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The Citizen’s Role in Creating a Climate of Justice

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Part of the Library of Public Policy and Public Administration book series (LPPP,volume 16)


In the civic space, citizens with access to resources must learn how to respond to the civilians who need them in such a way that it changes the unjust social climate to a climate of justice. This Chapter explores three options of citizens responding to civilians: empathy, a commons approach, and the ethics of care. Jeremy Rifkin has argued that we have evolved to “the age of empathy,” but this approach ignores the difference between those who are privileged and those who are not. The commons approach invites all to become “commoners,” sharing and shaping a common future. This approach has attractions, but it ignores past injustices and the role of the rule of law in protecting civilians. The ethics of care does invite privileged citizens to listen to civilian claims to join them in repairing broken relationships and caring about justice.


  • Civilians
  • Citizens
  • Civilian Review Boards
  • Commons
  • Empathy
  • Feminist ethics
  • Caring for justice

10.1 Introduction

As different groups enter a civic space, the social inequalities and social harms that constitute their social relationships appear as relationships between civilians and citizens. By definition, civilians are those who are vulnerable and rely on the rule of law for their protection. Citizens are those who have access to resources and can protect the human rights of civilians. While civilians can empower themselves to speak the truth to those in power, they cannot by themselves make those in power or citizens understand. If we can accept this distinction, then I am clearly a citizen most of the time rather than a civilian and a white male citizen at that. In a sense, the question this Chapter addresses is how citizens—people like me—can make meaningful connections with vulnerable civilians; connections that ultimately transform the current climate of injustice into a climate of justice.

Even though civilians are vulnerable, they can empower themselves through the creation of community among themselves, as we witness when their voices are heard in civic gatherings, on the streets, and in more structured forms like Civilian Review Boards. Whether their voices are heard and listeners learn from them depends a lot on the social climate in which we live. Given our nation’s social climate of injustice that has its origin in the Atlantic commerce of land and people, and has never been corrected, their voices may not even be heard, or if heard, not understood. “Black lives Matter,” for example, may have been heard, but was it understood, and if understood, did it help to change the social climate from a climate of injustice to a climate of justice? What about the pleading of nurses for us to wear masks and to stay 6 ft apart? What about the homeless groups who ask for basic services?

Social groups often enter the civic realm with opposing claims for protection and provisions. There are voices for and against gun control, for example, or voices for and against changing zoning laws. In regard to policy decisions, both sides deserve a hearing. In regard to creating the social climate for making good policy decisions, not all voices are the same. The vision of some civilian groups will match the vision of the climate of justice and some will not. The vision includes four elements: the earth is seen as a habitat for all, human dignity is shared, our social stories are coherent, and the civic is open to the protection of civilians. Voices that are aligned with this vision play an essential role in promoting the change from a climate of injustice to a climate of justice.

The problem is that living in a social climate of injustice allows us to accept broken relationships and not to expect that injuries can be repaired. In this context, why not say that people should live with the cards they were dealt? For those of us who were dealt a good hand, that seems fair. We don’t have to worry about who was the dealer or who got what. That’s not the case for others, and yet, in the climate of injustice, it’s not that easy to communicate the truth across the gap between those have benefited from social injustices and those who have suffered. Still, it’s the truth that allows us to change the social climate, which is the first step toward deliberating about different policies that will correct our current course toward an unsustainable future.

Vulnerable people, as you might suspect, can be very forgiving but also suspicious of non-vulnerable people who initiate contact with them. They are forgiving because they tend to give others the benefit of the doubt. They are suspicious because others usually focus on understanding them more than on understanding themselves, or the injustices of their relationships. It’s not that easy to get this right, so this Chapter attempts to clarify what is helpful by first examining a couple of options that may look promising, but when taken alone lead us in the wrong direction. It then offers a third option that opens the possibility of creating relationships that could shift our social climate to a climate of justice.

As humans, our capacity for developing meaningful relationships with each other comes from our bodies, from our minds, from our prior experiences, and yes, from our capacity to discern and to speak the truth. Our bodies make connections with others through “mirror neurons.”. These neurons are sometimes called the “empathy neurons,” because they allow us to empathize with others and to feel what they are feeling. Is this possible for citizens and civilians in a climate of injustice? If not, what needs to be added or changed so citizens and civilians can engage in a common endeavor to create a climate of justice.

