Civic Virtues: Rights, Citizenship, and Republican Liberalism

By Richard Johnson Dagger | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 12
Civic Virtues and Republican Liberalism

To classify republican liberalism as a perfectionist theory is in some ways misleading. Those who are not versed in the debate between liberal neutralists and perfectionists may take the term "perfectionist" to suggest that republican liberalism holds out a vision of a utopian society free from strife, struggle, and frustration. But that is not at all what republican liberalism aims to do. Nor is it the only way in which "perfectionist" may be misleading, for someone familiar with the neutrality-perfectionism debate may conceive of perfectionism as the attempt to maximize some form of human excellence or virtue -- and republican liberalism certainly does not aim to do that. 1

Conceiving of republican liberalism as a perfectionist theory in this maximizing sense would be mistaken in at least two ways. First, republican liberalism seeks to promote and cultivate, but not to maximize, certain virtues. According to the argument of Chapter 3, we ought to promote autonomy, which I defined there as the ability to lead a self-governed life. But I also noted that there is a threshold beyond which increasing someone's autonomy by widening the range of choices available to him or her -- from the ability to purchase a Mercedes-Benz to the ability to purchase a RollsRoyce, to use the earlier example -- becomes less and less valuable. Rather than maximize autonomy, either in a select few individuals or in some abstract sense, as if we could pile up units of autonomy, we ought to be concerned with bringing as many people as possible up to that threshold. The idea is to promote autonomy by recognizing the right of autonomy, not to produce more and more autonomy for its own sake.

The second mistake is that this conception of perfectionism leads one to look for a single standard of human excellence or virtue -- one yardstick against which every effort is to be measured. Republican liberalism supplies no such standard. Drawing as it does on the republican and liberal traditions, it aims to promote bothautonomy and civic virtue. These are indeed complementary ideals, as I have argued, but they do not reduce to a single metric or index; the occasional tension between the two will not allow it.

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