Eugene Garver

Publication Date


Document Type




It would be ungrateful for me to argue with the questions I have been invited to explore. But that is where I have to start. I have been asked to address the following:

What are the virtues required for our common life as citizens in a democracy and for civil democratic conversation? How and why have these virtues been eroded in our Republic as we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century? What resources exist within political thought and our American political tradition for confronting this erosion?

I want to quarrel with four presuppositions of my assignment. First, I have no idea whether it is right or wrong to consider the United States in isolation. Maybe our problems are global ones, and maybe they are uniquely American. I wonder how a Nigerian, an Israeli, or a Jamaican would respond to those questions.

Second, there is the claim that the necessary virtues have been eroded. It is hard to evaluate such claims and hard to know whether they are meant to be evaluated. Nothing of practical value can come of judgments that our current situation is worse than some past era or historical norm. Yes, many Republicans today deny the legitimacy of President Obama, and President Clinton before him, but many Democrats once denied the legitimacy of President Lincoln, with somewhat bloodier consequences. Whether virtues have eroded or not is really beside the point. The point is that things are bad enough, and it would be good to think they could be improved.

Third, even if the virtues have been eroded, it does not follow that restoration is the solution. The circumstances to which virtue should be responsive have changed, and so should the virtues. Our problems are our problems, not problems that people in the past have already solved for us. Instead of asking how to recover lost virtue, we should ask about the virtues we need now.

The fourth and final point will be my subject. It is the word "and" in the first sentence. Are the virtues required for our common life as citizens in a democracy the same as the virtues we need for civil democratic conversation? Many past worries about similar concerns were framed as questions about the relation between virtue and eloquence, between the virtues of practice, action, and character, and the virtues or skills of fluent and persuasive speech. I will draw on those traditions.