Civic duties/responsibilities

Civic duties/responsibilities-

From the previous unit, we expect that you must have grasped a solid concept/view of citizenship and are ready to deepen your understanding of civic duties and responsibilities. Attempting to define civic responsibility can be a daunting task because of frequently overlapping constructs, values, and interpretations. Indeed, the very mention of the term civic responsibility evokes notions of what it means to live in a democracy, in addition to the complementary ideas of citizenship, social responsibility, civic engagement, and community involvement.

While there is no conventional definition for civic responsibility, we can define it simply as active participation in the public life of a community or State in an informed, committed, and constructive manner.

What are our civic duties/responsibilities?

Answers to this question are frequently offered in terms of a civic duty or duties. We might think at a minimum that citizens have a duty to obey the law. The most finely crafted laws are worth little when they are routinely ignored, and a government cannot possibly detect and punish every infraction, at least without unacceptably prevalent surveillance and restrictions of freedom. So, a legal order needs a critical mass of people who routinely obey the laws even when they could get away with breaking them. It seems to follow, then, that citizens have an obligation to obey the law simply because it is the law. We already have a moral obligation not to commit murder, regardless of whether it is illegal or not. But when the law commands us to do things that are in themselves neither right nor wrong (e.g., register for selective service, drive on the right side of the road, display our house numbers on our front doors), we have a civic duty to obey.


Please produce your own definition of civic responsibility using any combination of the following characteristics (and share on the course forum):

Establishing a balance between rights and responsibilities.

Addressing society’s problems in an informed manner.

Showing respect as well as dissent for laws.

Engaging in an active process that goes beyond passive citizenship.

Understanding the concept of the common good and who defines it.

Embracing the concept of participatory democracy.

Questioning governmental policies and practices.

Determining ways to alter public policy.

Recognizing the value and human dignity of others.


Exercising your franchise-

While there is a general consensus among scholars and activists that the “right to vote” is civic duty, many are convinced and have further buttressed the notion that the “right to vote” is not just a civic duty but a fundamental human right; but this right is not fully enforced for billions of individuals around the world. Consistently disenfranchised groups include non-citizens, young people, minorities, those who commit crimes, the homeless, disabled persons, and many others who lack access to the vote for a variety of reasons including poverty, illiteracy, intimidation, or unfair election processes. For free citizens, Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is the key international guarantee of voting rights and free elections. It states that:

Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in Article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions:

(a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives;

(b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors;

(c) To have access, on general terms of equality, to public service in his country.

While article 2 of the ICCPR maintains that article 25 shall be binding on each State party to the covenant.

This course however does not focus on disenfranchisement and anti-democratic States, but on the civic responsibilities of free citizens.

In exercising your franchise, it is important to ensure the following responsibilities:

  1. Familiarize yourself with elective candidates and issues.
  2. Know the location of your polling place and hours of operation during elections.
  3. Familiarize yourself with the operation of the voting equipment in precinct or unit as the case may be.
  4. Respect the privacy of others.
  5. Report any problems or violations of election laws to supervising electoral officers or security agents.
  6. Ask questions if needed.


Obeying the law-

As good citizens, it is commonly expected that we obey the law. But the political obligation of obeying the law is fiercely debated. There are those who argue that obeying the law when it is only fair to you is in itself unfair, while others argue that the political obligation of obeying the law should hinge on the fairness of such law. In other words, if the law is not fair, it should be broken. Before you come to a conclusion, it is very important that you build your line of thought using a moral framework.

The question of the duty to obey the law is an old question and the subject of one of Plato’s most famous early Socratic dialogues. In the Crito, Socrates engages in an intense conversation with his followers about whether or not he should flee the city that has just condemned him to death. In the end, he decides he should not, mainly because he feels it would involve breaking the commitments and agreements he has made with his fellow citizens and the city that has done so much to nurture and shape him. Socrates makes a number of arguments in the course of the dialogue, but perhaps the most resonant for us today is an appeal to fairness. He suggests that to disobey the law would be to mistreat or disrespect his fellow citizens. If I have constrained my freedom to be bound by the law, under the premise that others will do likewise, then it’s unfair if you choose to disobey the law whenever it inconveniences you. The city can’t survive, let alone flourish, if that was our general attitude towards each other. Socrates is upholding the legitimacy of the law here and making a case for equity from a rather controversial standpoint. This is controversial because of the ambiguous nature of equity. I.e. what is fair to A might not be fair to B and vice versa.

Let us attempt to settle the discourse divide on the moral obligation of obeying the law using an adaptation of Heinz dilemma, from Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development.



Pregnant Nancy was on life support. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a synthetic form of radium that a local pharmacist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the local pharmacist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to produce. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. Nancy’s husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $1,000 which is half of what it cost. He told the local pharmacist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said: “No, I discovered the drug and I’m going to make money from it.” So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man’s laboratory to steal the drug for his wife. Should Heinz have broken into the laboratory to steal the drug for his wife? Why or why not?

Please share your answer with other learners in the classroom/course forum and provide a clear justification for your choices. (Note that your specific answer is not all that important in the stages of moral development as there are no correct answers, but the specific reason for your answer is what matters).

Serving your country-

Serving your country might sound very harmless and like the right thing to do, but it becomes a very controversial topic when it involves having to make moral compromises. While serving on a government/public committee, serving on a jury or volunteering to support government’s civil effort might seem very okay, serving in the military or secret service opens a Pandora box of moral controversies.

Just war theorists evaluate the obligation of serving in the military or secret service from the perspective of individual moral responsibility. They generally argue that those who join the military may be motivated by a desire to serve their country; to prove, improve, or reform themselves; to have a steady income with benefits; to get an education; to carry on a family tradition; or some combination of these. Whatever their motivation, they are committing themselves to become weapons controlled by others whose purposes cannot be reliably predicted. Some just war theorists question whether it can be permissible for people thus to convert themselves into instruments for killing without knowing whom they may be required to kill, or why.

On the other side, those who argue in defence of military/secret service claim that in the absence of draft (voluntary military service), people who choose to serve in the military/secret service, do so voluntarily and willingly give up part of their fundamental human rights in defence for the greater good. They claim the “greater good” of the people/State outweighs the moral justification provided by just war theorists.

Regardless of what side of the divide you choose to identify with, it is important that you make your conclusion carefully with respect to moral integrity as well as the general welfare of others. Lastly, serving your country is still generally seen as a civic duty, while the moral justification for serving in the military/secret service is totally up to you to define.

Please download and read through the content of the attached PDF(s):

(Rights, obligations and citizenship by Kevin Harrison and Tony Boyd, Source-



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