Finding Virtue's Place: Examining America's Civic Life

By S. Lance Denning | Go to book overview

2
The Sham of Civic Virtue

This chapter has two themes. One is that today's civic virtue debate lacks sufficient insight to provide worthwhile public objectives. Instead, it focuses on our moral condition to the exclusion of all other social elements. Thus, it seeks remedies by changing individual behavior while it underestimates the effects political and economic activity have on individual behavior. As a representative example, I examine Gertrude Himmelfarb's recent work describing America's civic condition. The second theme is related to the first, but it starts from a more theoretical background. It questions the application of Tocqueville's views of American society to our current civic health. I offer reservations about his views by way of analyzing what I believe are several myths, both past and present, about American society. Although Tocqueville's views provide intellectual insight for our supposed social evils and to our civic solutions, they also have been crafted by and for a specific political agenda. Also, his ideas contain their own agenda as he wrote in response to Rousseau's democratic vision and emphasis on popular participation, and he wrote for a French aristocratic audience, not necessarily an American democratic one.

Inherent throughout the discussion of these two themes is yet another essential topic. One that reveals itself in subtle contradictions, and that is often difficult to decipher. As I noted in the previous chapter, it is the dichotomy between our words and actions, between our beliefs and values and how our public lives express these values. The paradox of collective action and the "tragedy of the commons" are common descriptions -- in that individual rational behavior has unintended, debilitating collective results -- of our contradictory actions. These paradoxes are written into our sacrosanct individual freedoms, and thus our civic virtue debate boils down

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Finding Virtue's Place: Examining America's Civic Life
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface ix
  • Acknowledgments xv
  • 1 - Our Civic Ideal and Today's Debate 1
  • Notes 24
  • 2 - The Sham of Civic Virtue 27
  • Notes 50
  • 3 - Equality and Civic Health 53
  • Notes 77
  • 4 - Confronting Complexity 81
  • Notes 105
  • 5 - At the Confluence of Theory and Practice 107
  • Notes 129
  • 6 - Changing Our Balance 131
  • Notes 155
  • Selected Bibliography 157
  • Index 163
  • About the Author *
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