Civic Dispositions

2004, 34 ). Contemporary civic dispositions are similar to classical notions of civic virtue because they further the common good while simultaneously maintaining the individual's autonomy and personal interest. As Richard Dagger noted in Civic Virtues ( 1997 ), this seeming paradox is actually a matter of assessing circumstances when an individual in a democratic society chooses to enact civic tendencies along a continuum bookended by liberal individualistic and communitarian inclinations. The attitudes, values, and habits that comprise civic dispositions form a framework for understanding tendencies toward civic action in a democratic society. These elements stem from historical roots and continue to grow and develop from contemporary sources.


Civic dispositions as the basis for democratic citizenship have roots throughout the Western discussion of democratic political theory. Two major historical eras produced the foundation for contemporary views of civic dispositions: political discourses from the ancient Western world of Greece and Rome and the ascendance of the modern nation-state during the Enlightenment.

The ancient Greek word for self-absorbed behavioral tendencies was idios (the root of the English word idiocy), which Athenians believed would lead a person to corruption and dependence. In contrast, the proper Athenian citizen ( politēs ) held dispositions such as civic duty and liberty. Although Plato ( ca. 427/8–347/8 BCE ) and Aristotle ( 384–322 BCE ) disagreed over the nature of the just state, they concurred that the polity was the basis for human fulfillment and justice. As such, the good life was the state trust. R. Freeman Butts explained that in order for the state to fulfill this trust, “citizens must be led to virtue by the inoculation of virtuous habits and rational principles” ( 1988, 109 ). This theoretical aspect of civic dispositions, expressed most notably in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, prompted his contemporary, Isocrates, to call for a more practical, rather than contemplative, human behavior that centered on active service to the polity.

After an absence of nearly two millennia, discussions of behavioral tendencies indicative of active public citizenship in a democracy resurfaced during the rise of the nation-state and continue today. The growing belief in natural rights and popular sovereignty during the Enlightenment underpinned democratic upheavals such as the American and French revolutions, giving renewed life to the responsibilities of citizenship as a matter of individual choice with communal consequences. With the rise of the people as sovereign, the discussion of dispositions necessary to maintain a democracy moved beyond the classical definitions of civic virtue and into the realm of practical behavior. Thinkers from James Madison ( 1751–1836 ) and Alexander Hamilton ( 1755–1804 ) to the English philosopher John Stuart Mill ( 1806–1873 ), who advocated classical liberalism, and today's communitarian advocate Benjamin Barber continued the discussion of the false paradox concerning a citizen's behavioral choice between liberty and the common good. Dagger pointed toward a middle ground concerning the ability of democratic citizens to seek a form of republican liberalism—what Alexis de Tocqueville ( 1805–1859 ) described in Democracy in America ( 1835, 1840 ) as self-interest rightly understood or enlightened self-interest—that makes way for a consensus on civic dispositions essential to the maintenance of a modern democracy.


The elements of civic dispositions fall into three broad categories: civic attitudes, civic values, and civic habits. As described by psychologist Gordon Allport in The Person in Psychology ( 1968 ), attitudes and values form an individual's inclination to act, while habits, or traits, put them into action. Several defining elements fall within each of these three broad categories as they relate to a person's civic disposition.

Civic attitudes make up the individual's perspective on the proper role of a citizen. In American political culture, these attitudes include patriotism, compassion, persistence, and open-mindedness. Patriotism can be defined as the sense of belonging that one holds toward the nation-state. Love of country, personal pride in national achievements, and respect for things that symbolize the nation are components of patriotism. Compassion is the attitude of caring for the perspectives and feelings of others. Attending to the call for assistance in a national emergency, such as a natural or industrial disaster, is one example of civic compassion. Openmindedness is concomitant to compassion in that it sets the stage for the individual to care for others, but also enables the individual to understand the unfamiliar. Open-mindedness widens one's field of solutions to common problems by enabling one to consider all possibilities. Persistence is the state of mind that allows a citizen to pursue a personal goal that promotes oneself and upholds the common good. Successful entrepreneurship in a free market requires a persistent attitude.

Local residents at a town hall meeting on water shortages.

Local residents at a town hall meeting on water shortages.

Civic habits represent the behavioral tendencies of individuals toward matters of public concern that include a personal interest. These habits manifest in such observable traits as critical thinking, civility, honesty, and a tendency to negotiate and compromise. The ability to solve problems in a democracy involves critical thinking, which entails the willingness to entertain and analyze all possibilities in order to find the best solution. A citizen discloses the habit to negotiate a solution through his or her willingness to discuss differences concerning the public and its problems, accompanied by an understanding of competing viewpoints. Principled compromise results from negotiation in which both parties agree to give up certain aspects of their position in order to resolve an issue in ways that maintain their self-interest while promoting the overall common good. Civility, or garnering trust by showing respect to those with whom one disagrees, makes negotiation and compromise possible. In addressing a problem owned mutually with others who hold a different view, remaining true to one's convictions and the rule of law is essential to a negotiated and peaceful compromise. This is the habit of civil honesty.


Branson and Quigley 1998 ). Experiences in the home, school, and community, as well as exposure to media and relations with peers, play an important role during an individual's developmental stages. Early exposure to intrascholastic organizations and youth affiliations, or what Walter Parker ( 1996 ) termed “small publics,” can function in later life as a catalyst for engagement with aspects of civil society that further the formation and development of these dispositions.

Marvin Berkowitz, Wolfgang Althof, and Scott Jones ( 2008 ) proposed that civic dispositions, properly established, move the citizen to act both ethically and effectively. These dispositions shape the psychological basis for leading both a private and a public life that promotes democratic principles and strives to maintain effective self-governance. Without such a civic ethos or character to act, civic dispositions alone would not suffice to sustain an effectively functioning democracy.

SEE ALSO Civic Duty ; Civic Education ; Civic Engagement ; Civic Identity ; Civic Responsibility ; Civic Skills ; Republican Virtue .


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Gregory E. Hamot
University of Iowa