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Thick-skinned liberalism: redefining civility.

A norm of civility defines a standard of conduct that citizens can rightfully expect from strangers. What are appropriate norms of civility for citizens of liberal states? I argue that two approaches to civility are prominent in our political culture, one requiring "mere" tolerance, the other, that we affirm the worth of others' pursuits (and thereby the worth of those others). This split parallels a division in liberal theory between an interest-based account of liberalism (represented primarily by 1. S. Mill) and a status-based account (represented principally by John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin), respectively. The exploration of this theoretical divide and how it relates to contending notions of civility helps to clarify disputes in the broader culture. I conclude that interest-based liberalism offers a more satisfactory approach to the issue at hand.

There is a ferment in our culture concerning the norms of civility appropriate for liberal citizens. I am not referring to the notion (though it may be true) that as a society we are simply growing more rude. Rather, I am referring to beliefs held by or urged on citizens as to how we should respond to others who hold to conceptions of the good alien - if not antagonistic - to our own. Is it sufficient that we "merely" not interfere or tolerate others as they pursue their own conceptions of value? Or must we somehow do more by affirming the worth of diverse conceptions of the good fife that we find not only out of tune with our own but perhaps even trivial or debasing and thereby affirm the worth of those who practice them?(1)

It may be that we are growing less civil while, at the same time, civility is being redefined and its requirements heightened. Those of us on college campuses are particularly aware of this change as we are urged, for example, not merely to accept or tolerate but to "recognize" or even celebrate diversity. Though this edict is frequently related to ethnicity, gender, and/or sexual orientation, we are really being asked to celebrate diverse conceptions of the good grounded in cultures of long or short duration or in a set of avowedly political values. Recognition may involve making available institutional resources including money, office space, and the like and/or creating programs focused on given cultural identities. It may also require not engaging in - even banning - acts of expression that offend given groups (see, e.g., Henry 1993; Hentoff 1994; Hughes 1993).(2)

Often, this implicit redefinition of civility from tolerance to affirmation is grounded in a view of the role citizens play in enhancing or diminishing others' self-esteem by words or actions directed toward the groups with which they identify.(3) Enhancing self-esteem requires that we show through our actions that we affirm the moral worth of given ways of life, whether tied to cultures or to "lifestyle preferences," and thereby the moral worth of the people involved.(4)

These conflicting norms of civility mirror, I believe, an evolving divide in liberal political theory. This divide centers on what it means to treat others with the concern and respect they are owed as persons able to act upon plans advancing a conception of the good life. In particular, to what degree - if at all - does respect for persons entail a respect for the ends they pursue and how must this respect be manifested? And to what degree does concern for the well-being of others oblige us to instruct each other where we can on the worthiness of ends? Put somewhat differently, these questions raise the further issue of what kinds of conversations, if any, about the meaning of the good fife are appropriate in the public forums of liberal societies.

I have two main purposes in calling this dichotomy in liberal theory to the fore. First, debates in political theory (where, one hopes, participants are clearer about what they mean than in popular media) can help to illuminate controversies in the political culture at large. I think that this is the case regarding norms of civility. Second, it is important to see that one's core political values have profound implications for how one does, or would if consistent, think about a range of practical problems. One school of liberal thought, of which John Stuart Mill shall be our main example, demands of liberal citizens a full-throated dialogue - even a sharp, impolite dialogue as the occasion demands - regarding the meaning of the good life. This is because concern for others' well-being entails a concern that they use their liberty well, and this in turn obliges us to cajole and persuade - but not coerce - others if we have reason to believe that they are not using it wen. The duty to tolerate diverse conceptions of the good as articulated in Mill's harm principle does not entail a duty to affirm the worth of such conceptions. Indeed, to feel oneself compelled toward affirmation and/or withholding of criticism is a failure to show proper concern for others' well-being and hence a failure in one's moral responsibilities. We win explore how Mill is drawn to this conclusion by the fundamentals of his "ideal utilitarian" political thought. Essential to this argument will be to note that Mill grounds rights in interests and takes liberty to be the principle political value because it is so vital to advancing our interest as autonomous (or potentially autonomous) beings.

In contrast, contemporary Kantian liberal theory, which John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin shall represent, grounds rights not in interests but in what I shall call our status as persons. In accordance with this view, the fundamental political value is a particular conception of equality, or, in Dworkin's terms, a universal right to be treated with "equal concern and respect." While it may not be entirely intended or essential to the status-based project, its implicit notion of civility suggests that something more than tolerance (let's call it tolerance-plus) is morally required. For reasons that are complex and even paradoxical, for the Kantian liberals, respect for persons slides into a respect for ends.(5) I shall argue that one undesirable consequence of this elision is unduly to constrain the conversations that may legitimately take place in liberal societies on the meaning of the good life.

Much of the disagreement between the two views resides in different understandings of how much one's sense of self as an autonomous agent pursuing self-chosen ends depends upon how one thinks he is perceived by others. The essential role others play in enhancing an individuals sense of self-worth (and thus, it is alleged his or her capacity to act in the world) is a much more central notion to the status-based view, though often not with desirable consequences.

