Nonviolence as a Civic Virtue

By Nick Gier

Nick Gier is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, University of Idaho. This 2005 essay argues that nonviolence deserves a place among the great virtues such as loyalty, courage, integrity, and compassion. In 2004 he published The Virtue of Non-Violence: from Gautama to Gandhi (State University of New York Press).

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When we think of the question, “Which came first — moral rules or virtues?” the obvious answer, I believe, is that virtues came first. English philosopher Leslie Stephen once described virtue ethics as follows: “Morality is internal. The moral law. . . has to be expressed in the form, ‘be this,’ not in the form ‘do this.’” He went on to say, “The true moral law says ‘hate not,’ instead of ‘kill not.’” In other words, moral law must be stated as a “rule of character” and virtuous people of good character require no reminder of what the rules are.

Critics of virtue ethics claim that virtues vary across cultures, making it impossible define which are “correct.” Such critics prefer moral imperatives, which are abstractions based on thousands of years of observing loyal, honest, patient, just, and compassionate behavior. Because moral rules have normative force, even as abstractions, international law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights serve as an important check on practices that most human beings find detestable. But beneath the power of ideas and beyond the rule of law, there must be a foundation of “good character” based on Stephen’s definition.

While discussing energy policy, Vice President Cheney once implied that conservation is a quaint personal virtue lacking any practical effect. His comment revealed one of the greatest moral problems of our time: the division between personal and civic virtue, and the corollary assumption that as long as citizens are not breaking any laws, they have no moral obligations to others or even to themselves. But can we truly believe that moral neutrality leads to happiness, and be satisfied with merely providing a minimal legal framework?

While insisting on the pursuit of the great liberal universal values of tolerance, equality, justice, and free discussion, perhaps it’s time for political liberals to join with conservatives in supporting virtue formation in our families and character education in our schools. The very survival of our nation depends on such an alliance.

Recent critics of character education in the schools argue that it has been taken over by those with a political agenda. Liberals can only fault themselves for allowing this to happen, and for not sufficiently acknowledging the severe crisis of values in our country. To overcome criticism that the virtues taught are too ethnocentric, school curricula need to show how these virtues express themselves in the world’s major cultures and religions.

One of the advantages of discussing virtues might be that we would come to an agreement about them much more easily than arguing about moral rules. For example, the debate about sexual abstinence could be constructively redirected by a focus on the virtue of fidelity. There should be no disagreement at all about the universal virtues of courage, loyalty, integrity, compassion, and justice; and there are very creative ways in which these values can be taught.

The greatest challenge to any program of moral education is the violence that is endemic in our culture. Here liberals have much to offer by stressing research that clearly demonstrates how violent behavior is learned and not natural to human beings. The virtue of nonviolence, along with patience and fortitude, should be taught as central virtues in any character education program. As future citizens, children should be taught that violence is never morally necessary, and that conflicts should always, whenever possible, be resolved peacefully. In a world where moral character is understood to be internal — as taught by the examples of Christ, the Buddha, Gandhi, and King — nonviolence would not just be optional personal virtue, but a required civic virtue.


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