Civic Virtue as the Animating Ideal

Part 4 of "Time to Talk About the Public Interest"
Aug 23, 2013 12:40 PM ET

Murninghan Post Blog

Time to Talk About the Public Interest

The TakeAway: Despite the great strides made toward incorporating environmental, social, and governance (ESG) considerations into economic decision making, these ideas are untethered from a moral paradigm or ethos or set of big ideas that can help us internalize a vision to help inspire, guide, and assess our actions.  For centuries—especially with the civil rights movement (as we near the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington)—theological, and ethical convictions served as the primary driving spirit, which continue to this day.  Time for broadening and deepening those convictions in more inclusive ways, in the name of civic virtue and the democratic ideal.

Previously, in “Time to Talk About the Public Interest”: Notions of justice, liberty and fairness; of pluralism and diversity; of equity, “standing” and trust; of independence, vision and innovation; of freedom, self-governance and self-determination; of political stability, safety and security, were embedded in our social, cultural and political life. These virtues helped define integrity—meaning, both literally and figuratively, their integration into the fabric of community, institutional and individual life. They served as building blocks for our constitutional system of representative governance, enlivened by participation and public accountability. They were predicates, too, for our economic arrangements, because business was essentially about community.


In the latter part of the 20th century, the echoes of these beliefs animated early shareholder activists, whether they knew it or not. Beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s with Saul Alinsky and FIGHT KodakCampaign GM, Dow Chemical’s production of Agent Orange and the Episcopal Church, there were enormous social pressures on companies and institutional investors to eliminate discriminatory practices and promote equal opportunity for all. In 1971, the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) was formed, now comprising 275 faith-based institutional investors.

Borrowing from the civil rights movement, the public actions taken during this 1970s and 1980s were accompanied by appeals to a civic moral consciousness that radiated Judeo-Christian religious themes, but were not restricted to them. They included beliefs that:

  • an all-knowing God, not mammon or the market, supersedes all authorities;
  • we humans are called to an ethic of service, justice and responsibility, especially in our professional and public life—a covenant, if you will, with God and for each other;
  • human rights, a belief that each of us is made in the image of God, are a fundamental part of this covenant, thus enabling us to fight against oppression and the diminution of human dignity;
  • a pluralist, democratic society provides the free space—governed by the rule of just laws, subjected to ongoing critical assessment and revision—in which we respectfully work out our differences, in service to the common good;
  • we are freely able to form associations—in addition to our membership in groups based on family ties, race, class or jurisdiction—and that these incorporated entities, or “corporations,” would be overseen by trustees who were accountable to the public interest obligations;
  • as individuals and in communities, the covenant includes stewardship over the earthly realm of nature and her resources, another form of trusteeship that takes the long view of history; and
  • our role in history is a tiny part of a longer journey toward a future destination, a New Jerusalem where life is transformed, that “city upon a hill” to which John Winthrop referred when speaking of the founding of Boston.


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