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Civic Ethos

Author: Henry Tam

Five reasons to teach the civic ethos

Henry Tam argues that we need to set out with greater confidence the principles for shared living and equal citizenship.

A worldview is a set of core dispositions that shape how we interpret our experiences and respond to them. It constitutes our mindset in interacting with other people in every sphere of life. Religions, ideologies, secular doctrines, cultural norms, have at different times, furnished diverse people with their own worldviews.

Amongst these worldviews is the civic ethos that enables people to see one another as members of a shared public realm; who can be held responsible for the impact of their behaviour on others; who resolve any difference by engaging in open, reasoned, objective enquiries and deliberations; and who agree to collectively binding decisions only if all concerned have a fair and meaningful say in determining how those decisions are reached.

But whereas religious organisations, ideological groups, and cultural advocates constantly promote their respective worldviews, the civic ethos is not systematically taught at all. Set out below are five reasons why this situation needs to be rectified.

1. Its neglect has resulted in a dangerous vacuum

Psychologically, we all need some kind of worldview to help us assess what we encounter and adjust our behaviour accordingly; it guides us in what we believe, value, support, and what we suspect, condemn, oppose. With relatively little done to inculcate the civic ethos, however, the vacuum has been filled by warped worldviews made up of aggressive nationalism, religious fundamentalism, hate-filled prejudices, fascist myth-making, groundless superstitions, market worship, ‘anything goes’ libertarianism, and others that are no less potent in fuelling irresponsible behaviour in society.

2. It is needed to give direction to engagement techniques

Some may say that plenty is being done to raise awareness of how to participate in civic institutions, get involved in democratic processes, support community action and development, engage in cooperative working, or set up structures for sharing. But training in diverse engagement and coproduction techniques tends to focus narrowly on particular tasks and organisations, and overlook the need for a more comprehensive gestalt to deal with key issues concerning conflicting values and changing priorities. Indeed, without being guided by the civic ethos, individuals could easily end up using engagement techniques to further whatever cause validated by other worldviews. And in practice, many do precisely that when they are mobilised to help get the vote out in support of proposals that are against anyone that is designated ‘the enemy’ under the worldview in question (e.g., benefit claimants, LGBTs, immigrants, people with disabilities, subscribers to a minority faith or no faith, vulnerable workers, the EU, etc).

3. Its historical development holds vital lessons for everyone

The civic ethos may be dismissed in some relativist quarters as just another outlook that deserves neither more nor less attention than the numerous worldviews around. But such an attitude betrays a lack of understanding about how the civic ethos has evolved, and why its growing sensitivity and sophistication over time reflect constructive responses to the needs for healthy societal co-existence. From ancient civic republicanism and Renaissance civic humanism, through the emergence of the Enlightenment ethos, the civil and political reformist tendencies of the 19th century, to the progressive, solidarity, and civic-communitarian currents of thought from the 20th century on, we should learn from the intellectual and moral development that infuse the civic ethos if we are to live together in justice and harmony.

4. Without wider adoption, it will be left on the margins

Even in countries that are relatively more democratic than others around the world, we know that in many spheres of life, civic cooperation is not at all how we can relate to each other. Most businesses do not give their workers any say in how they are run. Top-down hierarchical commands dominate many public institutions, while anarchic chaos spread across neglected neighbourhoods. Nationally, money buys control through the propagation of worldviews at odds with a vision for mutual respect and political equality. Evidence-based discussions and inclusive power sharing are increasingly pushed to the margins. Enclaves of cooperative enterprises and democratic activists will have little overall impact when large numbers of people, with no appreciation of or commitment to the civic ethos, go along with oppressive or exploitative systems.

5. A structured pedagogy is essential for effective learning

If the civic ethos is to win over hearts and minds on a large scale, it is not enough for different elements of it to be picked out for ad hoc exposition in disparate courses. If it is to compete with other worldviews, the proponents of which seldom hesitate to get their core elements across as a unifying package, it must be taught with a structured pedagogy. Those who teach it should share a common approach that will build on its core components:

  • We are mutually responsible for the impact of our actions on each other, and we respect the needs of others as we expect them to respect ours
  • We will cooperatively enquire through shared reasoning and objective evidence what merits our provisional acceptance as worthy of belief, and what should be rejected or placed under suspended judgement, and 
  • We shall validate decisions that are binding on everyone only when all concerned can participate as equal citizens in shaping how those decisions are reached. 

Detailed applications of these principles will then provide more specific guidance on how to interpret and respond to the events around us.

For more on how to teach the civic ethos and raise political understanding also read Political Literacy & Civic Thoughtfulness.


The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

Civic Ethos © Henry Tam 2017.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.