Lecture by Lord Alton of Liverpool in Baku, Azerbaijan, May 2002. Civil Society And Citizenship: Building Blocks Of A Healthy Society.


Arguably the first person to draw a distinction between the state and civil society was Thomas Paine (Common Sense, 1776). Paine saw the state as a contrived entity “the badge of lost innocence.” The lost innocence that the state represents was the usurping of the role of individual and voluntary endeavour.

Paine held that personal virtue was best cultivated in a climate of personal endeavour; that “society is produced by our wants and government by our wickedness” the one cultivating and uniting our best impulses the other restraining our vices: “the first is a patron, the last a punisher.”

Be that as it may, we know that we cannot dispense with the State. The issue is surely how we find a bridge between the individual and market forces on one hand and the apparatus of the state on the other. It is surely in this no-man’s-land of civil society that individual citizens can find better ways of living.

Civil society can only flourish through an outpouring of civic virtue – implying as it does, charity, philanthropy, public spirit and a whole host of voluntary activity. Civic virtue is the best buttress against totalitarianism and against excess.

Civic virtue can also colonise the best religious impulses and provide the most helpful route of uniting religious values with political ones. Civil society has rightly been described by Quentin Skinner as ” a moral space between rulers and the ruled” (Liberty Before Liberalism, 1998). Although the concept of civil society as the place where voluntary institutions mediate between the individual and the state is of relatively recent origin, the ancients placed great value on the role of individual citizens acting individually and together.

Aristotle wrote that shame, aidos, would attach to the man who failed to play his part; that we are not “solitary pieces in a game of chequers” (Politics); but civil society was not for him a buttress against government but something to be understood in high political terms. In his era public spirit was perceived as military or political service; for us, the concept has much wider implications.

Aristotle set out the ancient virtues that are the bed rock of civil society: justice; wisdom; temperance; courage; magnanimity; tolerance; munificence; prudence and gentleness.

How we exhibit these virtues and how we act as moral agents affects everything from how we treat our neighbours to how we treat the environment. Beyond the appreciation of the theory lies the practical effect that engagement in civil society has on the individual. Cicero understood this when he wrote in “On Duty” said that participation in the common life improved the character of the individual: “the whole glory of virtue is in activity.”

Alexis de Tocqueville was on to the same point when he counselled that an impressive practical wisdom and power of judgement may be developed simply from participating in the affairs of a free society.

But it was Paine who saw the value of civil society as more than the fountain head of personal altruism, arguing that his ideal republic – a place of liberty free of arbitrary rule – would flourish only when there were dynamic free associations beyond the control of government.

Civil society would form a bridge between those who expressed their sense of duty by benevolence or charity and those who worked for social cohesion through politics. This welter of activity invigorates a community or nation and is ultimately communitarian – for it links autonomous individual citizens together. Tocqueville said that “The greater the multiplicity of small affairs, the more do men, even without knowing it, acquire facility in prosecuting great undertakings in common.”

Events post-September 11 have triggered great undertakings but they have also triggered fear and hatred. Islam, for instance, has in some quarters been demonised. In reality, in many of the republics of central Asia, and for countries in the Middle East and other parts of the world, where Islam is overwhelmingly the major cultural force, progress towards a civil society will only occur when deep religious impulses are constructively harnessed.

The English Catholic historian and liberal thinker, Lord Acton, presciently observed that religion “locates and strengthens the notion of duty. If men are not kept straight by duty, they must be by fear. The greater the strength of duty, the greater the liberty.” He also understood that the goal of reconciling religion and liberty is not easily reached: “the paths of both are stained with blood.” Yet how much more blood will flow if religion is to be a force for reaction, aggression and sectarianism rather than as a force for liberty.

Civil society can be enriched by Islamic concepts such as Zahah – which is an essential part of the Islamic economic system, which is based on the principle of “bearing one another’s burdens.” The idea of duty appears again when Ramadan ends with the feast of Id al -Fitr, the Feast of fast-breaking: each Muslim household must make a gift to the poor to make sure that everyone is able to celebrate the festival. If Islam means to live a fully human and balanced life in perfect harmony with God, all other human beings and the whole of creation, surely this can be the basis for Islamic democracy and the building of a civil society?