Another option is to brush aside the difference between civilians and citizens and to treat everyone as a commoner—participants in a commons. Examining this option will help us understand the importance of using the citizen/civilian terminology to capture our current situation and to create a strategy to change it. The social critic, Jeremy Rifkin, has written about both of these options in his books The Empathic Civilization (2009), and The Zero Marginal Cost Society (2014). Rifkin finds the current expansion of empathy and what he calls the “collaborative commons” quite powerful in facilitating a viable future. The following will explore just how adequate they are for creating a climate of justice and then offer an alternative option: a feminist “ethics of care” that fits more with our concern with the empowerment of and solidarity with vulnerable civilians. Let’s begin with Rifkin’s idea of the age of empathy.

10.2 The Empathy Option

In The Empathic Civilization, Rifkin tells a story of how changes in energy consumption (from burning wood, to electricity) and parallel changes in communication technology (from oral to digital communication) have resulted in extensions of empathy (2009). He tells a story of Western expansion of empathy from the time of the Hebrews to the present. A good example of how he structures his narrative is the section of the city of Rome.

From the very beginning, Rome wore two faces. There was the Rome that conquered the world, enslaved millions of people, occupied other lands, delighted in cruelty, and build a stadium—the Colosseum—that could seat 50,000 spectators, who cheered as Christians, criminals, and slaves were fed to the lions. It was also a place where self-awareness grew, individuality began to develop, and tolerance toward other religions became commonplace (p. 226).

This Roman empathy certainly did not extend to the enslaved people fed to the lions in the Colosseum, but it did, from Rifkin’s perspective, increase European empathy for other Europeans. This focus on the evolution of Western empathy would seem to contradict this book’s notion that the Atlantic commerce of people and land created a social climate of injustice that has never been repaired. Or, is Rifkin’s notion of Western empathy based on a kind of social amnesia that has split off from consciousness the Western nations crimes against humanity? In any case, perhaps one should bracket this thought and look at Rifkin’s description of our current “age of empathy” brought about by what he calls the “third industrial revolution.”

The peer-to-peer sharing of energy among millions, and eventually billions, of people marks the beginning of a new era that could see the steady erosion of traditional hierarchical modes of organization and management and the widespread adoption of distributed networks characterized by mass collaboration (2009, p. 527)

This is the world of the millennials, who Rifkin believes are predisposed “to be the most empathic generation in history.” As he says, “A distributed, collaborative, non-hierarchical society can’t help but be a more empathic one” (p. 543).

So, what are we to make of this? Let’s leave aside Rifkin’s Eurocentric perspective for this analysis and focus on his notion of the current age of empathy. Is this an age of empathy? Is this how citizens and civilians could connect with each other? If citizens and civilians live in different social worlds; if their relationships are embedded in legacies of oppression and exploitation; can empathy reveal and heal the whole truth of these relationships? Rifkin does recognize differences, but they don’t seem to play much of a role in his analysis. He writes:

That doesn’t mean that empathetic moments erase status and distinction. It only means that in the moment one extends the empathic embrace, the other social barriers—wealth, education, and professional status—are temporarily suspended in the act of experiencing, comforting, and supporting another’s struggle as if their life were one’s own (p. 161).

I don’t doubt that we can know something about the feelings of another’s experience through empathy, but how much can empathy tell us about the meaning of that experience for us? I might empathize with your anger, for example, by getting in touch with my anger, but what makes us angry could be quite different, even opposite. What if you are angry toward me? My mirror neurons may allow me to understand your anger, but not whether your anger is justified or whether it is based on a stereotype that angers me as well. In the current climate of injustice, empathy may help us understand that someone experiences injustice, but that understanding of the other is not the same as an understanding of myself. For a citizen to connect with a civilian, understanding the feelings of the civilian is not enough, the citizen needs to also understand themselves in this relationship. This involves both empathy and self-understanding.

