What Is Civic Virtue Today?

News outlets over the course of this pandemic have oscillated between being somewhat unforgiving of young people and decrying missed opportunities in relation to their education. There are positive data demonstrating that young people are eager to engage in voluntary work, as well as critical commentaries about students carelessly spreading COVID-19 in university towns and cities. All the while, there is the familiar coverage about the self-centredness of youth, and of their increasing disengagement from civic and community life.

Where do we start in understanding these conflicting accounts of young people and their engagement with their communities? It is unclear whether such reports mean anything much taken together, or whether they accurately reflect the real-life experiences of young people in contemporary Britain. Outside observations about the individualism of today’s world and the declining significance of in-person interaction could lead us to question whether civic virtue (understood broadly as a collection of positive, stable characteristics that allow one to participate in public and political life) has much relevance for young people today.

Yet there are some notable instances of virtue breaking through in these most extraordinary circumstances. The Jubilee Centre has been a staunch supporter of the #iwill Ambassador programme, which celebrates young people with extraordinary passion for helping others through social action. In a series of interviews with the Jubilee Centre late last year, one young person noted:

The pandemic has been a really good opportunity for young people to show their ability. They have stepped up as volunteers, or going into retail…in the shop near me, there were so many young people that were in the years below me at school that took on jobs in the supermarket at the time, which I guess is not social action, but is them stepping up into the community when they are needed. (#iwill Ambassador, September 2020)

While an immediate reaction to this might be to claim that such action can hardly be classed as ‘virtuous’ because it involves self-gain through paid employment, the point made by this young person at the end is significant. Different moments call for different actions in the service of others. Limiting our definition of what ‘counts’ as service or civic virtue to acts of pure altruism can mean we miss the important new ways that young people are expressing respect and care for their community, a strong sense of responsible citizenship, or a desire to serve others around them in the midst of the pandemic.

In the course of the new project launched by the Jubilee Centre in January 2021,‘Civic Virtue Through Service to Others’, we are seeking to answer some lingering questions about civic virtue: what does this term mean, both to an academic audience and more widely to (young) people in our society today? To what extent does the term still have appeal and traction? How do civic virtues relate to the moral, intellectual and performance virtues, as well as to the meta-virtue of phronesis? We are aware, in so doing, that there is a disconnect for many when it comes to the language of civic virtue – but this does not mean that young people are failing to engage in activities that can be described as civically virtuous.

Much of the literature on civic virtues focuses on a ‘moment’ between 1990 and 2010 when there was an eagerness amongst academics and politicians alike to promote active citizenship and civic virtues in wider society. Yet it is in more recent years that we have witnessed the rise of grassroots movements born on the internet, young activists such as Malala Yousufzai and Greta Thunberg speaking out on the global stage, and groups of young citizens organising online through petitions and campaigns.

Young people of this generation are more global in their outlook. Social and political issues are no longer confined with the borders of a particular country or continent, although a global issue is of course experienced, felt and enacted locally. It is possible that this hyper-connected generation have formed new ‘civic’ spaces online and alongside it, with new expressions of civic virtue coming to the fore:

I was on a call with people from all around the world where we were all working towards a common goal. And I think that is amazing, as it is an experience that you would not get if you were in person, so there are definitely benefits to working online. (#iwill Ambassador, September 2020)

Arguably, there is little semantic difference between campaigning on an issue of collective importance in one’s local area and doing so online regarding an issue of international resonance. It is not even that such a shift of community context is unprecedented: when Aristotle wrote about civic virtues thousands of years ago, it was in the context of Greek city-states. The word ‘civic’ itself has evolved from referring primarily to towns and cities, to much larger nation-states, as the political organisation of human societies has evolved and developed.

Despite the challenges of defining and classifying acts of civic virtue (perhaps even because of them) it remains clear that the time has come for us to develop a more relevant and representative view of civic virtue. Even with increased calls on the public to think of their wider responsibility towards others in the midst of this pandemic (especially where public health is concerned), we are rarely encouraged to think of these actions as a matter of virtue or vice. To many, the term ‘civic virtue’ would mean very little, and even to the familiar there is some disagreement about the nature of it.

The longer that civic virtue remains a nebulous concept, the less likely we are to see young people take ownership of the language of civic virtue and the accompanying vision of a flourishing society. Even (or especially) amid great uncertainty and an unprecedented period for reflection, young people’s desire to contribute is already evident.

As such, it is important to capture this moment and acknowledge the evolution of service to others, especially as we observe the increasing willingness of young people to engage in social action in this time of great need. Without properly defining and shaping our concept of civic virtue to fit the contemporary moment, we risk missing the contribution that is already being made by young people – and the opportunity to encourage this further. Within this effort, we need to investigate the language young people use in online civic spaces for what we could call acts of civic expression, including specific words and phrases or the deployment of particular virtue terms, to ensure that our understanding is sufficiently inclusive.

I will end with the thoughts of an #iwill Ambassador who was only too aware of the way that young people today can be underestimated in this regard:

I had people talking to me and they were like ‘Wow, I did not know young people cared about something like this’. So it is important for others to know that there are people who care and will put time and effort into these things and I think it’s been more prevalent now that it is more of a choice to be doing social action than ever before.

This is a new era of civic virtue. As those concerned with character education, it is our responsibility to capture it.

Sarah Ritzenthaler, Research Fellow, Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues.

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