Is it better to be a good man or good citizen?

Before delving into the question of whether it is better to be a good citizen or good man it is important that we question what it actually means to be ‘good’. It is particularly hard to define this concept, the responsibility of being a good person is down to his own perception of what is morally right and what is morally wrong. Therefore we can argue that a person may according to himself be good but be perceived by others to be bad. And if this is the case, does ‘goodness’ even exist? (adriel116, 2015) If everyone has their own set of morals, the argument of morality being objective cannot be taken seriously. As human beings we disagree on various topics such as murder, religion, politics and abortion. A citizen is defined as ‘a legally recognized subject or national of a state or commonwealth, either native or naturalized’ (Citizen, n.d.) Therefore we cannot suggest that being a good citizen is better than being a good man as it is largely dependent on what it means to be a good citizen, the actions of the state and the individuals perception of whether a state’s actions are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. (Heywood, 1999, pp. 207-212) What does it mean to be a ‘good’ citizen? Many believe this is when someone follows a state’s legislative laws, pays taxes, defends the security of one’s state, votes in elections and so forth. It is also widely believed that to be a good citizen you must be a good person however this isn’t necessarily true and again is down to personal opinion. (Walker, 1970, pp. 139-173)

Aristotle is one of the most renowned philosophers who stated that ‘Man is by nature a social animal’. He argued that the state is a natural entity and disagrees with Rousseau, Locke and Hobbes who believe in social contract theories. Aristotle believes that citizenship is more of an activity and that everyone within that state should be actively involved in politics. (Johnson, 1990, p. 123) For him, being a good person is to follow a moral code and to try and turn a bad state into a good state. A good citizen should be actively involved. He recognised that there are different types of states and governments, and judged these states based on form and interests. Aristotle argued that a monarchy with a monarch as head of government is good but tyranny is bad, Aristocracy of noble birth and high class is good but Oligarchy is bad, and Polity being civil government is good yet Democracy is bad. For Aristotle, the difference between a good and bad state is whether or not governance is acting in the best interest of all as opposed to just the interests of the governors. (Aristotle, 350 B.C.E) In naming these forms of government and labelling them as good or bad, Aristotle is merely sharing his view of oppression and, in a sense, selfishness as being bad. He’s also making the assumption that we can have monarchy without tyranny, aristocracy without oligarchy and Polity without Democracy practically not just theoretically. We cannot and should not criticise Aristotle for what he could not know, however looking at modern states, democracy is generally considered by many to be a good form of government and through democracy states have acted in the best interest of many. Examples of this would be state pensions and the National Health Service. Aristotle did however mention that democracy is the best form of bad government. He stated that ‘Man is a political animal. A man who lives alone is either a Beast or a God’. (Scott, 2011) His belief of man being by nature social and political would mean that even in his idea of a bad state man would be actively involved which has led to Aristotle being widely critiqued as it would mean that man cannot be a good citizen in a bad state. However Aristotle’s response would be that man may be politically active in this state, but to be a good citizen he must work to change this state into a good one. Good citizenship for Aristotle is different dependent on the form of government. A man may do more for their state in a democracy compared to another man in a monarchy yet be called a bad citizen as for Aristotle citizenship is an activity ergo he is expected to do more for the state then he would in the monarchy. Therefore what it is to be a good citizen is very subjective. Overall, Aristotle believed that it was more important to be a good citizen as opposed to a good man. Personally, I do not agree with Aristotle, in my opinion there is no such thing as a good or bad state, just good and bad actions of states and even then that is down to what I perceive to be a good or a bad act.

