The contemporary world is incredibly complex, multi-layered, and interconnected, and people are parts of multiple circles of social and political interaction. One valuable way to think about this (and this is hardly original) is to see individuals as embedded in these circles in a nested way, members of close circles of family and friends; then of wider circles of acquaintances, voluntary associations, and professional and business relationships; then of wider circles still of community and society and/or country; and then of the widest circle that encompasses all humanity. There is also a growing consciousness of how people are part of, and dependent on, the living, breathing biosphere of the Earth, cohabitants with all the life that lives upon it, so I say that we should also think of ourselves as being members in the circle of life itself.
Of course, in complex modern societies there is much diversity and overlap of these social spheres, and the circles are not always strictly concentric, but are sometimes juxtaposed or overlapping. And while for many people the nation remains the primary locus of social identity, there is no necessary reason to give this particular circle priority over the rest – that patriotic identity current rests in one’s country rather than, say, with a city-state, a continental grouping like the European Union, or the globe itself, is an accident of history.
Although I have put the individual at the center of these circles, there is little evidence to support the old Enlightenment idea of a rationalist self that exists as a consciousness prior to and independent of its social context. Rather, these circles of social embeddedness create the self, giving it identity and even consciousness, self-awareness, and memory, all of which increasingly appear to be products of language and social interaction, according to psychologists, cognitive scientists, linguists, and other researchers. We owe who we are to the people, institutions, and culture that surround us and that we spend our entire lives within.
Classical republicans focused the civic virtues on either the city-state or the nation-state, depending on the historical period. But given our current conditions, in which we deal with disintegrating communities and families, dysfunctional local and national governments, and a host of globally interconnected problems, if civic virtue is to attend to the public good, this must now mean attending to the goods of these many circles, up to and including the idea of being a citizen of the world. In the future we will find it increasingly necessary to even understand ourselves as participants in the sphere of life itself. To define and achieve the common good, we need not just traditional civic virtue, but world virtue, to look to humanity’s good, and bio-virtue, to look to what is good for life as a whole.
Often, the different circles come into conflict. This requires balancing, prioritizing, and choosing, and solutions are often imperfect or even messy – and that’s OK. Strife between different identities is difficult, as the conflicting familial and political loyalties in a work like Sophocles’ Antigone shows. The best goal, in the end, seems to be to creatively find ways where our actions, individually and collectively, allow the whole system of spheres, from individual up through community, society, world, and bios, to be healthy and to flourish. That goal, it seems to me, is likely to be a necessary moral maxim in the future.
This will require, I think, letting go of go of two dominant moral ideas of modernity, utilitarianism and what is called instrumental rationality.
Utilitarianism: We will have to let go of the idea that there is a cost/benefit calculus to everything, a zero-sum game where the advantage of one sphere must involve disadvantaging or even damaging another. That is usually a mental trap. Instead, we will have to follow our maxim and creatively find ways for the whole system of spheres to be healthy and flourish. Instead of asking, “How much Dickensian poverty and environmental damage will we accept for economic growth?,” we will need a rule that we will not accept the kinds of economic growth that causes poverty or pollution, but will only implement ways of prosperity that elevate people and nature.
Instrumental rationality: this is the idea that everything can and should be turned into a resource for human use, from goods and machines to other humans and the environment. It is a basic element of modern thought, and is highly destructive and degrading. I will discuss it at length in the future, but for now I will just assert that full consciousness that one is an interdependent part of larger circles of humanity and of life goes a long way towards diminishing instrumental thinking.
In short, a classical definition of civic virtue as located solely in one’s polity will no longer do, given humanity’s current state of interconnection and level of crisis. Now, to set aside one’s own narrow interest to attend to the public good means being both flexible and expansive about the “publics” to which we refer.