True Citizenship is Far More than a Set of Rights and Obligations

19 Jun 2017

How can communities and the individuals that comprise them be inspired to cultivate a shared civic ethos in order to lay the foundations for a more vibrant and cooperative civic life?

STI Experts

In this interview, editor David Thunder elucidates how his latest collection of essays -The Ethics of Citizenship in the 21st Century- addresses this challenge.

In your last book, Citizenship and the Pursuit of the Worthy Life, you argue against the modern separation between ethics and political morality.  Is this volume related to that argument? If so, how?  What is the volume’s root inquiry?

The most obvious difference between this volume and my monograph, Citizenship and the Pursuit of the Worthy Life, is of course that this is an edited volume, a collaborative work of no less than eight different authors, each with his or her own perspective. Thus, it is certainly not a sequel to my first book. However, in crafting this collection, I did have in mind the pressing need to draw more compelling connections between our participation in political communities and the “warp and woof” of our ordinary life, as fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, co-workers, educators, churchgoers, and what have you. The core concern being addressed in this volume is, what is it like to be a citizen in the 21st century, and how can our civic participation be rendered fully intelligible and justifiable in light of our broader ethical aspirations, our noble desires and hopes, our most meaningful relationships and projects? Insofar as all of the authors of this volume aim to better understand, and accommodate, the positive connection between our participation in public life and our practical identity and moral life as human persons, it could be said that the volume as a whole does have an integrationist, anti-separationist inspiration. However, each contributing author makes those connections in his or her own way, and not all of them would necessarily agree with my own integrationist vision, as expressed in Citizenship and the Pursuit of the Worthy Life.

How can ‘citizenship’ even be defined in a globalized world?  What does the term describe for the purposes of your work?

That is an excellent question. To the extent that political communities are diverse on the one hand, and constantly shifting in composition and cultural make-up on the other, inevitably the meaning of citizenship will vary both across different communities and internally within communities over time. A work like this does not start out from a well-defined conception of citizenship – this would illicitly tie the hands of the authors, who need to be free to freely explore the concept and its real-world manifestations. However, there are certain recurring themes or leitmotivs in the volume that suggest that the authors do indeed share certain basic assumptions about citizenship. There is of course a relatively uninteresting, purely juridical sense of the “citizen,” as the bearer of certain legal rights and obligations. But in this book, we are dealing with a richer sense of the citizen, the ethical or moral sense of the term. Citizenship is generally associated with membership in a community that is, under some description, self-governing. It entails a cooperative relationship with other members of said community, a relationship marked by some sense of loyalty, solidarity, and a shared sense of belonging. Membership in a more or less self-governing community draws with it a set of rights and responsibilities, participation in a shared narrative, devotion to certain common goods, among other things.

The difficulty arises when you have a political community that contains groups of people with very different views about the fundamental principles of social morality and who do not share the same narrative about the meaning of their life. That is the challenge of cultural and moral pluralism that Western, and increasingly also non-Western, societies, are confronting, and this issues is addressed by practically all of the authors of this volume, in one form or another, because it is a challenge that no political thinker can today afford to ignore.

If there is a crisis of ethical values that “give shape, form and meaning to modern social life,” what is to be done about it and by whom?

The crisis of ethical values that “give shape, form and meaning to modern social life” has a complex genealogy. Some of its underlying causes are the decline of religion, with its traditional power of galvanizing and protecting shared customs and social norms; the rise of individualistic lifestyles, or the “cult of the individual,” who devotes himself almost exclusively to his own career and fulfilment, with little thought for the common good or the needs of his fellow citizens; and the increasing cultural and moral differentiation that we see, in part due to the polarization between intensely religious and more secular citizens, in part due to the influx of immigrants with other cultural and moral values, and in part simply due to the consequences of individuals taking their own paths without following any collective moral authority beyond their own conscience.

What is to be done about such a crisis? This is a huge and difficult question, which I cannot possibly answer here in a satisfying way. Certainly, one important step is to come to a deeper understanding of its underlying causes, and to begin to articulate some principles that might guide us out of this messy situation. I hope my book, Citizenship and the Pursuit of the Worthy Life, and this latest edited volume, make some modest contribution to that task. But ultimately, the answer lies with citizens and social groups scattered across the nations of the world, as well as with policymakers and civic leaders. The types of answers people give will obviously depend on their own capacities and opportunities for action.

People in positions of leadership may be able to inspire communities to make changes to their internal structure and ethos so as to begin to heal the moral rifts between citizens, and cultivate a shared civic ethos, if not nationally, at least within the affected group. Church leaders and their faithful can, in teaching and above all through example, cultivate a love of truth and justice within church communities, which inevitably overflows into citizens’ relationships and activities beyond the church. Ordinary citizens can do their part by educating themselves and their children about the common good and about lifestyles and virtues that can overcome some of the divisive and socially destructive effects of individualism. If people acquire human virtue in the family and in educational institutions from an early age, in addition to well thought through ideas about justice, public service, and the common good, they will be equipped to participate responsibly and to contribute to their political and professional communities in a magnanimous rather than small-minded or calculating way. This will lay the foundations of a more vibrant and cooperative civic life. Finally, at the institutional level, my own opinion is that the bulk of political functions should be delegated to the local level, so that the people affected by decisions can give their input to them, and thus learn how to build a polity together.

Do the chapters merely address philosophical questions or do they provide potential solutions?

The chapters of this volume do not exactly provide blueprints for solutions to our current political problems. However, they do provide a philosophical framework within which solutions could be elaborated. For example, my own chapter, “An Ethical Defense of Citizenship,” while it does not tell citizens what they need to do, attempts to overcome certain ethical misgivings or objections against citizenship, and thus clear the ground for public-spirited and virtuous persons to assume leadership roles in civic life. Simon Keller’s chapter on “civic motivation and globalization” offers a useful image of citizenship as a plurality of local allegiances nested within the state. This conception views the state as a largely instrumental institution, and this can point political leaders in the direction of cultivating local communities and making the case to them of the utility of the state rather than attempting to foster one ethnically or culturally homogeneous state-based community. Paolo Monti points a way beyond the impasse between religious and secular citizens by suggesting that they reflect on the ways in which their own thinking and actions are co-implicated in the same social practices. In other words, he helps us see that religious citizens cannot understand their own worldview and values properly without making reference to the worldview and values of their secular counterparts, and vice versa. Mutual understanding is not a luxury, but a necessity for the self-understanding of the citizen. Angela Miceli offers a defense of a Thomistic, natural law-based framework for advancing objective moral claims in a morally diverse society. Andrew March offers one possible way to reconcile Muslim beliefs with the basic principles of a liberal political order. All of our authors, in one way or another, attempt to develop a normative and philosophical framework out of which practical solutions might emerge. Of course, the citizen must act with practical wisdom and think through all of the particulars. But broad philosophical principles can illuminate the process and point the citizen in the right direction.


The Ethics of Citizenship in the 21st Century. Editor and Contributor. Springer, 2017. ISBN 978-3319504148