I do not intend to - nor can I - resolve the controversy between interest- and status-based liberalism or between those who give pride of place to liberty or equality as the core liberal value. I do want to suggest, however, that we ascertain the acceptability of general theories of liberalism by how satisfactorily they answer concrete questions of political morality. I will suggest that the interest-based view yields a more satisfactory understanding of the moral requirements associated with civility, although as we shall see, the particular interest theory we examine - that of Mill-is open to a host of objections on other scores.(6) So one aim of this essay is to examine a particular and pressing political problem. Another is to contribute a budding block to a broader theoretical debate among those with liberal political inclinations.


A norm of civility defines the kinds of behavior that persons can rightful expect from others. By one dictionary definition, it refers to refraining from rudeness, while politeness implies some further effort to extend courtesies to others (Webster's New World Dictionary, 3d college ed.). And rudeness suggests some degree of intention; that is, the rude person hurts someone's feelings out of malice rather than oversight. Rightfully expect implies that persons are duty-bound to be civil toward one another even though incivility is generally best subject to social rather than legal sanction.

Conceptions of civility vary, of course, across cultures. Such a conception appropriate for a liberal culture, while not necessarily higher or lower than other standards (What is the scale of measurement?) does require a fairly high degree of forbearance or tolerance of difference (Orwin 1992). A liberal political philosophy provides reasons for citizens to forbear from actions imposing burdens on their fellows who are pursuing their own conceptions of the good without harming others.

Now liberal societies have met quite imperfectly standards of civility that citizens have reason to accept (and often do accept in the abstract). This fact is the motive behind one of the classics of liberal thought, John Stuart Mill's On Liberty. As Mill himself writes, his goal is to provide a principle to guide not only the state but the public as wen as it contemplates interfering with the fife plans of others. Mill's harm principle, which is in essence a standard of civility, is simply stated; but the reasons behind it are complex and, whatever the criticisms of On Liberty and its fit with other works of Mill reasonably coherent.

On Liberty, though not without philosophical rigor, was intended as a popular work meant to teach two key lessons: (1) the value of liberty in people's own fives and (2) its importance in the fives of others and the social utility that derives from others' use of their freedom. The first lesson is difficult enough as, for Mill, the average person who has not experienced the advantages associated with the exercise of liberty often undervalues that good in his or her own life. If one imagined a game show where one was given the option of trading one's right to free expression for a Winnebago, Mill might suspect that most people would go for the Winnebago. This is in large part because one can only come to appreciate the value of liberty by exercising it, and the many for whom this has never been important are likely to place too little value on it. As someone in the utilitarian tradition, Mill would claim that this undervaluing has deleterious consequences for both individual happiness and collective good.

However negative Mill's assessment of the popular values of his day, he clearly believes that his readers can be brought to recognize the value of liberty in their own fives if they can be made to think about it. Thus in the Subjection o Women he writes that the more fundamental problem of practical morality is to get people to extend to others what they know to be true in their own case: "He who would rightly appreciate the worth of personal independence as an element of happiness should consider the value he himself places on it as an ingredient of his own. There is no subject on which there is a greater habitual difference of judgement between a man judging for himself, and the same man judging for other people" (quoted in Gray 1983, 117). In On Liberty, he seems to believe that people might make this step for the more purely prudential reason of recognizing the advantages the untrammeled liberty of geniuses, principally in the arts and science, have brought to their lives (Mill 1972a, 132).

Mill's goal is to offer reasons for a standard of civility that he sees as being very imperfectly met in his society and destined to be unmet in mass democratic societies generally. The standard covers not only state interference but private meddling into activities that do not primarily concern or affect the interests of others. These reasons are grounded in an ideal utilitarian theory claiming that the perfection of our rational, aesthetic, and moral faculties brings the most happiness to "man as a progressive being." Since these faculties are only exercised through free choice, one ought to weigh liberty very highly in one's utility calculus. Mill then appeals to utilitarian impartiality between one's own good and that of others in order to see that the good we value for ourselves is as important for them. This should be sufficient reason for one even mildly moved by concern for others' happiness, as we should be, to refrain from interference with their liberty. Fearing that it might not suffice, Mill brings to bear the additional benefits people receive from the self-development of geniuses who enhance human well-being through their labors. The benefits one might receive from the use of liberty accrue only if it is used in certain ways. Mill takes a broadly pluralistic view on the worthiness of ends one might pursue. Indeed, there is some worth in an end simply being my own whatever its intrinsic merits. Nonetheless, Mill is often disdainful of the ways in which people actually (mis)use their liberty.(7) And this raises two problems for the conscientious person who comes to adopt Mill's standard. First, how does one respond in the conduct of one's own life to conformist pressures from those who undervalue liberty? Second, how does one deal with those who truly believe that pushpin is as good as poetry (i.e., for whom freedom yields anything but self-development)? Mill responds to both questions in decidedly moral terms, referring throughout to virtues and vices that promote or inhibit the free exercise of one's faculties.

