Citizenship Ethics Research Paper

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Citizenship designates membership in a political community on equal terms with any other member of the same community. The Greeks and the Romans have bequeathed us different models of citizenship, which were to an extent combined during the French Revolution. According to the standard contemporary conception, a citizen is associated either through domicile or birth with a sovereign state and is a bearer of civil, political, and social rights. This view, however, has been recently criticized as inadequate on the grounds that it is orientalist and it does not take into account immigrants, gendered differences, the multicultural structure of most societies, and the virtues and attitudes necessary to be a good citizen. Moreover, scholars have started debating the possibilities of citizenship beyond borders. It is argued that a particular version of this type of citizenship proposed by Nussbaum, if properly cultivated and disseminated, has the potential to ground procedures leading to international agreements in the field of bioethics on a more solid and representative basis marked by genuine cross-cultural understanding and mutual respect.


Citizenship can be described as the condition of a physical person who is a fully fledged member of a sovereign political community and is regarded as equal with anyone else of the same status. This form of equality is traditionally conceived as having a fair share in the burdens and benefits that the above community allocates to its members. Although things in practice are complicated, in theory citizenship is contrasted with subject hood and other forms of political and social domination, such as slavery and serfdom, which render ordinary individuals dependent on the will of a sovereign or a superior ruling group. The notion of citizenship has a long and venerable history that substantially undergirds contemporary discussions concerning its meaning and normative importance. Greeks and Romans are thought to have invented the two most pivotal conceptions of citizenship, the political and the legal, whereas the former are also responsible for the democratic version of political citizenship, which is the focus of attention of modern scholarship.

Historical Background

For classical Greeks, a citizen (polites) was a male, free and native-born adult residing with his family and estate in a particular city-state (polis). By the same token, he was entitled to participate on equal terms with other fellow citizens in the political life of his polis (Hansen 2006). In case the constitution of his native land were a monarchy, an aristocracy, or a tyranny, this privilege might signify limited political activity, but the situation was changed drastically when he was living in a democracy. Aristotle, in Politics, after having studied Athens and other democratic citystates, points out that a citizen is someone who, as member of the assembly, takes part in the administration of public affairs and, as a member of an all-citizen court, contributes to the administration of justice. In addition, democratic citizens could hold office without making expensive campaigns, since most positions were filled by lot and normally one could not remain in office for more than a year. However, a host of demanding political and moral duties offset these awesome privileges for us today. Citizens, at least in Athens, were expected to contribute heavily to the city’s welfare by excelling themselves in continuous warfare, by taking sides in any internal conflict, by respecting all laws and decisions, by being accountable to the people when in office, by spending a fortune for certain public functions, if they were rich, and by displaying in their public and private life multiple virtues such as piety, justice, honesty, and self-restraint. They also shared a very exclusive conception of citizenship, which did not cover women, slaves, and foreigners despite the fact that these three social groups enjoyed legal protection in varying degrees. The Greek view of citizenship had the fate of Greek democratic city-states, which gradually succumbed to superior military powers, first the Macedonians and then the Romans.

A different more inclusive conception of citizenship was developed in imperial Rome. In 212 CE, Emperor Caracalla ruled by decree that Roman citizenship should be extended to all free inhabitants of his empire. This marked a significant change, given that it made the intrinsic relationship between a citizen and his city-state obsolete (everyone now was citizen of an empire), but research has shown that not everyone was affected. Slaves continued to be regarded nonpersons, women remained under the protection of male guardians, various categories of aliens remained excluded, many people run the danger of losing their citizen status because of certain types of criminal misconduct, and others preferred to continue honoring their local customs and laws (Garnsey 2006). But how are we to understand Roman citizenship? Actually it secured entrance to a legal domain of rights and immunities. Roman law among others allowed citizens to enter into contracts, to bequeath or inherit property, and even to be judged by Caesar himself. It guaranteed them a special protection and treatment that was out of bounds for noncitizens. Yet, no matter how many privileges it bestowed them, citizens were strictly kept out from any lawmaking procedure (Pocock 1995). This was the job of the emperor and the senators who assisted him. Democratic citizenship did not apply to Roman citizens. Undoubtedly, in certain Greek cities of the East, we observe the survival of some rudiments of democratic governance, but this did not mean much as Roman military authorities could instantly overrule any decision taken by the people’ s assembly.

