Mudd Center for Ethics examines ethics of citizenship in first talk this year

First Mudd Ethics talk focuses on citizenship and civic engagement


Katie Pettit

Danielle Allen talks about citizenship and civic agency in Mudd Ethics address.

Jordan Cohen

Political theorist Danielle Allen knows there is a negative connotation when the word political is used, and she thinks we need to reframe that.

“I’m using the word political, I’m going to embrace it, as a word that ought to be a positive one that we can use for thinking about what it means to contribute to our communities,” Allen said.

The Mudd Center for Ethics’ second year theme is the ethics of citizenship, which Allen’s speech addressed.

“In a world marked by increasing globalization, transnational migration, and political, religious, and identity based conflict, how should we understand the concept of citizenship, and what role should this concept play in our thinking about questions of political membership and civic responsibility?”  Angela Smith, the director for the Mudd Center of Ethics,  asked in her opening remarks. This question will ultimately be the central thread of this new year for the Mudd Center.

The question was central to Danielle Allen’s inaugural lecture entitled “The Ethics of Civic Agency and The Liberal Arts.”

Allen, who earned two PhDs, one in classics and one in government from Cambridge and Harvard respectively, a recipient of MacArthur Genius fellowship, a published political theorist and sitting member of the Pulitzer Prize board, Allen has cemented herself as one of the most lauded political thinkers of our time.

She began the evening with a goal in mind:

“My goal this evening is to try to take this concept of participatory readiness seriously, and think about what exactly is it we’re trying to prepare our young people to participate in.”

The term civic agency, Allen said, is central to understanding what it is we as citizens should be expecting of ourselves.

“I’m using the phrase civic agency in order to highlight the fact that I’m not . . .  talking about any questions of legal status. I’m talking rather about the sense of actions, features of character and so forth, that are relevant to achieving action in a democracy.”

Midway through her lecture after a brief history and explanation of the types of civic agency, Allen motions to a chart denoting the falling approval rates of congressmen in recent years.

“We should all be truly concerned about this,” Allen said.

With the concern presented, the question remained: what is the goal behind trying to regain and maintain civic agency, and how is this achieved?

“I think the goal is to figure out how to reintegrate our concept of civic agency . . . and I think that there is a way to do that,” said Allen, “and that we’ve known about it for a long time, and that it’s basically the liberal arts curriculum.”

Courney Hauck, ’18, said this theory underscored what she already felt was true of a liberals arts education. “[Allen’s lecture] reinforced my propensity toward liberal arts education, but it also gave some reasoning as to why I tend toward it and why I feel like it’s a good choice for people that are trying to be informed and active participants in society.”

Should college students be concerned with civil engagement?

“Her reasoning through how our models of civic engagement and civic reasoning and civic education have changed were really revealing about why it’s so important to understand our history and the way that we interact with one another” Hauck said.