The Ethics of Citizenship

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Large_landrieuhealth1The title of this post might look peculiar. People frequently think of politics as a winner-take-all clash between conflicting interests, something akin to a football game, where the sole aim is to win, and the only rule is to not get caught cheating. Indeed, in a democracy, politics often feels like a game. There are teams, game plans, coaches, trainers, and winners and losers. Further, as citizens we are inundated with appeals from parties and lobbies designed to get us to pick sides and root. We root and cheer by means of votes.

So the idea of an “ethics of citizenship” may seem odd — something on the order of an “ethics of cheerleading.” However, there's a crucial sense in which democratic politics is not a football game, and citizenship is not akin to cheering for a politician or policy. This difference accounts for the fact that our activities as democratic citizens are indeed morally assessable.

Democracy is a philosophical response to an age-old problem: How can there be political rule among individuals who are by nature free and morally equal? Political rule is always coercive; the state forces individuals to do things that they otherwise would not do. But if we are naturally free and morally equal, no one is subordinate, and no one is anyone's boss. Political rule, then, seems inconsistent with the freedom and equality of all. That is, it seems that wherever there is a state, there is an unacceptable violation of individual freedom and equality.

Democracy is the attempt to resolve this tension, to reconcile political rule with the freedom and moral equality of each citizen. The contours of this reconciliation should be familiar: In a democracy, the will of the state is in some sense the will of the people. We must obey the law because, in a democracy, laws are in some sense self-imposed. And so the identification of the political will with the popular will renders the state's rule consistent with the freedom and moral equality of each citizen. Problem solved, right?

The trouble is that the solution is unclear on something. One wonders what the phrase “in some sense” means in the formulations above. Though it is frighteningly difficult to produce a complete analysis of the idea, the democratic identification of the political will with the popular will must involve the following: Political rule is accountable to those who are ruled. In other words, when we claim that the laws are in some sense self-imposed, we mean (at least in part) that the reasons for the law are accessible to us as free and morally equal citizens. That is, in a democracy, when the state acts, it forces some citizens to do things that they otherwise might not do, and this exercise of force is consistent with the citizens' freedom and equality provided that the state can justify its actions in a way that recognizes the citizens' freedom and moral equality. Let us call this the reasons proviso.

It is not difficult to see how the reasons proviso can clarify the sense that political and popular will can be identified. When the state acts,it owes us, its citizens, a justification. That justification may not take the form of an appeal to the superiority of some individuals to others. Nor may it rely upon the premise that citizens are merely the state's subjects. Similarly,it must not treat us like children, offering as its reasonfor acting “Because I said so.” Moreover, it cannot appeal to controversial moral and religious ideas that citizensare at liberty to reject; “The Pope says so” or “Scripture commands it” is not a reason of the right kind for ademocratic state. When the state acts, it must address us as free and equal citizens. Our freedom and equality mean that we are to be regarded as equal autonomous moral agents, with our own lives to author according to our own values. When the state acts in ways that cannot be justified on these grounds, it merely pushes us around; it therefore commits injustice. That's why the reasons proviso is so important.

A very important consequence about citizenship follows. The reasons proviso is a constraint on what the democratic state can do, and in democracies, political will should be representative of the will of citizens. So the constraint in the reasons proviso presses in the direction of the citizens as well. If the state owes us reasons of the right kind for its actions, and there is some sense in which we are the state, then part of the justificatory burden falls to us citizens. Think of it this way: when citizens vote, they tell the state what to do. In order to avoid injustice, the state must act only when it can account for its behavior in a way that is consistent with the freedom and equality of every citizen. Just as it's wrong for Jack to tell Jill to do something that it would be wrong for Jill to do, it is wrong for a citizen to tell the sate to do something that cannot be justified in terms that respect the freedom and equality of all.

The reasons proviso cuts two ways, then. It's a constraint on what reasons the state can have to tell people what they have to do, and so it's a constraint on what reasons we, as citizens, can have to tell the state to tell people what they have to do.

Thus there is an ethics of citizenship after all. There is a set of distinctive moral duties that fall to us in our role as democratic citizens. To be more specific, when we act as citizens — when we vote, lobby, campaign, debate, or protest — we must trade in reasons and arguments that address our fellow citizens as free and morally equal partners in self-government. Accordingly, when a citizen votes strictly on the basis of reasons that are not consistent with recognizing the freedom and equality of all, that citizen acts immorally. Such a citizen is exercising her political power in a way that instructs to state to do something that states are not morally permitted to do.

The implication of the ethics of citizenship for our nation's troubled mix of religion and politics is evident. In the real world of contemporary democracy, the football conception reigns. Understandably, religious affiliation is a hot commodity among political strategists. They try to tie political views tightly to citizens' religious identities; they try to convince citizens that their religious commitments entail some particular political agenda. It's obvious why this is a winning tactic for producing the desired voting behavior.

The trouble is that those who favor a more strict separation of religion and politics often make the mistake of thinking like the political strategists. We proceed as if the way to defend the separation is to expose our fellow citizens' religious commitments as silly, false, and irrational. To be sure, there are discussions worth having about the rationality of religious belief. But, as citizens, we are bound to respect our fellow citizens' commitments, even those that we must regard as mistaken. The idea of an ethics of citizenship helps us to address the difficulties emerging out of the religion-politics mix without impugning citizens' religious commitments. It allows us to say that, regardless of our religious and moral differences, when we act as democratic citizens, we owe to each other the distinctive moral duty to trade in reasons that recognize the freedom and moral equality of all.

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