The Pragmatic Defense of the Liberal Virtues

This paper will look at the debate over the liberal account of civic virtue and focus on how liberal theorists have responded to the criticism that liberalism does not, or cannot, provide a proper account of the virtues.  My conclusions are that effort on the part of liberals has resulted in a pragmatic defense of the political virtues and that this response neither meets their critics head-on nor provides a complete account of the relationship between liberal justice and liberal virtue.


One notable criticism of liberalism, voiced over the past couple of decades, has been that it does not pay enough attention to the virtues.  Alasdair MacIntyre has proclaimed that, as the purveyor of Modernity's emotivist orientation, liberalism stands wholly antithetical to the tradition of the virtues and to the notion of political community informed by the virtues.  And Michael Sandel has pitted the republican tradition against liberalism, claiming that the former celebrates what the latter denies, namely, the constitutive ties binding civic freedom with the idea of state commitment to the development of civic virtue and character.[1]

Yet liberal thinkers have responded to this challenge with the plain retort that liberal justice is not antithetical to civic virtue since it does, after all, require commitment to a particular set of liberal virtues.  These thinkers have been trying to correct what they see as imbalances in past defenses of liberal justice which, too often, have neglected to spell out the ways in which liberal societies vitally depend upon the flourishing of liberal civic virtues.  Acknowledging this dependence, they assert, means owning up to the deep connections between liberal justice and the very sort of formative, character-building project over which Sandel, MacIntyre and others have been remonstrating.[2]

Stephen Macedo, for one, asserts that it is misleading to equate liberalism with the single-minded concern for establishing a framework of impartial rules of so-called negative liberty.  Macedo writes,

[T]he simplistic 'rule of law' conception of the normative aims of a liberal legal   system ... wholly misses the radically transformative dimension of liberal   constitutionalism and is liable to obscure the extent to which a liberal constitutional order is a pervasively educative order.[3]

Why must liberal states be transformative and educative towards their citizens?  Macedo, along with other virtue-inspired liberals such as Eamonn Callan, Amy Gutmann, and William Galston, hold that liberal democratic institutions are structured in accordance with principles of self-government and public justification, and thus, in order to function properly (or at all), these institutions require particular capacities both of elected officials and of citizens in general.  Judges must be fair and impartial, legislators must be accommodating and respectful, citizens must be reasonable and tolerant, and so on.[4]  It is not enough, the argument goes, to conceptualize society as a set of systems whose essential function is the mutual constraint of behaviour, according each citizen the freedom to realize their particular ambitions.  What we must also recognize is that our laws, and our social system in general, must themselves be maintained and continually developed and that healthy liberal institutions are the product of concerted effort, undertaken by people possessing special skills and special virtues of character.  The message from Macedo and the other virtue-liberals is that while liberty, pluralism and diversity may be the hallmarks of liberal democracies, a particular dialogue on the virtues is inherently liberal as well.

It is notable that this message is delivered by thinkers on both sides of the fence concerning the foundational status of liberal morality.  Macedo, for instance, joins Rawls in asserting the 'political', freestanding nature of liberal morality.  Liberals must respect the fact of reasonable pluralism, and this means that in justifying liberal ideals, one must not appeal to metaphysical, deeply contentious ideas of the good; instead, the appeal is made to notions acceptable to all (reasonable) people, regardless of their religious or comprehensive commitments.  Such a restriction, however, does not render liberal states incapable of advancing a strongly moral agenda (for example, in the area of civic education).  Macedo's assertion is that a robustly liberal moral stance, complete with its own pronouncements on liberal institutions (such as courts and legislative bodies) and the political virtues that maintain them, is legitimate, so long as these pronouncements, instead of being grounded in comprehensive commitments, are publicly justifiable and "pass the tests of public reason."[5]

Yet, others approach the issue of liberal virtue from the comprehensive camp.  Galston, for one, argues that attempts to provide a neutral framework for liberal justice (such as Rawls' theory) prove to be fruitless, since all such attempts ultimately rely upon substantive, comprehensive moral commitments which embody distinctive visions of human worth and human purposes.[6] Galston claims that the liberal conception of the good underpins liberal society and liberal justice, and thus, the development of institutions and policies must be carried out with an eye towards promoting this liberal conception of the good.  And it is here that we find the virtues, since, Galston argues, "[T]he operation of liberal institutions is affected in important ways by the character of citizens (and leaders)."[7]  Thus, comprehensive forms of liberalism can also account for (and speak the language of) the virtues, because, the liberal social framework, and the conceptions of the good that they embody, can only be sustained by the efforts of a citizenry possessing special liberal virtues of character.