"A person," Miff writes, "whose desires and impulses are his own - are the expressions of his own nature, as it has been developed and modified by his own culture - is said to have a character" (1972a, 128).(8) Now, one evidence of character is resistance to pressures to submerge one's individuality for the sake of popular acceptance: "To be restrained in things not affecting [others'] good, by their mere displeasure, develops nothing valuable, except such force of character as may unfold itself in resisting the restraint" (p. 131). Elsewhere, No refers to persons who allow themselves to be forced into a mold formed by popular taste as guilty of "timidity" and, in essence, lacking in character: "If they are of strong character, . . . they become a mark for society which has not succeeded in reducing them to commonplace" (p. 133). Mill defines character in large measure as a willingness to resist popular pressures. The person of character understands him- or herself as someone undoubtedly shaped by cultural forces but whose autonomy is a process of, in Nietzschean language, "becoming what one is." Once one's character begins to take shape, one's sense of self resides only to a small degree in "positive feedback" from others. This again is Null's message when he claims that "eccentricity has always abounded where strength of character has abounded" and that the amount of eccentricity in a society is proportional to the "moral courage" found there (p. 135).

How does the person of character respond to those who fritter away the opportunities for self-development that liberty of thought and action offers? Let us first note that Mill takes pains to point out that the standard of civility he expounds is "not one of selfish indifference" (ibid., p. 144). We all should have a strong regulative desire to promote the good of our fellows. Indeed, we "owe to each other help to distinguish better from worse, and encouragement to choose the former over the latter" (ibid.). Yet there are presumably times when our altruistic inclinations must be suppressed as we see people pursue the worse, rather than the better, in nonharmful ways. It is here where the harm principle seems to come up against the utilitarian edict to act so as to maximize happiness. There are cases where paternalistic actions (e.g., the prevention of self-destructive behaviors like smoking) will do more good than refraining from such actions. It is thus unclear why a utilitarian would treat the harm principle as anything more than a rule of thumb or something that tends to advance happiness in most instances.

Putting this confusion aside, it is quite clear that Mill relies on some rough ranking of life plans whereby some, even if not directly leading to harm to others, are necessarily not worthy of respect and may naturally engender distaste and even contempt - for example, life plans that place the animal pleasures above or on a par with those of thought and feeling.(9) Mill believes, in fact, that those able to distinguish higher from lower pleasures owe to others their persuasive powers to encourage them likewise to see the distinction and to encourage them to act on it (though not by restricting their liberty).(10) He argues, "It would be well, indeed, if this good office were much more freely rendered than the common notions of politeness at present permit, and if one person could honestly point out to another that he thinks him in fault, without being considered unmannerly or presuming" (ibid. p. 145). We have a duty to act upon our unfavorable opinion of those who choose frivolous or worse life plans for the good utilitarian reason that doing so may, in the long run, promote their well-being. Yet we also have a right to do so "not to the oppression of [someone's] individuality, but in the exercise of ours" (p. 146).

While we might debate Mill's consistency or how web he refutes the charge of indifference, this much seems clear. The goal of the harm principle is to carve out a rather wide sphere within which people can exercise their liberty of thought, expression and action with little thought as to how this concerns others to whom they have no "assignable obligation" (ibid., p. 149). Beyond this, Mill urges upon us a thick-skinned liberalism. We ought to suppress our inclination to castigate those who engage in unconventional conduct we may find offensive yet we should also be bolder in criticizing ways of life that are frivolous or demeaning. Mills notion of civility might lead to a less "polite" society than he lived in and for us, a society that is impolite in different ways. Finally, we should also conduct our fives with dignity and self-assurance in the face of illegitimate interference from others. This capacity, more than that of leaving others alone, is a mark of character. Both require that we show appropriate self-restraint, and it is far more likely that we will do so if we fully understand the value of liberty - ours and others' - in a well-lived life.



A case win be made that status-based theories of liberalism with widest currency today yield a different notion of civility than does Mill's liberal perfectionism. We show this first by tracing a line of argument in Rawls that leads somewhat circuitously from a claimed central psychological need of persons, that of self-esteem or self-respect, to what amounts to an understanding of civility. We will conclude by then tracing both Rawls's and Mills notions of civility back to the central premises of their theories of liberalism in order to better evaluate these theories.

Rawls places self-respect among the primary goods that rational agents will seek to maximize from the standpoint of the original position. Indeed, he contends that it is "perhaps the main primary good" as "it provides a secure sense of our own value, a firm conviction that our determinate conception of the good is worth carrying out" (1971, 544; idem 1993, 318). Without it, "nothing may seem worth doing, and if some things have value for us, we lack the will to pursue them" (Rawls 1993, 318).(11) A key reason for accepting justice as fairness is that it supports self-esteem (a term he uses interchangeably with self-respect) to a higher degree than other theories of justice. Moreover, the plurality of associations and groups spawned in a society dedicated to justice as fairness makes it likely that we will find "our person and deeds appreciated and confirmed by others who are likewise esteemed and their association enjoyed" (Rawls 1971, 440). Presumably, the will and confidence to formulate and act on a life plan is critically affected (perhaps even determined) by the response of a like-minded community and, to a lesser degree by the broader society as well.

