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An examination of the notion of patriotism

In what is still the sole book-length philosophical study of the subject, Stephen Nathanson 1993, 34—35 defines patriotism as involving: There is no great difference between special affection and love, and Nathanson himself uses the terms interchangeably.

  • The question does not admit of a single answer;
  • In writing Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke dipped his pen in the same ink that produced his treatise on aesthetics;
  • See his Rationalism in Politics, Indianapolis;
  • It might not be aesthetically pleasant, and it might seem to advance too broad and ambitious a scope for building political attachment;
  • The group to which our primary loyalty would be owed would be the group from which we had obtained our moral understanding.

Although love or special affection is usually given expression in special concern for its object, that is not necessary. But a person whose love for her country was not expressed in any special concern for it would scarcely be considered a patriot. Therefore the definition needs to include such concern. Such identification is expressed in vicarious feelings: This is only a definition. A fuller account of patriotism is beyond the scope of this article. Many authors use the two terms interchangeably.

Among those who do not, quite a few have made the distinction in ways that are not very helpful. George Orwell contrasted the two in terms of aggressive vs. Nationalism is about power: While nationalism is accordingly aggressive, patriotism is defensive: When these are exhibited in a reasonable degree and without ill thoughts about others and hostile actions towards them, that is patriotism; when they become unbridled and cause one to think ill of others and act badly towards them, that is nationalism.

Conveniently enough, it usually turns out that we are patriots, while they are nationalists see Billig 1995, 55—59. There is yet another way of distinguishing patriotism and nationalism — one that is quite simple and begs no moral questions. Both patriotism and nationalism involve love of, identification with, and special concern for a certain entity.

Thus patriotism and nationalism are understood as the same type of set of beliefs and attitudes, and distinguished in terms of their objects, rather than the strength of an examination of the notion of patriotism beliefs and attitudes, or as sentiment vs. To be sure, there is much overlap between country and nation, and therefore between patriotism and nationalism; thus much that applies to one will also apply to the other. But when a country is not ethnically homogeneous, or when a nation lacks a country of its own, the two may part ways.

Normative issues Patriotism has had a fair number of critics. The harshest among them have judged it deeply flawed in every important respect. In the 19th century, Russian novelist and thinker Leo Tolstoy found patriotism both stupid and immoral. It is stupid because every patriot holds his own country to be the best of all whereas, obviously, only one country can qualify.

Some of these objections can easily be countered. However, there is another, more plausible line of criticism of patriotism focusing on its intellectual, rather than moral credentials.

This suggests that patriotism can be judged from the standpoint of ethics of belief — a set of norms for evaluating our beliefs and other doxastic states. Simon Keller has examined patriotism from this point of view, and found it wanting.

  • According to her, a long tradition going back to Aristotle suggests that circumscribed emotions such as erotic love or local pride may be stepping-stones towards broader forms of attachment;
  • Extreme patriots will also fight for it in whatever way it takes to win;
  • However, as Lauren Hall rightly argues, Mehta overstates Burke's cosmopolitanism;
  • Each of us can normally be of greater assistance to those who are in some way close to us than to those who are not.

Accordingly, she forms beliefs about her country in ways different from the ways in which she forms beliefs about other countries. Moreover, she cannot admit this motivation while at the same time remaining a patriot.

This leads her to hide from herself the true source of some of the beliefs involved. This is bad faith. Bad faith is bad; so is patriotism, as well as every identity, individual or collective, constituted, in part, by patriotic loyalty. This portrayal does seem accurate as far as much patriotism as we know it is concerned. Yet Keller may be overstating his case as one against patriotism as such.

This might not be a very satisfactory answer; we might agree with J. But however egocentric, irrational, asinine, surely it qualifies as patriotism. In a later statement of his argument 2007, 80—81Keller seems to be of two minds on this point. They also consider patriotism an important component of our identity.

Some go further, and argue that patriotism is morally mandatory, or even that it is the core of morality.

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There is, however, a major tradition in moral philosophy which understands morality as essentially universal and impartial, and seems to rule out local, partial attachment and loyalty. A related objection is that patriotism is exclusive in invidious and dangerous ways.

It tends to encourage militarism, and makes for international tension and conflict. What, then, is the moral status of patriotism? The question does not admit of a single answer. We can distinguish five types of patriotism, and each needs to be judged on its merits.

  • Cornell University Press, 1994;
  • Certainly Burke fought ceaselessly to impeach Hastings for his abuses in India.

This may or may not be relevant to the question of patriotism, depending on just what we take the point of princely rule to be. This type of patriotism is extreme, but by no means extremely rare. Not much needs to be said about the moral standing of this type of patriotism, as it amounts to an examination of the notion of patriotism of morality.

