Human Rights

Civic Duties, Civic Virtues, and the Barriers to Effective Citizenship

by Christopher A. Callaway

Many questions central to political philosophy are naturally focused on political institutions. What rights and liberties should the state grant its people? What makes a state legitimate? Are non-democratic polities possibly just? What kinds of equality should the state concern itself with, and how much inequality is too much?

But political philosophers and scholars in related fields have also turned their attention to the citizens who live under such institutions. From a legal perspective, a citizen is a person who is an official member of a political community and who therefore has certain de jure rights and privileges and legitimate expectations of her government. One important question for political philosophy, then, is whether and how these benefits impose obligations on citizens. In other words, what do people as citizens owe to their governments and/or societies? 

What Are Our Civic Duties?

Answers to this question are frequently offered in terms of a civic duty or duties. We might think at a minimum that citizens have a duty to obey the law. The most finely crafted laws are worth little when they are routinely ignored, and a government cannot possibly detect and punish every infraction, at least without unacceptably prevalent surveillance and restrictions of freedom. So, a legal order needs a critical mass of people who routinely obey the laws even when they could get away with breaking them. It seems to follow, then, that citizens have an obligation to obey the law simply because it is the law. We already have a moral obligation not to commit murder, regardless of whether it is illegal or not. But when the law commands us to do things that are in themselves neither right nor wrong (e.g., register for selective service, drive on the right side of the road, display our house numbers on our front doors), we have a civic duty to obey.

Or so the thinking goes; but even this minimal answer has its opponents. For one thing, it is also plausible that there are sometimes good reasons to disobey the law—maybe even a moral obligation to do so. This is why we see the many instances of civil disobedience during the civil rights movement as especially heroic examples of good citizenship. Also, the arguments given for thinking that there is a moral obligation to obey the law face some powerful objections. The most popular line of argument appeals to the notion of consent. The “consent of the governed” has been obviously prominent in the American political tradition, and it has inspired revolutionary movements to abolish unjust regimes and replace them with governments that would (hopefully) be accountable to their people. And yet hardly any of us has actually consented to the authority of our governments. We haven’t even been asked! So, if we have a duty to obey the law, it is hard to see how it can arise from our having freely consented to the authority of the government with anything like the kind of consent we expect in other contexts (such as contracts). 

Democracy requires not just obeying the law, though; it requires that people actively participate in the political process. This means voting, of course, but it is usually thought that not just any effort at voting will suffice—the citizen must stay informed of political affairs and make a rational choice among the options presented to her in the voting booth. Is there a duty to vote, then? And, if so, does this duty require that citizens become sufficiently well-informed about political affairs and relevant facts? 

Again, many people offer an affirmative answer to the first question, and not just philosophers or academics. I work as an election warden in my city, and on election days I routinely hear other poll workers and voters express the idea that showing up to vote is a matter of obligation—even a matter of civic piety. They look at low turnout numbers in June elections and shake their heads and click their tongues; to them, staying home on election day is failing to do one’s part to support democracy. I suspect their view is shared widely in many other democratic societies, some of whom actually make it legally mandatory to vote. And yet philosophical arguments intended to show that voting is an obligatory part of citizenship have run into as many challenges as those intended to show that we have an obligation to obey the law. The same applies to other possible civic duties as well, such as joining a war effort, paying taxes, and assimilating into a country’s majority culture.

A Different Perspective

Determining what our civic duties are is problematic then—although this is true of almost everything else in philosophy. But perhaps the problems raised against theories of civic duty suggest that a better way to think about citizenship is in terms of civic virtue rather than civic obligation. When we break an obligation, we deserve blame for it, but usually we deserve little credit for fulfilling it. If I fulfill my obligation not to steal, I don’t deserve a medal or even a pat on the back. But if I break it, I certainly deserve blame and perhaps even some kind of penalty. So “obligation talk” tends to focus on some necessary minimum that must be met. 

In contrast, virtue is about going beyond the necessary minimum—it involves an inner state of character that regularly expresses itself in praiseworthy action. So, thinking of citizenship in terms of virtues involves asking: What kind of attitudes, practices, and activities among citizens should we esteem, welcome, and respect? What states of character make citizens function well in their civic role? How can we encourage the development of these virtues?

