Citizenship in a Networked Age

New research shows the importance of civic engagement for human flourishing.

Posted Jul 01, 2020

This research note highlights the Templeton World Charity Foundation’s Citizenship in a Networked Age project at the University of Oxford. The project explores human flourishing and civic engagement in relation to changes in technology and social networks. The Human Flourishing Program was to host a spring symposium at Harvard on this theme, in collaboration with the University of Oxford and the Templeton World Charity Foundation, but it unfortunately had to be cancelled due to Covid-19. In lieu of the conference, we link to podcasts from the symposium’s panelists and an executive summary of the report.  

Guest author: Dominic Burbidge (University of Oxford; Canterbury Institute; Templeton World Charity Foundation)

With the threat of a second virus wave looming and preparations afoot for new ways of living-at-distance, it is clear that the habits we forge in the upcoming weeks and months will help shape a new normal. Will we ever get back the same depth of relationships we had before the pandemic struck? We are relying more and more on digital technologies and online relationships in order to maintain human solidarity during the crisis. Is such increased reliance on digital technologies just a blip, or is the coronavirus instead accelerating a process that has been underway for some time? We need to think critically about what these changes mean for what society is and is for.

In a recent Public Discourse article, “Pandemics and the Agency of Citizens,” R. J. Snell writes that our efforts to combat coronavirus are being countered by a more general trend toward moral individualism, through which we have come dangerously close to jettisoning our commitment to a common civic project. Ironically, this comes at a time when we most need to realize our duty as citizens to seek a common good. As Snell remarks, “Rather than understand the individual within thick networks of relationships and duties, this error views us as unencumbered—as denuded of the actual human relationships and obligations that give us meaning and purpose.”

The Citizenship in a Networked Age Project

For the past two years, the Citizenship in a Networked Age project at the University of Oxford has been helping to identify civic ideals that are applicable to our changing networks of relationships and duties. A great deal of research and innovation has gone into developing new digital technologies that increase the efficiency of our communications, but there is correspondingly little research into how we are being affected by these innovations as a moral community. Digital technologies help us communicate and carry out tasks together despite being remote. That is an asset at times like these. But the danger is that they also increase the remoteness of our moral decision-making by encouraging instant reaction in place of thick relationships.

To tackle this danger head-on, researchers at the project set the following two goals: first, to identify what is distinct about human moral decision-making; and second, to offer suggestions as to how this special human capacity can be harnessed for reimagining society’s “moral whole”—the common good binding us together as a purposeful, meaningful community.

Citizenship, fundamentally, is about civic engagement—the “partnering-up” of individuals to form a robust society. More than a legal nicety, citizenship is a key way in which we show our social nature. It is the way our individual freedom of association translates into the coordinated action that makes society more than the sum of its parts. Importantly, it involves a special type of moral reasoning that takes the perspective of one’s wider community into account and asks about the common good.

Adobe Spark
Source: Adobe Spark

The project’s report argues that humans have a special capacity for moral reasoning and that it is our limitations as compared to artificial intelligence that reveal this most clearly. As much as transhumanists claim otherwise, we are all going to die. And yet, despite this, we seek deep, everlasting goods—things like happiness, love, belonging, meaning, forgiveness, and doing the right thing. These are moral goods in that we pursue them not because they make us materially better off but because their depth completes us. As we obtain them, we seek to spread them, both to other parts of our lives and to the lives of others. Our limitations in realizing our desires give rise to a need to work out for ourselves what is most meaningful and worthwhile. This personal struggle is the basis of our moral reasoning. It is indeed these types of deeper goods that are studied at the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard, which has demonstrated both that such goods can be assessed empirically and that they are, or should be, within reach for all human beings.

But can our particular capacity for moral reasoning be used to reimagine society’s common good? Here we hit against a serious problem. Most social science on human networks and social connectivity assumes without debate the normative/empirical distinction (in line, of course, with philosophy’s fact/value distinction), and therefore has reduced space for talking about whether our changing patterns of social relationships promote or hinder flourishing. The focus is on describing what networks look like, not analyzing whether they work towards a common good.


To fill the gap, we need robust discussion of “civic virtues”—the habits and practices that both bind us together as a supportive community and direct us towards the common good. The Oxford report makes 7 recommendations to reclaim lost ground:

  1. Identify and protect human uniqueness for moral decision-making.
  2. Nurture the complementary skills of humans and machines for collective decision-making.
  3. Engage in consensus-building about civic ideals for a networked age.
  4. Teach listening as a civic virtue.
  5. Maintain distance between thought and speech.
  6. Promote the value of privacy for personal moral development.
  7. Revalue democracy in terms of the ability to bring about social unity and trust.

Foremost among these recommendations is the need to promote the civic virtue of listening well. This practice has received precious little analysis in the social sciences and yet much of our togetherness depends on it. Current technological advances often fragment our attention span, making the giving of undivided attention to others a precious resource. Understanding good listening as a civic virtue is an important first step in healing our polarization and accelerating the sharing of truthful information.

At the heart of all this is the need to look not just at how individuals flourish but how groups, corporations, and society as a whole flourish through each person’s free pursuit of the common good. We need our discussion of virtues and moral reasoning to enter into dialogue with society-wide analysis of the overall purpose of community. Only then will we grasp the “moral whole” of our togetherness.

The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science aims to study and promote human flourishing, and to develop systematic approaches to the synthesis of knowledge across disciplines. You can sign up here for a monthly research e-mail from the Human Flourishing Program, or click here to follow us on Twitter. For past postings please see our Psychology Today Human Flourishing Blog.