There are different ways of understanding the idea of citizenship. One of the most important distinctions is between those who think of citizenship as a status given to the individual by a community (passport-citizenship) and those who think of citizenship as a moral ideal that exists whether or not it is recognised by the community.

We can see this distinction clearly if we consider the following problem:

A community exists on an island – all the members of this community are citizens. They acknowledge their equal status as citizens and take seriously their duties as citizens and have regard for each other’s rights. One day a man is washed ashore on the island. He is clearly a foreigner, he has lost his home and all his possessions. He cannot even speak the native tongue. Is this man a citizen?

If you think of citizenship as just a badge – as defined and limited by membership of the pre-existing community then the answer is obvious: No. This man is the very opposite of a citizen. If he is owed anything at all it is not rooted in citizenship but in some other moral obligation.

But if you think of citizenship as a moral ideal then the answer is the complete opposite: Yes, this man is a citizen and just as much a citizen as every other member of the community. He is entitled to all the benefits of citizenship and must be supported to participate and to engage as a citizen. He is a citizen – disguised as a non-citizen and our duty is to take off the disguise.

We might note in passing that the same would not be true of holiday-makers or colonists who are either passing through or who aim to take over the land. However an economic migrant who abandons his home to come to live somewhere better might also be said to be a citizen. Although this might also lead us explore our global responsibility to the welfare of other communities.

This issue reveals a significant division in the idea of citizenship.

Those who doubt that morality is real or who see morality as secondary to our political and social settlements may well prefer passport-citizenship. For it is less demanding both metaphysically and practically. However it is seriously flawed and does not provide the right basis for moral or political thinking.

I think there are three reasons we must reject passport-citizenship:

1. The precedence of morality

Morality is real and it precedes any political or social settlement. Morality enables us to judge societies from the outside, without it we are left the victim of the norms of our society – however flawed they may be. If citizenship is just passport-citizenship then we have no basis to judge the way in which the rights of Jews or people with disabilities were stripped from them during the eugenics period.

Of course this argument is controversial and is best disputed within the arenas of philosophy and theology. However there will be some who say that they owe nothing to the man who is not part of their community because the only laws or norms they recognise are the those defined by their community.

2. The nature of charity

Of course most people would accept we owe the stranger something. But it is quite common for people to feel that any such obligation will be in some sense a lesser obligation. In fact this feeling is derived from a certain appropriate feature of the moral life: we do have special duties to ourselves, to special people and to our communities. After all each of us has our own family and own community and we cannot do justice to our duties by dissolving them into one general duty.

However it is important that such proper discrimination is not corrupted into clubbishness: only my people matter.

In our story the stranger has nobody to fall back onto. He has no family or community and so our obligation to him cannot be reduced in the expectation that other’s will help. So the question is whether or not we can reduce our obligations simply because the stranger seems not to be a citizen.

Here it is worth considering here what it is to help someone. The danger in any discussions of giving is that we tend to rather focus on the cost to the giver, rather than the purpose of the giving. Often this provokes the fear that to give is to lose and to give absolutely is to potentially lose everything. However this is not what is implicit in giving properly.

The best analysis of the nature of giving that I am aware of is provided by Maimonides in his analysis of the Eight Degrees of Charity. Starting with the highest form of giving Maimonides states:

There are eight levels in charity, each level surpassing the other. The highest level, beyond which there is none, is a person who supports a Jew who has fallen into poverty [by] giving him a present or a loan, entering into partnership with him, or finding him work so that his hand shall be fortified so that he will not have to ask others [for alms]. Concerning this [Leviticus 25:35] states “You shall support him, the stranger, the resident, and he shall live among you.” Implied is that you should support him before he falls and becomes needy.

Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Sefer Zeraim, Hilchot Matnot, Aniyim: 7-14

In other words equal citizenship describes the goal and character of perfect giving, even to someone who may not at first seem a citizen. Our goal is not to just give away something that we think is ‘ours’ but instead to ensure that the person is able to ‘live amongst us’ and ideally the way in which we give assistance should also reinforce respect for the person’s innate dignity. In fact, if you follow Maimonides analysis to the end, you would find that the the quality of charity is reduced as it becomes increasingly stigmatising and disrespectful.

So, I would argue that if you recognise the true nature of your obligation to the stranger you will find that you must treat the individual with respect and as an equal. In other words the ideal of citizenship lies submerged in our basic obligation to take care of the stranger even when they do not seem a citizen.

