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Fr. 772

April 3, 2017

Perfectionism without essentialism, hierarchy without elitism: Stout and civic republicanism

If the civic republican expects citizens to be independent in carrying out their civic duties, the former must face up to two open questions. Must the civic republican advance an elitist tradition at the expense of broader citizen participation in a multicultural society? And what organizational vehicles might the civic republican put forward as appropriate to the latter? Our contribution seeks an answer thereto in Jeffrey Stout’s account of civic virtue as “pragmatic expressivism” (Stout 2004) and involvement in broad-based citizens’ organizing (Stout 2010). Certainly, we must take care to situate properly Stout’s work with respect to the civic republican canon. While Stout endorses a view of political freedom as “non-domination” (Pettit 1997) or absence of “uncontrolled” interference (Pettit 2012), he also advances a strand of “Emersonian perfectionism” apparently at odds with a central civic republican contention that neither is political freedom an intrinsic good nor is civic virtue constitutive of political freedom. More precisely, how can one square civic republican commitments with Stout’s talk of “an ethics of virtue or self-cultivation that is always in the process of projecting a higher conception of self to be achieved and leaving one’s achieved self (but not its accumulated responsibilities) behind” (Stout 2004, 29)?

In short, it must be shown just how self-cultivation through political freedom, notably of expression and of association, fits into a broader view of human flourishing and whether that perfectionism commits Stout’s work to more civic humanist currents. Likewise, the author’s questioning in Stout (2010) of whether to extend broad-based citizens’ organizing horizontally across communities and vertically to national, international and transnational levels turns on political activism and civic virtue within those organizations. Given their hierarchical structure, these would seem to entail goods akin to “positional goods”, unequal distributions of power, honor and recognition between members thereof. Accordingly, the civic republican will reasonably wonder whether Stout’s nominally perfectionist account can sustain both positional goods and inclusiveness all while skirting elitism. Can Stout advocate hierarchy without thereby generating dependence and arbitrary power in democratic guise?

In response to the above concerns, we shall endeavor to show how Stout’s pragmatic expressivism and Emersonian perfectionism put forward a substantive, non-instrumental vision of the good life and civic virtue capable of instantiation in different ways of life. Just as importantly, that approach suggests how civic republicanism might pivot from institutional design towards non-institutional forms to check uncontrolled uses of discretionary power. In order to check “power-over” (domination) and condition “power-to” (empowerment), it will be necessary to open up new avenues of influencing institutions, laws and norms through broad-based organizing. So does Stout frame non-domination in deliberative, inclusive and contestatory terms in order to elicit more widespread support from society. Therein is sketched a way forward for civic republicanism which neither collapses it into mere liberalism nor condemns it as a variant of civic humanism. In the bounds which Stout sets civic republicanism, we might better know its possible futures.


Works cited:

Pettit (1997). Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Pettit (2012). On the People’s Terms: A Republican Theory and Model of Democracy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stout (2004). Democracy and Tradition, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Stout (2010). Blessed are the Organized: Grassroots Democracy in America, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


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