What is the Point of a Public Morality?



The recent revival of popular interest in the idea of public morality has involved a striking divergence of opinion: there is widespread agreement that we must recover a language of civic virtue, but disagreement about the point of so doing. Some suppose that public morality should promote the good society, while others suppose that it should facilitate the prevention of catastrophe. While on the face of it this disagreement constitutes nothing more remarkable than a difference of temperament between optimists and pessimists, it reflects in fact a fundamental rift in the structure of political action, the denial of which has led to considerable confusion. The denial of a rift depends on the assumption of symmetry between the positive and negative political agendas of individuals and groups. This assumption in turn presupposes a dubious monistic model of political action that is unable to make sense of certain forms of tragic disappointment that are a familiar feature of political experience. Better sense can be made of these experiences by adopting instead a dualistic model of political action which conceives of the positive–negative distinction as being cut across by a more fundamental distinction between aspirational politics and preventive politics. Acknowledging this distinction illuminates debates about ‘non-ideal’ political theory and about the possibilities for a politics of hope in conditions of democratic pluralism. It also highlights an essential ambivalence as to the point of a public morality, which may undermine the enterprise of salvaging civic virtue as conventionally understood.