On the liberal view, where and from whom I learn the principles of morality is just as irrelevant to their contents and to my commitment to them, as where and from whom I learn the principles of mathematics is irrelevant to their contents and my adherence to them. For MacIntyre, where and from whom I learn my morality is of decisive importance both for my commitment to it and for its very contents.

There is no morality as such; morality is always the morality of a particular community. Moral rules are justified in terms of certain goods they express and promote; but these goods, too, are always given as part and parcel of the way of life of a community.

The individual becomes a moral agent only when informed as such by his community. He also lives and flourishes as one because he is sustained in his moral life by his community. If I can live and flourish as a moral agent only as a member of my community, while playing the role this membership involves, then my very identity is bound up with that of my community, its history, traditions, institutions, and aspirations.

Therefore, if I do not understand the enacted narrative of my own individual life as embedded in the history of my country … I will not understand what I owe to others or what others owe to me, for what crimes of my nation I am bound to make reparation, for what benefits to my nation I am bound to feel gratitude.


Understanding what is owed to and by me and understanding the history of the communities of which I am a part is … one and the same thing. To that extent, this type of patriotism is critical and rational. This account of patriotism is exposed to several objections. One might find fault with the step from communitarianism to patriotism: Even if his communitarian conception of morality were correct and even if the process of moral development ensured that group loyalty would emerge as a central virtue, no conclusion would follow about the importance of patriotism.

The group to which our primary loyalty would be owed would be the group from which we had obtained our moral understanding. This need not be the community as a whole or any political unit, however. The nation need not be the source of morality or the primary beneficiary of our loyalty.

Nathanson 1989, 549 Yet another objection would focus on the fundamentally irrational character of robust patriotism: If so, this type of patriotism would seem to involve the rejection of such basic moral notions as universal justice and common human solidarity. This is not a fair objection to patriotism as such.

But the objection is pertinent, and has considerable force, when brought up against the type of patriotism advocated by MacIntyre.

If justice is understood in universal, rather than an examination of the notion of patriotism terms, if common human solidarity counts as a weighty moral consideration, and if peace is of paramount importance and war is morally permissible only when it is just, then this kind of patriotism must be rejected.

There is considerable middle ground between these extremes. Exploring this middle ground has led some philosophers to construct positions accommodating both the universal and the particular point of view — both the mandates of universal justice and claims of common humanity, and the concern for the patria and compatriots.

An examination of the notion of patriotism

Baron argues that the conflict between impartiality and partiality is not quite as deep as it may seem. Morality allows for both types of considerations, as they pertain to different levels of moral deliberation.

At one level, we are often justified in taking into account our particular commitments and an examination of the notion of patriotism, including those to our country.

At another level, we can and ought to reflect on such commitments and attachments from a universal, impartial point of view, to delineate their proper scope and determine their weight. In such a case, partiality and particular concerns are judged to be legitimate and indeed valuable from an impartial, universal point of view.

This means that with respect to those matters and within the same limits, it is also good for a Cuban to judge as a Cuban and to put Cuban interests first, etc. Actually, this is how we think of our special obligations to, and preferences for, our family, friends, or local community; this kind of partiality is legitimate, and indeed valuable, not only for us but for anyone.

By doing so, she argues, our patriotism will leave room for serious, even radical criticism of our country, and will not be a force for dissension and conflict in the international arena.

A good example is provided by the Ten Commandments, a major document of Western morality. It is not unbridled: It acknowledges the constraints morality imposes on the pursuit of our individual and an examination of the notion of patriotism goals.

For instance, it may require the patriot to fight for his country, but only in so far as the war is, and remains, just. Adherents of both extreme and robust patriotism will consider themselves bound to fight for their country whether its cause be just or not. Extreme patriots will also fight for it in whatever way it takes to win. Moderate patriotism is not exclusive. Its adherent will show special concern for his country and compatriots, but that will not prevent him from showing concern for other countries and their inhabitants.

Such patriotism is compatible with a decent degree of humanitarianism. Finally, moderate patriotism is not uncritical, unconditional, or egocentric. For an adherent of this type of patriotism, it is not enough that the country is her country. She will also expect it to live up to certain standards and thereby deserve her support, devotion, and special concern for its well-being.

When it fails to do so, she will withhold support. The latter type of patriotism need not conflict with impartial justice or common human solidarity. It will therefore be judged morally unobjectionable by all except some adherents of a strict type of cosmopolitanism. However, both Baron and Nathanson fail to distinguish clearly between showing that their preferred type of patriotism is morally unobjectionable and showing that it is morally required or virtuous, and sometimes seem to be assuming that by showing the former, they are also showing the latter.

Yet there is a gap between the two claims, and the latter, stronger case for moderate patriotism still needs to be made. Gratitude is probably the most popular among the grounds adduced for patriotic duty. We owe our country our life, our education, our language, and, in the most fortunate cases, our liberty.