3. The nature of community

The final reason for rejecting passport-citizenship is that it kills the very nature of community itself. A community that defines itself by its existing members and which jealously guards its boundaries will become sterile and incapable of valuing even its own members. Whereas a community that treats the stranger as a citizen is a stronger community, not just in its respect for the demands of justice, but also in its capacity to be the kind of community that is capable of nurturing all its members.

I think this is where the focus on rights and citizenship is a little misleading. Not that rights are not important, they are essential – but they are not strictly fundamental. A one-eyed focus on rights will mistake the very nature of the community that aims to respect those rights.

Rights only exist because duties exist. As Simone Weil puts it:

The notion of obligation comes before that of rights, which is subordinate and relative to the former. A right is not effectual by itself, but only in relation to the obligation to which it corresponds, the effective exercise of a right springing not from the individual who possesses it, but from other men who consider themselves as being under a certain obligation to him. Recognition of an obligation makes it effectual. An obligation which goes unrecognised by anybody loses none of the full force of its existence. A right which goes unrecognised by anybody is not worth very much…

Simone Weil, The Need for Roots

Often this same point is made by those who want to limit the demand of rights. They drift from the correct observation that each effective right must be matched by some real duty, to the incorrect observation that therefore we must limit the set of rights and impose the minimal set of duties upon ourselves – in the name of freedom, private property or political necessity.

This is a very live political issues today, for example the Australian politician Joe Hockey recently wrote:

I wish to thank my friends at the Institute of Economic Affairs for the opportunity to discuss an issue that has been the source of much debate in this forum for sometime… that is, the end of an era of popular universal entitlement. There is nothing much new in the debate other than the fact that action has now been forced on governments as a result of the recent financial crisis. Years of warnings have been ignored but the reality can no longer be avoided.

Joe Hockey, The End of the Age of Entitlement.

But duties are not costs. Duties simply articulate the form of the good life.

Some duties are certainly constraints, forbidding things which will damage the negative rights of others (e.g. the right to life, the right to property). Some duties place upon us positive responsibilities, enabling other people to have positive rights (e.g. the right to assistance, income, employment). In addition, as Kant observed, some duties are perfect – in the sense that it is absolutely clear whether or not we are achieving the duty (Kant). Others imperfect – in sense that we can fulfil our duties to different degrees and with more or less discretion.

In addition our duties evolve and develop along with our form of life and our relationships with others. It is our relationships with others that place demands upon us – but those demands are not costs – they are the reciprocal connections by which the individual and the community develops.

Imagine a person free of all duties and you imagine someone who is utterly disconnected.

The structure of our duties describes the framework within which the good life is lived. There are still spaces that allow for discretion, creativity, enjoyment and licence. But it is the framework of duties that makes life possible and makes life meaningful. Pure licence is emptiness.

As Kant also observed the sense of burden we associate with duty is also an illusion. For the sense of duty as a burden is only how experience what we should do when it is not what we want to do. But often our duties are exactly what we want to do and the good life is not a life without duty, but a life rich with duties – that can be fulfilled.

We have now to elucidate the concept of a will estimable in itself and good apart from any further end. This concept, which is already present in a sound natural understanding and requires not so much to be taught as merely to be clarified, always holds the highest place in estimating the total worth of our actions and constitutes the condition of all the rest. We will therefore take up the concept of duty, which includes that of a good will, exposed however, to certain subjective limitations and obstacles. These so far from hiding a good will or disguising it, rather bring it out by contrast and make it shine forth more brightly.

Kant I, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals

From a Christian perspective we might also say that acting merely from duty is simply the form that love takes when we are not blessed with the rights feelings.

In other words to deny citizenship to the absolute stranger is to weaken community. We fail in the exercise of our duties, we fail to give the stranger the opportunity to contribute to the communities network of relationships, and we fail to strengthen the exchange of gifts of citizenship.

A decent community is awake to the ideal of citizenship. Citizenship serves to frame the obligations of the community to its members and to the welcome it gives to others. Citizenship is both a discipline and an ideal.

Citizenship is a powerful moral standard which can be applied to social and political arrangements. It is a standard, not just of rights, but more importantly a standard for duty, virtue and social purpose (telos).

If we do this we will find ourselves exploring the possibility that rather than being ruled by one, or by a few, we will be ruled by ourselves – for this is how Aristotle defines citizenship:

A citizen is one who has a share in both ruling and being ruled.

Aristotle, Politics III 1

Of course some who embrace citizenship merely do so to keep at arms length those they fear or do not want to join them in community. But just because some misuse the concept doesn’t mean the concept should be abandoned. Citizenship is the means by which we can live as equals, in all our differences. Properly understood it is a vital moral ideal by which to challenge the current social and political system.