Rawls claims that his account, showing self-respect to be perhaps the main primary good, "has stressed the great significance of how we think others value us" (1971, 544). Indeed, he believes that if our conceptions of the good are not confirmed by others, we may well be sapped of the will to pursue them. This appears to be an empirical proposition regarding the necessary social conditions for "willing," rather than, strictly speaking, a moral or philosophical claim. It is essentially a prediction of how people will behave when confronted with certain kinds of social pressures. Yet it is rich with moral implications and, as we shah see, it is no mere coincidence that Rawls adopts this stance toward motivational psychology.

For Rawls, the ethical necessity of showing respect for persons generates a need to show respect for the ends persons pursue. It is not clear that this elision is intended-indeed, there is reason to believe that it is not-but it does seem unavoidable. What would it mean, after all, to respect someone while thinking their fife goals worthless or deleterious to their own good or that of others? One might say that we should respect persons as bearers of certain capacities, that is, as beings capable of acting on determinate conceptions of the good. But there is a difference between recognizing a potentiality and respecting a person. To respect actual persons cannot merely be to respect the abstract natures of their personhood but to respect particular identities and senses of self.(12) And, as much as Rawls has been criticized for inattention to the particular identities and attachments of socially constituted selves, he gives evidence of being very much aware of the need to express respect for particular persons and not just a general idea of personhood. And the particularity of persons is inevitably expressed through their sense of value and through their actions in fight of their values, aims, and interests.(13)

This awareness on Rawls's part is perhaps why he claims that under justice as fairness, "we are supposed to respect one another's ends and adjudicate their claims in ways that support their self-esteem" (Rawls 1971, 442; emphasis added). Indeed, such respect for ends is vital to our belief that our endeavors are worth pursuing. Thus Rawls draws the specific connection between respect for persons, self-respect, and respect for their ends.

It is clearly rational for men to secure their self-respect. A sense of their own worth is necessary if they are to pursue their conception of the good with zest and to delight in its fulfillment. Self-respect is not so much a part of any rational plan of life as the sense that one's plan is worth carrying out. Now our self-respect normally depends upon the respect of others. Unless we feel that our endeavors are honored by them, it is difficult if not impossible, for us to maintain our conviction that our ends are worth advancing" (ibid., 178; emphasis added).

Now let us ask Rawls a question that we posed to Mill. What if the ends that persons choose to pursue, even with suitable social reinforcement, are unworthy of respect? In particular, does the moral desirability of enhancing self-esteem necessitate a respect for ends I may consider trivial, debasing, or simply wrongheaded? Mill's answer to this question was quite clear. Rawls's is not, though he shares with Mill the belief that humans will tend to find greatest satisfaction in ends that tend to realize their higher intellectual, moral, and aesthetic capacities.(14) Despite this hope, Rawls concedes that his conception of the good is so thin as to include counting blades of grass if such is "given a prominent place" in a person's life plan. Rawls uses this as an extreme example and one he would be surprised to find in real life. However, a quick perusal of daytime television would lead one to realize that the example, while showing a lack of lurid imagination, is hardly the most banal or distasteful life plan persons in liberal societies actually choose to pursue.

Before answering our question, let us add one more consideration. We already know from Rawls's theory of justice that "a standard of perfection" has been rejected as a proper political principle, so that "for the purposes of justice [one must] avoid any assessment of the relative value of one another's way of life" (Rawls 1971, 442). Or, as he puts it elsewhere, from the standpoint of justice, "all conceptions of the good are considered equally worthy" (idem 1982, 172). Now, to say this is so from the standpoint of justice is simply to hold that no one should be denied liberty because their (nonharmful) conception of the good is deemed unworthy. This is a position that Mill endorses as well. But Rawls's argument from self-esteem and the virtually infinite latitude he appears to take in defining what counts as a conception of the good add constraints to dialogue between holders of such conceptions.

For Rawls, a person's good consists of "ends and activities that have a major place in rational plans" (Rawls 1971, 432). Yet we assess the rationality of the plan in terms of whether or not it orders actions to attain the good. A plan is rational insofar as it enables its holder to maximize attainment of enjoyable ends and activities and irrational insofar as it fails to do so. So the good is what persons rationally pursue, while rationality is defined in terms of advancing the good. What this amounts to is that whatever persons most purposefully pursue is their good.

There is a certain circularity in this view but, leaving that aside, it is clear that Rawls offers what he might call thin theories both of the good and of rationality. His view is compatible with the view of the good of pre-Millian utilitarians, as is made dear in his blade-counting example. What ultimately defines a life built around this activity (e.g., ordering other activities to leave maximum "quality time" for it) is that it is the counter's only "pleasure," or it is the counter's "nature to enjoy this activity and not to enjoy any other" (ibid.). To be sure, this is not quite a mindless activity, as the counter is intrigued by the mathematical properties he finds in grassy areas. Nonetheless, a "conception of the good" appears to be equivalent to any set of preferences that are purposefully pursued to bring enjoyment within the constraints of justice. The "Aristotelian principle" (which bears some resemblance to Mill's understanding of the difference between higher and lower pleasures), which tells us that people prefer to pursue complex and challenging tasks, is but a rule of thumb - again, an empirical proposition about what people tend to enjoy - and is not essential to the definition of the good itself (ibid., 433).

