Professor Andrew Peterson and Dr. David Civil
Jubilee Centre For Character and Virtues
That which follows was first written as a position paper, shared with the panel for the Jubilee Centre Public webinar, ‘Civic Virtue, Community and The Common Good’. Chaired by Senior Centre Research Fellow, Lord James O’Shaughnessy this session featured Jason Cowley, Editor of the New Statesman, Miriam Cates, Conservative MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge. and Jon Cruddas, Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham and author of ‘The Dignity of Labour’.
A recording of this event can be views via the Centre’s YouTube channel.
The Common Good
Public life, political debate and democratic engagement in Britain face significant challenges. These include, but are not limited to, widening polarisation, increasing misinformation, and a rise of incivility in political discourse – a rise exacerbated by social media. Rather than recognising what we have in common, our differences are emphasised – whether of identity, viewpoint or status – as citizens become increasingly entrenched into hostile camps and/or retreat into their private lives. Citizens with different political views and communities with different ideals are often regarded as enemies to be vanquished rather than as fellow citizens with legitimate perspectives to be deliberated with regarding the public interest. In responding to these trends, politicians from across the political spectrum, as well as a diverse range of academics and public commentators, have simultaneously pointed to the decline of a politics of the common good and called for its renewal. Advocated instead are positive forms of social justice and the common good, which seek to emphasise harmony, the pursuit of consensus and the bringing together of communities over antagonism and conflict. The common good is not about flattening individuality or suppressing disagreement, but recognising the importance of social bonds for the flourishing of every citizen – including the value in citizens coming together to deliberate on the meaning of a just society and a good life. It is only by encouraging civically-minded, active and responsible citizenship in the service of the common good that we can reach our full potential as human beings. In the place of individualistic or meritocratic forms of human flourishing and social justice, an emphasis on the common good can help restore a politics of trust, dignity, respect, mutuality, service to others, and humility.
‘The common good is not about flattening individuality or suppressing disagreement, but recognising the importance of social bonds for the flourishing of every citizen – including the value in citizens coming together to deliberate on the meaning of a just society and a good life’.
Reflecting on the pandemic
The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated a popular upsurge of social action and the importance of civically-minded citizens serving the needs of their local communities in various ways. Despite this, however, barriers to the realisation of the common good remain firmly in place. As the American philosopher Michael Sandel and the British political commentator David Goodhart have recently argued, at the core of this resistance is an individualistic or meritocratic conception of social justice. For Sandel, the more we think of ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, the harder it is to learn the virtues of gratitude and humility which are vital to repairing and sustaining the common good. As Sandel argues, while ‘breaking down barriers is a good thing’, a good society ‘cannot be premised only on the promise of escape’. Focusing only, or mainly, on mobility ‘does little to cultivate the social bonds and civic attachments that democracy requires’. For Goodhart, ‘qualities such as character, integrity, experience, common sense, courage and willingness to toil are by no means irrelevant, but they command relatively little respect’. This has led to a ‘moral deregulation’ whereby it becomes harder to feel satisfaction and self-respect living ordinary, decent lives. The narrative of ‘escape’ associated with an over-emphasis on social mobility has fostered a metropolitan elite scornful of ‘ordinary citizens’ and their way of life. Far from challenging the atomisation of individuals or the fragmentation of communities associated with globalisation, the rise of identity politics further exacerbates a politics of difference and division. Political questions are confined to debates about representation and the concept of social justice reduced to the removal of barriers rather than a positive vision of the good life and human flourishing.
Neo Aristotelian Foundations
Underpinning any vision of the common good, and often neglected in discussions about its revival or renewal, must be a set of civic virtues. Interest in the nature, place and formation of civic virtues can be traced back to Aristotle. For Aristotle, the happiness and virtue of individuals is dependent on living as a member of a community, and the best communities are those which enable their citizens to attain excellence of character. The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues defines civic virtues as the positive and stable character traits that enable citizens to participate in the public life of their communities, whether locally, nationally or globally. In a democracy, civic virtues enable effective participation in the various institutions and organisations of political and civil society that comprise the public domain. The formation and expression of civic virtues in pursuit of the common good are vital for both individual and societal flourishing. These virtues – including civility, tolerance and service to others – are a core part of an individual’s character, but are also vital for the active, informed and responsible engagement of citizens in a variety of community, civil or political organisations. In other words, civic virtues play a vital role in enabling citizens and their communities to flourish.
A Renewed Focus?
All of Britain’s main political parties have had, at some point in their respective histories, a strong association with common good politics and have emphasised the importance of civic virtues for the health of the nation’s democracy. While these associations might have been obscured in recent decades, there is some evidence of a renewed focus on how to repair and sustain flourishing communities within and across political parties and wider public life. Rather than viewing society as being concerned with securing individual rights and protection from harm, a common good approach to politics extends its scope to the promotion of moral excellence within citizens and communities – excellences required to live a flourishing life and which can only be developed in social community with others.
The formation and expression of civic virtues in pursuit of the common good are vital for both individual and societal flourishing. These virtues – including civility, tolerance and service to others – are a core part of an individual’s character, but are also vital for the active, informed and responsible engagement of citizens in a variety of community, civil or political organisations. In other words, civic virtues play a vital role in enabling citizens and their communities to flourish.
The questions that remain…
A number of important questions remain outstanding:
- What are the obstacles or barriers to the formation of a common good politics? How might these challenges be overcome?
- What is the nature and role of civic virtues in the UK today? How might they be strengthened?
- How do we capitalise on the upsurge in social action and community-mindedness witnessed during the Covid-19 pandemic?
- In multicultural, pluralistic democracies how can we encourage a positive conception of social justice and flourishing, one which motivates citizens to seek their own good and that of others?
Civic Virtues Through Service to Others
This session draws upon previous, applied research of the Centre and its staff looking at the topics of service, social action, civic virtue, and the common good particularly in reference to young people and those that support them. This includes the ongoing Civic Virtues Through Service to Others project.
Further details, insights and publications can be found by visiting the project pages on the Jubilee Centre website.