10.2.1 Empathy and Self-Understanding

We all always live in some social world (not the same one) and much of who we are is a result of our participation in that world. We all have feelings, but the meaning of these feelings depends on the social relations and worlds in which we live. I may have empathy for how you feel, but totally miss your experience of me as a participant in my social world, which means I miss understanding my social identity. You are not only responding to me as a person, but also to the social world I inhabit. Especially when I am unaware of my own social world and its relationships to other social worlds, my empathy for your vulnerability tells me precious little about who I am in this relationship.

Here we encounter a weakness of the Civilian Review Board as a model or paradigm to understand civilian/citizen relations. In such cases, civilians are petitioning for help and citizens have at least some means to give it. It’s commendable when citizens use empathy to better understand the civilian’s plight, but it should not stop there. If that happens, then the citizens have not learned anything about themselves or the relationship that needs to repair. Also, remaining on the level of empathy with others does not allow citizens to become aware of the social climate that serves as the context for the communication: the climate of injustice. Relying on empathy alone can actually become rather chaotic when other levels of the exchange and context are ignored. Consider the following exchange:

  • So, you want to feel what I feel.

  • I already do. You know the mirror neurons

  • Really, do you feel my anger toward you?

  • I didn’t pick that up. I was feeling your sadness. I was feeling sad.

  • Really, and what made you feel sad?

  • Well, if I were in your shoes, I would feel sad.

  • How do know how it feels to be in my shoes?

  • The mirror neurons. I listen to my feelings and they tell me what you feel. It’s called empathy.

  • Do you think I can feel what you are feeling?

  • But I am not sad. I feel good about my life

  • Yes, I know, I feel what you feel.

  • So, you feel happy.

  • If you are.

  • But I thought you said you felt angry.

  • Right, I feel angry that you feel so happy. When you try to feel sad because your neurons are firing sadness in your brain.

  • So, we are not feeling the same thing.

  • Right, I could feel sad for you because you are so out-of-it.

  • I don’t know if my mirror neurons can pick that up.

  • Probably not!

  • So, if you really want to know what I am feeling, you could ask.

  • Good point.

It would be hard to imagine such a conversation in the framework provided by Rifkin’s approach because his view of empathy leaves little space for social conflict or even disagreement. Actually, disagreement, it seems to me, provides a good test for the power of empathy.

10.2.2 Empathy and Disagreement

Most of us, most of the time, do what we think is right, considering the world we think we live in. Few of us, in other words, try to discover how to do what’s wrong. In fact, without disagreement, most of us will do what we think is right even though it is wrong. We really have no way of knowing if we are really right until our opinion is compared with others. Only when a group compares multiple proposals, will it know the strengths and weaknesses of each one (Brown 2003).

Developing a connection between citizens and civilians should not stifle disagreement. Creating a climate of justice, in other words, does not eliminate different opinions about what should be done. Just the opposite. It dissolves the forces that were protecting an acknowledgement of injustices and allows participants to deliberate about the best course of action.

If one begins a conversation with expressions of empathy, it is tempting to dismiss one’s opinion as of less value than another’s. Empathy, after all, is reaching for the other and understanding their feelings about their opinions. An essential step in dealing with disagreement, but not necessarily the first or the last step.

Most conversations about how to change things, which are the type of conversations envisioned here, begin with disagreement. If everyone agreed, the problem would have probably already been solved. If we return to the Civilian Review Board, usually the first step is to listen to those who come before the Board to voice their complaints or proposals. One could imagine that mutual empathy would be possible here, but that would probably not also mean agreement about what should be done. Civilians do not necessarily know the right thing to do. That’s something that must be developed by all parties, If there is enough trust to enter into the disagreement then people could give each other the benefit of the doubt and listen to each other’s opinions. I doubt if empathy alone with establish such trust. In fact, vulnerable people usually wait for some indication that others not only understand their vulnerability, but also that they understand their relationship with a person’s vulnerability—some sort of self-understanding.

