Civic Duty

Civic duty is the collection of behaviors and activities that individuals are legally obligated to exhibit and fulfill. In a constitutional republic such as the United States, civic duty is of critical importance, demanding that individuals perform actions in order to promote peace, maintain social order, and preserve the principles and institutions of democratic government. Whereas a study of civic responsibility might enumerate a list of activities good citizens should do as responsible and engaged members of a democratic society, civic duty has to do with what all individuals must—and must not—do.

Everyone who lives in the United States, regardless of citizenship, must obey federal, state, and local laws. Serving as a witness, if one is subpoenaed or summoned to do so, is another civic duty that cannot be avoided, as is paying taxes, which cover the costs of things that most individuals could not possibly purchase for themselves. Lastly, almost all male US citizens, and male immigrants who take up residence in the United States, who are eighteen through twenty-five years of age are required to register with the Selective Service. Citizens of the United States have one very critical civic duty that does not apply to noncitizen residents: jury duty. Jury duty is reporting to court when summoned to do so and serving as a juror if selected in a legal proceeding. Although considered a compulsory service in the United States, failing to report for jury duty is not technically illegal and usually results in an individual's being put back into the selection pool. Still, repeatedly ignoring a jury summons may result in strict penalties, such as being placed in contempt of court.


1835, 45 ). Not-withstanding Paine's use of “must” instead of “should,” supporting freedom and engaging in civic and political life are usually viewed as voluntary pursuits.

The distinction between obligation and duty is cloudier ( see Brandt 1964 ). Nonetheless, an important difference is worth noting: obligations must be voluntarily undertaken or incurred, but duties need not be. Using contracts as an example, one has an obligation to fulfill the terms of a contract only if one has done something to generate that obligation (e.g., signed the contract). Duties, by contrast, exist regardless of action. It can be assumed that most individuals have never signed a contract in which they agreed to obey the law or solemnly swore to respond to jury summons, yet individuals must obey the law and they must respond to jury summons. John Rawls illuminated this distinction, arguing that most citizens of a just political society are not generally obliged to obey its laws, having not given their consent; however, they do have a “natural duty” to support just institutions, which tends to oblige obedience ( 1999, 97 ).


The notion of civic duty emerged from the philosophical concept of social contract theory, specifically as expounded in two seventeenth-century works, Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan and John Locke's Second Treatise of Government. This theory posits that individuals consent to surrender some of their natural powers and submit to the authority of the state in exchange for protection of their natural rights. In this scenario, it is assumed that the state is committed to the good of the individuals who constitute it, and each individual is committed to the good of the state. However, because individuals cannot be expected to forgo their own interests to fulfill their responsibilities to the state, they must be lawfully bound to a collection of duties in order to enjoy the benefits of citizenship. Of course, if the state betrays its commitment to the good of the individuals who comprise it, it is reasonable to forgive acts of civil disobedience and even revolt.

Constitutions serve as the most concrete expression of social contract. Although the United States Constitution neglects an explicit enumeration of civic duties, implied in its ratification and its endurance is a tacit acceptance and deference to the social order and infrastructure it established, as well as the rights it protects. As such, in the absence of a clear identification of jury duty as a civic duty, individuals consent to the legal obligation, if only out of respect for the Sixth Amendment's promise of trial by jury specifically, and the rule of law and due process more generally.

In tacitly consenting to the Constitution and the rule of law, individuals also accept the federal, state, and local laws that are passed by those who represent them. As such, the duties of obeying the law, responding to court and jury summons, paying taxes, and registering for the draft are accepted and honored by most, and it is conceded that failure to do so will be met with consequence. Still, as the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume argued in Of the Original Contract, such duties are honored not from consent but for wanting of the privileges that accompany a system of laws ( e.g., living in peace and pursuing one's interests ).


Perhaps in a perfect world civic duty would be an unnecessary construct. Individuals would volunteer en masse for the privilege of being a juror, gladly contribute to the public coffers, and exhibit a socially accepted notion of good behavior, without enforcement or fear of legal repercussions. In the imperfect world, most individuals are not reasonably expected to voluntarily give a portion of their income to the government or pay extra when making a purchase. Likewise, without the threat of a ticket, most are not expected to keep their driving below the speed limit when running late for an appointment. For these reasons, governments levy mandatory taxes and enforce traffic laws. Law-abiding citizens fulfill these civic duties, not because they explicitly agreed to do so, but because governments and law enforcement require it of them.

The list of activities that are expected of responsible citizens is long and malleable, but the list of activities that are best categorized as duties is short and inflexible. Whereas the former list includes such important civic activities as staying informed of the issues, voting, and helping others (among many more), the latter includes just a handful of basic individual expectations. Nonetheless, the privileges of civilized society demand civic duty—the legally mandated behaviors and activities that all are required to exhibit and fulfill.

SEE ALSO Civic Responsibility .


Brandt, R. B. “The Concepts of Obligation and Duty.” Mind 73, no. 291 (1964): 374–93.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. (1651.) Edited by Richard Tuck. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Hume, David. “Of the Original Contract.” (1752.) In David Hume's Political Essays, edited by Charles William Hendel. Indianapolis, IN, and New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1953.

Internal Revenue Service. “Do I Have to File a Return?” .

Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government (1690.) Edited by C. B. Macpherson. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1980.

Paine, Thomas. The American Crisis, Nos. 1–4. (1777.) London: James Watson, 1835.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Rev. ed. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999.

Selective Service System: Fast Facts. “Who Must Register.” .

Emma K. Humphries
Bob Graham Center for Public Service University of Florida