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
Or so the thinking
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
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
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.