June Update

I can’t quite believe that June is already over and it’s time to write this first blog post! I have spent the past month reading. And reading and reading. The amount of literature out there is truly staggering. My honors thesis is broadly separated into three main sections. The first addresses the issue of permissible partiality– when we make moral choices, can we favor our families? Our friends? Neighbors? How far does a commitment to equality extend? The second section addresses the question “What is a citizen?” The final section, which contains the bulk of my argument, asks whether the relationship established by a bond of shared citizenship (section 2) constitutes grounds for a permissible level of partiality (section 1). For the summer, I have chosen to focus on completing section 2.

The question “what is a citizen” appears, on the face of it, to have a straightforward answer. It is, perhaps, a person who has certain rights in a certain territory. Or perhaps it is a person who has certain obligations in a territory. But isn’t it also an identity, a membership, a way of including and excluding? The question, now that I have spent many weeks reading about it, is in fact incredibly complex, covering questions about states and nations, the state of nature, and historical contingency. My reading has stretched back to Plato and Aristotle, through the writings of Rousseau, all the way to modern debates.

The biggest challenge I have faced thus far is a problem of framing. There are a variety of different angles from which this question can be addressed, and it has been a long process to decide which tells the story the way I want. I’ve decided that the best approach is a chronology of ideas. This approach was inspired by an essay written by T.H. Marshall, in which he argues that different facets of what it means to be a citizen have been added through history to create the concept we have today. I plan to spend the next few weeks drafting the section (and, of course, reading some more!). I hope that the section will show the components of citizenship and how they interact so that I can later discuss the implications each of these major ideas has on the ethical implications of a system we so often take for granted.


  1. tdbriggs says:

    Hi Hannah, your thesis and research seem to be going really well. The question of identity, exclusion, and as you put it, “permissible partiality,” is both very interesting and relevant right now. I wonder, out of everything that you have read so far, what you consider to be the most compelling account of what a citizen actually is. I remember in Aristotle’s “Politics” it was someone that actually participated in the government itself, which today would clearly result in many citizens not actually being considered citizens at all. I really admire the historical angle you’ve taken on the question of what a citizen is – I’m excited to read the finished product of all of your work! Also, you might find a small book by Carl Schmitt, called “The Concept of the Political,” an interesting viewpoint to have read for your thesis. Schmitt and his philosophical works are very controversial, for many reasons, but his critique of liberal democracy, and his analysis of the “friend-enemy distinction” that he sees as the essence of “the political” have been very influential. In “The Concept of the Political” he discusses things such as world governments, international peace, and what it means to be a member of a political community, which all seem like relevant concerns for your thesis.

    I sympathize with the problems you’re facing when writing such a thesis. I’m encountering the same ones: issues of framing the scope of the question, tackling the huge amount of historical material surrounding my topic, etc. I hope your research continues to go well for the rest of the summer, and beyond!

  2. Hey Hannah!

    Looks like you are making great progress on your thesis. I enjoyed reading your post, as it relates closely not only to my interests, but also to my own thesis. I am writing on J.S. Mill’s views on government; and while this paper will be primarily oriented on the political aspects of Mill’s thought, I couldn’t look overlook Mill’s moral philosophy. As you probably know, Mill was a Utilitarian following, but also revising, the thoughts of Jeremy Bentham. This moral philosophy, while there are of course different understandings of it, generally follows three main tenets: hedonism (happiness is the only intrinsic good), consequentialism (only consequences matter), and, most relevant to you, impartiality. What’s interesting, however, is the interplay between Mill’s moral philosophy and his views on government. While he doesn’t make a specific reference to “what is citizenship?,” he does talk about how we don’t choose to be citizens and we are bound to laws that have been created when we are born. This is different from how many social contract theorists (Locke, Hobbs, Rousseau) view citizenship, for they see us entering into a society by (at least) tacit consent. The view that Mill holds, then, is interesting because he calls on governments to be fair to the entire society, even though individuals may not identify with or be in the same class as those in power (calling into question their “citizenship”). This requires impartiality, reinforcing Mill’s moral philosophy, but begs the question about universal impartiality. Does this fairness requirement end at the border, or does it extend to those in other nations? Not sure how relevant this is to your overall argument, but Mill may be an interesting author to check out. If you have any questions, I’d be happy to discuss this further. Your thesis looks like fun, I’d love to see how it plays out. Good luck!

  3. Emma Merrill says:

    Hi Hannah! I hope your summer is going well (including but not limited to the research component;) Your topic is fascinating, and I am impressed with how organized you seem already regarding your honor’s thesis! Just a general question: for the philosophy department, what is the expectation for general format of an honor’s thesis? I know that different departments have different ideas for what constitutes a thesis, and I am unfamiliar with philosophy’s stance. Your topic definitely seems like it could get pretty extensive…are you focusing on a particular region of the world for writings about citizenship? Also, do you plan on breaking up your section 2 into smaller chronological sections? If so, how many centuries will each span? You probably haven’t decided all of these specifics yet, but I’m excited to see how your project turns out! (#WeingartnerFam)

  4. csdeforest says:

    Hi Hannah! I was delighted to discover your blog, as your topic actually ties in a bit with mine (Nationalism in Fantasy Literature)! I’m also interested in how loyalties to communities and nations relate to our obligations to humanity as a whole, as well as how these loyalties affect personal identity, although more in the context of Fantasy rather than “real life.” Have you read Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers? He talks about this idea of permissible partiality–although he doesn’t call it that outright–in his chapter “Kindness to Strangers.” Despite being a Cosmopolitan who ascribes to the principle that we have obligations to everyone, not just those in our immediate circles or imagined communities, Appiah also insists that obligations to strangers just aren’t going to be as strong as the sympathies we feel to the people closest to us, nor should they be. He mentions Rousseau, who apparently was so busy writing on morality and the rights of humanity he couldn’t show any partiality to his own children, and shunted all five of them off to an orphanage. While this extreme is fairly easy to condemn, there do seem to be vast grey areas between unfair partiality, permissible partiality, and coldhearted impartiality, especially when you bring group identities like nationality into the mix. Personally, questions of moral philosophy makes my head hurt, so I admire your efforts in exploring this complex topic! I can’t wait to see where your research goes!