The conclusion reached by both liberal camps is that discourse about liberal virtue stems not from an outside account of moral norms – say, one provided by religious doctrine - but from the inner demands of the notion of liberal justice itself.  What separates liberals from republicans, the contention goes, is not that liberals bracket all discussion of the virtues of citizenship; rather, it is the justification for their respective accounts of virtue that makes the difference.  Where republicans may look outward, for example, towards a vision of how the ends of human life in general are associated with civic character, liberals look inwards, by appealing to the fact that the successful and stable functioning of the institutions of liberal justice requires certain moral obligations of citizens.[8]

And so, while much has been written on the supposed inability of liberalism to speak with a moral tongue, liberals have fittingly followed suit with a detailed account of why they think this isn't the case.  Nevertheless, it seems plain that this response is not wholly satisfactory.  The reason is that the liberal account posits the presence of the liberal virtues as a resulting effect of functioning liberal institutions, and as instrumentally relevant to the meaning and substance of liberal justice.  What the challengers are after, rather, is a conception whereby the virtues play a more vital, foundational, and primary role within the formation of the theory of justice.  It is a matter of course, these challengers would say, that a structure such as liberal justice will come with designations of good and bad traits of character, corresponding to the various tasks and orientations outlined by the liberal social framework.  A judicial system functioning under rules x, y, and z will undoubtedly dictate that, to perform their role with excellence, judges will need the special virtues A, B, and C.  For the critics of liberalism, however, this is not the central issue.  The challenge is that this approach to virtue is too limiting, that a virtue discourse whose parameters are preemptively defined by the needs of liberal justice is not a proper discourse on the virtues after all.  If there is any sense to the virtue-critique of liberalism, above and beyond that addressed by Macedo and others, then this must be its focus.

The following section will try to give an indication of what virtue theorists might mean by this idea of the primacy of the virtues.  Subsequent sections will discuss how the idea of primacy fits into the liberal account of the relationship between justice and virtue.


What has sparked much of the contemporary discussion about the virtues is a sense of dissatisfaction with the way that morality has been conceived in the modern age.  Kantian and utilitarian accounts present morality as a matter of moral obligation, of duty, and of principle.  And the critique is that although these ideas are not in themselves unsatisfactory, as the foundation for morality, they seem inadequate, primarily because they do not rightly explain how morality 'works' for us.  My motivation for being kind to my friend may be statable as a form of duty - as me following a rule about friendship, say - but in truth, I act friendly because I care about my friend; I am friendly, in the sense that this is part of my attitude and character.[9] 

Different thinkers have approached this kind of conclusion in different ways, but the unifying claim is that, oftentimes, it makes more sense to describe morality and moral judgments as stemming from articulations about characterrather than articulations of rules or duties.[10]  This is the idea that the primary, independent moral facts are held to be judgments of character and, therefore, that accounts of moral rules and duties are themselves dependent upon these more primary character judgments to give them content and meaning.  This way, moral rules and duties follow from and are secondary to virtues of character.

