What Really Makes Someone a Good Citizen?

Reflections on duty from the billionaire who’s giving away 99 percent of his wealth.

This spring, we’re celebrating innovators who are tackling pressing global issues. We call them the GOOD 100. In the spirit of solidarity, we’re also rolling out insights and personal stories from a select list of influential global citizens working in alliance with the world at large. We’ll be highlighting GOOD Citizens once a week.

There’s an old story about a blind man walking towards a well, and there’s a guy watching. If the blind man falls into the well, who gets the blame? The blind man? Or the guy who’s watching? Understanding what it means to be a true citizen makes the answer clear.

Look up the word “citizenship” and you’ll quickly realize that citizenship isn’t a static idea. It’s about more than simply belonging to a particular place—“I am a citizen, therefore I have citizenship.” It’s also not true that you “possess” citizenship in order to enjoy certain privileges. Rather, most definitions suggest that citizens are expected to act in a certain way. Even U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which lists seven basic rights for citizens, also outlines nine responsibilities. At its core, citizenship implies duty.

This is not a new idea. From the Ancient Greeks to the Roman Empire to Modern philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, citizenship has involved some type of obligation to the State or fellow citizens. However, the extent of that obligation depends on how broadly or narrowly we interpret citizenship.

For some, citizenship is no more than meeting the terms of our social contract: We respect the law and give up some personal freedoms in exchange for certain benefits and protection. Others take more of a “live and let live” attitude. John Locke summed it up this way: “No one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.”

That might be fine when things are going well. But what happens when there’s conflict, as we’re seeing now in the U.S. with disputes over immigration and debates around the world over how to respond to the current refugee crisis? Or in situations where being a “good citizen” in one place puts us at odds with, or even creates hardship for, people in other places?

Concepts of citizenship that are understood only in the context of geopolitical boundaries, and therefore aren’t applied to outsiders, can cause us to act in ways that aren’t very citizen-like. But I believe that’s just wrong. Citizenship should never be used to divide.

So what’s the answer? We need to expand our idea of what it means to be a citizen. We’ve got to look beyond our neighborhoods, cities, states, and countries. And we need to see our duty as going beyond avoiding harm or abstaining from wrongdoing; it even goes beyond being polite or civil. We’ve simply got to think bigger.

At a fundamental level, all human beings are citizens of the world. Therefore, our practice of citizenship should extend to all mankind. With that in mind, the only type of citizenship that holds value is one that actively promotes goodness and well-being for all of humanity—especially those who need it most.

I believe the responsibility for those of us with more—be it money, talents, time, or skills—is to serve those with less. You don’t have to be rich to be effective. No matter who you are, you can do great things. But if you have any kind of means and you’re not doing something for those who are suffering, then you’re not really a citizen.

Actions, not words, are what define and validate. Take a carpenter. You can’t call someone a carpenter unless he does something with wood. The same is true of a citizen. Citizen is not a title. It’s an action.

Citizenship will look different for different people. And that’s how it should be. If we were all the same, had the same skillsets, and all worked on the same problems, then a lot of needs would go unmet. But if you’re looking for where to start, here’s one suggestion based on what I’ve done:

Look at what you have—not just money and things, but also time, skills, strengths and weaknesses—and then look at those with less. What do they need? And how can you serve? At the most fundamental level, citizenship is service.

For me, that relative comparison gives me a different perspective, which affects my evaluation of myself, and shows me what my duty really is. Because in the end, it’s not what I want to do that matters. It’s not about me.

Once you’ve considered what to do, look to those you admire and who have done a lot more. Then strive to emulate the good in them.

Through the work I do now with Billions in Change, my goal is to address some of the fundamental issues facing the world. I’ve got a team of inventors making useful products in the areas of water, energy, and health that we’re hoping will enable people to earn a livelihood, become self-sustaining, escape poverty, and experience well-being. The way I see it, my customers are the unlucky half of the world—those who have not had the opportunity to make a living because of circumstances beyond their control. I’m working for them. And if they’re not properly served, then I have not done my job.

Realizing that other people are human beings just like us is how we begin to appreciate what it means to be a citizen of the world. In the end, we have the same fundamental needs and we mostly want the same things in life.

Unless we understand our fellow humans, we can’t really serve them. I work at that every day. I haven’t figured it all out yet, but that perspective is at least a start. I hope you’ll join me in redefining citizenship for the betterment of humanity.

Manoj Bhargava is a philanthropist and founder of Stage 2 Innovations and its supporting movement, Billions in Change, which are focused on developing and deploying useful inventions to address the world’s most pressing problems. He is also founder and CEO of Living Essentials®, the company behind 5-hour Energy.

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