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Virtue for Pluralists

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Liberal or democratic virtue theories have successfully spread the idea that liberal democracies cannot flourish unless their citizens have certain qualities of mind and character. Such theories cannot agree, however, on what those qualities are. This article attempts to explain and solve this problem. It proposes distinguishing between core virtues, necessary for the actual survival of liberal democracies, and ideal virtues, which promote “progress” according to a given conception of what liberal democracies ought to be about and which values they should most embody. Beyond this, it portrays the relevant virtues as pluralistic (not everyone need have the same ones) and episodic (different virtues are relevant at different times and under different circumstances). It then applies this framework to some key issues of political action and motivation: acts of loyalty and dissent express different aspects of a common response to moral pluralism, and the virtues of citizens differ fundamentally in origin and nature from those of professional politicians. Finally, it suggests more briefly that questions of civil religion, patriotic mobilization in times of war, civic courage, and selfish versus altruistic motives for public action can profit from being seen in this new way.

Affiliations: 1: UCLA Department of Public Policy, 3250 Public Policy Building, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1656 USA, Email:


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