Civic duty is often defined as the responsibilities, obligations, or tasks that each citizen owes to their nation or society, typically implied by the social contract between a government and its citizens (Dalton, 2014).
In democratic societies, civic duties include a range of activities of participatory citizenship, where the citizens themselves are essential for maintaining self-governance. So, civic duties can include activities such as voting, serving on a jury, and standing for office.
More broadly, people in any nation have a duty to one another, such as the duty to obey laws, pay taxes, and contribute to the common good (Andolina & Conklin, 2019).
Civic Duty Examples
Perhaps the most fundamental civic duty in democratic societies is to vote. This might include voting in local, state, and national elections, as well as voting on school boards, etc.
By voting, citizens participate in the democratic process and help determine the direction of their civil society. Collective voting shapes economic, social, and geopolitical policies of a nation.
This is so fundamental that some nations, like Australia, make this civic duty a legal requirement for all citizens.
John feels it’s his responsibility to have his voice heard in the election. He knows his neighbors will be voting for the opposite party, and he realizes that if he wants an equal say to his crazy neighbors, he’d better get to the ballot box this Saturday!
2. Jury Duty
When called upon, citizens are expected to serve on juries, which is a crucial part of the judicial system.
This ensures that individuals accused of crimes receive fair trials by their peers.
The concept of jury duty maintains a core principle of democracy: that society is governed by the people, not an unaccountable authority figure. For this to be fulfilled, we need people, not judges, to make the decision on whether someone is guilty or not guilty.
John gets a letter telling him it’s time for him to sit on jury duty. He doesn’t want to do it, and knows that his crazy neighbor somehow avoided it, but he also shrugs and accepts that this is part of a functioning democracy, so he goes ahead and participates out of a sense of duty as a citizen of this great democratic nation.
3. Obeying the Law
Every citizen is expected to obey the law. This ranges from not committing serious crimes to obeying traffic rules.
If nobody obeys the law, then society will struggle to remain functioning. Police won’t be able to keep up with all the issues going on, and businesses would stop operating. It’s only our collective social contract – implied agreement that we will all get along and submit to the law so we can each enjoy relative safety – that our society functions
John is in a rush to get to work, but he knows going over the speed limit is not just dangerous, but it’s not fair if he can do it and no one else can. He knows that an orderly traffic system – controlled by laws like speed limits – is more important than him getting to work on time.
4. Paying Taxes
Taxes fund public services such as roads, education, healthcare, and defense. Therefore, paying taxes is an essential civic duty.
Interestingly, the idea of this civic duty has its limits. Excessive taxation causes resentment and leads people to avoid this civic duty (or, leads them to kicking out the over-taxing government!). So, governments need to be careful to collect enough taxes to provide essential services while respecting people’s rights to make money and aspire for greater wealth.
John’s crazy neighbor gets a knock on the door from the government agencies who are chasing him down for 3 years worth of missed taxes. The neighbor’s failure to chip-in to the nation’s collective revenues is a failure to civic duty, and this is probably going to cost him!
5. Respect for Rights, Beliefs, and Opinions of Others
Many people would consider it our civic duty to respect other people’s rights, beliefs, and opinions.
This is a particularly strong expectation in liberal societies. But in any society, we can imagine that respecting others’ rights tends to be put in law through laws such as ‘do not steal’. Respecting the beliefs of others, on the other hand, tends to be a civic duty of societies that embrace tolerance.
John doesn’t really agree with his neighbor, who he thinks has lost the plot. But John knows that he’s got to accept and tolerate his neighbor, just as his neighbor has to accept and tolerate him.
6. Educating Oneself
A well-informed citizenry is vital for a functioning democracy. Thus, educating oneself about important issues, candidates, and policies is a civic duty.
A good illustration of this is people who vote without actually having spent time assessing the policies of parties. This uninformed vote could arguably be failure of civic duty. Instead, that person should have done some research so they voted based on a coherent understanding of each candidate.
Before going to the polls, John watches the debate between the two candidates, and also discusses the election with his friends, to try to obtain a well-rounded understanding before exercising his vote.
7. Volunteering / Community Service
Volunteering is something many people do out of a sense of civic duty. It’s not compulsory, but it’s done out of a sense of community.
This might include cleaning public spaces or serving food at a homeless shelter. By doing this, you are trying to help the people around you and improve their quality of life.
John volunteers one hour a week at his daughter’s school because he feels it’s his responsibility to pitch-in and help with the education of the children in his community. By actively building a sense of community where he lives, John is making it a better place for everyone.
8. Reporting Crimes
Citizens often feel they have a responsibility to report crimes they witness to law enforcement. This can help society as a whole to maintain order and public safety.
If everyone sat back and failed to report crimes – or, for that matter, fires or debris on the roads, etc. – then society would function much less smoothly! Sometimes, it requires someone to step up and say something in order for the wheels to start turning and action to be taken by the authorities.
John knows it’s his responsibility to let his neighbor be. But he also knows there’s a line. When he saw his neighbor damaging public property on main street in the middle of the night, he called the Sheriff to help prevent further damage.
9. Defending the Country
In many societies, it is seen as a civic duty to defend the country when it is threatened. This can involve serving in the military, especially in societies like Israel where military service is compulsory. People who choose the military as a career are also, of course, exercising a sense of civic duty.
But this can also involve other forms of service, such as volunteering for civil defense. Similarly, it could involve supporting war efforts in manufacturing or healthcare. Defending one’s country is a way of ensuring the safety, security, and freedoms of other people who share your values and culture.