Legal citizenship, however, survived democratic citizenship. During the end of the middle ages, the civisromanus was transformed into a bourgeois who was subject to the municipal law of his town without necessarily being a lawmaker (Pocock 1995). It is also true that in a number of Renaissance Italian city-states (of which Florence stands out), a minority of their inhabitants could justifiably regard themselves as fully fledged members of a self-governing community at least for certain short periods. Their political ideology borrowing heavily from Republican Rome exalted the ideals of civic life (vita civile), of liberty, and of the self-denying, courageous, and just citizen. In this context the work of authors such as Bruni, Palmieri, and Machiavelli is quite enlightening. However, despite their civic rhetoric, these regimes were frequently plagued by faction and civil strife, and eventually they came under the rule of monarchs or local noble oligarchs (Skinner 1978).

The ideal of citizenship reemerged in full swing during the French Revolution. In the ancien régime, a society built on privilege and inequality, questions of citizenship were confined to legal disputes concerning inheritance. After the outbreak of the revolution, being a citoyen/citoyenne became the only politically correct and socially acceptable title one could bear. Cities and localities were no longer the loci to which citizens were attached. They were replaced by a unified sovereign nation-state, France. Apart from being a permanent resident (either of French or of foreign descent), a French citizen was now bestowed with a set of political and civil rights that were enumerated in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which was approved by the National Assembly in 1789, and subsequently formed the preamble to the Constitution of 1791. These rights did apply equally to all citizens and secured not only uninhibited access to the rule of law, but they also allowed them to act as legislators “personally or through their representatives” (Article 6). In parallel, male citizens had the duty to fight for their country by being conscripted into a national army. The Greek political subject and the Roman legal subject were mutatis mutandis mingled into a new form. It should not escape our attention that this novel conception of citizenship had its own shortcomings. Women remained disenfranchised along with passive citizens, namely, those who did not pay a certain amount in taxes or were “in a position of domesticity.” In addition, a few years later during the period of terror, there were so many violations of individual rights by the Jacobin rule that the Declaration was practically annulled. Nevertheless, most scholars concur that the French Revolution laid the foundations of the modern conception of citizenship by embedding the citizenry, either through domicile (jus soli) or birth (jus sanguinis) in a sovereign nation-state, and by empowering it with constitutionally entrenched and inalienable political and civil rights that are beyond the reach of majority decisions (Brubaker 1989).

Contemporary Citizenship And Its Critics

The starting point of the current discussion of citizenship, at least in the Anglophone world, is the work of the British sociologist T. H. Marshall (1950). Drawing on English political and social history, he maintained that citizenship came eventually to be identified with full membership in a community, in his case England, and the possession of civil, political, and social rights. He drew our attention to the historical connection between civil and political rights. To be sure, from the fourteenth century and onwards, there were in England a small number of freeholders who were entitled to legal protection and had the right to vote in parliamentary elections. During the eighteenth century the greatest part of the male population started enjoying not only the benefits of the rule of law but also the right to choose its occupation and place of residence. Later, the number of voters gradually increased to include all adults (with minor exceptions such as the insane and the incarcerated) in the twentieth century. On the contrary, as Marshall aptly remarked, there was a sharp distinction between self-supporting citizens and those who were dependent on the material assistance of others (including the state) to make ends meet. The latter were thought unfit for politics. This view was heavily challenged at the end of the nineteenth century on the grounds that one cannot fully function as a citizen without proper education and some support from the authorities in case one is unable to work because of poor health or age. Hence, the way was paved for the incorporation of the rights to education, health care, and social welfare that were added to the officially acknowledged list of civil and political rights. Marshall also made explicit that this conception of citizenship is a dynamic one in the sense that it can be enriched by new equally distributed rights and become more inclusive in regard to the number of individuals comprising the sovereign political community.