The cardinal virtues of classical thought would obviously serve citizens and their society well: justice, wisdom, courage, and temperance. We can add several more that are more explicitly civic; a political society will function better when the citizens are also tolerant, self-disciplined, dedicated to the common good, and supportive of their government. Democratic citizens in particular fulfill their civic role well when they are engaged, well-informed, and open to ideas and perspectives different from their own. The more these qualities appear in citizens (and the more citizens there are who demonstrate them), the better for a democratic polity. 

Social Challenges for Good Citizenship

It has been widely recognized throughout the history of political thought that political institutions depend on virtues like these among the citizenry. Unfortunately, though, there are limits to what civic virtue can contribute to a political system even under fairly ideal circumstances, and the present American situation is hardly ideal. There are several trends and conditions that seem to be working against the practice of good citizenship. 

Some say that religion is crucial for sustaining civic virtues and that therefore increased secularization is a threat to our republic. Many religions foster prosocial attitudes insofar as they esteem lawfulness, teach personal responsibility, encourage sentiments of solidarity and trust, and so forth, and so many conservatives (especially in the United States) often insist that a godless society cannot sustain a just polity for long. Their confidence is belied by the all too frequent instances of sectarian violence, but perhaps the weightier counterexample to the view of religion as necessary for good citizenship is the cluster of states that display high rates of secularism with enviably functional political systems, as we see in Scandinavia. On the other hand, critics of liberal political thought often argue that the liberal emphasis on individualism, self-actualization, and privatization of religious belief cannot support a sufficiently rich notion of the common good or a sense of solidarity with compatriots. Thoroughly secularized societies are still quite new, and so it is possible that they are drawing on social capital generated from earlier eras marked by greater religious observance. Empirically speaking, then, it is probably still an open question whether they can long maintain high levels of civic virtue without a culture that places a substantial emphasis on some transcendent metanarrative that has traditionally been provided by religion. 

But other trends in our society seem to pose a more immediate threat to good citizenship. For example, shrinking profit margins have made it harder for newspapers and local television stations all over the country to pay full-time professional journalists to cover state and city news, especially when it involves long-form investigative reporting. At the same time, there has been a great proliferation of media outlets online so that citizens are able to access a much greater amount of information as well as analysis than ever before. The downside of this media proliferation, though, is that media consumers have grown increasingly polarized as they tailor their media diet in a way that reinforces their individual ideologies—indeed, some media outlets tacitly or even explicitly market themselves to one or the other side of the ideological spectrum. So, conservatives watch Fox News while liberals gravitate toward MSNBC, and that makes it easier for each group to view the other as benighted or hoodwinked by biased reporting. 

Social media has had a mixed effect on citizenship, too. Facebook, Twitter, and the like are great ways to quickly disseminate and discover information. But whereas traditional media curate their content so that there are guarantees of a certain level of accuracy and significance, the user-generated content on social media is almost completely unfiltered. This makes it harder to distinguish fact from fiction, accuracy from distortion. Misinformation, hoaxes, and outright lies spread just as rapidly as the truth. And the incentives for users to generate content or replicate it through sharing are tied up with their conception of themselves, which makes political activity on social media a kind of consumption good. People often post political messages, not as a way of fostering honest debate on critical issues, but as a way of virtue signaling, venting frustration, rejoicing at “wins,” and reinforcing feelings of solidarity with the like-minded. Over time, many people’s social media networks are disproportionately full of users who all largely think the same way. This makes it harder to understand people with sharply different views; it’s far easier to write them off as irrational or evil, to insult or lampoon them, or to “unfriend” them. And this obviously works against the citizenry arriving at reasoned consensus through rational deliberation. 

Polarization and poor understanding of alternative perspectives appear in other contexts, too. Perhaps most ironically, it has surfaced in higher education, as documented by psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Colleges and universities have long skewed liberal (unless you’re talking about changes to tenure or the academic calendar). But Haidt has shown that conservative and libertarian voices have become much rarer in the academy over the past couple of decades, especially in humanities and social sciences departments. Some faculty members have even admitted that they would not hire someone with outspoken conservative views. Conservatives and libertarians who do find a position on a university faculty are often patronized, ostracized, or even persecuted, and so sometimes they just keep their opinions to themselves. This is especially problematic for American democratic society because of the influence of higher education on students’ intellectual and political formation. Students who are working out their political views (perhaps for the first time) get a distorted picture of the intellectual landscape, which makes it harder for them to understand alternative perspectives in democratic deliberation.