John’s grandfather served in the military during the war. John, understanding the importance of defending one’s country, decides to join the military reserves. He’s already got a career, but being in the reserves can be a way to pitch in. He does it not just out of honor for his grandfather’s service, but also because he recognizes that the military defends the freedoms he enjoys today.
10. Participating in the Census
Every few years, the government conducts a census. This collects cross-sectional demographic data about the population, such as information about religious affiliation and income.
Participation in the census is not only required by law in many countries. It could also be considered a civic duty because it helps the government to have the necessary data to make important decisions about resource allocation, redistricting, setting up new schools and hospitals, and so on.
When John receives the census form in the mail, he promptly fills it out and returns it. He knows that the information will help his community receive the resources it needs, and he’s pretty sure if the government realized all this population growth, they’d install a new fire station!
11. Recycling and Protecting the Environment
As citizens, we have a responsibility to protect the environment and reduce the impact of climate change by reducing our carbon footprint, recycling, and so on. This can also include conserving water, reducing energy consumption, switching to more sustainable products, and more. By doing these things, we make society safer for ourselves, our neighbors, and future generations.
John takes time to separate his trash into recyclables and non-recyclables. He also tries to reduce his carbon footprint by cycling to work in summers and turning down the thermostat when he’s out of the house. He understands that protecting the environment is not just about him. It’s also about his community, and also the future generations who will inherit the earth.
12. Serving as a Witness in Court
If you witness a crime or have information pertinent to a legal case, it is your civic duty to come forward and provide this information in court.
Serving as a witness helps ensure that justice is served and can protect innocent people from being wrongly convicted.
John sees an accident happen on his way home from work. When he is called as a witness in court, he willingly shares what he saw. He knows that his testimony can help ensure a fair trial for the people involved.
13. Registering for the Selective Service
In countries like the United States, all male citizens and residents between the ages of 18 and 25 are required to register with the Selective Service.
While this does not mean they will automatically be drafted into the military, it is a form of preparedness in case a draft becomes necessary. As such, it is seen as a civic duty.
When John turns 18, he goes online and registers with the Selective Service. He knows it’s the law, but also understands that it’s part of being a responsible citizen in his country.
14. Running for Office
In a democratic society, citizens have not only the right but also the duty to participate in government.
One of the ways to do this is by running for office. By doing so, you can help shape policies and represent the interests of your community.
John sees some issues in his local community that he feels aren’t being addressed by the current council. Instead of just complaining, he decides to run for a seat in the next local election. He views this as a way to actively contribute to his community and engage in his civic duty.
15. Testifying in Court
Similar to serving as a witness, testifying in court when called upon is a civic duty. Whether you are the victim, the accused, or a witness, your testimony contributes to the upholding of justice in society.
John is subpoenaed to testify in a court case involving a business dispute. Despite feeling nervous, he realizes that his testimony could be key to the case. Understanding his role in the judicial process, he diligently prepares and speaks truthfully in court.
Importance of Civic Duty
Having a sense of civic duty helps to bolster and improve democratic societies. It does this in a variety of ways, including:
- Promotes Active Participation in Democracy: Civic duties like voting or serving on a jury directly involve citizens in the democratic process in a process that we call participatory democracy. By voting, citizens are actively participating in the maintenance of democracy. Jury service ensures the democratic principle of being judged by one’s peers.
- Sustains Public Services and Infrastructure: Taxes fund important public services such as education, health care, social services, infrastructure, and defense.
- Maintains Order and Safety: Duties like obeying laws and reporting crimes contribute to societal order and safety.
- Fosters Community Engagement and Development: Civic duties often involve engagement in local communities. This can lead to stronger community bonds and contribute to overall development.
- Promotes Social Responsibility: Civic duties encourage individuals to consider the impact of their actions on society. This can lead to more socially responsible behavior.
- Ensures Rights of Citizens: Duties such as serving as a witness in court proceedings or participating in the census help protect the rights of individuals and ensure fair representation.
Civic Duty vs Civic Responsibility
Civic duty and civic responsibility are closely related terms and generally are used interchangeably. But, we can differentiate them as two sub-sets of the same idea, as shown below.
A civic duty is an action or task required by the laws of a nation, state, or community, and the obligation to perform such a duty is backed by legal consequences.
Examples of civic duties include voting, obeying laws, paying taxes, serving on a jury, and, in certain countries, serving in the military or registering for the draft.
A civic responsibility is a set of behaviors and attitudes that are considered important for the maintenance and improvement of a democratic society, but they are not legally required. There are no legal consequences for failing to perform a civic responsibility.
Examples of civic responsibilities include staying informed about current events, volunteering in the community, participating in public discourse, and respecting the rights and opinions of others.
Having a sense of civic duty refers to the sense that it’s your personal responsibility to pitch-in and uphold your society, its dignity, its democracy, and its institutions. Only when we have citizens actively participating in democracy can we keep rejuvenating it for the next generations.
Andolina, M. W., & Conklin, H. G. (2019). Evoking latinos’ reactive ethnicity: The influence of Spanish and English direct mail appeals on Latino voter turnout. The Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics, 4(3), 489-518.
Dalton, R. J. (2014). The apartisan American: Dealignment and the transformation of electoral politics. SAGE Publications, Inc.
Verba, S., Schlozman, K. L., & Brady, H. E. (2012). The unheavenly chorus: Unequal political voice and the broken promise of American democracy. Princeton University Press.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]