Orlando and his three friends went on a camping/fishing trip. When they reached the camp site they were unpleasantly surprised at how it had been left by the previous campers. Beer cans and other trash were all around. They spent almost three hours cleaning it up. The morning of their scheduled departure day another camper in the area told them that a storm was coming in and they had better leave. Orlando’s friends quickly packed and wanted to go, Orlando insisted they clean up the camp site. His friends said they already cleaned up the site once, let the next guy do it. Besides, they didn’t want to get caught in the storm. Soon the friends became downright insulting and they threatened to leave Orlando. Orlando ignored them and started to clean up the camp site himself. Furious, the others grudgingly helped so they could get out of there. They began to drive back in silence and the day became beautiful and sunny. Obviously there was going to be no storm. Orlando offered to buy everyone lunch at a favorite roadside diner. The biggest complainer who had been sullenly silent to this point said, “Orlando, you are a royal pain in the butt, but I hope my son turns out like you. I’ll pay.”

Aristotle believed that all ethical obligations arise out of the fact that humans are essentially social animals who desire to live in relationship with one another. This requires us to behave in ways that make it possible to live together in constructive harmony. Thus, a person of character acknowledges civic responsibilities that demonstrate social consciousness and desires to contribute to the overall public good. Responsible citizenship involves doing one’s share as a member of a community. It embodies both civic duties and virtues.

We should be cautious in characterizing something as an ethical obligation or a duty when we talk about citizenship. When we label something as a civic duty we imply that not doing that duty is unethical. Thus, when we say that it is right, good, and proper to be honest, fair, caring and respectful to others we are saying that it is wrong, bad, and improper to lie, act unfairly, or be disrespectful. Similarly, it is wrong to disobey a just law. But if we say that citizens have an ethical duty to stay informed and to vote, are we prepared to say it is unethical if they do not?

The signatories of the Aspen Declaration, the document that articulated the six core ethical values, dealt with this issue by referring to the sixth value as “civic virtue and citizenship.” They believed that in dealing with the ethical aspects of democratic citizenship, it is especially important to distinguish between conduct that is ethically mandated from that which is merely desirable, laudatory, and worthy of encouragement. The citizenship, or civic duty, component refers to ethical obligations, standards of conduct that establish minimal requirements of ethical citizenship. When we speak of civic duties, we speak with a moral “must” and we are prepared to label conduct that fails to conform with these duties as ethically deficient. Civic duty implies obligations to contribute to the overall public good. Civic duties include:

  • Playing by the rules, obeying the law, and paying all taxes.
  • Participating in the democratic process by voting, serving on a jury, reporting crimes, and testifying as a witness.
  • Doing one’s share to protect the environment by conserving resources and minimizing waste and pollution.

Civic virtues refer to conduct that is desirable and praiseworthy but not morally mandated. Civic virtues define a broader discretionary dimension of good citizenship. Civic virtues speak with a softer “should”; they are more aspirational in character. Civic virtues emphasize desirable social contributions of public service by such things as:

  • Running for office, accepting appointments to office, working for candidates or issues.
  • Giving time and/or money to charitable and other social causes.

Playing by the Rules, Obeying the Law

An ethical person plays by the rules as a matter of citizenship. Doing so is not simply a matter of civic responsibility, it is also a matter of fairness. Consider, for example, rules of a youth sports league that establish age standards. Your child is just one month beyond the cut-off. By its nature the rule is arbitrary, but on the theory that a line has to be drawn somewhere, it is a reasonable standard and one that should and does apply to everyone. A good citizen follows the rules even when it is disadvantageous to do so. Otherwise, the rule-breakers always gain unfair advantages at the expense of the rule followers.

This rationale should compel us to board planes according to instructions, stay off the grass where signs are posted, and not talk in designated “quiet” zones.

Rules such as these, where it is not evident how anyone would be hurt by a violation, present powerful challenges to our commitment to our civic duty to be law-abiding. For example, tax laws that place great weight on the date a document was executed are frequently evaded by back-dating (a form of lying). Naturally, the higher the stakes, the less likely we are to allow a law to stand in our way. (That is why serious punishments are often associated with laws that are easily broken.)

There are a number of reasons why we find it easy to break certain laws (especially when the chances of getting caught are low). Often we don’t understand the purpose behind a law so we dismiss it as silly or petty. Sometimes we do understand the purpose and still think the law is dumb. And there are times when we understand the purpose of the law and agree it is a sensible one, yet we don’t want to pay the price of compliance.

The fact is that our personal approval of a law is not required — nor should it be. If everyone who thought a law was dumb or unreasonably costly could, by virtue of that belief, justifiably violate the law, then no law would have meaning or effect. People would simply do whatever they wanted to do. That’s a lawless and chaotic society.

The vital social contract that makes a democracy work is the agreement that we will be governed by laws. Each of us gives up some personal freedom in order to achieve collective benefits of orderliness, economic stability, personal safety, and justice. In a democracy we deal with unwise or unpleasant rules by changing the rules, not our standards of conduct.

Unenforced Laws. What is the moral obligation to follow laws that are widely regarded as impractical, archaic, or unfair — not only by the population in general but by those charged with enforcing the laws? I grew up in Los Angeles where the police take jaywalking laws seriously. If you get caught crossing the street in the middle rather than at the corner or if you cross against a red light you get a ticket regardless of the traffic conditions. So when I first visited New York City I dutifully waited at the corner for the light to turn green even though dozens of pedestrians made a break for the other side as soon as they saw a small opening in the traffic. I was feeling rather superior until I heard a voice yell at me, “What are you waiting for, buddy, a written invitation to cross the street?” I looked up and saw that I was being rebuked by a traffic officer who had one of those “there goes another damn foreigner” looks in his eyes (I discovered everyone not from New York is a foreigner). Shamed, I shuffled across the street, and ever since I have unremorselessly crossed streets in New York City any way and anywhere I could. I concluded that the law had been effectively repealed. Somewhere in time New Yorkers had evidently decided that the lights apply only to cars. The social contract had been modified. Since jaywalking is a victimless crime, I can live with this rationale.

But concluding that widely ignored laws are no longer legally or morally binding is a tricky and dangerous business. I thought New Yorkers also had decided that the laws against double parking and driving on the shoulder of the road were obsolete until I learned that these laws are occasionally enforced by heavy fines. Do enforcement policies then determine the validity of a law? No, but a lack of enforcement lulls us into a sense of false security when we think “everybody does it.” That, after all, is what Ivan Boesky and other inside traders thought until the security laws were rigorously enforced against them.

We must be careful about extending the New York jaywalking exception to other laws especially where there are stakeholders who are adversely affected by our actions. Double parking for example really has a major adverse impact on traffic flow. It’s also worth remembering that the lack of enforcement of any law may simply reflect a shortage of enforcement resources or a temporary shift in policy to use resources elsewhere rather than a statement of policy.

Civil Disobedience. As important as it is to a community that people honor and obey its laws, it is sometimes morally justified to break a law under the doctrine of civil disobedience. In the 1963 “Letter From Birmingham City Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated a classic defense of nonviolent civil disobedience. He drew a distinction between just and unjust laws and specified that willful defiance of a law is morally justified as a means of protesting unjust laws. He also set out standards for moral law-breaking:

One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.