The Virtue of Civility: Selected Essays on Liberalism, Tradition, and Civil Society

Freedom Has Never Existed in a Moral Vacuum


Filed Under : Welfare State, Central Planning, Special Interests, Rule of Law

Father Robert A. Sirico is president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

After decades of interest groups aggressively asserting their “rights,” often gained only at the expense of others, our political culture is starting to take notice of the notion of “civility.” The left identifies the word with a plea that greater respect be given politicians and their programs, while the right demands more civility as a means of reining in individuality and freedom of expression in new modes of technology, like the Internet. Both perspectives overlook an older and more robust notion of civility that does not force a choice between individuality and the community. It is the classically liberal idea of civility as a concern for the interests of “private” authority and order, such as the family, religious institutions, clubs and community organizations, and the market economy itself. It is this notion of civility—its meaning, history, and application to our current political and cultural setting—that is so brilliantly explored in this collection of essays by sociologist Edward Shils.

The process of recapturing the classically liberal idea of civility and the common good began in 1989 with Michael Novak’s monumental treatise, Free Persons and the Common Good. While Novak presented the intellectual backdrop to an idea of the common good (a civic concern) that accords with liberty, Shils picks up the task of reconstructing the intellectual history of the decline of liberalism from the early part of this century and applying the older notion of civility to the contemporary political setting. From his survey, we learn that liberalism contains within itself what Shils calls antinomies, parallel truths that can never be fully reconciled.

Defense of the rights of individuals is central to the idea of liberty, but so is support for community attachment. Suspicion of power is crucial to maintaining liberty, but respect for law is a cornerstone of society. Love of certain traditions must be maintained in a liberal society, but detachment from them is a means of social progress. Shils argues that these antinomies within liberalism, among others, help explain how American liberals went from heralding market relationships and entrepreneurial opportunities to restricting them by means of state power.

Shils distinguishes two types of liberalism ascendant in this century, neither of which satisfy his plea for civil liberalism. The first is “autonomist” liberalism. The supporters of this view once appreciated the importance of a market economy, but when the notion of scientific social planning was introduced in the Progressive Era, they came to believe that science and reason could be used as a means of bringing about the social progress that was originally behind their support for the market economy. By the time of the New Deal, they had come full circle toward embracing central planning, while simultaneously holding that central planning posed no threat to political rights and freedom of expression. It was to this group that F. A. Hayek addressed his 1944 book, The Road to Serfdom. Shils provides a similar critique, combined with a trenchant analysis of how it is that autonomist liberals came to be cheerleaders for this century’s totalitarian regimes.

The second type is what Shils calls “philanthropic liberalism.” This stems from the humanitarian desire to uplift the downtrodden. It turns that desire into a first principle of government. Philanthropic liberalism came to support a massive cradle-to-grave welfare state, but once wedded to this new redistributionist apparatus, was unable to admit to the failure of welfare to accomplish its ends.

The casualty of both types of liberalism is the idea of liberty and an understanding of the civil cooperation that flows from voluntary association in a free society. It is this liberalism that Shils makes a strong plea for recapturing. In a setting of freedom, people cooperate to their mutual advantage and thereby reinforce civil modes of behavior. At the same time, as Shils makes clear, freedom needs a foundation in civil norms so that it may be protected. Thus, Shils doubts that civility can be recaptured through either use of public policy or through the untrammeled exercise of individual rights. What needs to be cultivated, through social institutions like the family and houses of worship, is a sense of civic virtue, that is, a consensus in favor of social norms like honesty, cooperativeness, concern for the welfare of others, and so on.

What emerges from Shils’s discussion is a rich social theory that present-day libertarians would do well to reflect upon, so that they might realize that freedom has never existed, much less thrived, in a moral vacuum. Shils does not believe that this vacuum can be filled by the state or its kept institutions, such as the modern university.

The task of restoring true liberalism remains an intellectual one above all. And for a task so worthy, we should be bold enough to add that the ultimate solution depends on our view of the ultimate place and dignity of the human person. Shils’s analysis does not take us quite so far, but it prepares the way.


August 1998

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December 2014

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