UMich legal scholar Sherman Clark to propose realistic use of civic virtue in democracy

An expert of teaching and law, Sherman Clark, the Kirkland & Ellis Professor of Law at the University of Michigan, helps people understand how laws and politics can lead people to become better citizens and better humans.

Clark will give his lecture, titled “What Democracy Demands,” at 2 p.m. Monday, July 25, in the Hall of Philosophy to start off Week Five of the Interfaith Lecture Series, themed “The Ethical Foundations of a Fully Functioning Democracy.”

The big picture he wants to paint for his audience is if and how laws and politics can help nurture the traits, capacities and virtues needed for democracy to work.

“Connected to the civic virtue tradition that has its roots in ancient Greece, and in early Renaissance Italy, and in the American founding, and at various other points — I’m in that sort of civic virtue tradition,” Clark said.

Clark said there are two aspects of his approach that diverge from the civic virtue tradition.

“One is that most of the time, people who have called for civic virtue have been very vague,” Clark said. “They have talked about it as though it’s just sort of general public spiritedness.”

The vagueness is bad, but willingness to pitch is good, Clark said; but society needs more than enthusiasm to make concrete changes to reach the idea of a fully-functioning democracy.

“Second, I think that many of the capacities we need might be described as epistemic rather than strictly moral,” Clark said. “That sounds technical, but it’s not technical … in the field that studies virtues, traits and capacities, a field sometimes called virtue ethics.”

He described virtue ethics as having two subsections: moral and epistemic virtue, which relate to the validity of the values people try to pursue. 

“These are traits and capacities that make you a better thinker, make you better at figuring stuff out and understanding things,” Clark said. “Moral virtues make you a better human being; epistemic virtues make you a better thinker.”

People are easily seduced into other’s beliefs, Clark said, through the government, propaganda and press.

“Democracy is going to have a hard time as long as so many of us are so easily bamboozled and frightened into believing nonsense,” Clark said. “We have a situation right now where, as citizens, we find it difficult to know who to trust, who to believe. Even those of us trying in good faith, we feel we’re being lied to, or manipulated, or confused.”

He said the typical reaction to this is for people to cling to their original beliefs and values, making it harder for new opinions and ideas to come forward.

“We’ve become easily manipulated by politicians, marketers, and even, unfortunately, media outlets sometimes, who prey to our epistemic vices. They prey to our tendency to seek reassurance of our preexisting opinions,” Clark said. “They play to our desire for simplicity. They also play to our other vices, our fears, our cowardice, our selfishness, our vanity.”

Nobody needs to be an expert in a field to inspire change, Clark said, but simultaneously, people cannot be easily manipulated into believing everything at face value and without digging deeper.

“I want to figure out how we can develop the ability to be the kind of citizens, not just morally, but intellectually, in our capacities, the kind of citizens that democracy needs, if it’s going to work,” Clark said.

While laws and politics can help people nurture and value the idea of civic virtue, they cannot help people develop morals unless they’re willing to put in the work.

“We need institutions like families and churches and schools and communities. And we need our religious and philosophical traditions,” Clark said. “Those are the main places we need our literature, or poetry or art. Those are the main places from which we might cultivate the kind of capacities that we need as human beings or as citizens.”

Clark said laws and politics have an impact because of the way they structure lives, but it’s up to the individuals to progress and cultivate necessary change in society.

“Law and politics are impacting the kind of people we become, and it is at least legitimate for law and politics to think about how we might nurture the traits that democracy needs, rather than nurturing the traits that might end up causing the failure of this great experiment,” Clark said.

Realizing his ideas for a fully-functioning democracy is a long-term project, Clark said it will take contribution from everyone in every aspect of knowledge and consciousness — philosophy, educators, lawmakers and politicians, historians and social scientists — to understand the cognitive biases everyone is pre-wired with.

“I think that the best way to think about big questions is to ground them solidly in reality,” Clark said. “Law, as a field, is a field that works best when you can think about the very particular, but then also put it in the context of the deepest and most enduring questions.”

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The author Kaitlyn Finchler

Kaitlyn Finchler is a journalism and public relations graduate from Kent State University as of May. This will be her second summer at Chautauqua where she will cover literary arts, serving previously as the Interfaith Lecture Series preview reporter. In her free time, you can find her reading, cooking or flipping between “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Gossip Girl.” She’s most excited to see how many times she can slip the word “plethora” into her stories before Sara makes her stop again.