Learning to Give, Philanthropy education resources that teach giving and civic engagement

Civic Virtue

By Sara Bosin

Graduate Student, Case Western Reserve University


Civic virtue is morality or a standard of righteous behavior in relationship to a citizen's involvement in society. An individual may exhibit civic virtue by voting, volunteering, organizing a book group, or attending a PTA meeting.

Historic Roots

The Greek word for virtue is arete, which means excellence. Socrates does not use the term "civic virtue" in Plato's Republic, but highlights courage as a virtue that is derived from what one learns from a city. This distinguishes spiritual virtue, which is mandated by a higher being, from civic virtue, which follows the laws and customs of a city.

In Aristotle's discussion of virtue, he recommends that humans take pleasure in virtue. Virtue, both civic and moral, is the way in which humans achieve their greatest happiness. Aristotle holds that humans must know about these virtues before they can hope to better the community. Aristotle also maintains that it is easier to teach a person about the virtues who has been "well brought up." This implies that the education of virtue, both civic and moral, must begin at home.

St. Thomas Aquinas followed Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and held that the highest good comes from God. The aim, then of acquired virtues, is to flourish. Aquinas noted a difference between civic virtues that sought political good and spiritual virtues that were ordained by God.


Civic virtue helps people understand their ties to the community and their responsibilities within it. In many ways, an educated citizen who possesses civic virtue is a public good.

In Bowling Alone, Harvard professor of public policy, Robert Putnam, argues that Americans' sense of community is waning, the close ties they once had to their community are disappearing. The baby boomers and the Generation Xers display a disconnection from community and a tendency toward individualism. Putnam calls for individuals to take the initiative and start educating America's youth about civic virtue, reconnecting with their neighbors, and increasing participation in politics to change this trend and to help them reconnect. Putnam defines three civic virtues: active participation in public life , trustworthiness , and reciprocity that is acquired through social connectedness. Only through an understanding of civic virtue will Americans be able to flourish in their communities and play an active role in American democracy.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Civic virtue is the moral underpinning of how a citizen relates to society. Without an understanding of civic virtue, citizens are less likely to look beyond their own families, friends, and economic interests. They are less likely to help others in the community, to volunteer their time, to give money to nonprofit organizations, or to participate in a group that benefits society (e.g., Kiwanis or Mothers Against Drunk Driving).

In providing a civic education, it is imperative that the importance of philanthropy be stressed. To assist in this, schools can create a mission statement for their philanthropic endeavors and reward classes that actively participate. In addition, teachers can organize philanthropic class projects that range from collecting clothing for a family in need to taking a field trip to work at a local soup kitchen. In understanding civic virtue, it is important that students see the results of their philanthropic efforts and their ties to the greater society.

Key Related Ideas

  • Citizenship

  • Philanthropy

  • Public good

  • Social capital

  • Stewardship

  • Voluntarism


Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1999.

Bellah, Robert N. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1985.

Inglis, John. "Aquinas's Replication of the Acquired Moral Virtues: Rethinking the Standard Philosophical Interpretation of Moral Virtue in Aquinas." Journal of Religious Ethics.

Lutz, Mark J. "Civic Virtue and Socratic Virtue." Polity 29, no.4 (Summer 1997): 565.

Munkler, Herfried. "Civil Society and Civic Virtue. Do Democratically Constituted Communities Require Socio-moral Foundation?" International Review of Sociology 8, no.3 (Nov. 1998): 425.

Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.

White, Patricia. Civic Virtues and Public Schooling: Educating Citizens for a Democratic Society. New York: Teachers College Press, 1996.

Yu, Jiyuan. "Virtue: Confucius and Aristotle." Philosophy East & West 48, no. 2 (April 1998): 323.