What is the Duty of Citizenship?

Glen T. Martin

 Nearly every country around the world promotes duties of citizenship.  These may include the duty to vote, the duty to pay taxes, the duty to obey the law, the duty of some form of public service, or the duty of military service. A duty means a moral obligation. What are the moral obligations connected with citizenship?

We have duties to others because we are inherently social and moral creatures. It is widely recognized today that our capacity for rational decision-making and responsible behavior is inseparable from our social nature.  We grow to adulthood through interaction with others and we imbibe a language or languages only through such interaction.  Language gives us the ability to reason, to communicate, discern and describe the orderly structure of the world. It gives us the ability to discern and cooperate with the orderly requirements of society (which may include everything from obeying traffic regulations to not using violence against one another).

Deriving ultimately from the great religious traditions of the world is the idea of human dignity—in the West, human beings are made in the image of God, or, in the East, human beings all share the same deep selfhood (atman) that is identical with God. In the modern world of the past 5 centuries, the idea of human dignity has crystalized into the idea of universal human rights deriving from that dignity. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, begins with the powerful affirmation that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

Connected with our universal dignity is a universal moral duty—to respect the human rights of all members of the human family, for (as the Declaration tells us) “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Another way to put our moral obligation to all other people was formulated as the “Categorical Imperative” by Immanuel Kant:  “Always treat every person as an end in themselves, never merely as a means.”  Every person has dignity, that is, is an end in themselves whose rights must be respected. All are equal in dignity and rights.

Let us sum up what we have enumerated so far.  Human beings are (at least, minimally) rational creatures capable of making decisions and freely choosing courses of action.  We would not be such creatures if it weren’t for society, the community, since our self-aware rationality would not exist without the evolution of the human community to our present condition of self-conscious rationality. Hence, we owe duties to preserve and protect the community as well as duties to serve and participate in the community. And these conclusions are true for all human beings.  Everyone on Earth has his or her rational will because of our common humanity, and our capacity for responsible decisions and courses of action is inseparable from this fact. People routinely and rightly serve and protect one another because we are all responsible to one another.

All these ideas are commonly recognized as universal. All persons are human; all adult persons are capable of rationality and responsibility; all persons have a duty to both themselves and the community that makes their existence and rational capacity possible. This duty with its corresponding rights can be called the rights and duty of “citizenship.”  However, what have human beings done historically? Just the opposite. They have made tragic mistakes that interfere with the process of actualizing our common humanity.

We have divided the world into many “different” communities and put up barriers between these communities that intrinsically deny the rights and duties owed to other persons in other communities.  Indeed, since the 17th century we have divided the world into “sovereign” nations, each with absolute territorial boundaries and most of which are militarized to protect their sovereignty and autonomy vis-à-vis all other such communities. The very nature of “sovereignty” is that each government recognizes no binding authority above itself. Here we have perhaps our most fundamental problem.

For we recognize that we are all linked to society through the development of the rational responsibility that gives us our universal moral duties toward one another, and we recognize that we should serve and protect that society since it both gave birth to us and is responsible for our freedom, safety, and cooperative living together with other citizens.  Under these principles each militarized sovereign nation-state tells its citizens that they have the duty to obey the law, to pay taxes, to serve the community, and often to serve in the military.  These demands of sovereign nation citizenship immediately put us in conflict with other militarized sovereign nations around the world. Affirming citizenship duties within one nation intrinsically violates our duty to the human community.

To repeat: we are all rational beings; we all possess dignity, which involves both rights and duties to one another. Our rationality and dignity come from the fact that we are language-speaking, social beings, that is, human beings. And our duties to society involve a response to these facts.  But immediately, if we try to put our duties to protect and serve society into action within the sovereign nation system, we find that we are not protecting and serving society but engaging in disruption, dissention, violence, and war.  We are dividing and violating the very human community that makes possible our dignity.

Our social duty is to one another, to serve society and the common good, but the institutions around which we have organized our planet, prevent our doing this.  Serving society within sovereign nation-states  turns out to be serving conflict, fragmentation, and denial of the dignity and rights of people across the planet who are “not us.” Under these circumstances it appears that our duty to serve society is impossible. Our supposed duty appears morally null and void with respect to these institutions that conflict with this duty.

Our very real duty to serve society is a duty to the human community. It is just as universal as our common dignity, rational responsibility, and universal human rights.  But there is no organized human community to serve, and serving our national communities only violates the human community. We need to recognize our common human community in institutionalized ways that draw us together, superseding the absolute division among sovereign states. Our universal rationality, dignity, and rights demand recognition of the human community that produced them.

Our common humanity, as well as our common need to end war, protect the planetary environment, protect human rights, and establish social justice on Earth all make the same demand. We must unite the human community under an Earth Constitution (www.earthconstitution.world)We need to establish a planetary community through ratifying the Constitution for the Federation of Earth, a document that is designed to unite and actualize the human community.

Serving one’s national community may well be the law in every sovereign nation. Nearly every nation makes its citizens pay war-taxes.  All require obedience to the law and some service to the community.  Obedience may be fine.  It may be benign, such as obeying traffic rules.  Or it may involve serving the foreign policies of the nation though the government or military. The latter activities are not so benign. And they certainly do not satisfy our obligation to the human community that makes possible our dignity, rationality, and humanity.  Far from it, the very fact of citizenship duties to sovereign nations may well violate our social responsibility to the community of humanity. The very concept of a sovereignty recognizing no effective laws above itself violates our common human community of rights and duties.

We cannot have universal dignity, common humanity, and inalienable rights, and then somehow assume that our duty to the community that made these possible can be served through participating in divisive, violent, and conflictive behavior within that human community. The Earth Constitution remedies that vast defect of the current world disorder. It alone makes possible real, responsible, morally grounded service to the human community. Once united, once all nations become part of one human community under a common World Parliament and common rule of democratic law for all, then local service to one’s nation can again become morally right and praiseworthy. 

Real citizenship and corresponding service to the community becomes possible when we recognize our universal human citizenship under the Earth Constitution.  Service to the community then acquires deep positive moral meaning.  Human dignity, rationality, rights and Citizenship-service then fit seamlessly together. We are all citizens of one planet and one human community and this needs to be recognized by law.  Only a planetary social contract establishing the democratic rule of law over all persons can give us the community to which we really owe any formal duty of service. We need to ratify the Constitution for the Federation of Earth.