Where does this leave us? If respect for persons necessitates respect for ends, if justice requires an official indifference to ends within its constraints, if self-esteem requires an affirmation by others regarding one's worthiness through one's ends, and if self-esteem is "perhaps the main primary good" essential to the capacity to will a plan of life, then there seems to be little room for the sort of "impolite" critique of ends that Mill finds essential to the exercise of liberty. Moreover, the less value one places on aiding others (as a mark of concern or respect) to lead a good life, the more the satisfaction with the life one actually leads takes priority in assessing well-being. Hence, psychological dispositions to act on any conception of the good is politically important, while the particulars of that conception, so long as they are within the constraints of justice, are not. The spirit of Rawls's argument leads to this conclusion even if the letter is ambiguous. Thus, in contrast to Mill, it is hard to see the basis for "impolite" dialogue concerning the good life given the thin theory of the good that is offered and the injunction to respect ends that he within the constraints of justice. Rawls is remarkably nonjudgmental not only about the content of the good but also about the content of one's character.(15) Unlike for Mill, the capacity to will a life plan is conceived more as a psychological disposition than a mark of character. Indeed, it is not clear that Rawls sees people as responsible for their own characters so even when this term is used by him, it introduces ambiguities (as in, e.g., Rawls 1993, 76-77).(16) This is perhaps why Rawls is much more likely than Mill to emphasize the social and psychological conditions of willing and to define the good in strictly subjectivist terms. These considerations form the textual basis for claiming that a Rawlsian notion of civility extends beyond toleration and adds an element of affirmation to it.




The differences in norms of civility between Mill and Rawls have roots in the fundamental structures of their theories of liberalism. This argument has been implicit in the preceding section. Now I wish to make it explicit by reintroducing notions of interest- and status-based liberalism. I conclude by contending that the interest-based theory leads to a more morally satisfactory account of civility in its capacity to account for a wider array of morally important aspects of the relations among strangers in a liberal democratic culture.

Mill in essence, grounds rights in interests. Persons have a right to liberty because of the overriding interest they have in leading free fives. The interest is of sufficient weight to impose a duty on others to respect it (see also Raz 1986, chap. 7). Indeed, it is of virtually infinite weight as the right to liberty trumps all sorts and depths of unhappiness which others may experience resulting from its exercise. As with any theory of rights, Mill specifies the ways in which persons must be treated. But, he grounds this specification in a theory ultimately rooted in a notion of the agent's good.

Mill's account of civility, I have suggested, emerges initially from considering the value of liberty in one's own fife. Then we are asked to imagine its similar value to others and, in fight of this, to refrain from interfering in other's liberty either through the state or through emulating the infamous Mrs. Grundy of Victorian society. Ultimately, civility is defended because of the interest all have in leading fives aimed at their own development and perfection.

A hallmark of Kantian liberalism is a rejection of just such interest-based defenses of liberal principles. The theory that "rights are necessary to protect enduring and important interests fixed by human nature and fundamental to human development, like interests in the choice of sexual partners and choice of religious conviction" is described as familiar but "inadequate" (Dworkin 1985, 369). Dworkin does not spell out his reasons for this conclusion, but they seem to reside in the considerations that the language of interests, even fundamentally moral ones, invokes notions of balancing and of a kind of calculus, if not necessarily a utilitarian one, regarding how best to promote them. Mill, to be sure, must be guilty of a certain degree of wishful thinking in believing that the interest in self-development that he regards as fundamental is always best promoted by the right to liberty he asserts. Developing an interest in autonomy may, on occasion, best be accomplished through paternalistic intervention in an individual's affairs. Further, it may be that self-development as a societal goal is best promoted by granting more resources to those who are most likely to use them wisely in pursuing their own perfection. It may entail, that is, treating some people as means to societal ends.

Dworkin wants to avoid the language of interest calculus which, even had Mill been more consistent and less optimistic, could lead to profoundly inegalitarian arguments. Thus he argues that equal respect owed to citizens is in some sense logically prior to advancing their particular interests, however widespread these may be. It derives from their status as free, equal, rational beings. This is an approach that grounds a right to liberty not in the good of the agent but in what I will call the agent's status as a free, equal, rational being. Kantian political morality as best exemplified in contemporary thought by Rawls, and Dworkin ground theories of justice in this deep egalitarian premise.(17) For such liberals, treating persons as equals - in Dworkin's terminology, as entitled to "equal concern and respect" - is the defining duty of the liberal state. The essence of this view is that government "must impose no sacrifice or constraint on any citizen in virtue of an argument that the citizen could not accept without abandoning his sense of equal worth" (Dworkin 1985, 205; emphasis added).

