A response to Dan/Libby Anne – Civic Responsibility

Patheos bloggers Dan Fincke from Camels with Hammers and Libby Anne from Love, Joy, Feminism have launched a new and ambitious project to discuss and begin to codify values that are present in the online secular community:

Like many other bloggers, I spend most of my time criticizing the ideas of others – toxic religious beliefs, patriarchal gender roles, the elevation of virginity, and the agenda of the religious right – and comparatively less time building positive alternatives. While it’s critical to contest values and ideas we find harmful, it’s also important to build up positive alternatives, and it’s that understanding that birthed Forward Thinking.

The first issue has been posted:

Our first prompt involves an issue that is, I think, too often left undiscussed. It is my suspicion that differing ideas about the nature of civic responsibility and what all it includes often underlie political differences in ways we do not always recognize. I believe that we as forward thinkers would benefit from bringing this issue out of the shadows and discussing it directly and enthusiastically. And so, without further ado, I give you this month’s Forward Thinking discussion question:

What does civic responsibility mean to you?

I think this is a great idea, and will be responding whenever I can. My response to this prompt lies below the fold:

As with most values-driven issues, my understanding of civic responsibility lies between two divergent value axioms. First, there is the recognition that our presence in a society confers a duty to take care of each other. No individual exists without some level of input from each other – a social infrastructure of laws and values and instrumental assistance exists. We are not in a position to remove ourselves from the implications of this social contract, and have a corresponding obligation to participate in it.

The second and competing value is that of individual autonomy – that it is unethical to compel someone to comply with a behaviour unless that person is interfering with the autonomy rights of another. In lay terms, you can’t take someone’s money or time without that person’s consent, no matter how noble that cause might be. Adherence to this principle allows for voluntary charitable giving, but abhors taxation for social programs or anything other than the basic functions of government (defence of property rights and public safety).

Neither of these axioms, taken in isolation, is sufficient to build a society. The abrogation of autonomy lends itself strongly to abuse and the devaluation of the individual. Some would argue that this is the reason that Soviet Communism failed (although I rather think that had more to do with Stalin and runaway militarization than failures in the philosophy, but that’s a debate to be had by people with more historical knowledge than I can bring to bear). Similarly, a state where only individual rights are considered and ‘the public good’ has no value will see massive and growing income inequalities and the de facto loss of rights by anyone who does not have the means.

It seems obvious, and most countries seem to have recognized this, that a sustainable society must balance these two principles. We have taxation systems that go to welfare programs, public education, health care, transport infrastructure, and other things that are largely referred to as “the social safety net”. At a macro level, people on all sides of the political spectrum (except, I imagine, radical libertarians) recognize both the moral and pragmatic value of some level of societal investment. Where the problems arise is when we try to actually create policy.

Civic responsibility, to me, is a work-around for resolving the friction within this axiomatic framework. It is a question of re-orienting our understanding of our societal obligation away from something that is an onerous duty to something that is an investment that yields personal return. I do not, for example, donate to charity because I am “a good person” or because I am moved by the cries of the poor (although I am), it is because I recognize that in a choice between a world in which people who can help do help, and one in which they do not, I choose the former every time. Not simply for the Rawlsian reason that “there but for the grace of God go I”, but because a world in which fewer people are starving and more people are educated is a better world for everyone, including me.

If we can engender this sense of civic responsibility in society at large – the idea that what is good for the many is also good for the few – then we have a corresponding duty to ensure that those institutions providing those services (in most cases this will be government) are exercising responsible and responsive oversight. This is where the value of scientific inquiry comes in: measuring the impact that policies have, and making evidence-based changes where necessary. It requires us to have clear criteria for success and to pay close attention to those tasked with achieving that success. It requires us to create a system of incentives and disincentives to ensure that behaving responsibly and ethically is an easier path to success than shortcuts and shady dealings.

Whatever the answer, civil responsibility is a multi-generational problem, and critical and scientific thinkers have a large role to play in its solution.

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  1. Brian Lynchehaun says

    I think I’m in full agreement with you (and not just because you quoted Rawls 😛 ).

  2. says

    Thanks to your contribution to this challenge, Crommunist. I too participated in the challenge, and I’m enjoying reading through all the responses.

    I think your two axioms are good ones, but I worry that the way you describe autonomy needs more refinement. You define autonomy as the view “that it is unethical to compel someone to comply with a behavior unless that person is interfering with the autonomy rights of another.” That seems reasonable to me, but only if we flesh out what you mean by compulsion (and also only if we agree the someone is someone other than the one doing the compelling). For instance, I think we’d all agree it’s good if I compel myself to comply with a behavior that’s not interfering with someone else’s autonomy, if that behavior is good – that’s just having a conscience and behaving morally. I also suspect that in friendship, one friend can come close to compulsion without it being a problem. If you see a friend engaging in self-destructive behavior, you might strongly encourage her to think it through and maybe act differently. And if she’s in no condition to be reasoned with you might physically keep her from harming herself – look at the old “friends don’t let friends drive drunk” line (which would probably apply even if the only person who could get hurt is the friend).

    I think, if we’re talking about society and especially politics, autonomy is a really important concept. Certainly the government shouldn’t be issuing laws that restrict my autonomy unnecessarily. (Other peoples’ autonomy and the public good can both be good examples of necessities, I think.) But when it comes to our communities – our friends, our families, our neighbors, people whose lives are connected with our own – we need to move beyond autonomy concerns to a kind of radical friendship, I think.

    Good thoughts on this topic! Thanks for sharing them.


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