The primacy of virtues over rules can take on different forms; for example, it can be represented as an ontological priority, an epistemic priority, or a conceptual priority. For brevity's sake, we can focus on the idea of conceptual priority, since concerning the critique of liberalism, this kind receives the most attention.  Simply put, by a conceptual priority, we mean that in order to understand the meaning of A, we must have prior understanding of what B means.[11]  We can find this idea in MacIntyre's critique, for example.  MacIntyre contends that the fundamental way in which we understand ourselves and our reality is as a narrative, a unified story of our progress and development in relation to the goals that we set for ourselves.  Further, the content for our narrative is provided by the traditions and practices through which we conduct our lives.  Thus, since MacIntyre sees the virtues as the dispositions which sustain the goods internal to practices and traditions – i.e. since the virtues provide our cultural (and individual) practices with meaning and value – these virtues stand as the basic conceptual material necessary for the construction of our narrative account of our lives.  Moreover, all of our ideas about rule-following and moral duties are derived from these narratives – our conception of constitutional law, for example, depends upon one particular narrative history.  Thus, MacIntyre's claim is that the virtues, as the building blocks of our narrative frameworks, are conceptually prior to the ideas about moral rule-following which arise out of these narrative frameworks.  In other words, MacIntyre's assertion is that as far as our understanding of morality and moral concepts goes, the virtues are conceptually prior to rules of conduct.[12]


The thesis of the priority of the virtues varies in terms of its scope, in that claims can be made that every kind of moral concept and moral conduct begins in notions of the virtues or that merely some particular branches of morality does.  Since here we are concerned with the critique of liberalism, our focus is narrowed to that domain wherein we find liberal discourse, namely the domain of justice.[13]  We can ask, is justice primarily known and understood via the virtues or through a set of rules and principles?  The commonplace opinion would seem to be that the virtues are not primary.  In fact, it seems that if there is one area in ethics wherein the virtues surely do not hold sway, it's the sphere of justice.  When justice is at issue, the contention goes, morality means the impartial resolution of conflict, it means the standardization of norms for the distribution of rights and freedoms, and it means the precise declaration of a legal framework.  These all seem to be rooted in discourse about law and principle, since impartiality, standardization, and precision of decree are all hallmarks of rule-based, not virtue-based, moral discourse.[14]  This, then, is the idea that justice represents a unique sphere of morality, wherein rules are primary, not virtues. 

And notably, liberal theorists of virtue have adopted this commonsense opinion.  For example, Macedo claims that, fundamentally, liberalism is about toleration and the protection of individual liberty.  What justice requires, therefore, is first and foremost the establishment of the rule of law and a constitutionally limited government.[15]  The virtues are thereby supplemental and secondary.  Macedo writes,

Ideally, liberals are not simply committed to liberal principles and institutions, they are committed to them in a certain way. ... Liberal ideals of citizenship, virtue, and community, are, in part, products of a conception of the best way of being committed to liberal justice. (Emphasis mine)[16]

But now, what kind of priority is herein assigned to law and principle over virtue?  Is it conceptual or epistemic or something else?  Here, it seems that liberals appeal to two kinds.  On the one hand, reference is sometimes made to the conceptual priority of principles over virtue, as in Rawls' definition of the political virtues as "strong and normally effective desires to act on the basic principles of right".[17]  In this sense, we learn about the nature of the political virtues once we have an understanding of what the principles of justice require – in terms of habits of character – from both public institutions and citizens themselves. 

On the other hand, liberals also appeal to a priority of prudence.  The liberal virtues are depicted as secondary to and dependent on liberal principles in the sense that, practically speaking, liberal principles must take precedence over virtue if, that is, the society is to be a liberal one.  One of the prime characteristics of liberalism is its acceptance and support of social diversity, in that social institutions are arranged so as to grant the most space – within reasonable limits – for citizens to develop diverse communities, groups, and ways of life.  Thus, states are disallowed from restricting diversity in the name of particular conceptions of the good.  Instead, the liberal state must be motivated by the cause of protecting this space for diversity, through the establishment of a just set of rules and the maintenance of social stability.[18]  What this means for the issue of the liberal virtues is that the justification for requiring citizens to incorporate these virtues within their lives cannot be made in terms of an appeal to, say, the intrinsic good found in the practice of civic virtue, since, by the diversity ideal, this kind of justification (the civic republican justification) places an unreasonable restriction on the kinds of goods that citizens are able to pursue.  According to the ideal of diversity, then, what is the justification for the liberal virtues?  It is formed through reference to the need for a modicum of social unity and for the continued success of the public institutions which themselves ensure the protection of social diversity.  Civic virtue, the argument goes, is necessary for maintenance of social order, in that stability requires tolerant citizens, reasonable law-makers, fair judges, and so on.  Again, we can look to Rawls for an example of this account of the virtues; he makes the appeal to stability most strongly in his depiction of the political conception of justice which stands as the basis for an overlapping consensus.  Rawls writes,