I do not want to enter too deeply into the question whether a Kantian or some interest-based account of liberalism is ultimately more successful or the just-as-thorny issue of whether liberty or equality is the defining liberal value. These questions are at the heart of current debates in liberal theory and need more attention than can be given here. I do want to suggest, however, that one's view on these questions necessarily colors one's view on a wide range of concrete issues, not the least being the appropriate norms of civility. Two aspects of status-based liberalism are pertinent here. First, its primary value is a relational one. Equality defines oneself in the first instance in relation to others. To be of equal status is to be on a par with-no better and no worse than - someone else in terms of some quality that two or more persons have in common. Now virtually all of us - certainly all self-described liberals - will grant equality a significant place in our moral universe. Equal protection under law and equal opportunity are perhaps the claims to equal treatment that are backed by the strongest consensus in our society though persuasive cases can be made for equality (or more of it) in many other realms as well. That equality defines one in relation to others is by no means a count against it. Nonetheless, when Dworkin and Rawls introduce a psychological element into their conceptions of equality there is a profound impact on their views of the requirements of civility. When Dworkin mentions one's sense of worth (as opposed to one's worth) he is referring to a self-perception that is taken to be, in large measure, a reflection of how others view and act toward one. This is what gives self-esteem a moral and political dimension.(18) The relevant question regarding civility is how or whether one can affirm a fellow's sense of equal worth while deeming his or her life projects unworthy. The deep egalitarian and psychological dimensions of status-based liberalism seem, at minimum, to complicate this task.

We can now draw some points of contrast with Mill. Mill's interest-based liberalism, which gives place to liberty as the fundamental value, is not relational, at least not in the same sense as is the Dworkinian view. Mill's key interest in liberty is in what people do with it and how their actions contribute to their development. What ultimately matters are the choices people make and that these choices develop rational and moral faculties. It matters to a much lesser degree, if at all, how people feel their lives are going (their level of self-satisfaction and self-esteem) if in fact their lives are not going well by objective or broadly intersubjective criteria. Hence, Mill's famous remark that it is "better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied" (Mill 1972b, 10). If someone's fife is not in fact going well, a morally conscientious person is obliged to lend his or her good offices to instructing-but, for liberals, not coercing - others on the good life. This leads to the sharp, even impolite, dialogue regarding the nature of the good in all its plurality as an essential element of life in liberal societies. Concern for persons does not, in this view, demand respect for ends. Moreover, debate about ends is an essential aspect of liberal citizenship. Thus there emerges a sharp distinction between what must be tolerated and what must or should be affirmed.

Moreover, Mill's very understanding of character leaves little room or need for the kind of validation in the eyes of others as a basis of self-esteem that we see in Dworkin or Rawls. It stands in marked contrast to the status-based views of Rawls and Dworkin, which appeal fundamentally to "senses" of the self as affirmed by others and of character itself as an essentially psychological rather than moral disposition.(19) Mill is not Nietzsche, whose "strong, rich temperaments" experience neither shame nor insult because they are so little moved by what others think of them.(20) Yet as much as valuable projects almost always involve the cooperation of like-minded others, what others think about us has - or should have-very little power to diminish the win to act (or, presumably, the self-esteem) of those with reasonably well-developed characters. Indeed, one is morally blameworthy if one's course of action is altered by others' opprobrium.



If it is granted that we have identified two paths to take in assessing our duties toward others with conceptions of the good that differ from our own, we still must ask, What kind of civility do we want? To answer this question, moreover, we must also consider how much and what forms of contestation regarding conceptions of the good life are compatible with liberal norms of mutual respect - and how much of it is prudent. I think it safe to say that our society is deeply divided as to how this question should be answered and that this division is not unlike the theoretical divide discussed in this essay.

Liberal bashing in recent years in both political and academic forums has often revolved around the charge that liberals are insufficiently attentive to the predominant question of classical political thought, namely, How should the good person five? It has seemed to many that liberal tolerance has become something else - a blanket endorsement of "life styles" with little concern for their intrinsic merit. Much of this debate (like the infamous Murphy Brown flap) is overtly partisan and not to be taken too seriously. Nonetheless, liberals who see no need to surrender the "value issue" should recall that there is a forceful voice in the liberal tradition contending that debates about such questions are the essence of liberal politics. Indeed, not to engage in such debates, particularly when one believes that others are misusing their freedom and thereby depriving themselves of opportunities to lead richer fives, is to be guilty of a kind of moral indifference. To engage in such dialogue is in essence a means of showing an appropriate concern for others' well-being.

