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What Is Civic Virtue?

Barriers to Being A Good Citizen

Machiavelli called virtu civile ("civic virtue")--an ingrained tendency to form small-scale associations that create a fertile ground for political and economic development, even if  the associations are not themselves political or economic. Civic virtue both expresses and builds trust and cooperation in the citizenry, and it is these qualities-"social capital,"-that make everything else go well. I question whether government and other institutions are doing what it takes to create an environment where trust thrives, or are they creating cynicism on thae part of the  American public. What follows are a few examples to make my point.

The other day I found out that the Los Angeles Police no longer will prosecute photo-enforced red light tickets. You know, you get a photo in the mail that shows your car went through a red light. I got such a ticket a few years ago and was $400 poorer for the experience. I went to traffic school to avoid having the ticket appear on my driving record. That cost another $100. My beef is that I was being a good citizen, or so I thought, only to find out others in a similar situation have not been paying their tickets and, in many cases, the courts have sided with the drivers. Apparently, there are some due-process issues. Was I a fool? What motivated me to do what I thought was “the right thing?” For me it wasn’t even a question. I got the ticket, knew I had gone through the red light, took responsibility for my actions, and ‘promised never to do it again’ by suffering through traffic school. Now, I feel like a jerk and it makes me question whether it may be better to take advantage of the lowering of moral standards in our society and no longer pay those tickets especially when they are given by out-of-town police. Also, why not consider defaulting on my under-water mortgage and go through a mortgage forgiveness program sponsored by the government and by banks such as Bank of America, or seek “strategic default." Maybe I should stop paying income taxes because the government might adopt a tax amnesty program or I can always go through an ‘offer-in-comprise.’  Why should I bother to vote in elections because neither political party acts with integrity and ultimately does what is in their narrow self-interests?  And, maybe I'll do whatever it takes to get off jury duty in the future. I mean, who wants to go through what faces the Casey Anthony jurors?

Of course, I will do none of the above. I realize a person who is aware of his or her duties and rights in society is a good citizen. However, now I wonder whether the expansion of one’s right to avoid meeting one’s obligations has caught up with or surpassed civic duty. I always thought we have to accept the standards of behavior expected in society for the common good. But now I see fraud at all levels of government, business, and society. I observe bad people acting badly on television and on the Internet, some of whom get their own reality TV program. I see murderers getting away with it (i.e., OJ and Casey Anthony) because the jury does not want to take the time to methodologically go through all the evidence and conduct a reasoned deliberation to assess reasonable doubt. Students act out in class and teachers are afraid to discipline them for fear of harming their self-esteem or inviting administrative scolding or lawsuits. In other words we have morphed into a no consequences society and a dumbing down of our ethical standards.

One of my first blogs was to explore the concept of moral hazard. Elim Ethics Committee Moral hazard occurs when a party protected from risk behaves differently than it would if it were fully exposed to the risk. It arises because an individual or organization does not take full responsibility for its actions so that the consequences of bad behavior do not befall on that party. Instead, responsibility passes to another party that covers the cost of the risky behavior. Banks absorb the cost of defaults on mortgages because some people choose to walk away from their obligations with the result being our home values decline. We, the people, pay for IRS tax forgiveness for others with the resulting increase in the revenue shortfall to the government. And, scofflaws know that the likelihood of getting caught these days is much less than in the past and penalties for any offense more lenient. One reason people get away with wrongful acts today, or aren't caught until massive harm has occurred to others, can be attributed to the growing incompetence on the part of law enforcement and those who should be able to spot red flags before they turn green. Just think about the Jaycee Dugard case or Major Nidal Malik Hasan.

I fear that if we continue down this path we may be headed for violence in the streets if economic conditions don’t improve; the middle class may continue to get squeezed and wonder whether their personal sacrifice is worth it; and the rich will get richer while the poor, poorer. The "do-badders" in our society know they can get away with it and, even if they are caught, rarely are there any consequences for their actions. We all should remember that in history the greatest societies have fallen because of moral decay from within. Who can question that this is precisely what has been occurring during the past forty years or so in America ever since the mantra of the 1960s was to “do your own thing.”

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, July 16, 2011

Cartoon reproduced with permission