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Moral responsibility and citizenship

By Helen Irving - posted Friday, 22 December 2006

The exercise of moral, social or civic responsibility is desirable and should be encouraged. So long as the call to act responsibly is not used as an excuse for discouraging protest or as a means of requiring moral or social conformity, such encouragement is socially valuable. But, I wish to argue, it should not be offered in the name of citizenship.

We often describe moral or social responsibility in terms of citizenship, and we talk freely about the rights and responsibilities of citizens. I want to challenge this language. We should, in my view, separate citizenship from assertions or claims about values or standards of conduct. We should recognise that citizenship is a legal status, and put this in a separate category from claims about types of person.

To associate responsibility with citizenship is to assume that citizenship is, at least ideally, virtuous. This assumption implies that holding citizenship creates or encourages virtue in the individual, and that we as a society should be safer among citizens than among aliens, or non-citizens.


However, for all the talk of the value and importance of citizenship in generating feelings of community and attachment to others, citizenship does not guarantee responsibility.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the London bombings in July 2005 was that the majority of the perpetrators were British citizens - not just naturalised, but citizens by birth. If the assumption that citizenship is associated with responsibility is accurate, these people should have felt responsibility towards the community of their birth and nationality. But they did not. Their sense of identity, loyalty and purpose lay elsewhere.

We might deplore this, but we have to recognise the reality. Being a citizen does not necessarily make you a good person.

The converse provides another reason for separating responsibility from the language of citizenship. Being a non-citizen does not make you a bad person. When we prioritise citizenship in our language, by tying words like responsibility and citizenship together in the same sentence or under the same title, we imply that there is something inherently less virtuous in non-citizens, something even potentially suspect about them.

This is particularly disturbing, even dangerous at present, because of the tendency of government and the public to be suspicious of “non-Australians”, and to doubt the moral and social commitments of non-citizens or aliens.

The Cronulla riots late last year were interpreted in that light by many, as a conflict of Australians v “ethnics”, citizens v non-citizens, insiders v outsiders. Language that assumes an association between responsibility and citizenship encourages this sort of thinking. The reality is that, just as citizens might engage in morally irresponsible, even socially destructive acts, aliens or non-citizens can be socially virtuous. Permanent residents in Australia invariably live lives that are, in terms of moral or civic responsibility, indistinguishable from those of legal citizens.


Another reason for separating responsibility or virtue from our thinking about citizenship is that is assumes that all citizens are able to perform positive acts of moral or social responsibility. Indeed, it suggests that they should be required to act in such a way, in order to be true citizens.

Of course, certain legal duties - placing one’s name on the electoral roll, voting, and performing jury duty - are required of citizens. It is also often said that citizens must obey the laws and pay taxes. But all people in the country, even only temporarily, must obey the law, and all who earn an income must pay taxes, whether or not they are citizens.

Everyone, regardless of their nationality, should act decently and thoughtfully towards others. But to require anything more of citizens in the name of moral or social responsibility is to create inequities.

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This article is based on a talk given at a seminar hosted by The Independent Scholars Association of Australia Inc in August 2006.

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About the Author

Dr Helen Irving teaches in the Faculty of Law at Sydney University. She is a contributor to Trusting the People: An Elected President for an Australian Republic, edited by Senator Andrew Murray (available July 2001 from the Senator's office).

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