Cultural Rights and Civic Virtue
This paper will address the potential tension between two broadly stated policy objectives: one, the preservation of distinctive cultural traditions, often through the mechanism of formal legal rights, and two, the fostering of civic virtue, a sense of local community and the advancement of common civic enterprises.
Many political liberals have argued that liberal societies have an obligation to accommodate the cultural traditions of various sub groups through legal rights and a redistribution of social resources. The “right to cultural difference” is now widely (if not universally) understood to be a basic human right, on par with rights to religious liberty and racial equality.
Other theorists writing in the liberal, civic republican, and urban sociology traditions have expounded on the necessity of civic virtue, community and common enterprises initiated and executed at the local or municipal level of government or private association. These theorists have argued that common projects, shared norms and social trust are indispensable elements of effective democratic government and are necessary to the altruism and public spiritedness that in turn secure social justice.
These two policy goals therefore may at times be in conflict. This conflict is especially severe in larger culturally diverse cities, where social trust and civic virtue are most needed and often in shortest supply. Policies designed to counter cosmopolitan alienation and anomie by fostering civic virtue, social trust and common social norms will inevitably conflict with the cultural traditions and sub group identification of some minority groups. Accommodation of any and all sub group cultural practices will make it difficult if not impossible to foster a common civic culture and social trust.
Programmatically speaking, the paper will argue that such conflicts are often best confronted on the field of political debate and policy analysis, not in the language of civil rights. Rights discourse, with its inherent absolutism, is ill suited to the type of subtle trade offs that these conflicts often entail. While local government and public institutions must be sensitive to the needs of all cultural groups that they affect, the need for civic enterprise and social trust should not be subject to absolute and non negotiable demands for the accommodation of cultural traditions. The accommodation of some cultural traditions will impose severe costs in terms of strife, conflict and the inability effectively to pursue other important social goals—in at least some cases, the cultural traditions, and not the other social goals, should yield.