John Locke argued that the role of government or the state is to protect ‘life, liberty and estate’. He argues unlike Aristotle that people don’t have to have an active role in the state and that man does not even have to consent to the state in order to benefit from it. He stated ‘Every man, that hath any Possession, or Enjoyment, of any part of the Dominions of any Government, doth thereby give his tacit consent, and is as far forth obliged to Obedience to the laws of that government, during such enjoyment, as anyone under it’. (Hyams, 2008) His tacit consent theory suggests that in order for man to reap benefits from the state such as protection of land, man’s debt is obedience to the state. In modern society, this is not always necessarily true. As an example, there are people who act against the laws of states through crime yet still enjoy public goods thereby benefitting from a state whilst not abiding to the laws of that government. In most states these citizens are also protected. When looking at liberal minimalism holding government to account and voting is a key right, most liberals wouldn’t force individuals to be active, rather entitled in a state. You aren’t necessarily expected to join juries or be an active citizen but liberals see this as being a trait of a good citizen. (Woodcock, 2011) For liberals, citizenship is a status rather than an activity. There is an argument that we should move more towards citizenship being an activity and try to persuade people to vote and so forth in order to improve democracy however government is limited and shouldn’t interfere in every aspect of man’s life. Locke, in an undated manuscript titled ‘Morality’ stated that morality was the ‘rule of man’s actions for the atteining happynesse’ therefore anything man does to obtain happiness is good and moral. Therefore for Locke, to be a good man is to strive for happiness. (Marshall, 1994, p. 193)

Immanuel Kant has a completely different view in comparison to Locke and Aristotle. He held the view that you can only act morally if you universalize that act. He believed we should live life as a maxim and not do to others that which we would not want done to ourselves. (Reiss, 1971, pp. 19-21) His deontological view is that acts are moral if their motivations are moral rather than consequentialism where morality of acts is based on the consequences of those acts. To Kant, politics should bend the knee to morality as morality is always more important. Therefore it is fair to conclude that Immanuel Kant believed being a good man is more important than being a good citizen and that we should live life autonomously. To Kant, moral code is what defines us.  (Driver, 2006, pp. 80-100) There is a famous dilemma facing Kantian ethics surrounding this area where as an example there’s you and a friend in a house. A known murderer knocks at the door and asks whether the said friend is in the house. Kant believed you should not lie, and would answer this with ‘I don’t know’ as it is within the realm of possibility that the said friend could have left the house in the time it took you to answer the door. (Woodcock, 2011) However his view of living life as a maxim would contradict his answer at the door as surely any rational being would want his friend to lie? Additionally living life as a maxim means that the individual would in fact be acting in his best interest by not doing to others what he would not want done to himself? Kant’s view of what good acts are assumes that man is capable of acting altruistically as the act cannot be moral if the motivations aren’t selfless. (LICHTENBERG, 2010) Personally, I do not agree with Kant on his deontological viewpoint on good and bad acts. I don’t see why actions are judged purely by motivations or purely by consequences when in my opinion there is a combination.

In my opinion it is impossible to conclude with a definitive answer as to whether it is better to be a good person or a good citizen. As previously stated it is down to the individual to make their own judgement of what it is to be a good person and what is seen by them to be a good or bad act. There is also no guideline as to what it means to be a good citizen just again various perceptions on what is a good or bad act and what the state should interfere in. For Aristotle, being a good citizen and ‘political animal’ is intrinsic to human nature and more important than a moral code. For Kant a moral code is most important and Locke didn’t talk much of what it means to be a good person, more of a different stance on what citizenship is. There are acts that are seen to be moral and immoral in society and it is fair to say that man tries to act in a way which is seen by others to be moral, if the state acts against this it is fair to argue that being a good man is more important than being a good citizen. For example my opinion of Nazi Germany and how I find the states acts at that time to be inhumane and bad mean that at that point in time it was better to be a good person than a good citizen in my opinion. However, a state generally tries to act in the best interest of its citizens. In order to judge someone for their actions, you are assuming that they have perfect knowledge of their actions, the consequences resulting from their actions and the cost of their actions not only in the short-run but also in the long-run and on other people. This is a mistake as we are only human and not all knowing.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Do you yourself want to be a good person? if yes, then why? If no, then why not?


    1. amynorman93 says:

      What a dumb question, to be a good person is subjective so of course she does.


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