Forward Thinking – What Does Civic Responsibility Mean to You?

 My response to the first prompt in the values development project begun by Libby Anne and Daniel Fincke, Forward Thinking:

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 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.

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

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  • http://ripeningreason.com/ Rachel Marcy (Bix)

    I think the phrase “think global, act local” applies here; we can make the most impact where we live, but we can also consider our actions within a wider context.


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