Moreover, this increasing polarization is likely exacerbating widespread voter irrationality. There is already plenty of evidence that many voters are quite ignorant about their government (e.g., how much it spends on foreign aid) or relevant empirical facts (e.g., facts about economics, foreign affairs, history, etc.), which is bad enough. But voters also demonstrate irrationality; for example, they use biased or flawed thought processes to evaluate whatever information they do happen to have. In one famous experiment, people opposed legislative proposals from their own party when they were (falsely) told that the proposals were supported by the competing party. Clearly, they were responding to party branding rather than the content of the proposals. Another study shows that voters tend to reward or punish incumbent candidates based on how the economy is doing a few months before the election, regardless of how well it has done in the previous years or the extent to which the incumbent is actually responsible for the economy. In many ways, voters demonstrate motivated reasoning, cognitive bias, and sloppy thinking when they act politically.

Democratic citizens fulfill their civic role well when they are engaged, well-informed, and open to ideas and perspectives different from their own.

Institutional Challenges for Good Citizenship

Other challenges to good citizenship come from our political system itself. The problem of voter ignorance mentioned in the previous paragraph is due in part to the size and scope of the federal government. It is simply not feasible for people to keep track of all the actions taken by their government or even all the different agencies that are supposed to be acting on their behalf. Even members of Congress confess that they are often unable to read the legislation they are supposed to vote on. Granted, Americans do not typically vote directly for particular laws and policies. But many of these policies (especially in the executive branch) are made without much democratic oversight at all, and making an informed decision about how one’s representative has performed requires knowing a lot about the contents of the particular bills that she has supported or opposed. 

There are also reasons to think that the two-party system in some ways disempowers citizens. For example, it encourages and even pressures citizens to vote against their conscience. Especially in presidential elections, a large amount of any candidate’s support is from voters who are trying to vote against his or her rival. People think that voting for a third-party candidate who more closely reflects their values is “throwing their vote away.” In close elections in which a third candidate gains enough votes to have made a difference between the other two (as in 1992 and 2000), those who vote for a third party are criticized and blamed for throwing the election to their common enemy. But a vote for Jones is nothing more than a vote for Jones; whether the voter thinks that Jones is a wonderful candidate or marginally less of a scoundrel than Smith, her vote simply adds to support for Jones. So, the result of this attitude toward alternative parties and candidates is that a major party has to be only slightly less bad than its rival and its base will fall in line. Regulations that weaken and disadvantage third parties only reinforce the voter’s sense that she really has only two alternatives. Indeed, the two major parties have perhaps never been less popular, at least as evidenced by the number of people who are registered with them. And yet their control over the political system is thoroughly entrenched. Granted, many voters who think of themselves as independents still pretty reliably vote for one party. But it is hard to maintain that such stark limitations on voter options are consistent with robust, active democratic citizenship.

In addition to these structural problems, there is the behavior of particular officials. The current president has a lamentable tendency to dismiss any report that he dislikes as “fake news,” which reinforces the media polarization trend mentioned above. He has also tried to favor news outlets he likes and disadvantage the ones he resents. But he is not the first president to try to control information to enhance his position; his predecessor was criticized for disallowing any independent photographers so that only images from the official (and therefore more flattering) White House photographer would become the visual historical record. More problematically, recent administrations have relied on secrecy and appeals to national security to shield citizens from discovering what they were up to, and whistleblowers and leakers have been prosecuted and punished. Other elected officials have interfered with freedom of information requests. Secrecy is surely warranted in certain cases, but at times government officials are wrongly suppressing information that citizens need in order to make well-informed democratic decisions and hold their government accountable for its actions.

It is easy to magnify current difficulties and feel that we are at a watershed moment in our nation’s history. But from the broader historical perspective, we have probably never had better conditions for good citizenship, if only for the fact that for much of our nation’s history women and non-whites were legally (and then later quasi-legally) forbidden from voting or exercising their civil rights. Citizens today also have unprecedented access to information and new technologies that enable mass mobilization and coordinated activity. Still, we should not ignore the real barriers that hinder their ability to take part in democratic self-government.


Christopher A. Callaway is an associate professor of philosophy at Saint Joseph’s College (Standish, Maine). His research interests are ethics, political philosophy, and the philosophy of knowledge.