What makes this view plausible is the proposition that what gives liberty value is that it advances the good and does so only if used in certain ways. This is the interest-based view that Rawls and Dworkin reject as it may violate a right to equal treatment. Yet it is perhaps worth noting that there is a certain ambiguity in Dworkin's dicta that persons be treated with equal concern and respect. There are occasions where meeting one condition makes it impossible to meet the other. Thus I might show respect for you by refraining from comments or actions that you might perceive as an affront to your dignity. For example, I might see you drinking an alcoholic beverage against doctor's orders but refrain from preventing or even discouraging you in order to avoid treating you as a child or as someone incapable of making independent life choices. Concern, on the other hand, could well impel me to discourage you (perhaps call the party host in advance to arrange that no alcohol is served) even if this entails some deception and meddling that is not consistent with showing you respect. In general, concern might require an active intervention in the affairs of others to promote their welfare, while respect may require us to refrain from intervening (though this is one way among many that respect is shown).

Millian civility is better able to pay homage to the ideal that a liberal society ought to be characterized by mutual concern. This should not surprise, because concern bears a direct relation to well-being, and the advancement of well-being is the core value of interest-based liberalism.(21) Mill also preserves an inexorable tension between meeting norms of concern and respect and maintains, if perhaps not fully consistently, that concern cannot justify intolerance.(22) "Liberal citizens who acquire the capacity to sympathize with widely divergent ways of life," Stephen Macedo writes, "acquire a range of `live options' and an openness to change" (1992,214). Mill would certainly share this view; he, too, calls for something more than tolerance' We ought to see others in all the diversity of their views and practices, not only as sources of legitimate moral claims to noninterference but also as our educators. We learn from and enrich each others' lives in ways that invite rigorous self-examination and the fullest exercise of personal autonomy.

Robert Frost was being a bit unkind in characterizing a liberal as someone who cannot take his own side in an argument. But there is something to the more moderate view that an initial liberal response to an alien voice is, "There may be something in what you say." The point for Mill, however, is that this is only an initial response, not a final word. Respect for others does not require that we affirm their ends or buck up their self-esteem, only that we take them seriously and recognize that they may have something to teach us. At some further point in the conversation, disgust, revulsion - indeed, a full range of emotions associated with moral disapprobation - may be in order. If we are wrongly subjected to expressions of such emotions, NO urges us to be thick-skinned enough to carry on our plan of life against popular pressures. To fad to do so is a moral failure of timidity, not simply an understandable psychological response. Yet it is also a failure of timidity not to lend our wisest counsel to others who are too ready to conform or to challenge themselves to lead more satisfactory fives. For Mill, there are many paths that lead to such fives, but not all paths do so. His is not a search for a summum bonnum but for reasonable limits built around some rough consensus as to what components a good fife might have.(23) It is a question worth pursuing. I believe it is unduly foreclosed in the name of promoting self-esteem and a misguided notion of equal respect by the notion of civility encouraged by status-based liberalism.