Thus, the values that conflict with the political conception of justice and its sustaining virtues may be normally outweighed because they come into conflict with the very conditions that make fair social cooperation possible on a footing of mutual respect.[19]

Importantly, this definition of primacy is a pragmatic one.  It says that the success of the liberal project depends, in the first place, upon establishing the rule of law – and thereby ensuring the protection of liberty and diversity – and in the second place, upon developing liberal virtues – and thereby ensuring that the requisite unity among citizens is achieved. 

Moreover, we find that it is the pragmatic defense rather than the conceptual one which is most often established by the virtue-liberals.  Macedo's brand of political liberalism insists that the aim of transforming citizens via the inculcation of civic virtues has nothing to do with the implications stemming from this or that conceptual doctrine; rather, the aim is a strictly political one: "to secure our civil interests."[20]  For Galston, the array of liberal purposes is best served by emphasizing "the ability of diverse individuals within liberal societies to agree on the virtues needed to sustain such societies..."[21]  And in Gutmann's theory of democratic education, the value of the democratic, deliberative virtues is determined by the way they aid one in participating in the collective task of "conscious social reproduction."[22] 

This, I think, is what has led theorists from the virtue ethics and liberal camps to be at cross-purposes.  The virtue-critique of liberalism from theorists like MacIntyre is based on asserting epistemic or conceptual priority, and yet the defense of liberalism emphasizes a different sense of priority altogether.  Effectively, the liberal says that in spite of any arguments asserting the epistemic or conceptual primacy of the virtues over their duty-based and principle-based forms, the practical effectiveness of having principles as the grounding notions of liberal justice ensures that the virtues must be secondary and dependent upon the principles for their value and purpose.  Holding up different images of priority, the two sides easily misrepresent each other: to the virtue theorists, it looks like the liberals have left the heart of their criticism unaddressed; while to the liberal theorists, it looks like the virtue critics have misjudged what, practically speaking, liberal justice is all about.


Is this misunderstanding something we should worry about?  In one sense, far from being problematic, this conclusion exposes the pragmatic grounds for the liberal defense of civic virtue.  But in another sense, this conclusion leaves the liberal theorist with new questions to answer.  Is a pragmatic defense of civic virtue more, or less, legitimate than a conceptual one?  The pervasive (and invasive) effects of inculcating the liberal virtues in a citizenry is not a matter to be taken lightly, and thus, it is unclear whether or not the justification for these measures can legitimately rest on the virtue-liberals' largely empirical assessments of the practical requirements for social stability.  Does not this indoctrination into liberal virtues call for a more principled defense, in terms of the inherent, conceptual roots of liberal justice?

Further, since the relationship between pragmatic, conceptual and epistemic aspects to justification is itself open to differences in interpretation, theorists wishing to account for the liberal virtues must also make the effort to articulate whether (and if so, how) these different senses are related, according to the terms set by the liberal project.  Moreover, by investigating issues such as these and, overall, by fully depicting the in's and out's of their accounts of primacy, liberal theorists would actually be meeting their challengers head-on, thereby helping to remove some of the vagaries involved in distinguishing their respective positions.

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[1]   MacIntyre's critique is primarily presented in After Virtue, Second Edition, (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984); and Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988).  Sandel's is primarily found in Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, 2nd edition, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998); and Democracy's Discontent - America in Search of a Public Philosohpy, (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996).

[2]   Another thinker of note here is Ronald Beiner, who focuses upon the problematic hegemony of rights-centred dialogue (as opposed to the language of goods and virtues) in liberal theory and practice.  See his What's the Matter With Liberalism?, (London, England: University of California Press, 1992).

