What does civic responsibility mean to you?
Civic responsibility, for me, stems from two facts: the fact we are all human beings, and therefore morally valuable, and the fact that what we do affects other people. These facts are unavoidable: unless we live the life of a hermit, we have to deal with the truth that our actions affect others, and that that implies we have responsibilities towards them.
Not every sort of responsibility is “civic”, though: we have personal and professional responsibilities, for instance, which do not merit that label. Rather, our civic responsibilities are public, tending to address matters of broad social concern: politics, the environment, education, and society at large. Perhaps we can say that our civic responsibilities are those which do not concern only individuals we have a personal or professional connection with, but all people whom our actions might affect in the broadest sense.
As a Humanist, my notion of civic responsibility is broad and forceful: ideally we have a degree of civic responsibility to all humankind, a global and universal responsibility to act to promote human welfare. For the Humanist, there is no difference in moral worth, in principle, between one person and another: the mere fact of person-hood confers moral value on an individual and demands our respect and attention. Furthermore, I believe we are called not only to do the minimum required of citizens (obey laws, pay taxes etc.), but to actively promote others’ good. As Felix Adler put it:
“Act so as to elicit the best in others and thereby in thyself.”
Sadly in practice things are never quite so easy: we are so constituted to care far more deeply and strongly about those closest to use – our blood and kin, our co-workers, our partners in life’s endeavor – and it is difficult (perhaps impossible) to orientate our lives toward a truly humanitarian ideal. Nonetheless, the responsibility to think of how our actions affect humankind in the broadest sense presses upon us, and we must do our best to heed the call.
With this in mind, here are some ways my sense of civic responsibility manifests itself in my life:
- I believe every person deserves to have their basic human rights respected, so I work locally, within my society, for gay rights, women’s rights, and the rights of other minorities through direct activism. As a gay man, I focus much of my energy around gay rights at home and abroad: until recently I was a board member for Join the Impact MA, a gay rights activist organization in Boston, and I hope soon to join the board of SpeakOUT Boston, an organization which uses the power of personal stories to tackle prejudice. I sing with the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus and have sung with Coro Allegro, two LGBTQ choruses which try to use music to change the world.
- I believe that the privilege of living within a democracy is a great, placing a responsibility upon us to get involved. I am enthusiastically engaged in politics, volunteering for political campaigns in a variety of roles when I can. I worked with the Liberal Democrats in the UK, I did some work for Elizabeth Warren’s campaign in MA, and for the President’s campaign for reelection.
- I believe in the importance of non-professional civic spaces based around values (congregations, if you will), so I work with the Humanist Community at Harvard as a volunteer, working to create civic spaces for nonreligious people which might contribute to the humanization of society in the long-term.
- I give a significant portion of my (small) income to various charities, including Amnesty International, Immigration Equality, the Human Rights Campaign, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the ACLU, and the Foundation Beyond Belief.
- Almost all my speaking as a Humanist is for free – I consider it part of my civic responsibility to promote the sort of society I wish to live in.
- I am training to be a leader in the Ethical Culture movement, to promote the development of a more ethical culture.
- I offer my services as a communications and persuasion consultant as a donation to causes which I believe to be in the public good.
- I have dedicated my professional and academic life to education, which I see to be one of the most pressing civic issues facing the USA and the world today.
I take civic responsibility extremely seriously: it is our way of making an impact in the world beyond our personal and professional lives, a way of eliciting the best in other people. I believe Humanists have a calling to engage ourselves in this sort of work: not a calling from the heavens, but from this world. For every superstition which keeps people enslaved is a call to our reason. Every cry of a hopeless child is a call to our compassion. Every tortured creed of human failure and inadequacy is a call to us to hope. In these ways we are called. We are called to build the Temple of the Future, that temple with justice its foundation, and columns of peace and goodwill. That temple of all the people, in which we all are robed in compassion and crowned with reason. A temple with its doors open to all humankind, the torch of progress burning in every sconce, the light of hope filling the world.
That is what civic responsibility means to me.