Civilizing the Economy A New Economics of Provision

Born to be a citizen

Posted Jun 1, 2010 by Marvin Brown in Uncategorized, 59 Comments

According to Aristotle, even though families and clans preceded the emergence of the city, the city was the end that human communities aimed for.  To be a good member of the city—a good citizen—was the human telos or final end.   In some ways I think he was right.

How different from the world that Adam Smith created for us that treats everyone as traders, engaging in the exchange of properties to become wealthy.  The truth is that we today live more in the legacy of Adam Smith than of Aristotle.  We tend to define the good life in terms of ownership instead of membership.

Of course, we were all children, born of a woman, provided for by others.  We didn’t begin with a civic consciousness, but with a consciousness of how to find security.  We are not born, however, to be secure.  To assume that security is the telos of life (either in property, religion, or drugs) is to misread our possibilities.  At the same time, without security—real psychological and physical security—it is difficult to realize our fullest selves.

We have a choice.  We can choose ownership as the basis for our security, and try to get enough for ourselves—at the expense of others if necessary—or we can choose membership.  The original meaning of citizen is a member of the city.   The choice today, however, is not between two equally attractive alternatives.  The ownership choice has now revealed itself as destructive of the very biosphere we need for our security.

The political theorist, Sheldon Wolin, wrote that the identity of citizen  “provides what other roles cannot, namely an integrative experience which brings together the multiple role activities of the contemporary person and demands that the separate roles be surveyed from a more general point of view.” (Politics and Vision, p.389).

It is this general point of view that we need to aim for.  I see it as both a consciousness of the whole city—its social and natural environment—and a consciousness of belonging to this environment.  It is a civic consciousness.

When we remember that less than fifty percent of US citizens vote in some national elections, or see people running for the highest offices in California who have not voted for most of their adult life and offer “business solutions” to civic issues, we see how far we are from understanding the meaning of citizenship. There is work to be done, and many are doing it.  Check out some of the organizations listed on the “Get Connected” web page.

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Marvin T. Brown, Ph.D teaches business and organizational ethics at the University of San Francisco and Saybrook University in San Francisco.

This book is the culmination of 30 years of teaching and writing on business and society from a communicative perspective. Visit workingethics.com for more information.

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