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Virtue, Civic

Virtue is excellence in the character of a person. It refers to a desirable disposition, which can prompt individuals to be good persons and to do good things in regard to others and the community in general. Civic virtue refers to the dispositions or habits of behavior that direct citizens to subordinate their personal interests when necessary to contribute significantly to the common good of their community.

Since ancient times, political philosophers have stressed the importance of civic virtue in the establishment and maintenance of good government. For example, Aristotle, the great philosopher of ancient Greece, identified four main virtues that a good citizen of a republic should exhibit: temperance (meaning self-restraint); prudence; fortitude; and justice. Political thinkers and actors in modern times have also emphasized the importance of civic virtue in the character of the citizens and the institutions of a constitutional democracy or democratic republic. They have recognized that the practical effectiveness of constitutionalism — limited government and the rule of law — is dependent upon the character of the people. After all, in a democracy — government of, by, and for the people — the quality of constitutionalism can be no better than the character of the people. For example, citizens who possess the civic virtue of temperance are habitually disposed to limit their behavior and respect the rule of law, and to influence others to do the same.

Citizens who have cultivated the virtue of fortitude are likely to oppose persistently and strenuously government officials who behave corruptly or unconstitutionally and to encourage other citizens to do likewise. Citizens who have learned the virtue of prudence are inclined to deliberation and reflection in making decisions rather than to reckless and destructive action, and they influence other citizens by the excellence of their civic behavior. Citizens with a well-formed sense of justice are habitually disposed to support community-wide standards for the protection of human rights and the promotion of the common good, and to prompt others to behave similarly. The core civic virtues are integrated within the character of the good citizen, who brings them in concert with other citizens of similar disposition to civic and political participation in a constitutional democracy.

During the founding of the United States of America, James Madison noted the close connection between civic morality and good constitutional government in a republic. In a speech at the Virginia Convention to ratify the U.S. Constitution, Madison said, “Is there no virtue among us? If there be not . . . no theoretical checks, no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical [unrealistic] idea.”

Later, the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville concurred with Madison in his great book Democracy in America. Tocqueville observed how the good character of citizens buttressed the institutions of constitutional government, enabling democracy to succeed in the United States during the 1830s. He recognized that if most citizens in the community have learned certain “habits of the heart” or civic virtues compatible with constitutionalism then there will be good constitutional government in a democracy. If not, however, even the most adroitly designed constitution, institutions of government, and statutes will fail to yield the desired results of liberty, order, and equal justice under law. Democracy is not a self-sufficient system of government. It is a way of political and civic life that can thrive only among people with sufficient virtue to nurture and sustain it.

SEE ALSO Citizenship; Constitutionalism; Justice; Participation