Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Trust in Civil Society vs. Civic Virtue

In Theory Camp this year we are working through books on trust.  This week we are considering Adam Seligman's The Problem of Trust.

Seligman contrasts the "civil society" version of how citizenship works with the "civic virtue" approach. The former is more congenial to Americans and other English-speaking theorists, while the latter is found more among continental European thinkers.

The civil society approach, since Adam Smith, has seen society as an association of individuals pursuing different ends, within a social order that has enough even-handed institutions to help them live together fairly and pursue their ends without stepping on each other too much.  Tocqueville's great insight was that these free individuals realize that their self interest can be best served if they create civic associations to address many problems of social order.  These associations work for the common good.  Seligman sees that these associations working for the common good engender trust.  I see that, beyond trust, they contribute to the happy society.

The civic virtue approach sees the whole society as having an end toward which it is working, not just the ends of the many different individuals in it.  This is an appealing, Durkheimian vision of a society unified in one collective conscience and one collective consciousness. In the tiny hunting and gathering bands that Durkheim used as his examples of the elementary forms of social life, this degree of unity seems possible.

In modern societies, though, which are huge and highly differentiated, the idea that there is one collective conscience and consciousness is harder to see.  Durkheim offered an ingenious solution, through the collective cult of the sacred individual.  Seligman, though, doesn't think it can really happen. He argues that we cannot know that we share a social conscience with others, nor even, have confidence that our shared social institutions make others predictable.  There, and there only, in the place beyond the limits of the collective sacred or the social institution, is the realm where trust is needed.

1 comment:

John said...

That makes sense to me. I think small is one factor, but survival is another. If you live someplace where you have to rely on others directly to make it, civic virtue has a stronger foothold. Military tours, living in Alaska, desert locations all have in them norms of behavior around scarce resources.