A significant part of the works published after Marshall, especially during the last three decades, has concentrated upon an issue he did not discuss: what is the impact of immigration on democratic citizenship? This question has become all the more urgent, since the number of migrants seeking temporary or permanent settlement in democratic states for a variety of reasons is again on the rise. There is a widespread agreement (xenophobics and racists aside) that immigrants should enjoy the protection of law and have access to the benefits of the welfare state. However, there is a fierce debate, which is not limited within academic circles, as to whether aliens who desire to stay for good should be granted full citizenship and thus become fully fledged members of the sovereign political community. Roughly speaking, one can distinguish two approaches (Bloemrad et al. 2008). Those adopting an ethnic-based conception of citizenship are quite reluctant to accept immigrants as fellow citizens, given their conviction that the latter do not share basic elements of the local ethnic identity such as language, religion, a common tradition, or the narratives associated with its historical past. In fact, they tend to regard citizenship as a privilege their native country can offer to anyone it deems appropriate. In practice, as the experience from certain countries shows, this often means that naturalizations are guided not by principle but by fluctuating and obscure state interests. Alternatively, those who endorse a civic-based conception of citizenship are more likely to favor processes of naturalization, since they regard law-abiding immigrants who live in their country for a relatively long period of time as de facto members of their political community. They maintain that it is unfair and undemocratic to demand from these people the payment of taxes and obedience to laws without granting them the power to participate in legislative procedures through their representatives. For them, immigrants are entitled to citizenship, if they meet certain reasonable and achievable conditions, but the exact nature of these conditions remains a matter of dispute.

In other works we observe a critical line of thought that is challenging the “universal status” of Marshall’s conception of citizenship. An array of these criticisms can be subsumed under the label of feminism. The basic argument here is that the formal equality established between men and women through the public recognition of the contemporary conception of citizenship is misleading, since it conceals many biases against female citizens that are by-products of many centuries of male domination. Feminists point out that, despite their enfranchisement and many subsequent victories in the domain of legislation, women cannot function adequately as citizens. The division of labor within the family continues to place a disproportionally heavy burden upon the shoulders of its female members; in the workplace, even in the most advanced countries, women are frequently paid less than men for the same type of work and various forms of overt or covert sexism are still regarded as socially acceptable. As a result, women tend to be unrepresented in or even excluded from all these activities through which citizenship is exemplified ranging from a simple public protest to the running of a state. Therefore, feminists campaign for the degenderizing of contemporary citizenship, which implies, among other things, its reconceptualization as well as much empirical research on its social and cultural aspects (Friedman 2005).

However, the universal status of Marshall’s citizenship has also been attacked from another angle. The target now is its underlying assumption that the state, which constitutes the locus of citizenship, is an ethnically homogeneous state. This assumption is mistaken, since in most countries of the world we observe the presence of one dominant group and of several ethnic or cultural minorities. These minorities might be indigenous peoples, as are the seven nations of Canada, or “substate national groups,” as are the Basques in Spain, or they may have emigrated later from other places (Kymlicka 2007). Historically, the policies dominant groups followed vis-à-vis minority groups went from genocide to assimilation, but during the last 30 years, the view that minority identities have to be recognized and respected for what they are has started gaining momentum. One of the meanings of the multivalent term “multiculturalism” pertains to the principles and policies necessary to secure the proper functioning of ethnically or culturally diverse societies (Bloemrad et al. 2008). Both liberal and communitarian supporters of multiculturalism agree that the universal formal equality of individual civil, political, and social rights championed by the standard conception of citizenship does not contribute to the recognition and respect of minority groups, and, depending on the historical and political circumstances, it may lead to their exclusion and marginalization. They favor the endorsement of special cultural rights, such as the right to be dressed according to one’s own tradition or the right to be taught in one’s own language, which will allow minority members to enjoy and promote particular aspects of their own collective identity. They also stress the need for group-specific political rights such as the right of territorial autonomy or the right of minorities to elect a certain number of their own representatives to the central legislative assembly. This implies, among other things, the recognition of individual rights not shared by all members of the citizenry as well as of group rights that apply exclusively to particular collectivities within the sovereign state. Hence, multiculturalism calls for a differentiated conception of citizenship to accommodate the distinct needs and just claims of ethnocultural minorities, albeit there is no agreement on the scope of the concessions that can be made to them without betraying the core values of the liberal-democratic state.

