What’s a Citizen?
In my business ethics classes, I ask students to take on the role of a citizen when we consider the ethics of business in society. What does that mean, especially in a classroom filled with students from perhaps ten to twelve different countries? What would it look like for a student from China or from Indonesia to take on the role of citizen in an ethics class in the United States?
I begin the exploration of this question by sharing the original meaning of citizen. A citizen is a “member of a city.” Citizenship, in other words, provides us a consciousness of membership. Today, of course, we would extend membership beyond any particular city to the global community. I think of global citizenship, for of all, as an awareness of belonging to this generation. In our global, pluralistic world, to see oneself as a member of this generation is no small undertaking.
One way to think about being members of this generation is to recognize that our children and grandchildren will inherit the same planet that the children and grandchildren of China, Africa, and elsewhere will also inherit. How our generation deals with issues of sustainability and justice will affect all of our children and grandchildren.
Global citizenship also allows us to overcome what could be called the privatization of ethics, where ethics becomes limited to my questions about my life, ignoring how my fate is intertwined with the fate of others. In an economics of property, I can see how people would worry about what they own and how to protect it. In a civic economics of provision, it certainly makes sense to worry about how to provide for myself and my family, but these worries belong to a conversation with others who have similar worries. It belongs to civic conversations.
Once we have gained some recognition of the meaning of civic membership, the second aspect of global citizenship is easier and more difficult to accept. If we are all members of the civic, then we all have moral equality. Everyone has the same human rights and deserves the same respect as a human being.
After the recognition of equal membership, of course, comes the work of figuring out what that means. Different communities may have different answers for this question, but at the very least it means that every one’s voice is heard or represented in conversations that affect them.
To be a citizen is to be recognized and represented in one’s home, one’s neighborhood, one’s workplace, one’s associations, and one’s government. This does not mean one person one vote. It does mean that individuals and groups are not silenced, but have the means of publicizing their concerns. In some situations, this is unlikely or impossible, at least for now. Still, if we all belong to the same generation, then we all share each other’s challenges, just as our children and grandchildren will share the consequences of our actions.