To engage in a conversation with someone who sees the world differently than we do requires some connection. Empathy connects people on the levels of feelings, which is necessary but not sufficient, because empathizing with others does not tell us much about ourselves. In relationships that exist in a climate of injustice, those who benefit from the injustices—people of privilege—need to not only understand the other, but also to understand themselves. Making connections to vulnerable people should not lead to the dissolution of the ideas and opinions of the privileged, but rather to their examination through a conversation that aims at the best thing to do when people disagree. Empathy may play a role here, but if it dominates the process, the climate of injustice will remain as silent and hidden as before the conversation began.

So, what about the second option of making connections with civilians by switching to the language of a “collaborative commons” which proposes that we think of ourselves and others as “commoners” rather than citizens/civilians? I do not agree with this option, but in terms of what I just wrote about disagreement, sometimes considering another’s position can help us to understand ours. I do think that considering this option will help clarify the rationale and the meaning of sticking with the language of civilian and citizen.

10.3 The “Commoners” Option

In his book, The Zero Marginal Cost Society, Jeremy Rifkin describes how the evolution of technology has brought us to the emergence of a “collaborate commons”

The coming together of the Communication Revolution with a digitalized renewable Energy Internet and automated Transportation and Logistics Internet in a seamless twenty-first century intelligent infrastructure—the Internet of things (IoT)—is giving rise to a Third Industrial Revolution. The IoT is already boosting productivity to the point where the marginal cost of producing many goods and services is nearly zero, making them practically free and shareable on the emerging Collaborative Commons (2014, p. 13)

In his description of the collaborative commons, Rifkin uses many of the ideas and practices that I learned about several years ago from conversations about the commons with members of The Common Strategies Group—things like peer-to-peer production, collaborative networks, a sharing economy, and a focus on civil society organizations (Bollier and Helfrich 2012).

I have been following what might be called the “commons movement” since 2010, when Michel Bauwens of the Peer-to-Peer Foundation selected my book, Civilizing the Economy , for the Foundation’s Book of the Year (P2P Foundation 2011). The idea of the commons is quite attractive, in so far as it highlights community cooperation in the production and distribution of provisions. One could even see the commons movement belonging to the legacy of sharecropping. It’s about sharing. The commons movement, however, ignores the exploitation suffered by sharecroppers and their rights for reparations. It invites us to a world beyond the messiness of economic and political relations, and to congregate in the realm of civil society not affected by a climate of injustice. It can make such an invitation because of its use of the traditional Western triadic framework.

10.3.1 The Commons and Triadic Thinking

No better illustration of triadic thinking than the title of the main text for the 2013 conference on the commons in Berlin: The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market & State (Bollier and Helfrich 2012). The book’s sub-title tells much of the story. They located the commons “beyond” market and state. The commons exists in the third realm, or civil society, which is usually the place for non-profit and non-government organizations. This realm has been expanded by the increased role of corporate and nonprofit foundations in philanthropic endeavors, and thereby moving us toward a new kind of feudalism. Although many local commons activities are self-sufficient, they do not really alter this trend toward feudalism.

So what is wrong with government—the realm of interaction between citizens and civilians. In their recent book, two leading theorists of this approach to the commons, David Bollier and Silke Helfrich, state that they don’t like the idea of governance “because it is so closely associated with the idea of collective interests overriding individual freedom” (2019, p. 120).That seems to be true. That’s what the rule of law does. It put collective interest over individual freedom. Personal freedom, of course, is also a collective interest. That’s the reason for the Bill of Rights. In a military dictatorship, one could say that collective interests never override individual freedom—the freedom of the dictator! There seems to be something strange going on here. Let’s take a step back and review a bit of the background of this triadic thinking that separates the commons from both the State and the market.

10.3.2 The Commons Story

Most people who know about the idea of the commons probably know it from comments about Garrett Hardin’s 1968 famous essay on the “tragedy of the commons” (1968). The topic of Hardin’s essay was the problem of increasing global population. As Hardin saw it, over population was inevitable, because the procreation instinct was stronger than any effort to decrease birth rates. It turns out he was wrong. Protections are now that the global population will level off around 11 billion; a challenging increase but not a tragedy.

