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Virtues and Liberalism
For several decades, many politicians and professors have been promoting the belief that the fate of liberal democracy in America is correlated with the quality of citizens' character (Berkowitz, 1999). President George W. Bush campaigned as a compassionate conservative, promising to restore honor and dignity to the Presidency. In 1992, former President Bill Clinton sought to set a new tone for the Democratic Party, campaigning as a New Democrat -- devoted not only to the protection of individual rights and the promotion of the social and economic bases of equality but also to the principle of personal responsibility. Clinton's campaign was inspired by the ideas of William Galston, a professor of political science and fellow member of the Democratic Leadership Council, whose writings discussed "liberal virtues" and defended the propriety of a liberal state that cultivates qualities of mind and character that form good and decent citizens.
In addition, former Reagan Secretary of Education William Bennett published the best-selling book, A Book of Virtues, which was geared toward the moral education of society's young people (Berkowitz, 1999) Bennett's former Chief of Staff, William Kristol had long argued for the importance to American politics of a "sociology of virtue." Kristol envisioned a systematic study of the various voluntary associations within civil society that foster qualities of character that help citizens fulfill the daily demands of maintaining a liberal democracy. (This rediscovery of virtue by leading Democrats and Republicans occurred in sync with a renaissance in virtue studies in the universities. Today's liberals include communitarians and deliberative democrats who are directing their attention to questions about virtue and how it can be cultivated in a liberal democracy. According to Berkowitz, 1999), "Feminist thinkers champion an ethics of care that stresses the virtues of compassion and connectedness and Aristotelians and natural law theorists have been arguing their traditional positions with a renewed vigor and self-confidence. Virtue thus has attracted the attention of leading figures inside and outside the academy."
Still, many modern liberals still reject the study and practice of virtue, arguing that it induces a prudish nineteenth century Victorian morality that equates virtue with the chastity of women (Berkowitz, 1999). For others, virtue conjures up musty metaphysical doctrines linked with Aristotle and Aquinas. Many are unable to separate virtue from the chauvinistic and martial ethic that exists in the civic republican tradition. Many modern liberals believe that virtue threatens the liberal principle of separation of church and state by introducing inherently religious and unavoidably divisive notions into the public arena. Finally, "there are those who regard the very idea of virtue as an oppressive tool that stultifies experiments in self-creation by imposing on human affairs a degrading conformity (Berkowitz, 1999)." While these considerations are not equally compelling, the collective force of these modern liberal characterizations weighs against virtue's reputation.
The aversion to virtue has roots in common liberal principles: limited government, respect for individual choice, and belief in the equality of human beings. Many modern liberals believe that each citizen is the best judge of what is best for him or her; and that the government's job is to protect each citizen's right to make his or her own choices about how to live while avoiding the use of state power to favor particular choices. In this light, a set of virtues that constitute a decent or good life may be seen as a threat to individual choice.
For example, according to Rossiano (2003), "Alexander Hamilton's conception of human nature grounds his political thought. His predominately and radically liberal conception of human nature is based on Locke's concept of liberty, Hobbes's concept of power, and Machiavelli's concept of the "effectual truth." It thus stresses the necessary relation between self-interest and republican government and entails the repudiation of classical republican and Christian political ideals. But Hamilton's love of liberty is nonetheless rooted in a sense of classical nobility and Christian philanthropy that elevates even while contradicting his liberalism. The complex relation between liberty, nobility, philanthropy, and power in Hamilton's conception of human nature, in effect, defines his thought, reveals its assumptions, constitutes its strengths, and poses urgent problems. That complexity forms the spirit of his liberal republicanism."
According to Berkowitz (1999), liberalism's enthusiasm for virtue has been less documented. Classical liberalists understood that liberty, as a way of life, is an achievement that has certain preconditions. From this perspective, liberty demands of individuals' specific virtues or specific qualities of mind and character, including reflective judgment, sympathetic imagination, self-restraint, the ability to cooperate, and toleration. These virtues and qualities require training and cultivation. Classical liberalism's enthusiasm for virtue is rooted in the liberal state's need for citizens "who can effectively and fairly administer liberalism's characteristic political institutions, who can keep government within limits, who can exercise their rights in a manner respectful of others and in harmony with the common good, and who can sustain the voluntary associations that compose civil society." However, in this light, the doors are wide open for an overconfident government to take matters into its own hands in order to foster all the virtues deemed necessary to promote individual liberty and sustain democratic self-government.
The aversion to and enthusiasm for virtue create two opposing tendencies that arise within liberalism today (Berkowitz, 1999). Both sides present a seemingly distorted image of the liberal spirit and create rigid prescriptions for political life. However, some forms of liberalism consider both tendencies, which I believe is the right approach. Liberalism as a political doctrine the primary goal of which is "to secure the political conditions that are necessary for the exercise of personal freedom." Basically, personal freedom is a right that liberalism seeks to extend equally to all. "To establish and secure the personal freedom of all, the liberal tradition has elaborated a characteristic set of practices and institutions including toleration, liberty of thought and discussion, representation, and the separation of governmental powers."
Modern society focuses on choice and the importance of our freedom to choose Gronbacher,2001). Choice is promoted in advertising, elections, consumer markets, public policy, and education. The concept of freedom of choice is fundamental to how we view the American way of life. In many ways, this emphasis on choice is healthy and proper. The point of living in a liberal society is that we do not have a system in which others force choices upon us. However, the need to choose responsibly is not as well emphasized. In this light, virtue can be seen as an important aspect of liberalism. It is not enough merely to be free. We should seek ways to employ our freedom toward good ends, and recognize that freedom, just like money, can be squandered.
The modern age has come to disagree with classical liberalism, which centered on virtue. The classical view of ordered liberty contradicts the contemporary understanding of freedom as license. For the modern mind, freedom, in order to be truly respected, must have no limitations or restrictions placed on it. Virtue from this perspective is falsely treated as an external force that limits a person's freedom.
The rejection of virtue in liberty has robbed liberalism of much of its specific meaning. In its classical usage, liberalism implied primacy for the individual and strict limitations upon governments that ensured full freedom for the individual to serve his needs as he desired. The past few decades have seen a complete reversal in liberalism's attitude toward government. Modern liberalism is something different. In its moral confusion it has turned free enterprise into support for a command economy. It turned religious freedom into freedom from religion and government hostility toward religion.
Liberal Virtues by Stephen Macedo (1990) is geared toward those who worry that a liberal society neglects the importance of community and citizen virtue. According to Macado, if a democratic constitutional regime…[continue]
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