Civilizing the Economy A New Economics of Provision

Civic and Commercial Arguments

Posted Mar 12, 2013 by Marvin Brown in civic vs. commercial, The Civic, No Comments

In a commercial argument, we haggle over the value of something, and try to convince the other that our product or idea is the best one.  This involves engaging in what is commonly called “the marketplace of ideas.”  Such arguments appeal to our interests, and we seek to find a coincidence of interests—a win/win situation—where we can agree.  In commercial arguments, we treat our ideas as properties or commodities that we try to sell to others.  So how does this differ from a civic model of communication?

In a commercial argument, we see people exchanging their ideas with each other.  Each person exists isolated from the other and they market their ideas to each other.  In civic dialogues, we see people working through their disagreements in a shared civic context.  Much like we are engaged in the English language now, as I write and you read this text, citizens become engaged in a civic conversation through participation in it.  In these conversations, instead of trying to sell their ideas as though they were commodities, participants spend time developing new ideas that will move the conversation forward.

This difference between a commercial exchange and civic engagement is really central to understanding civic arguments.  It is like the distinction between ownership and membership.  If we think we own our ideas, then we protect them as we protect property, or we sell them for the right price (a promotion or at least some recognition).  If we see our ideas as belonging to a language and a culture, then we can enjoy their development as we become more familiar with the vocabulary and attitudes that constitute civic arguments.

As members of the civic, we can acknowledge each other as global citizens. This membership does not replace city or national citizenship, but rather expands it to include those with whom we share the planet, share this time, and share a similar planetary future.  To be a member is to acknowledge that we are all in this together, and that as members, we all have equal moral status.  This moral equality of all members carries with it a second implicit civic norm: the norm of justice or reciprocity.  The claim here is quite simple:  All members should receive good for doing good.  The relationships among the members should be reciprocal.  Actually, reciprocity also plays a role in justifying differences.  As Ernst Baker has pointed out, reciprocity fosters “balanced social relations” (Becker, 1986).  A balanced social relation does not mean that everyone has the same, but it does mean that the differences are among members, instead of among members and non-members.

When we think about our future, it is truer than ever before that we are all in the same boat.  Even though we today live within the conflicts generated by class, race, gender, and nationality, all our grandchildren will inherit the same earth.  Their inheritance depends on our willingness to work together to create a more just and sustainable world.  Civic membership does not resolve the disagreements about how to do this, but it does give us a platform upon which we can work together toward viable solutions.

Remember that one cannot be a citizen alone.  It is a relational and collective concept.  It is about belonging—belonging to the civic. Because equal membership is granted to all who participate, all have equal rights to be involved, or at least represented, in arguments that affect them.  These civic arguments can occur in many different places from local to international assemblies, in workplaces, voluntary associations, neighborhoods, and government agencies.  A civic argument is not defined by place, but rather by human relationships—relationships of moral equality, reciprocity, and participation.   If we apply these moral claims to arguments among citizens, civic arguments would exhibit the following characteristics.

  1. Each person’s participation is equally valued
  2. Participants feel safe enough to risk sharing their point of view
  3. They ask questions in an effort to understand each other,
  4. They develop reasons for their views that others can grasp.
  5. They value their differences,
  6. They work together for the best solution possible.

You can use the exercise below to assess your experiences of and knowledge about good civic arguments.  List 7 people with whom you have conversations and then rank them in terms of how often (1 meaning seldom and 5 meaning often) the conversations include the six features of civic arguments.

                                  Conversational Capacity


Conversational Partners 1 2 3 4 5 6

Feel safe

Ask questions

Develop good reasons

Give the benefit of the doubt

Value differences

Work together



Seldom   1   2   3   4   5   Often

Seldom   1   2   3   4   5   Often

Seldom   1   2   3   4   5   Often

Seldom   1   2   3   4   5   Often

Seldom   1   2   3   4   5   Often

Seldom   1   2   3   4   5   Often


After you finish the exercise, you can reflect on why some individuals received different numbers than others.  Also, you can imagine how they would have assessed their capacity for good conversations.  If you think they also would have had some high numbers with some people, then all of you have the individual capacity for good conversations.  The question is how to change our conditions so that all of us can participate at our highest potential.  I am not alone on working on this, but there is a lot still to be done.

Health care: not Socialism, nor Libertarianism, but Civicism

Posted Dec 14, 2010 by Marvin Brown in Uncategorized, 5 Comments

For the United States government to require that everyone carry health care insurance is not socialism, but neither is it libertarianism.  What about seeing it as a third form of government that we can call: “civicism.”  Civicism believes that all citizens have certain obligations to each other based on such civic norms as solidarity, moral equality, and reciprocity.

What’s a Citizen?

Posted Apr 29, 2010 by Marvin Brown in Uncategorized, 91 Comments

In my business ethics classes, I ask students to take on the role of a citizen when we consider the ethics of business in society.  What does that mean, especially in a classroom filled with students from perhaps ten to twelve different countries?  What would it look like for a student from China or from Indonesia to take on the role of citizen in an ethics class in the United States?

I begin the exploration of this question by sharing the original meaning of citizen.  A citizen is a “member of a city.”  Citizenship, in other words, provides us a consciousness of membership.  Today, of course, we would extend membership beyond any particular city to the global community.  I think of global citizenship, for of all, as an awareness of belonging to this generation.  In our global, pluralistic world, to see oneself as a member of this generation is no small undertaking.

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 for more information.

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