Hardin illustrated the threat of over-population—and our failure in dealing with limits—with the analogy of individual shepherds sharing a common pasture without any regulations on their individual behavior. If each shepherd acted in their self-interest, he said, each shepherd would increase their flock with the result that the total number of sheep would destroy the pasture.

Harden’s analogy of the destruction of the commons by individual shepherds over grazing the pasture became the story to refute, which was not that difficult when researchers examined how common resources were actually used. The economist, Elinor Ostrom, in her study in the actual practice of people governing common resources, demonstrated that peoples behavior was the opposite of what Hardin’s analogy suggested (1990). Ostrom shows that the right governing institutions can avoid the problem of over-use. She provides examples of such governing institutions as villages in the Alps of Switzerland governing the grazing on common pastures and villages of Japan governing common fisheries.

Few have noticed the difference in Harden’s essay between the global problem of over population and the local character of his analogy about managing a shared pasture. Refuting his view of the local issue has been easy because there are numerous examples, as Ostrom and others have shared, of local communities developing rules to share common resources. This research, however, has not answered the key question of Harden’s essay: how to manage global trends. Such global trends as increasing carbon emissions, continual global warming, and rising number of refugees, would seem to call for global responses. One can certainly “think globally, act locally,” but the result is that global trends continue unabetted. Addressing international issues requires nation states agreeing to honor International Humanitarian Laws. The effectiveness of 1949 Geneva Protocol for the protection of civilians, for example, depends on the enforcement of the rule of law. The same is true of the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement. These are agreements dependent on national governments; governments that could be responsive to the claims of civilians, at least that is the argument here. This assumes, of course, that people in these nations take seriously their role as citizens. So, what will it be: commoner or citizen.

10.3.3 Commoner or Citizen

Although modern commoners use Elinor Ostrom’s research on the Swiss villager’s management of the commons almost like a Bible, it is often misread. Here is what she wrote:

Access to well-defined common property was strictly limited to citizens, who were specifically extended communal rights. As far as the summer grazing grounds were concerned, regulations written in 1570 stated that “no citizen could send more cows to the alp than he could feed during the winter.” That regulation, which Netting reports to be still in force, imposed substantial fines for any attempt by villagers to appropriate a larger share of overgrazing rights (p. 62).

This is not a description of some self-governing entity beyond the market and state, but instead a description of how citizens govern an economics of provision, which is quite a different picture than the previous picture of the location of the commons in civil society. Here, the commons exists in the overlap of the economy and the State; a space for citizens to cooperate in developing laws and regulations for their collective interest. Ignoring Ostrom’s use of the word “citizen” not only misrepresents what she wrote about managing the commons, it also ignores the social location and position of the commons, as well as commoners.

When one locates the commons beyond the market and State, it is easy to forget that individuals and organizations in this realm—the realm of civil society—are embedded in economic and state relations. They also belong to social trends that are dominated by a climate of injustice. As we already know, silence about injustices does not make them go away. Statements like the one below, from the Introduction to The Wealth of the Commons, seem to ignore these social realities

We are commoners— creative, distinctive individuals inscribed within larger holes. We may have many unattractive human traits fueled by individual fears and ego, but we are also creatures entirely capable of self-organization and cooperation: with a concern for fairness and social justice; and willing to make sacrifices for the larger good and future generations. (2012, p. xv).

This statement fails to address one’s own social identity or relationships with other social worlds; not because the author aims to create a local identity, as a member of a community, but rather a universal identity. In their recent book, Bollier and Helfrich see the idea of citizen as belonging to a “fading era.” They write:

Citizen, also called “a national” identifies a person in relation to the nation-state and implies that this is a person’s primary political role. The term “citizen” is often used to imply that noncitizens are somehow less than equal peers or perhaps even “illegal.” A more universal term is Commoner (2019, p. 61).

Do commoners vote, run for political office, develop policies for the homeless, for those with disabilities or who are sick? Or they just free individuals; free from those who are vulnerable and need protection, free to enjoy their privileges”. Or, to put it another way, should we dismiss the nation-state, and live as though we could only manage the local? This book’s answer is no; the current trends of American prosperity are unsustainable. To change its direction, people need to move into a civic realm defined by civilian/citizen cooperation in repairing and healing past injustices and creating a climate of justice in which we can design a viable future. Furthermore, dismissing the nation-state ignores the central challenge in the civic realm: the challenge of learning how to move toward a climate of justice.

