Citizenship Essay

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For centuries, scholars have postulated on what citizenship means. Although a range of theories exist, notions of citizenship commonly convey an implication that some degree of moral mindfulness regarding our thoughts, actions, and behaviors toward people’s fellow human beings is necessary. Four key Western thinkers’ conceptualizations — those of Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.), Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), John Stuart Mill (1806–73), and John Rawls (1921–2002)—are particularly relevant in the context of justice ethics.


In Book III of his work Politics, Greek philosopher Aristotle provided a well-defined construct of citizenship. He asserted that a citizen (politês) is by nature a rational being capable of meaningfully exercising reason and, thus, is one who has the right to engage in deliberative and judicial administration. Indeed, he maintained that citizens of the state should actively participate in assemblies and councils and serve on juries. For Aristotle, a resident alien in the city-state of Athens, mere residency did not imply the full benefits of citizenship. Women and slaves, who he believed possessed inadequate reasoning abilities, were likewise unqualified to assume the aforementioned rights. Although these contentions are perhaps a reflection of the social milieu of ancient Greece, these are points on which he has historically been criticized.

Nevertheless, Aristotle offered noteworthy insights into the relationship between human/ social affairs (i.e., politics) and ethics. In his prolific teleological work, Nichomachean Ethics, he proposed that the highest good that all humans should endeavor to achieve is excellence in being. Aristotle postulated that, in order to flourish, one must cultivate virtuous habits of character (e.g., courage, temperance, and honesty). He argued that humans are political animals and, thus, possess an inherent need for social interaction. As such, he reasoned that one cultivates habits of character by practicing virtue in encounters with others. In doing so, a genuine state of happiness (eudaimonia) is attained.

Because Aristotle believed that the state is a sovereign body of citizens, the state should represent the collective aim toward realizing the highest good. Thus, as an extension of the state, he contended that the purpose of law is to promote flourishing. For those who violated the law, Aristotle perceived punishment as conditionally good insofar as it is just. However, he concerned himself much more with the matter of character. As such, Aristotle reasoned that individuals who routinely demonstrate ignoble character were unsuited for virtue and, accordingly, citizenship.

Nevertheless, at the core of Aristotle’s view of citizenship is the potential for advancing the ethical practice of criminal justice. For example, the fundamental tenet of Aristotelian virtue may be particularly useful in guiding judicial decision making that more readily fosters flourishing for victims, offenders, and the greater community to which both belong. Thus, rather than relying on prescribed legal precedents aimed toward retribution (i.e., punishment), judicial decision making informed by virtues such as empathy, compassion, and fairness make possible outcomes that promote dignity, forgiveness, and healing. In this way, a new quality of citizenship and justice for one and for all may be made more realizable.

Immanuel Kant

German philosopher Immanuel Kant delineated a rather practical, although perhaps arguably deceptively simple, qualification for citizenship. In The Metaphysics of Morals, he asserted that citizens are those who are “united for giving law.” Kant posited that there are two types of citizens—active citizens and passive citizens. From his perspective, active citizens are those eligible to participate in government activities, namely voting. In contrast, passive citizens are those who lack what Kant termed a civil personality. Based on his formulation, passive citizens include women, minor children, domestic servants, apprentices, and others whose preservation of life depends on a source other than themselves and the government.

Although Kant sought to distinguish political rights from moral rights, connections between the two have been discerned. Central to Kant’s duty based ethical philosophy, known as deontology, is the notion of the categorical imperative. This is a universal moral rule (e.g., never steal or never commit murder) that he asserted must be upheld in all contexts and regardless of potential resulting consequences. He believed that all human beings were, regardless of citizenship and without condition, worthy of dignity and must never be used as a means to an end.

Unlike Aristotle, Kant believed the sole purpose of the state was to guarantee freedom. Among his work on this notion is the contention that internal freedom means to be unbound from the imposition of a will outside one’s self. As for external freedom, Kant contended that penal law is a categorical imperative. He argued that if one is found guilty of violating the law, then one must be punished solely based on one’s action. According to Kant’s assessment, this may include being deemed unfit as an active citizen and losing one’s civil personality (e.g., right to vote).

Kant’s perspective on citizenship may perhaps be most helpful in advancing the ethical practice of criminal justice by way of applying his categorical imperative that all human beings are worthy of dignity to correctional policy making. To illustrate, some researchers contend that current penal practices, such as solitary confinement and the use of mechanical restraints, inflict significant physical and psychological harm on convicts. Indeed, critics of these practices often assert that this is harm that extends from inmates to those who oversee them, and to the greater society. Informed by Kant’s principal categorical imperative, novel correctional measures that are dignity-affirming may be possible.

John Stuart Mill

Central to British philosopher John Stuart Mill’s philosophy on citizenship are what he believed to be two fundamental human rights—the right to happiness and the right to liberty. Reflecting a philosophical shift away from more rigid postulations on the definition of citizenship, his work was chiefly concerned with exploring what form of government was most suited to serve the common good for members of society. An early advocate for women’s suffrage, Mill contended that human beings were rationale and sovereign. From his perspective, a representative democracy is an ideal form of government because it grants citizens active decision-making power, promotes their moral deliberative capacities, and ensures that the majority interests are realized.

