Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Virtue of Civility in the Practice of Politics

Philip D. Smith, The Virtue of Civility in the Practice of Politics. University Press of America, 2002. 111 pages. ISBN 0-7618-2329-8.

The problem of incivility has only increased since the publication of Philip Smith's book, The Virtue of Civility in the Practice of Politics. In this book the author offers definitions of the following words: civility, politics, opponent, coercion, and pacifism. Smith is a virtue theorist because he thinks the moral life is best understood "in terms of virtues--character traits-- than in terms of actions or rules for acting" (viii). The author argues that civility is a virtue related to a political opponent. He thinks his book is both truthful and useful.

The Virtue of Civility in the Practice of Politics is divided into nine chapters. It covers controversies and conduct, virtue of civility in the practice of politics, Robert Audi's rules for civility, civil speech, the right, and the good, civility and the civil process, and civility and coercion. In the first chapter the author gives examples of different controversies and conduct. The examples come from corporate policy, Church policy, and public policy. Smith's primary interest is how we conduct controversies, not solutions to the controversies.

The author provides definitions of the key terms he uses in the book. He states that "Civility is a properly grounded character trait which moves an individual to treat political opponents well and/or to feel certain emotions toward political opponents, emotions which move an individual to treat political opponents well" (15).  He writes, "Politics is the art or science of making decisions for groups of people" (15). This surprised me at first because I tend to think of politics as what happens in local, state, and national government. He states that the goal of politics is to make good decisions. The third definition: "Political opponents are people who have conflicts over group decision proposals" (15). Smith summarizes his major points about civility in the practice of politics: "Civil people are moved to treat political opponents well. . . . Negatively, this means we are disposed not to impugn opponents' motives, slander them, lie to them, ignore them, or the like. Positively, we are disposed to debate honestly with them, keep any agreements we make with them, treat them with dignity, and so on" (16). What he is describing are virtues or character traits.

To help describe the virtue of civility in the practice of politics he lists the things that it is not. It is not being polite. It is not a tool to oppress others. It does not consist of rules and rule keeping. Virtue is different than rule keeping. Last, it does not cover everything. It does not cover every interaction between people. In chapter three Smith discusses concepts that are related to virtue: practices and institutions. It is through practice we develop virtue and "institutions are human organizations that grow up around a practice and make it possible" (25). Chess would be a practice and a chess club would be an institution, and the ability to play well would be a virtue.

To summarize civility as a virtue in the practice of politics is a character trait that disposes one to treat their political opponent well. Civility describes what a person is, not what he does. Smith thinks there are four advantages to the virtue of civility in political practices. First, it helps to avoid "destructive conflict." Second, "civility helps preserve participants in a political process as resources for decision-making" (32). In other words, the political opponent may provide important information, knowledge that will help in making a good decision. Third, civility decreases distortion in communication. Fourth, civility "helps preserve participants in politics as people of dignity" (33). It seems to me that civility is a better trait than incivility in seeking the truth. Mortimer J. Adler often said that in a discussion the goal was not to defeat your opponent but to find the truth. The virtue of civility is much needed in our society today.

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