As we have seen the ancients placed great emphasis on the duties of citizenship. On the contrary, the contemporary discussion focuses more on its formal conditions, and it appears to be content with the view that citizens have only the duty to respect the rights of others and abide by the rules and laws of the land. Certain scholars object that mere observance of these self-evident duties does not suffice to make someone a good citizen. They argue that active and substantial citizenship requires also a commitment to act according to virtue and to be responsibly engaged in public life. Liberal authors like Macedo (1991) speak of three types of necessary virtues: the “executive” (determination, independence, perseverance, industry), the “legislative” (willingness to enter into dialog and to compromise, understanding), and the “judicial” (impartiality and open-mindedness). It is noteworthy that, in a manner reminiscent of the ancients, Macedo maintains that these virtues conduce also to a morally appropriate handling of private affairs. Republicans like Pettit (2012) put forward the idea of a contestatory citizenry that controls and influences government motivated by an achievable form of civic virtue, which is not inimical to self-interest and derives from a determination to live on equal terms with the other members of the political community. Here we cannot do justice to the contours and complexities of these sophisticated theories, but it is reasonable to assume that civic virtue is inefficacious if it does not interact with a set of institutional arrangements that secure popular engagement in public affairs. Virtue might be a personal disposition, but its realization depends heavily on the circumstances one encounters. At this point the discussion of good citizenship unavoidably joins the discussion of how to make representative democracy more deliberative and participatory.

We can end this section by addressing another train of critical thought that focuses more on the historical background of the modern conception of citizenship as exposed earlier. Here the charge is that the standard historical account is imbued with a heavy sense of orientalism (Isin 2002; Morrison 2014). This term is often used to denote a belief in the alleged superiority of the West over the East, which implicitly conditions the scientific study of the later. In our case this presumption is expressed through the contention that the idea of citizenship and the historical circumstances that gave rise to it are exclusively European. The argument concludes with a plea to try to achieve a deeper understanding of the political histories of India, China, or Islam relieved of stereotypes like the above.

Citizenship Beyond Borders And Global Bioethics

It was noted above that for the moderns someone is necessarily a citizen of a sovereign nation.

It may, however, be wondered: “is it possible to conceive forms of citizenship that transcend national borders?” and “how realistic is it to believe that they will replace the nation-state version of citizenship?” It is not difficult to imagine what a citizen of the world in the strict sense could be, but, if this term continues to denote a member of a community of equals with a fair share in the benefits and burdens it allocates, this form of citizenship does not seem feasible for the near future. It presupposes the existence of a world state with a working central democratic government or something equivalent to it, which will be in a position to enforce the fair distribution of benefits and burdens globally. This world government does not exist, and, if it ever comes into existence, it would probably be brought about through conquest and war rather than a universal mutual agreement among the peoples of the world. However, this pessimistic view is not shared by everyone, and there are many interesting scholarly proposals pertaining to the building of global democratic institutions (Leydet 2014).

Perhaps, a new form of citizenship can be established at a more regional level. There is an interesting debate about the structure of post national citizenship, and the closest analogue of it is “European Union citizenship” (Isin and Saward 2013). However, this term is problematic on many accounts. There is no central European government to enforce substantial equality in the distribution of burdens and benefits to EU citizens. For instance, everyone is entitled to an unemployment benefit, but there are huge discrepancies in the actual sums people out of work receive in various member-states. Moreover, as the recent financial and social crisis has shown, European peoples do not believe that they constitute a political community of equals with common aims, commitments, and expectations. Despite the official rhetoric, there is not a widely accepted political European identity, and nation-state citizenship continues to determine most people’s world view. The situation might change if, at some time in the future, the EU opts for political integration. However, it is questionable if the new form of legal and political citizenship that will necessarily be forged and the problems surrounding it will differ significantly from the ones discussed in the context of nation-state citizenship (Bloemrad et al. 2008).