[3]  Macedo, "Transformative Constitutionalism and the Case of Religion", Political Theory, Vol.26 No. 1, February 1998, pp. 56-57

[4]  For Macedo's depiction of the particular liberal virtues, see Liberal Virtues - Citizenship, Virtue, and Community in Liberal Constitutionalism, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), ch. 7. For other  perspectives on this position, see Eamonn Callan, Creating Citizens, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997);  Amy Gutmann, Democratic Education, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987); William Galston, Liberal Purposes, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); and Thomas A. Spragens, Jr., Civic Liberalism, (Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999).

[5]  Macedo, "Liberal Civic Education and Religious Fundamentalism: The Case of God v. John Rawls?", Ethics 105 (April 1995), p. 482.

[6]  Galston, Liberal Purposes, p. 92.

[7]  Ibid, p. 217.

[8]  See, for example, Will Kymlicka's discussion of Sandel in "Liberal Egalitarianism and Civic Republicanism: Friends or Enemies?" in Kymlicka, Politics in the Vernacular, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 327-346.

[9]  Michael Stocker, for one, pushes this critique; see "The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories", Journal of Philosophy 73 (1976), pp. 453-66.

[10]  Accounts along these lines are many. Helpful reviews include the following: Roger Crisp, "Modern Moral Philosophy and the Virtues," in How Should One Live? Essays on the Virtues, Roger Crisp, ed, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), pp. 1-18; George Sher, "Ethics, Character, and Action," in Virtue and Vice, Paul, Miller and Paul, eds, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 1-17; Daniel Statman, "Introduction to Virtue Ethics," in Virtue Ethics: A Critical Reader, Daniel Statmen, ed, (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1997), pp. 1-42.

[11] An epistemic priority has it that to know of fact A requires prior knowledge of fact B, while an ontological priority would mean that the existence of A depends upon the prior existence of B. Virtue theorists have advanced both kinds of priority. For the epistemic version, see, e.g., Walter Schaller, "Are Virtues No More than Dispositions to Obey Moral Rules?", Philosophy, 20 (July 1990), pp. 185-207.

For the ontological variety, see G.E.M. Anscombe, "Modern Moral Philosophy," Philosophy, Vol. 33, (1958); and Richard Taylor, "Ancient Wisdom and Modern Folly," French, Uehling and Wettstein, eds, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Vol. XIII, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), pp. 54-63.

[12] MacIntyre writes, "[S]uppose that we need to attend to virtues in the first place in order to understand the function and authority of rules; we ought then to begin the enquiry in the quite different way from that in which it is begun by Hume or Diderot or Kant or Mill." (After Virtue, p. 119)

[13] Rawls, of course, addressed this issue of overall priority in ethics and maintained that, rather than standing at the root of morality, the virtues are secondary to both the concepts of the right and the good.  Principles come first, claimed Rawls, and virtues stand as "the strong and normally effective desires to act on the basic principles of right." John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971), p. 436.

[14] J.B. Schneewind makes the case for why, over time, the discourse of law and principle has triumphed over that of the virtues; see "The Misfortunes of Virtue", Ethics 101 (October 1990): pp. 42-63.

[15] Stephen Macedo, Libeal Virtues – Citizenship, Virtue, and Community in Libeal Constitutionalism, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), pp. 9-10.

[16] Macedo, Libeal Virtues, p. 10.

[17] Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 436.

[18] On the role of the liberal ideal of diversity and its relation to civic virtue, see William Galston, "Two Concepts of Liberalism," Ethics, 105 (April 1995): pp. 516-534. Macedo and Galston take up opposing sides on the issue of whether diversity (instead of autonomy) stands as the foundation of the liberal tradition, with Macedo opposing the dominance of the diversity paradigm. Yet Macedo's polemic does not aim at denying the importance of diversity, rather, it tries to emphasize the way in which the protection of liberal values such as diversity and difference are themselves dependent upon the success of a strong and stable liberal community. See, e.g., Macedo, Diversity and Distrust, p. 27.

[19] Rawls, Political Liberalism, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), p. 157.

[20] Stephen Macedo, "Transformative Constitutionalism and the Case of Religion – Defending the Moderate Hegemony of Liberalism", Political Theory, Vol. 26, No. 1, February 1998, pp. 69-70.

[21] William Galston, Liberal Purposes, p. 154.

[22] See, e.g. Gutmann, Democratic Education, p. 46.