Civic Virtues: Rights, Citizenship, and Republican Liberalism

By Richard Johnson Dagger | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 8
Education, Autonomy, and Civic Virtue

Education is an obvious way to try to cultivate dispositions such as conditional altruism. As Shelley Burtt points out, classical republican theorists often argued that it is necessary to ground civic virtue in "the education of desire." For republicans such as Machiavelli, Algernon Sydney, and Rousseau, this meant that we should "seek to secure the priority of public over private goods not through extinguishing or subordinating personal desires but by carefully molding them." 1 If conditional altruism is a key ingredient in the republican-liberal conception of civic virtue, then it seems that republican liberals must also advocate "the education of desire."

But Burtt's words also indicate how the classical republican position may be, once again, too stringent for republican liberals to accept. From the republican liberal standpoint, it is neither possible nor desirable to take people's preferences simply as given, as I noted in the previous chapter. But that does not mean that republican liberalism prescribes "carefully molding" desires and passions. For republican liberals, part of the point of education is to help people live autonomously. Rather than "carefully molding" the desires and passions, then, a republican-liberal education will try to enable people to govern their desires and passions so that they may live as autonomous individuals in community with other autonomous individuals.

How might this be done? Can this be done? Is it even possible, that is, to educate people for autonomy and for civic virtue at the same time? In this chapter I shall try to show that it is. But there is another matter to settle first. My claim is that republican liberalism offers a compelling account of the purposes of education: to promote autonomy and civic virtue. This claim assumes that there must be some purpose or set of purposes that define education, and that assumption has recently been challenged. I begin, therefore, with a defense of that fundamental assumption.

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