Civic reasoning is the practice of thinking through the various aspects of individual and collective involvement in the governance of a community. It is the process by which a member of a community makes reasonable, ethical decisions regarding the policies, programs, and laws that define the community and relationships within the community.
Civic reasoning is the application of ethical reasoning in the realm of politics and civics.
In the context of the Covid-19 emergency, here’s how civic reasoning applies.
Our community and the relationships within our community are being re-defined almost daily by the pandemic. The governance of our community is, of necessity, now one of emergency crisis management. The things we are being asked or directed to do to help reduce the impact of the virus’ spread — put simply, to save lives.
Every one of us is responsible for making reasonable, ethical decisions about all sorts of new and proposed policies, programs, recommendations, regulations, and laws: how we understand them, whether we agree with them, approve of them, comply with them.
To get to the point of making reasonable decisions, we have to think through how the crisis is affecting our community now and what its effects will be depending on the choices we make.
To ensure our decisions are ethical, we have to determine whether the implications and consequences of those choices either enhance or harm the well-being of others. And this is where we must think broadly about “community,” because if the Covid-19 outbreak has (or should have) taught us anything it is that, in this case, “community” is everything from local to global.
We cannot make ethical decisions in the narrow context of what is appropriate or right just for Sequim (or Clallam County, or the Olympic Peninsula); we must take into account how our decisions relate to what is happening elsewhere.u
We might, for example, think social distancing or other measures intended to curb the virus’ spread aren’t needed here because there are only a few local cases of Covid-19 infections.
But the known facts of how the disease spreads, of how many people who are infected have no symptoms and thus are carriers as silent and invisible as the virus itself, of the crucial importance of widespread, robust testing, tracking and tracing capabilities, are things we’ve learned from the experience of other communities, states and nations across the globe — they are facts that demonstrate the necessity of the unprecedented measures our elected officials have put in place, the extraordinary things we, individually and collectively, are doing now every day.
The unknowns–the facts we don’t have, the things that might cause us to make different decisions–are daunting; in many instances we don’t even know what we don’t know.
And yet we don’t have the option to avoid or delay making decisions, tough though they may bem because that itself would be unethical–it would harm others’ well being.
When it comes to how each of us, individually, thinks through our role, our involvement in the governance of our community during a crisis such as this, being able to make ethical judgments–sound judgments based in fact not falsehood, reason rather than panic, and taking into account others’ welfare as well as our own–is paramount.
This true even in normal times, but especially in crises.
The sad and dangerous reality is that most of us haven’t exercised this skill in a long, long, time (if ever) and now we need to acquire and strengthen it quickly and significantly. The physical, emotional, economic, and social well-being of our community, writ local or global, depends on it.
Disseminating the truth
The other threatening and distressing reality is that we live in a world where false information, propaganda, and lies, are more infectious and easily spread than Covid-19. We live in a world where emotional manipulation — playing on, stoking, amplifying fear, anger, hatred, resentment, etc. — is employed intentionally, cynically, shamelessly.
Think of this as the equivalent of someone who knows they have the virus coming up and coughing or sneezing right in your face when you have only the equivalent of a homemade facemask, if that. Yes, we know that wouldn’t happen, but emotional manipulation is happening in exactly that way.
Under these circumstances it’s tough to avoid infection, let alone improve your resistance to it, unless you’re inoculated against it.
In my post on “COVID-19 and Fear,” [also published in the Sequim Gazette, April 22,2020], I pointed to critical thinking as the vaccine that can inoculate us against panic, enable us to deal properly with our legitimate fears and anger, and keep our community together and productively engaged in addressing the huge and complex problems posed by the coronavirus pandemic.
That may have left the impression that to think critically about the pandemic (or anything) is as easy as getting a shot: a “little pinch,” some very brief discomfort, perhaps some soreness at the injection site for a day or two. Well … no.
Critical thinking is a “treatment” that entails hard work; it takes time, effort, discipline, and commitment. It’s more like a series of daily self-administered “shots” accompanied by a rigorous exercise routine.
None of us is born with a natural immunity to the “pathologies” of irrationality, lies, fearmongering, propaganda, and scapegoating to name just a few. Indeed, the way we normally “think”–without really considering how our thought processes are working and whether our thinking is sound or not–makes us highly vulnerable to them. But if you want protection from them, if you want to build your resistance to them, critical thinking is essential.
If we’re going to engage in civic reasoning in the midst of a pandemic, we need to engage in critical thinking.
The pandemic has raised all sorts of fundamental, highly complex questions for which there are no easy answers, no quick solutions. Accepting that reality is the first step in thinking critically about the situation, acquiring and strengthening the skills needed for civic reasoning and ethical decision-making. In practice, what that means among other things is that we:
Ignore those who offer easy answers, quick solutions, non-sensical approaches.
Pay attention to experts and heed their advice and recommendations but recognize that even they don’t have all the information they need, that what informs their decision-making can change significantly in a matter of days, that they are human.
Value the judgments of those who willingly admit they could be wrong but are deciding based on the best information available to them.
Grant, until demonstrated otherwise, that leaders (in health care or politics) are motivated by concern for the community’s welfare — not their own potential gain or advantage.
Allow for mistakes except for those whose intellectual arrogance is such that they insist they can never be wrong, that only they have the solution, that only they are perfectly consistent in their decisions and statements.
If you really want to fulfill your role as a member of the community capable of making reasonable, ethical choices in this crisis — if you really want to start thinking critically about this crisis, start using the resources available at the Foundation for Critical Thinking (www.criticalthinking.org).