Civil society and the outpouring of a person’s gifts for the common good is the way to real human progress. Whether in post Communist society, in the developing world or in the West a common enemy is materialism.

In the west democratic institutions have been under increasing attack from crude material values that eat away at civil society. Disillusionment with too great an emphasis on the market, fears about globalisation, and a failure to reconcile deep religious beliefs with a commitment to democracy, all pose a considerable threat.

As someone who has spent thirty years in public life in Britain I understand the reasons for public cynicism but as Winston Churchill once observed about democracy “it is the least worst system” available to us.

Chaotic though many democratic societies may be, nevertheless they offer the best model for the development of a civil society. Let me begin with some admissions of failure. Britain is by no means a perfect society. I know from my time in that we are faced with widespread civic disaggregation and a loss of civic responsibility. Low turn out in elections, for instance, in some of the poorer areas points to alienation.

There has also been a loss of patriotic commitment as an exaggerated emphasis has been placed on individual autonomy and rights rather than on duties and obligations. The cult of individualism has led to a loss of good citizenship and damages civil society.

The challenge for us is to make democracy effective.

I want to briefly consider three factors that in both the west and the east militate in favour or against a healthy civil society and strong democracy:

They concern 1. Totalitarianism; 2. The Effect of Custom and the Virtues; and 3. The Quest For The Common Good.

1. Totalitarianism:

The history of the twentieth century was a history of societies ravaged by ideologies. Some reduce man to a series of social and economic relationships where the whole concept of the person as an autonomous subject linked to others through a network of mutually important personal and communal relationships, and encouraged to take moral decisions, disappears.

The responsibility of the individual to face good or evil is eliminated and social order becomes distorted. Civil society disintegrates and it is corrupted as people are deprived of something which they can call “their own” and of the possibility of either having a personal stake in their community or earning a living through their own endeavour. They come to depend on the social machine and upon those who manipulate and control it.

Any understanding of human freedom which detaches it from obedience to the truth – and consequently from the duty to respect the rights of others, especially the most vulnerable – breeds a self-love and self interest which militates against the demands of justice. Such an approach to life may be seen in the disastrous wars that ravaged Europe between 1914 and 1945. Some of these wars stemmed from militarism and exaggerated nationalism, others stemmed from related forms of totalitarianism, others derived from the class struggle, others again were civil wars or wars of an ideological nature. The outcome was the extermination of entire peoples and social groups. When hatred and injustice are sanctioned and organised by ideologies they take possession of entire nations.

Tragically, today, new ideologies that exalt violence – such as those that fomented the conflicts in the Balkans or in South East Asia – are exacting a new price. However, the silence of weapons does not itself betoken true peace. For this to happen, the causes of war must be removed and genuine reconciliation between peoples facilitated. For most of the last fifty years half of Europe fell under Communist domination and dictatorship while the other half of Europe organised itself to resist Communism. One part of Europe suffocated its people within boundaries where historical memory and centuries old culture was ruthlessly suppressed. Forcible relocation and deportation was followed by an insane arms race that consumed the resources needed for the construction of civil societies.

Scientific and technological progress was inhibited and instead of contributing to mankind’s well-being was diverted into ever more destructive weapons. Only now, with the historic treaty of May 2002, signed by Presidents Putin and Bush, are we witnessing the destruction of Cold War nuclear weapons (although simultaneously Pakistan and India have been threatening to use theirs against one another). Pressing needs have been sidelined as we have lived by the old Roman maxim that “if you want peace prepare for war.”

In those parts of the world where it was decided to resist Marxism, systems of “national security” were created – which attempted to control their society in ways that would prevent Marxist infiltration. As they increased the power of the State – in order to protect the State from Communism – they destroyed the very freedoms and values of the person for whose sake it is necessary to oppose Communism. In other societies it was decided to resist Communism by nurturing affluence and materialism. The consumer society – “I shop therefore I am ” – seeks to destroy Marxism by sheer materialism. The free-market society may provide higher standards of living than Marxism but it, too, loses something by excluding spiritual values and by failing to focus on the voluntarism, charity and generosity, which nurture a truly humane civil society.

