Do Civic Virtue and Responsibility Go Beyond Political Liberalism?

Thanks to James Fleming and Linda McClain for their response to my post. The exchange has helped to elucidate the many fine points of their book. I appreciate too the various ways in which our projects overlap and thank them for continuing to bring them out.

I certainly agree that Fleming and McClain endorse a political liberal ideal of free and equal citizenship and that they often rely on an analysis that invokes this ideal in analyzing cases. They want to support free and equal citizenship. The most crucial concern, however, from my post is that the promotion of virtue may go beyond supporting the political liberal values of free and equal citizenship. Do Fleming and McClain mean to define virtue in that is merely synonymous with the political liberal ideal of free and equal citizenship, or is the concept of virtue distinct? Although they say that “we will not attempt here to persuade him about why it is possible to promote civic virtue without sliding into promoting moral virtues simpliciter and comprehensive visions of the good life,” I think this is the central challenge for their book, in that the issue of promoting virtue highlights one of their unique and important contributions to political theory.

I say that it is an important contribution because the book has a significant aim: it seeks to respond to communitarians and civic republicans who believe that liberalism cannot promote the virtue of citizens. They want to incorporate a concern for virtue with liberalism. Civic republicanism and political liberalism are traditionally seen as rival theories, and if Fleming and McClain seek to invoke both, it seems sensible to look for areas where they are forced to move in the direction of one or the other theory. Of course, these traditions might often merge when it comes to the results of particular cases, but their forms of reasoning and some of the conclusions drawn from this theory are distinct.

Fleming and McClain might want to go a different way, and redefine virtue as solely promoting the values of political liberalism, and no more. In that case, the term virtue would seem inappropriate, and the project would not merge civic republicanism and political liberalism.

On my view, the distinctive feature of an account that exclusively refers to a political liberal ideal of free and equal citizenship is that it will often require the state to be silent on matters that civic republicans will want the state to take strong positions on. I think, for instance, that a defense of the pledge of allegiance inevitably invokes an ideal of the civic good.

I think Fleming and McClain also move in the direction of civic republicanism and away from political liberalism when it comes to what they call “responsibility.” Responsibility might be defined simply as a synonym for “duty” when it comes to respect for rights. But it is commonly thought to mean more than that and to suggest a concern for individual decision-making that fulfills a good beyond respecting rights. Fleming and McClain would not ban abortion, but they would “encourage” responsible decision-making. On matters such as abortion, I do not think the theory of political liberalism has an opinion or takes a stand on what constitutes a responsible decision. Despite their reticence, Fleming and McClain are willing to enter into the foray of responsible decision-making about abortion, and here too I think they gesture to civic republicanism.

Finally, on issues of legal reasoning in Dale and other cases I was too quick to label the difference between our views as one of balancing. Instead it is better to ask whether the kinds of considerations that might count as a compelling governmental interest in their account go beyond concerns for equal citizenship to issues of civic good. While I want to limit these considerations to those of free and equal citizenship, I would think that Fleming and McClain’s theory commits them to more.

My aim in this post was to explain why Flemig and McClain’s view is indeed a virtue-based account that goes beyond the ideals of political liberalism, despite its often invoking that ideal. Their vision of the state is one that will sometimes take positions on which the political liberal state will insist on reticence.

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