Nevertheless, it is not necessary to envisage citizenship beyond borders only in legal and political terms. Nussbaum (1997) has defended an ideal of world citizenship for citizens who live within the boundaries of sovereign states but whose perceptions and understandings transcend the narrow horizon of nation-state citizenship. She developed a college curriculum, which, in addition to public spiritedness, purports to foster in young citizens the following desirable traits: (a) the capacity to examine themselves and the prevailing traditions and values of their society critically; (b) an awareness of being part of a huge, multicultural, pluralistic, interlocking, and, in the final analysis, interdependent world; and (c) the willingness to put themselves into other people’s shoes, especially those who are profoundly different from them. A person of these qualities is a citizen of the world in a moral sense, since he or she is obligated out of respect to humanity to try to understand and take into consideration standpoints alien to his/her ethno culturally defined perspective. This does not imply that he or she has to forsake his/her local commitments and loyalties, but a willingness to restrain the pursuit of projects that are harmful or offensive to those not belonging to his/her inner circle, restrictively defined, is absolutely necessary.

This model of citizenship, if it were widely promoted and disseminated, could help us in reaching more genuine agreements on bioethical issues at a global level. International documents such as the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights of 2005 are sometimes dismissed as unilateral attempts to export and impose Western moral values on non-Western cultures. For instance, Schroeder (2005) maintained that the language of rights and its underlying individualistic assumptions, which dominates such documents, is likely to be met with disbelief and resistance by cultures that favor more communitarian and holistic approaches. This criticism might be a little misplaced, since the appeal and the impact of human rights is not confined within the Western world, but it cannot be denied that, if Westerners and non-Westerners alike are prepared to delve into each other’s values seeking common points and exploring possibilities of compromise, the benefits for global bioethics will be immense. In addition, the idea of a moral world citizenship is very likely to help those endorsing it realize that bioethical issues are of a more global nature than they had been thought to be previously. This novel awareness could trigger more pressure from below for joint action, coordination, and commonly sought solutions at an intrastate level. As far as one can tell, this has not happened yet, unless we conceive the concern for environmental issues and climate change in particular as belonging to bioethics in the wide sense, but one has to remain optimistic on condition that the following obstacle is surpassed.

Unfortunately, ordinary citizens do not have, for the present, a say in international decisions regarding bioethical issues (apart from campaigning and protesting), although, to the extent that these decisions affect local practices, they all have a stake in them. In most cases, this is the provenance and privilege of legal experts who are appointed by their governments. Legal experts may share the same background, something that provides them at least with a common starting point, but they do not necessarily express the views of the majority of their fellow citizens. This is an affront not only to democratic citizenship but also to bioethics envisaged as a set of moral principles concerning biomedical practice and research most people would be willing to accept. There must be established clear procedures, open to all, to make these experts more responsive to their concerned citizens’ relevant positions provided that the latter are widely informed, considered, and show sympathy for other people’s predicaments and viewpoints. This will not be easily achieved, but this appears to be a plausible strategy to combat inaction or procrastination in the face of pressing global bioethical problems as well as to avoid the imposition of moral norms from those who govern on those who are governed or, at an international level, from those who happen to occupy a culturally hegemonic position, on those who were historically less fortunate.


Citizenship, as it has been discussed here, remains a catchword of paramount importance for political theory, since it defines the overarching relation of a free individual to the political community to which he or she belongs. Although historically the meaning of being a citizen has always been subject to change, the emphasis that has been given to its study during the last three decades has provided us with enriched and nuanced conceptions we had never previously considered. The benefits accruing from this development point to different directions including the improvement of decision-making procedures pertaining to global bioethics.

Bibliography :

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