Civic Responsibility

The Latin root for the term responsibility means “to respond.” Civic responsibility refers to the task of citizens (and noncitizens) to respond to the problems and challenges of the community or society of which they are

College students purchase stamps and bonds to help support the war effort, Columbia, Missouri, 1942.

College students purchase stamps and bonds to help support the war effort, Columbia, Missouri, 1942.

members. The notion of civic responsibility is intimately linked to, and sometimes used interchangeably with, civic duty. Although both of these ideas refer to the relationship between an individual and his or her community, civic duty implies citizen obligations whereas civic responsibility is a broader term that has is its own unique meaning. Civic duty is rather a legal term, and in a strict sense civic responsibility is prior to civic duty, because a duty can only be ascribed to an agent who can be held responsible.


The term is also often associated with good citizenship. A good citizen is commonly assumed to be a person who has a well-developed sense of civic responsibility and whose acts are guided by that sense to improve the quality of life in the community of which he or she is a member. The means by which people can assume civic responsibilities are diverse. There are many and even conflicting views on which qualities a good citizen must possess, and hence diverging views on what constitutes civic responsibility. Features that are commonly associated with good citizenship and civic responsibility in a liberal democracy include active participation in communal life, assuming personal responsibility for the well-being of other members of the community, being informed about the social and political issues and problems of the community, supporting equally the rights of all members of the community, and adopting a critical, though constructive, attitude toward the way in which the community is being governed.

In less democratic and more authoritarian societies, however, other qualities and (asserted) virtues are more valued. In these societies, civic responsibilities such as loyalty, consent, and obedience to authority are most valued. Aristotle ( 384–322 BCE ) expounded that view in Constitution of Athens in the fourth century BCE.

According to Aristotle citizens should be almost unconditionally loyal to, and abide by, the rules by which they are governed, independent of the qualities of those who govern. A similar view is also central to post-Christian political philosophy. It is maintained that God has installed worldly authorities and rules, and obeying them is thus a divine command.

The expectation of civic responsibility thus depends on the society or community it applies to, and civic responsibility can mean entirely opposite things. This was also observed by the German-American political philosopher Leo Strauss ( 1899–1973 ), who pointed to the fact that “a good citizen in Hitler's Germany would be a bad citizen elsewhere” ( 1959, 35 ).


The comparative perspective raises a fundamental question about the relationship between moral and civic responsibility: Are good citizens always loyal to their regime? During the Reformation Martin Luther ( 1483–1546 ) and others emphasized that civic obedience pertains only insofar as civil laws do not conflict with moral and religious commands. Social contract theorists, such as John Locke ( 1632–1704 ), also argued that civic responsibility is not the same as unconditional political obedience to those who govern, and that unjust forms of government should be opposed. The capacity to criticize and oppose unjust forms of government is considered indispensable in societies that cherish self-government and democratic values. Some of America's most significant acts of citizenship (e.g., the Boston Tea Party) and celebrated citizens (e.g., Susan B. Anthony and Rosa Parks) intentionally violated the law.

The Founders emphasized the social contract view. Responsible citizenship must be guided by moral sentiments, and a society cannot live without the moral compass of its citizens. In his 1763 pamphlet The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, James Otis ( 1725–83 ) elaborated the view that pointing out that government errs should not be considered offensive but instead should be fostered. It is the civic responsibility of every citizen to be guided by his own moral compass and to point out what he thinks is wrong about society and how it is being governed.

The Founders argued that a good citizen must in the first place be a good person and that a society can only be as good and just as its citizens. George Washington argued that only morality is the proper spring of popular government and that only virtuous people can assure general government and the most fundamental human rights and liberties. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson ( 1743–1826 ), and James Madison ( 1751–1836 ) expressed similar views. In his Speech in the Virginia Ratifying Convention on the Judicial Power ( June 20, 1788 ), Madison argued that it is a chimerical idea that governments can ensure liberty and happiness without any virtue in the people. The responsibility to safeguard the values on which society is built does not merely rest with governments but with the people.

Civic responsibilities are the flip side of civic rights. Many rights in the Bill of Rights carry civic responsibilities. For example, the First Amendment freedoms of expression imply that people will express themselves in a civil manner and acknowledge the rights of others to express themselves.


