Non-Violence as a Civic Virtue



published in the
(Spring/Summer, 2005)

of the Boston Research
Center for the 21st Century


Peace is the primary
public good–James K. Galbraith


When one thinks of the question �Which came first–moral rules or
virtues?� the obvious answer, I believe that virtues came first.  Moral
imperatives are abstractions from thousands of years of observing loyal, honest,
patient, just, and compassionate behavior, just as moral prohibitions have come
from equally ancient experiences with the vices. 

Critics of virtues ethics claim that virtues vary across
cultures, so it is impossible to choose which are the correct ones.  In
response, I say we should celebrate this rich diversity of human experience and
learn to tolerate the minor vices that irritate us. Even as abstractions, moral
rules still have normative force, so international law and the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights would still serve as a check on practices that most
human beings find detestable.

            English philosopher Leslie Stephen once described
virtue ethics as follows: "Morality is internal.  The moral law. . . has to be
expressed in the form, ‘be this,’ not in the form  ‘do this.’ . . . The true
moral law says ‘hate not,’ instead of ‘kill not.’ . . . The only mode of stating
the moral law must be as a rule of character."  People of good character and
virtue require no reminder of what the rules are or what their duty is.  As a
result such a society would require few police, judges, and prisons.

While once discussing energy policy,
a national leader implied that conservation was a quaint personal virtue that
somehow could not have any practical effect.  This comment reveals one of the
greatest moral problems of our time: the division between personal and civic
virtue, and the corollary assumption that as long as citizens are not breaking
any laws, they have no moral obligations to others or even to themselves.

Contemporary liberals can no longer believe that the state is
morally neutral, and that merely providing a minimal legal framework will
automatically lead people to good and happy lives.  This obviously has not
happened, and the reason is that people generally do not have the virtues that
are required to navigate the moral obstacles of contemporary life. 

While insisting on the pursuit of the great liberal values of
tolerance, equality, justice, and free discussion, liberals should join with
conservatives in supporting virtue formation in our families and character
education in our schools.  The very survival of our nation depends on such an

Recent critics of character education in the schools argue that
it has been taken over by conservatives with a political agenda.  Liberals can
only fault themselves for allowing this to happen, and for not sufficiently
acknowledging the severe crisis of values in our country.  To overcome the
criticism that virtues taught are too ethnocentric, school curricula need to
have units that show how the virtues express themselves in the world�s major
cultures and religions.

One of the advantages of discussing the virtues is that we can
come to an agreement about them much more easily than arguing about moral
rules.  For example, the debate about sexual abstinence could be constructively
redirected by a focus on the virtue of fidelity.  There should be no
disagreement at all about the universal virtues of courage, loyalty, integrity,
compassion, and justice, and there are very creative ways in which these values
can be taught.

The greatest challenge to any program of moral education is the
violence that is endemic in our culture.  Here liberals have much to offer by
stressing research that clearly demonstrates that violent behavior is learned
and not natural to human beings. The virtue of nonviolence, along with its
allies patience and fortitude, should be taught as central virtues in any
character education program. 

future citizens, children should be taught that violence is never morally
necessary, and that conflicts should always, whenever possible, be resolved
peacefully.  Following the lead of Christ, the Buddha, Gandhi, and King
nonviolence would not just be optional personal virtue but a required civic

Nick Gier is professor emeritus of
philosophy at the University of Idaho.  His most recent book is The Virtue of
Non-Violence: from Gautama to Gandhi
(State University of New York Press,
2004).  He is currently working on a new book on the origins of religious

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