To better understand the advantages and disadvantages of the commons movement, we can explore its relationship to four elements of our interpretive framework:—the Earth, humanity, social, and civic. The commons approach addresses the issue of the Earth quite well. It envisions the Earth as belonging to communities who share in its provision and protection. On the other hand, the commons approach ignores the issue of our racialized humanity, probably due more to social amnesia than social conflict. In fact, this approach appears to not be aware of the social incoherence of civil society. Finally, it totally ignores the role of the militarized civic in maintaining a global climate of injustice that must be transformed into a civilian civic to foster a climate of justice.

It’s important to remember that the government has the military, the law enforcers, the courts and prisons, and the obligation to protect its people. These will either be controlled by citizens or not. Citizens, of course, by definition, are also members of cities, Cities can be seen as a commons in the sense that they belong to all inhabitants. Still, they are not governed by commoners, but by citizens.

If one takes a step back, the commons movement fits more or less with the social trend of the new feudalism. It tends to ignore the big issues, which leaves them to the elite, and focuses on local gardens; sometimes with financial help from Foundations and wealthy donors. If one believes that it’s too late to change course, then why not develop a communal plot on which to live together? That may be an option for people of privilege, but not for civilians. They need, in many cases, protection from the elites—the drivers and maintainers of unjust systems—and they need a responsible agent to listen to their claims for protection. They need a responsive collection of citizens—a responsive government—to hear their claims. Empathic persons will not suffice here, because they ignore their own role in creating relationships that have left some vulnerable to others. Creating a commons will not work either, because it ducks its head from the really heavy winds that are determining the future. Our third option seems to move us in the right direction.

10.4 The “Ethics of Care” Option

Among the different movements of the 1960s, none was more influential than the women’s movement. Through local consciousness raising groups, women throughout the United States and elsewhere supported each other in finding their voice to call for equality in family, work, and political relations. As these developments were taking place, the Harvard moral psychologist, Carol Gilligan, discovered that Lawrence Kohlberg in his work on moral development had excluded the experience of women from his evidence on moral reasoning because their experiences did not fit his model. So, she did her own research, which appeared in her 1982 book, In a Different Voice (1993).

Gilligan discovered that adolescent boys and girls responded quite differently to the case of Heinz and stealing. Heinz had to consider whether or not to steal a drug which he could not afford to buy in order to save his wife’s life. When the boys were asked what Heinz should do, they said he should steal the drug. Their reasoning compared the principle of not stealing and the principle of saving a life and decided that the second principle was more important. The adolescent girls said that Heinz should not steal, but what was most interesting was their reasoning. They thought that Heinz should ask the pharmacist to give Heinz the medication and he could return to pay later, or Heinz should ask others to loan him the money needed to pay for the drug. Instead of thinking about a conflict of different principles as the boys had done, the girls thought about how to solve the problem by exploring Heinz’s network of relationships and the possibilities for help (p. 29). These different responses plus other research led Gilligan to make a distinction between a masculine ethics of justice based on the logic of contrasting principles, and a feminist ethic of care that focuses on relationships.

This contrast between justice and care has been modified since Gilligan’s book, in part because one can find male views of justice that are fundamentally relational, such as Aristotle’s notion of justice in his Ethics, and in part because they really do belong together. As the feminist philosopher, Virginia Held writes:

Justice is badly needed in the family as well as in the state: in a more equitable division of labor between women and men in the household, in the protection of vulnerable family members from domestic violence and abuse, in recognizing the rights of family members to respect for their individuality in the practice of caring for children or the elderly, justice requires us to avoid paternalistic and maternalistic domination (2006, p. 69).

The importance of justice has recently been expressed in the “#MeToo” movement that has demonstrated that men can no longer act with impunity because women will no longer be silent. This movement enlarges the ethics of care to caring about one’s own dignity as much as caring for the dignity of others. The point of the ethics of care is not to exclude justice but rather to argue that those who need care, and those who work as caregivers, should have priority in our thinking about how to live together.

