“Democratic acting” virtues

If honesty, humility, and consistency are virtues that improve our democratic thinking, helping us make the right decisions, we can think of moral virtues as helping us improve our actions. Call them “democratic acting” virtues. These action virtues come after the thinking virtues just as action should follow thoughtful consideration. Democratic acting virtues make us more likely to achieve the good. In classical Western philosophy, these virtues are called the cardinal virtues – temperance, courage, justice, and prudence. This list thus has a standing in Western ethics that, to say the least, merits our attention. Two of these four virtues are particularly important for understanding how a democrat ought to behave and, especially, how a democrat ought to address the vice of tribalism. Democratic acting requires a distinctively democratic understanding of courage and temperance. 

To engage politically at all means that we are expressing our opinions to those whose opinions we do not know and to those who we know do not agree with us. I call this everyday democratic courage. As partisan animosity rises, so too does the courage needed for even these little acts. In chapter 7, I argue that democratic courage demands that we scrutinize our own presuppositions, challenging both ourselves and those in our tribe. 

Chapter 8 argues for a democratic notion of temperance. Unlike many ancient philosophers, Aristotle thought that anger could be properly directed and controlled. And when it was, its expression could be wholly legitimate, even virtuous. On the other hand, Aristotle thought hatred was not merely a more extreme version of the former. Hatred is permanent. It consumes us and becomes part of our very identity. Research on those leaving hate groups show the accuracy of Aristotle’s description. Democratic temperance falls in the middle. It requires both that we accept anger toward our opponents as inevitable and that we also stop that anger from morphing into hatred. Some of the most basic features of democratic politics,including compromise and collaboration, are impossible without it. I close by showing how we can increase our prospects for temperance.

The theological virtues come from Thomas Aquinas. Writing in the thirteenth century, Thomas agreed with the ancients that the four cardinal virtues were a necessary means for achieving human happiness. They were seen as supreme virtues within the bounds of human reason. Theological virtues – faith, hope, and charity – “surpass” that reason. They make it possible for us to achieve a dimension of both happiness and excellence that we cannot achieve otherwise. I am arguing that a nontheological version of these faithful virtues is fundamental in restoring our democracy.

Chapter 9 presents a democratic understanding of charity. For Thomas, charity means the love and care we give to others, a love that begins with, and rests upon, our love for God. For democrats, charity simply means giving all our fellow citizens, even those in the other tribe, the benefit of the doubt. Abraham Lincoln affirmed this idea in his second inaugural address, and Joseph Biden reaffirmed it in his first. But just as it did for Thomas, democratic charity begins elsewhere: in this case, our commitment to others begins with our commitment to democracy. We give others the benefit of the doubt because we are committed to democracy, and we know that democracy works better when we do so. In the current climate, such charity is extremely difficult. The most pragmatic approach is to adopt a version of the “generous tit for tat” strategy developed in game theory.

Chapter 10 focuses on democratic faith. Thomas defined faith as believing or assenting to truths that are not evident in themselves. Democratic society likewise depends on an affirmation of principles that, to say the least, are less than demonstrable. In fact, work by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels shows that those principles strain against the facts. Our votes are not the product of our careful consideration of the candidates and our self-interest. Rather, they are simply another manifestation of our tribal identity. But democratic society works better when we continue to affirm these principles despite insufficient evidence. The Freedom Riders did that. More recently, so did Greta Thunberg, Alexander Windman, and Bryan Stevenson. These democrats show that tribalism is not the whole story. Sometimes, at least, people actively listen to and are even persuaded by protest. And sometimes so many join that history is changed, and society ends up more democratic. These acts, and countless others, affirm the ideal of democratic politics as a matter of faith.

Every democratic act depends on and manifests these virtues. They make democracy go. In the conclusion, I argue that by striving to practice them ourselves – and honoring their practice in others – we help keep our tribalism in check and thereby make our democracy better. Committing ourselves to democratic virtues is one political act, one pro-democracy act, that all of us can undertake. Just as importantly, this practice also makes us better human beings. In Aristotelian terms, committing ourselves to democratic virtue is how we achieve democratic excellence. 

From “The Seven Democratic Virtues: What You Can Do to Overcome Tribalism and Save Our Democracy” by Christopher Beem