(1.) It is true that citizens in liberal societies too often fail to meet even minimal standards of tolerance, a matter I shall address. However, my prime task is to explore what a standard of civility should be even if it is and will likely remain imperfectly met. (2.) 1 mention the diversity debate in universities to illustrate with a familiar example a trend toward associating respect for persons with an affirmation of their ends and away from judging the worthiness of the ends themselves. For the best recent discussion of the "politics of equal respect" as it bears on issues of multiculturalism, see Taylor 1992, esp. 63-73. (3.) This tendency has been aided by a focus on self-esteem and the need to promote it as a cure for a variety of social ills. Perhaps the most publicized effort in the self-esteem movement was the formation of a California task force to study ways to promote self-esteem, a pet project of state assemblyman John Vasconcellos. See, e.g., California Task Force 1990. For a critical discussion, see Burt and Christensen 1992 and n. 11. (4.) In other instances, affirmation or recognition may entail simply refraining from judgments involving such notions as normalcy or deviance (Krauthammer 1993; Moynihan 1993). (5.) The paradox resides in the fact that for Kantians, respect owed to persons qua persons resides in their potentiality to form and act on ideas of the good, rather than on their particularity (Taylor 1992, 43). It rests, in other words, in something of an abstraction, as when we say that all people possess an inherent dignity, even criminals, scoundrels, and fools. It would seem that Kantians would not be prone to the elision discussed in the text. This is not the case, however, for reasons I shall discuss. (6.) Thus a better answer to any important question of political morality like civility is clearly a reason in favor of one type of deep theory over another. But a notion of civility is not the only desideratum by which we evaluate fundamental theories of liberalism. A better answer regarding civility does not resolve the deeper theoretical dispute simply because things other than civility also matter, not the least being conceptions of distributive justice and basic liberties. (7.) This attitude is evident in On Liberty, though Mill's most extended efforts at distinguishing among ends is found in the essay Utilitarianism, specifically the distinction between higher and lower pleasures (see Mill 1972a, 1972b). (8.) Here Miff uses "character" to mean a morally exemplary person. He is not always consistent in this usage, as when he refers to the "pinched and hidebound type of human character" he sees Victorian society as encouraging (1972a, 130). This ambiguity is common in everyday speech when we speak of a good person as a "person of character" and someone else as a "bad character." Both refer to a moral standard, yet the first likens this standard to character as such while the latter uses the term neutrally, leaving it to an adjective to supply content. (9.) See Mill 1972b, esp. 8-12. (10.) Like many others, I have raised the issue of the consistency of this last provision with utilitarianism. Suffice it to say that there are problems. It is not clear that liberty should or does rank so highly in each person's utility calculus or that paternalism can always be ruled out as the best means to promote either liberty or happiness. See Gray 1983 for a defense of Mill that challenges the common charge of incoherence. (11.) While this assertion is intuitively plausible, it is an empirical proposition on the relation between self-esteem and motivation; and there is no evidence presented as to its truth. It is as plausible to assume that those with low self-esteem are driven to act in order to prove themselves in the world. Such a view is captured in such commonly encountered terms as the "Napoleon complex" or "overachiever." As best as I have been able to ascertain, the vast empirical literature on the relation of self-esteem and a host of other psychological variables has yielded few firm findings. This is at least the conclusion of two recent essays that have reviewed more than fifteen hundred psychological studies on self-esteem. The most recent thorough study concludes that the "news most consistently reported . . . is that the associations between self-esteem and its expected consequences are mixed, insignificant, or absent" (quoted in Burr and Christensen 1992, 461). (12.) Charles Taylor comes to a similar conclusion in a slightly different context. The "demand for equal recognition," he writes, "extends beyond an acknowledgement of the equal value of all human beings potentially, and comes to include the equal value of what they have made of this potential in fact" (1992, 42-43). (13.) This mildly communitarian reading of Rawls may be controversial. Before giving direct evidence, let me suggest that it seems consistent with one general goal of Rawls's work of providing empirical content for notions that remain entirely transcendental in Kant's own ethical writings. Thus general information about human psychology and general social dynamics are allowed into the original position, so that "no longer are [Kantian moral] notions purely transcendental and lacking explicable connections with human conduct"; And justice as fairness does not deal with justice among Kant's purely noumenal selves but "is a theory of human justice and among its premises are the elementary facts about persons and their place in nature" (Rawls 171, 256-57). (14.) Rawls (1971, sec. 65) refers to this inclination as the Aristotelian principle. (15.) I challenge elsewhere Rawls' and Dworkin's understanding of the term conception of the good life, arguing in essence that it is so broad and vague as to be unable to distinguish between an abiding conception of what gives value to one's life and any set of raw preferences, suggesting that there are better ways to formulate the notion without running afoul of the moral egalitarianism that I share with those authors (Sinopoli 1993, esp. 653-57). (16.) Rawls's understanding of character, which essentially severs it from notions of desert, has been widely commented on, particularly by communitarian critics such as Sandel (1982, esp. chap. 2). (17.) I say "deep" so as to avoid confusion with Rawls's lexical ordering of principles. He argues that liberty cannot be sacrificed to promote greater economic equality but that what legitimizes the two principles initially is that they would be chosen from an initial standpoint of equality that rules out bargaining or threat advantage. And Dworkin argues in a similar vein that fundamental rights function as trump cards protecting individuals from unequal treatment. "The ultimate justification of these rights," he claims, "is that they are necessary to protect equal concern and respect" (Dworkin 1985, 198). See also Dworkin 1978, where he proposes that "individual rights to distinct liberties must be recognized only when the fundamental right to treatment as an equal can be shown to require these rights" (p. 274). (18.) Bruce Ackerman is another prominent Kantian liberal for whom the status-based account of liberalism dictates that no exercise of state power is legitimate if the reason a power holder offers for its exercise asserts that "his conception of the good is better than that asserted by his fellow citizens" (1980, 11). Such a claim, no matter what the possible reasons for it, is an affront to the sense of equal worth of persons. (19.) I recognize, of course, that these are not opposites and that one can reasonably speak of psychological motives for moral actions. (20.) In "The Genealogy of Morals," Nietzsche offers Mirabeau as a modem example, "who lacked memory for insults and meanness done him, and who was unable to forgive because he had forgotten" (1956, 173). (21.) It is perhaps worth pointing out that the arguments of "interest-based liberals" need not take utilitarian form. What is essential is that rights be grounded in some fundamental notion of the human good. For nonutilitarian versions of this view, see Raz 1986 and Galston 1991. (22.) And there are Millian voices in our culture wars as well even if they are not the predominant ones at this moment. One such is Andrew Sullivan (1993), whose thoughtful piece on the politics of homosexuality urges what he calls a liberal solution: "This liberal politics affirms a simple and limited criterion: that all public . . . discrimination against homosexuals be ended and that every right and responsibility that heterosexuals enjoy by virtue of the state be extended to those who grow up different. And that is all. No cures or re-educations; no wrenching civil litigation; no political imposition of tolerance; merely a political attempt to enshrine formal civil equality in the hope that eventually, the private sphere will reflect this public civility" (p. 36). Sullivan concludes with a note of pessimism regarding the appeal of his liberal politics to either gays or straights. (23.) Nor, of course, should our search be for a summum bonum. The reader has no doubt noted that I do not try in this article to articulate or defend given conceptions of the good but only to consider what kinds of questions regarding such conceptions may be in order in liberal societies.


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Author:Sinopoli, Richard C.
Publication:American Political Science Review
Date:Sep 1, 1995
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