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The Good Person, the Good Citizen, and the Paradox of the Unjust Regime

Sasha Johnson

I. Introduction

Goodness is subjective, but humans believe deeply in the concept of good and evil. In a utopian society, where the laws are considered just by the individual, it is rational to deem the good person a good citizen, as a good person respects a moral government. The difference between the good person and the good citizen emerges when a state and its laws clash with an individual's notion of the good. Individual morality necessitates, in some cases, breaking from the social contract and exercising action and thought independent of the polis. Yet this action against the state makes the individual a bad citizen since, unlike the concept of a good person, the concept of the good citizen is dependent on the state. A good citizen must abide by the laws of the state. It is my argument that, regardless of one's understanding of morality, a good person is not always a good citizen, and a good citizen is not always a good person.

II. The Good Person

Although there is a plurality of discordant definitions of a good person among philosophers, in all societies, religions, and languages, there is a distinction between the categories of good and bad. (Smith et al.; van Oudenhoven et al). We see contrasts in conceptions of morality in the context of human rights. In Norway, homosexuality is embraced by the reigning king, Harald V, who recently remarked that Norweignens are, "girls who love girls, boys who love boys, and boys and girls who love each other" (Nikel). In a starkly different viewpoint, the Ayatollah Khamanei, Supreme Leader of Iran, claims that homosexuality is "ravaging moral decay" (Weinthal). It is evident that there is no innate set of moral virtues that are universal.

III. The Good Citizen

The idea of a good person is elusive, but there seems to be a consensus that a good citizen follows the laws of the state. The good citizen submits to being ruled. Aristotle argues that the regime shapes the citizen, as the laws and the constitution of the state determine the traits of a good citizen in that state (Aristotle 91). The social contract theorists argue that humans are never completely free in society because once a person leaves the state of nature and becomes part of a political body, their free will is compromised by the rules of the state. As Locke argues, man gives up the power, "of doing whatsoever he thought for the preservation of himself ... to be regulated by laws made by society" (Locke 67). As Hobbes explains, the social contract is a consensual agreement to follow the customs and rules of a society. Rousseau contends that there is still freedom within the social contract as the individual has a hand in creating the ties that bind them. For Rousseau, a person who violates the social contract, becomes "a rebel and traitor to his homeland" (Rousseau 65). By violating the laws of the polity, the citizen "wages war against it" (Rousseau 65). For the social contract theorists, a good citizen is one who abides by the social contract; and one cannot be a good citizen without following the laws of the state. The social contract is created to protect the individual, therefore only when an individual's rights are heavily compromised, can they withdraw consent.

Regime type and political norms are almost irrelevant to the definition of a good citizen, as the good citizen is one that follows the law. The concept of a good citizen is political and rooted in the need of leaders to control the polis. The political subjects need to perform functions for the state - from paying taxes to obeying other laws. In the United States, 96% of Americans believe that "always following the law" makes a good citizen (Pew 2018). American citizens sometimes compromise their rights and collaborate with law enforcement and with the state to be considered "good citizens" (Capers).

IV. The Paradox of the Unjust Regime

When a good person feels trapped in a society that they consider unethical, they cannot comply with its laws. Thoreau's understanding of civil disobedience gives power to an individual following their own moral conceptions. Thoreau opposed slavery, and he resented paying taxes for a war that compromised his beliefs. In this context, he writes that it is “not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize” (Thoreau). He argues that the individual must determine for themselves whether a law is just, and only follow those that they find to be so. Thoreau's influence is seen in Gandhi who, practicing Satyagraha, advocates that an individual should never follow the state's rules if they think these are immoral. Doctor King saw resistance not as lawlessness, but rather as upholding moral and divine laws. For King, a good person must rebel against "an evil system" (King 73).

What should a good citizen do in a polis that contradicts their moral code? I argue that, by definition, it is a good citizen's duty to abide by the laws of the state and continue to be ruled, while a good person should use their free will to break from the social contract. If Ayatollah Khamanei relocates to Norway, he faces two possibilities. If he decides to be a good citizen of his new country, he should abide by their laws, and tame his own personal beliefs on homosexuality. If he, however, wants to be his own definition of a good person, he must leave the country or rebel against its laws. In the same vein, if King Harald moves to Iran and desires to be a good citizen, he must embrace the laws which are based on Sharia and Islam. If King Harald is determined to be his conceptualization of a good person, he must either leave Iran or rebel by disobeying the laws. With both leaders, the first choice makes them a good citizen but contradicts their own ideals of a good person; and the second choice embodies their personal conception of a good person, but makes them, by definition, bad citizens of their new nations.

V. Conclusion

Therefore, there are three main reasons that lead an individual to break from the state. The first is exemplified in Locke, who sees personal interest as supreme, and argues that sustained violation of an individual's natural rights is the reason to exit the social contract. The second is clear in Thoreau, who advises the good person to break with the polis when they deem laws immoral. King merges the two approaches since he follows both his private interest and his moral vision of a just society. I argue that in all cases, if one does not abide by the state, one is no longer a good citizen. That, however, does not make an individual a bad person. Simultaneously, leaving the state does not as a matter of course make a person good.

Two postulates emerge: (1) a good person follows their understanding of morality to its furthest point, and this might entail friction with the state; (2) the good citizen prioritizes their citizenship and their relationship with the state over their individual and group identities. In a situation in which the individual's moral principles do not correspond with the moral tenets of nthe government, a choice emerges and is necessary: the individual can stay true to themselves or stay true to the state.


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