Drawing upon his work with mentor Jeremy Bentham on the moral philosophy of utilitarianism, Mill articulated what is known as the Principle of Utility. This concept dictates that, when faced with an ethical dilemma, one must ponder the consequences of one’s choices and seek that which will create the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest proportion of the people. Mill acknowledged, however, that happiness is not impervious to self-seeking desires (i.e., the greatest good for one’s self). Nevertheless, he believed that the will of the majority was the preferred manner in which to meet the needs of a society.

In perhaps his most seminal work, On Liberty, he explicated that citizens in a civilized society must enjoy the full extent of freedom. However, there is one condition under which a citizen may be deprived of his or her liberty—to prevent them from harming others. Indeed, Mill contended that self-protection, of the collective or of the individual, was the only morally justifiable circumstance for withholding the right to liberty from a citizen.

As with the perspectives of Aristotle and Kant, Mill’s view of citizenship arguably holds promise in advancing the ethical practice of criminal justice. For example, some commentators assert that extant correctional policies fail to serve the common good of society. Critics frequently contend that punitive penal measures not only hinder individual rehabilitative prospects, but also fail to increase the overall safety of society. Thus, critically assessing current policies by way of utilitarian principles may provide opportunities for developing practices that more effectively serve the common good of society.

John Rawls

American philosopher John Rawls’s theory of citizenship is supported by two pillars—freedom and equality. From Rawls’s perspective, when individuals are made free and equal, they are reasonable. Rawls proposed that, although citizens maintain distinct comprehensive doctrines (i.e., sources of moral truth), the “reasonable citizen” is willing to cooperatively engage with others to determine societal rules. Drawing upon Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s articulation of the social contract, which asserts that citizens collectively surrender to the general will in order to enjoy security, Rawls suggested that this willingness is rooted in the belief that others will likewise abide by the laws. Thus, he argued that the reasonable citizen possesses a sense of justice.

In Rawls’s prolific thesis, A Theory of Justice, he provided a model of justice based on his contentions regarding the reasonable citizen. He theorized that society’s laws and norms should be established behind a “veil of ignorance.” In other words, decisions must be made without attention to inequalities of birth (e.g., gender, race/ethnicity, handicap, or social class). Thus, rather than relying on duties (i.e., Kantian categorical imperatives) or weighing consequences (i.e., utilitarian calculations), he believed that individuals engage in mutual cooperation in order to discern a balance between what is fair and what is just.

Rawls further articulated his political construct of justice in his follow-up work, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement. Rawls posited that fairness relies on two principles. The first principle, commonly referred to as the equal liberty principle, suggested that all individuals are entitled to basic freedoms including “freedom of thought and liberty of conscience; the political liberties and freedom of association, as well as the freedoms specified by the liberty and integrity of the person; and finally, the rights and liberties covered by the rule of law.” The second principle, frequently referred to as the equality principle, concerns social and economic disparities. In short, this principle asserted that every individual, without condition, must be equally afforded opportunities for advancement in such a way that it benefits the least advantaged in society. The conceptualization of citizenship proposed by Rawls offers potential pathways toward advancing the ethical practice of criminal justice. To illustrate, Rawls’s notion of the reasonable citizen aligns closely with the tenets of commonsense justice. Rather than relying on rigid guidelines, this approach to legal decision making involves jury members employing their respective concepts of what is fair and just to determine mutually agreed upon outcomes. Thus, this practice may hold the potential for a new and more equitable quality of justice.


The influence of the philosophies of Aristotle, Kant, Mill, and Rawls on the contemporary concept of citizenship and its associated rights and privileges is perhaps debatable. However, certain aspects have unquestionably informed the way in which one understands citizenship in the United States. For example, Mill’s utilitarian assertion that citizenship entails the right to liberty so long as one does not harm others is an underlying moral notion that has historically guided policy making. Nevertheless, each of the philosophies described present opportunities to meaningfully rethink how individuals are with one another and how they could be.


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  2. Nicomachean Ethics. London: Dover, 1998.
  3. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civil Discourse. G. A. Kennedy, trans. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  4. Kant, I. The Metaphysics of Morals. M. J. Gregor, trans. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  5. Mill, J. S. On Liberty. R. M. Baird and S. E. Rosenbaum, eds. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1986.
  6. Mill, J. S. Utilitarianism. O. Piest, ed. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing, 2002.
  7. Rawls, J. Justice as Fairness: A Restatement. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.
  8. Rawls, J. Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.
  9. Rawls, J. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.
  10. Rousseau, J. J. The Social Contract. M. Cranston, trans. New York: Penguin Classics, 1968.
  11. Shichor, D. The Meaning and Nature of Punishment. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2006.
  12. Simpson, P. L. P. The Politics of Aristotle: Translation, Analysis, and Notes. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
  13. Weinrib, J. “Kant on Citizenship and Universal Independence.” Australian Journal of Legal Philosophy, v.33 (2008).

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