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Do We Have a Duty of Civility?

By Laura Siscoe
27 Oct 2023
black-and-white photograph of gentlemen engaged in gun duel

Data shows that American political culture has experienced a steady decline in civility. This downward shift has become a frequent talking point amongst sociologists, political pundits, as well as many average Americans. Most who work on this issue agree this trend is deeply troubling for the trajectory of American society. So, how can we reinfuse our shared political culture with the virtue of civility?

In political philosophy there is a concept often referred to as the duty of civility. This is a moral (as opposed to a legal) duty to take the beliefs of others in your political community into account when deciding how to vote, which policies to advocate for, and which claims you appeal to in the public square. The origin of the duty of civility is linked to 20th century political philosopher  John Rawls, and his formulation of the principle can be found in the text Political Liberalism. In constructing his political philosophy, Rawls was sensitive to the fact that diverse people living in a free society will inevitably hold disparate opinions and beliefs. The challenge, then, becomes figuring out how to show civility to our neighbors, with whom we might disagree sharply over any number of important matters.

To get slightly more technical, the duty of civility specifically claims that people must be able to appeal to “shared” or “public” reasons as justifications for their political stances. These reasons, according to Rawls, are those your fellow citizens might agree with regardless of their particular religious, ethical, or political beliefs. Rawls took these kinds of reasons to be based in the core values of political liberalism, such as the protection of basic human rights, freedom of conscience, and the protection of one’s political autonomy. The thought here is that all reasonable citizens living in a free and liberal society should be able to comfortably endorse these commitments. Thus, if political policies are always grounded in these shared, public reasons, they have legitimate authority over people, independent of the diversity of opinions that inevitably exists within a political community.

Regardless of whether people agree with Rawls that fulfilling the duty of civility demands appealing to shared or public reasons, the general spirit of that duty seems highly relevant to reversing the troubling trend we are currently witnessing in American political culture. One point of academic debate, however, involves what this duty means for citizens living in non-ideal political communities (i.e., our political community). There is disagreement over whether or not our duty to consider the different, and oftentimes opposing, beliefs of our neighbors is contingent on their willingness to do the same. Is the duty of civility only binding if we can expect that compassion, generosity, empathy to be reciprocated?

Certain moral duties do seem to function in this kind of contingent way. For example, consider the moral obligations generated when entering into contractual agreements with others. Let’s imagine that you enter into a contract with your landlord that outlines the duties of property care they incur in exchange for your monthly rent payment. Let’s then also imagine that they fail to uphold these duties in a significant way. Under such conditions, you are potentially released from your duty to continue paying them. The lack of reciprocity entails the suspension of what would otherwise be your moral duty. On the other hand, other kinds of moral duties seem to persist regardless of whether or not the other party involved holds up their end of the deal. For example, if you have a moral duty to give a certain percentage of your income to charity, this duty does not seem contingent on whether others in your society also choose to donate their money.

I believe the duty of civility is more like the latter example than the former. If a desirable goal for our society is to establish a healthier political culture, it is difficult to imagine how this will occur without individuals taking this kind of duty upon themselves. Forcing ourselves to grapple with the reality that many of our well-intentioned neighbors view the world through a substantially different lens will likely shape the way we engage politics for the better. Embracing the duty of civility helps to prevent the steamrolling of the beliefs, opinions, and convictions of others, which inevitably has positive downstream implications for the health and vitality of our public square.

Of course this is not to say that individuals must bracket off all of their particularly controversial beliefs when it comes to public political engagement. Rather, it is to say that thinking through the implications that various policies you advocate for will have not only on you, but also on your neighbors, is an essential exercise in which to engage. If individuals refuse to engage in such a practice unless enough other members of society also agree to participate, it seems unlikely that the duty of civility will ever become enmeshed in our political culture.

So to return to our original question of how to reinfuse our political culture with civility, it seems clear enough that individuals must strive to fulfill something like the duty of civility, and do so regardless if others around them choose the same. At risk of the further degradation of our public square, it seems incumbent on people to strive for morally ideal action, even in the midst of non-ideal conditions.

Laura Siscoe is a PhD student at the University of Southern California, where she specializes in social, moral, and political philosophy. She is currently working on her dissertation, which focuses on the implications that increasing sociological diversity has for public reason liberalism.
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