indifferent to which outcome is selected so long as the choice is defended in the right vocabulary.  This vision can, in a slightly different light, resemble a procedural approach to constitutional law.

But it may seem unsatisfying for a constitutional theory not to help us choose among attractive possibilities.  Can we imagine a civic republicanism that does more work, one that more strongly shapes particular outcomes?  In other words, can the framework of virtues and responsibilities aid us in sifting through possibilities and identifying better solutions from among plausible ones?  Perhaps, but in a pluralistic community we would need to know something more about particular responsibilities (to whom), which virtues should be maximized (since in reality many different virtues may be at stake and in tension), and whose virtues should be prioritized (more on this later) before we could assess which outcome would best facilitate a virtue-based agenda.

Perhaps what Jim and Linda offer is something short of a comprehensive theory (the authors seem skeptical of grand theories and perfectionist approaches) but more than a rule-bound approach.  It is a demand that constitutional discourse occur under certain grammar rules, coupled with a handful of meta-principles.  At times, Jim and Linda seem to be arguing that civic republicanism (at least the version favored by the authors that takes both rights and responsibilities seriously) yields substantive meta-norms.  For instance, their critique of Sunstein’s theory of minimalism suggests they favor a strong adjudicative norm of judicial engagement.  They don’t seem to think that judges should avoid controversial cases simply out of a fear of backlash; to the contrary, they believe (as I do) that judges must undertake to articulate rights as part of a duty to ensuring deliberative politics.

The authors praise solutions that neither spell out absolute rights nor deny individual autonomy.  They especially like solutions of “shared sovereignty” grounded in the idea that multiple communities have a claim on individuals (see, for example, their discussion of cases involving the rights of schoolchildren or abortion), and solutions that foster dialogue among different branches of government (see their analysis of the gay marriage rulings).  All of these strategies of decisionmaking may encourage deliberation, though in ways that individuals might occasionally fear, precisely because they challenge one’s worldview.  What I am less certain of is what civic virtues are being maximized through shared sovereignty solutions.  Is it an ideal mindset associated with citizenship?—for instance, Jim and Linda sometimes speak of “reflective” judgment.  Perhaps the best legal decisions foster certain habits of citizenship, e.g., considering a viewpoint different from one’s own, consulting all communities with a stake in the outcome?  Or are shared sovereignty solutions preferred on the view that multiple decisionmakers might increase the chances of better, more informed decisions, or at least culturally supported ones?

So, the upshot is this: how thick or thin, and how substantive or procedural in nature is the language of rights, virtues, and responsibility?

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