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The Table Video

Kyle Roberts, Robert C. Roberts, Jason Baehr& Janelle Aijian

Learning to Be a Civil Citizen

Schilling Professor of Public Theology and Church and Economic Life, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities
Professor of Ethics and Emotion Theory at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues
Professor of Philosophy, Loyola Marymount University
Assistant Professor, Torrey Honors Institute, Biola University
July 3, 2015

How can the acquisition of intellectual virtues improve public discourse around topics of heated disagreement? Robert C. Roberts comments on the ways humility and listening can increase civil participation in public discourse. Janelle Aijian comments on the love of truth as an intellectual virtue. Jason Baehr points out that the goal of education is to produce good citizens, which requires certain intellectual virtues.


I wonder if we could talk just a little bit about the relationship between intellectual virtue and education toward intellectual virtue and civility and civil discourse. It’s no secret that there is a wide spread breakdown in civility and civil discourse on especially controversial topics in culture.

And it’s, I guess it’s not hard to see that in many cases there is a moral failure that participants in these conversations are failing one another morally in various respects. But I wonder if there is also an intellectual dimension to the failure. Is there a failure of intellectual virtue and correspondingly is there a way of educating inter-virtue that would help us into more civil discourse in civil society more generally? What do you guys think?

Let’s see if we can say what civility is as a virtue. I take it that it would be something like, a love. It would be a kind of patriotism. It would be a kind of love of the community. But it would also be a trust in the mechanisms of government such that when one disagrees with the people in power, one continues to respect the mechanisms of government and seeks to support those mechanisms.

And I think that the virtue of humility is relevant to this, to the practice of civility or the virtue of civility in that, some of the vices that undermine civility and make government dysfunctional are such vices as selfish ambition, to use a word from the apostle Paul and Philippians too. Then glory. Arrogance. The love of power, domination, the kind of fixation on being the party in power or something of that sort.

So, each of these, as I understand humility, each of these vices, sort of re-corresponds to a slightly different kind of humility as a, maybe a variant within a larger category of humility. So, for example, arrogance is a disposition to claim entitlement to things that you don’t really have entitlement to. False claims of entitlement on the basis of thinking that, of overestimating your own importance. And so if you overestimate the importance of your party affiliation, you maybe inclined to think that you don’t really need to listen to what the other people, people on the other side of the aisle say.

And that of course is poisonous for civility. If you just not listening to one another and so a kind of humble, listening and taking seriously what the others say and trying to keep your own strategies within the bounds of the spirit you might say of the American government. That would be a way, an important virtue to have to head off in civility and that has an intellectual side to it because listening to the other side is an intellectual exercise, right! It’s a matter of taking in, being open to taking in what the others say and taking it seriously as something a colleague is saying.

Yeah. I wonder Greg, if your distinction earlier between love of learning and love of knowing and maybe even a step further, love of being right, is the kind of thing that you are talking about Bob. This idea that I would actually, I would rather there not be a solution than for the other team to have come up with a better solution than I have come up with, right!

I would rather the problem not be addressed than be addressed successfully by someone other than myself. [laughs quietly] That seems to me like that’s the heart of some of the breakdowns in civil discourse. And there’s the intellectual virtue. There’s a kind of love of truth, right! I love truth more than myself and more than my own advancement.

Yeah. To love discovering that I have been wrong.


Is maybe an acquired love. [people laugh quietly] Not one that just comes naturally and bubbles up out of our nature.

But a deeply important one, if you’re ever gonna be intellectually virtuous.

Seems like if we take a little step back and say, you know, is there an important connection between educating for intellectual virtues and civility or civic discourse, civil discourse? Here’s one, here’s one way to kind of try to bridge it. It’s pretty straightforward that you think that education should aim at producing good citizens and if you think that part of what it is to be a good citizen, is to be disposed to engage in public discourse well, or in a manner that’s civil.

And if you think doing that, or civility is partly a matter of being intellectually humble and intellectually rigorous and open minded and fair minded and intellectually honest, then that gives you a really good reason to think that educators should be concerned with trying to foster growth, intellectual virtues, because they’re important to engaging in public discourse. They’re important to other forms of kind of democratic participation, right! If you wanna make a responsible vote, right! You need to ask the right questions.

You need to look at the evidence carefully and thoroughly. You need to be honest with yourself. And I think that some of these things are timely for reasons that you’ve already suggested which are that, so much of public discourse today, seems to be marked by what you might even describe as epistemically bad behavior, right! So just looked at from a purely, how do people handle evidence of each other’s views right? And what you see is a lot of being dismissive. A person on the other side, must be stupid.

They must be ignorant, caricaturing of other people’s views, right! A lot of just, some ways is a lot of mishandling of, evidence and other epistemic goods. And intellectual virtues just are the personal qualities or character traits that you need in order to handle those goods well. So in so far as public discourse, is aimed at knowledge and understanding, then for it to go well, you’ve got to have intellectual virtues.

Now, you might think public discourse, whether it should be or not, is often aimed at other goals like power, right? And that’s when things get complicated that the goal of power and the goal of knowledge and truth can conflict and so the qualities that one cultivates with those ends in mind can be different.

I wonder if it’s just struck me that there’s another side of maybe the vices of public discourse that we haven’t talked about and that’s, apathy or lack of engagement, right! So and there are a small number of people who we can look at and say like, wow! It seems from this outside perspective that there’s the motivation is power rather than the good. But there’s actually this much larger problem of, of despair, I think, of many many people just failing to engage because they’re not convinced that their small voice is going to matter in the larger picture.


So there’s a different intellectual virtue there and like willing to be engaged, even if you’re not gonna be the rock star. Even if you’re not gonna be the one who yourself makes all the difference.

But it’s interesting that, I mean, on one way of telling it, that bias traces back to the same level of power. So the reason I’m not engaged is because I love power and there is intended to be heard here. [people laugh quietly] For me that same vices, driving things.