When consumer societies talk endlessly about individual choice but deny value to ethics, law, culture, and religion, it is merely aping the worst characteristics of Marxism for it has reduced man to a commodity to be judged in terms of economic output or by the satisfaction of material needs.

Post colonial societies often find themselves trapped by materialistic forces which are completely disinterested in the development of civil societies. Large foreign companies are often no different from the old colonial masters or from the ideological empires in as much as they only wish to pursue their own interests and ignore the aspirations of the nations whose raw materials and people they so readily exploit.

After World War Two, and in reaction to its horrors, the founding fathers of the European Community saw the desperate need for an alternative to these options. Theirs was not an ideological response but one that was based on a more lively sense of human rights and the rights of nations. The focal point has been the development of the European Union and the United Nations Organisation. As we experience the phenomenon of globalisation the new “lingua franca” of human rights is a language which we have all been learning to speak. In a post- ideological world it is a good omen for our future development.

2. The Effect of Custom and Tradition:

The second area that I wish to address concerns the stabilising tendency of custom and virtue. In the construction of civil societies we must build on custom and on virtue rather than political ideology.

Aristotle held that everyone should pursue virtue and upheld the centrality of communal existence, or koinonia. The koinonia was not about civic structures of government but about the qualities in mankind which made civic co-existence a possibility.

How a person measures up to Aristotle’s virtues and acts as a moral agent affects everything from how they behave towards their neighbours and their environment to how they uphold ethical standards in politics or commerce. We begin building a civil society by our own actions towards one another – by our willingness to serve rather than to dominate and by our willingness to embrace values which run counter to those which may prevail throughout mainstream society. The Green Movement, with its emphasis in preserving our environment and heritage for future generations is a wonderful example of citizens who have taken a personal stand in the interests of society as a whole. The virtues must be cultivated in the context of the culture and customs of that society rather than by importing Pax Americana or its European equivalent.

Thomas Hill Green, a great nineteenth century idealist, moral philosopher and exponent of ethical liberalism, held that virtue was best understood as a personal outpouring for the common good.

3. The Common Good:

This is my third and final point. It is less by imposed changes of a mechanical kind or of an ideological nature and more through internal development that new things properly come into being in the social order. This is the way to achieve the common good and to create a civil society. The virtues are acquired by practice. They are internal qualities perfecting the interior person and, thus, inter alia, society as a whole.

A thriving democracy and the common good presupposes legal institutions that protect liberty and prevent the exercise of the suffrage from being distorted. It also implies – and perhaps this above all else – the education and formation of the masses. By this I do not simply mean institutions of learning which enrich the intellect but ethical education which forms the virtues and good tendencies, which engenders a spontaneous uprightness of the will, and shapes instincts and conscience. The wolves are always waiting at the door, – the Vikings at the gate – waiting to destroy civil society. Education is our best defence. The bad comes to pass more frequently than the good. All the more reason to create political and civil structures and institutions that are organised in accordance with the order of nature and justice and centre on the common good. Laws are only truly laws if they are just – and they are binding in conscience only if they are just.

Real, not feigned justice, is the foundation of authority in the law as it is for stability and peace within the community. The Common Good and a Civil Society require the progress of social justice; the organic development of institutions of law; the participation in more and more extensive ways of people in political life; the creation of conditions that really do offer each an equal opportunity to bring their gifts to fruit and that rewards the efforts of its labour for common use; and the cultivation of that inner liberty which gives mastery over self; and, finally, a love of knowledge and truth.

My Irish speaking mother brought me up to believe in the common good. An Old Irish saying has it that: “It is in the shelter of each other’s lives that the people live.” Nelson Mandela uses the word ubuntu to express the same thought: “It is the sense that we can only be human through the humanity of others.” The English poet, John Donne, captured the same thought in his famous words: No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

And these are thoughts that are perfectly compatible with Islam. For the Muslim the Arabic word Islam means the state of perfect harmony with God, with other human beings, and with the whole of creation.

This is surely the realisation of the common good.

These ideas of the common good, the cultivating of individual duty and civic virtue, and the combating of totalitarianism by the building of civil society are central themes in building a more human world. They remain the questions which all of – east and west – must continue to grapple with.