The Founders also explicitly stressed the importance of civic education. A sense of civic responsibility must be taught and nurtured, and therefore the notion of civic responsibility is intimately linked to civic education. Jefferson and others held the view that education is the means by which to cultivate the civic virtues that are needed to maintain individual rights. Madison also emphasized the fact that liberty and learning mutually depend on each other.

Civic education is the process by which a person acquires the knowledge, skills, and dispositions of democratic citizenship. It is a process of both intentional and unintentional learning in which families, peers, mentors, sports and youth organizations, neighborhood initiatives, schools, governments, and the media all play an active role.

Since the Founding the belief that people need to learn to cherish and defend the rights and freedoms that are essential to democracy has occupied a central place in American political and educational philosophy. In his 1916 book, Democracy and Education, the philosopher and educator John Dewey ( 1859–1952 ) famously described education as the midwife of democracy, expressing the view that democracy needs to be reborn in each generation.

The exact content of civic education and the extent to which civic education should be explicitly taught at school are issues that can arouse intense debate. Debates about civic education in some ways mirror other political debates in the United States. At the highest levels of generality, everyone agrees that civic education should include the origins, development, and contemporary importance of foundational ideas that bind Americans together, such as natural rights, constitutionalism, and citizenship. People generally agree, too, that a high-quality civic education should illustrate the ways in which Americans have failed to achieve those ideals and the inherent conflicts among them. However, people disagree about the specifics of the civic education curriculum and what the appropriate balance should be between unity and diversity, community and the individual, rights and responsibilities.

Some people on the liberal side of the political spectrum argue that the purpose of civic education is to familiarize children and students with a pluralist and cosmopolitan worldview; others argue that civic education should foster the values and virtues that are central in conservative thought and ideology. Some maintain that intentional civic education should not have a place in our public schools at all. They argue that the civic virtues one needs are developed through unintentional processes of learning. They also argue that civic education can be a tool for indoctrinating students.

Notwithstanding these debates, intentional civic education plays a central role in American education. The Education Commission of the States distinguishes several kinds of civic competencies that should be developed through civic educational programs. These include civic knowledge, civic intellectual skills, civic participatory skills, and civic dispositions or attitudes. Expressed in these terms, developing civic responsibility is thus particularly a matter of developing students' intellects and specific kinds of knowledge, participatory capabilities, and civic attitudes of citizenship.

There are many ways in which democratic societies and governments benefit from a citizenry with a welldeveloped sense of civic responsibility. Citizens with civic responsibility can be described as “watchdogs of democracy” who keep a close eye on the proper functioning of legal, political, and governmental institutions. Moreover, civic responsibility provides the capacity to govern one's own life with due regard to the interests of one's fellow citizens. It involves respecting their autonomy and being accountable to them for one's public behavior. Take civic responsibility away, and people will still need governing. But they will not govern themselves. Hence, in such circumstances the state has to increase its powers.

The Founders envisioned a society of free individuals who would look after the basic social needs; provide themselves and their neighbors with schools, hospitals, and rescue squads; and in general look after each other's interests through institutions and associations of their own. In other words, they envisaged a civil society independent of the state, with governments fulfilling only those functions that were necessary. As civic responsibility declines, governments expand to take over the tasks that people might otherwise have undertaken for themselves. Hence a controversy arises over the extent to which civic responsibility is needed, how it might be restored and enhanced, and how much government should step in to rescue the victims of social decay.

SEE ALSO Citizenship ; Civic Duty ; Civic Participation ; Civil Society ; Republican Virtue .


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Horn, Christopher. “Law, Governance and Political Obedience.” In The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle's Politics, edited by Marguerite Deslauriers and Pierre Destrée, 223–46. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Lubert, Howard. “Thomas Hutchinson and James Otis on Sovereignty, Obedience, and Rebellion.” In History of American Political Thought, edited by Bryan-Paul Frost and Jeffrey Sikkenga, 44–62. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2003.

Madison, James. Writings. Edited by Jack N. Rakove. New York: Library of America, 1999.

Murphy, James Bernard. “Against Civic Education in Public Schools.” International Journal of Public Administration 30, nos. 6–7 (2007): 651–70.

National Assessment Governing Board. Civics Framework for the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress: NAEP Civics Consensus Project. Washington, DC: Diane Publishing, 1998.

Nussbaum, Martha C. Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Strauss, Leo. What Is Political Philosophy? Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959.

Alicja A. Gescinska
Amherst College