During the 2020 Covid pandemic, especially during the heavy months when thousands were dying every day, who did not witness the ethics of care. In a sense, we all were vulnerable, and many followed the directions of the CDC to protect themselves and others. Here I want to highlight the service of caregivers who went to work knowing they were putting themselves at risk, because “that was the job.” Even when exhausted from over work, they showed up and continued to save lives when possible and give comfort to the dying. Perhaps the best way to honor their caring is to care as they did for justice.

Why else should we care? The reason, according to Virginia Weld, is quite simple: we should care for others because we have been cared-for (p. 132). The fact that we have been cared-for may not carry much weight for some men, because we think we have cared for ourselves, “Thank you very much, but I’m just fine.” Men may also find the fact that we all need care—would not be alive without care—challenging to our understanding of what it means to be a man. We are the protectors. How can we also be “cared-for”? What do we do with this fact—we have been cared-for—except carry it forward—to care for others? The rub is that we were cared-for as newborns and as children, and if we are to be men, we must put away childish things and be a man.

Perhaps our strong individualism creates a fear of being like everyone else—like the weak, the vulnerable, the enslaved, and the dying. Refusing to be like everyone else certainly explains the creation of a social hierarchy that places males on top, and they remain on top by continually pushing others down. Such acts as lynching, raping, and killing of civilians maintain a social order; a social order that has been described in the language of progress, human evolution, and American exceptionalism—the story of American prosperity.

There is another story, however, and its recent episodes included the caring for Covid patients, the caring for “Black Lives Matter,” and the caring for our democracy itself. Caring for justice is certainly about repairing broking relationships, and it is about caring for the rule of law. Civilian projection does not only depend on the caring of others, but also on others caring for their rights under the rule of law. Creating a climate of justice requires not only that we care for justice, but also that we care about correcting injustices. Some of us are not so affected by social inequalities and injustices as others, so caring about injustice may require that we get in touch with our shared humanity. Our awareness of our own privileges, and then seek to make right past wrongs.

10.5 Making Civic Connections

We have said that the true civic emerges when citizens and civilians engage in a process that repairs social relationships in such a way that the process changes the social context or climate from a climate of injustice to a climate of justice. In a sense, the process involves skills in interpretation. The French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur described the practice of interpretation as consisting of three movements: a first naivete, a critical moment, and then a second naivete (1967).

The first naivete refers to listening as though whatever we heard was true. We simply grant the speaker the benefit of the doubt. The second step occurs when we step back and consider what we have heard in terms of other things we know, how it fits with its context, and so on. We become critical reviewers of what we have heard. This step also involves an inspection of one’s own social world and how one relates to it. In this step, one sees themselves from the perspective of another. This self understanding and social criticism is not the end of the process. The third step requires that we re-connect with the message and try to discover what meaning it has for us. Whereas the first naivete led to the bracketing of one’s own opinion, and accepted the claims of the other, the second naivete occurs after one has reflected on the message and is now ready to turn the conversation into one of mutual engagement and learning.. In a sense, this movement ends with a respect for what we have heard and a desire to know more about the other and their social world and our selves and our social world.

Everyone brings into any situation their prior experiences. In most cases, those who have suffered from the systemic trends of American Prosperity know much more or at least other things than those who have benefited from it. If we follow the three steps of interpretation, the first step in the civic space is for citizens to listen for something they did not know. Then they can engage in a conversation about what it means. At some point, of course, some sort of mutual respect must emerge for the conversation to bring about the power of the civic itself to repair broken relationships and to restore a meaningful relationship with the Earth.

The role of citizens in creating a climate of justice is first to carefully listen to civilian claims for their rights to protection and provision, then to reflect on how what they have heard fits with their care for justice and just relations, and then to engage again with civilians in a civic conversation that changes its very context to a social climate of justice.


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Brown, M.T. (2022). The Citizen’s Role in Creating a Climate of Justice. In: A Climate of Justice: An Ethical Foundation for Environmentalism. Library of Public Policy and Public Administration, vol 16. Springer, Cham.

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