Patriotism – Supererogatory Virtue, Or Unjustifiable Prejudice

Posted on April 20, 2011 in Specials

By Anirudh Nimmagadda:

All of us are, with very few exceptions, taught to love and respect our national heritage from a very young age. At barely five years of age, we are told of the significance of our Independence and Republic days. At six, we are taught to rise when the national anthem is played. At seven, we are taught the words of the anthem and those to the national pledge, and are made to repeat each of them at least once every day for the next several years. As we progress through school, we are related an increasingly detailed and increasingly biased (favorably so) version of our nation’s history, while concurrently being fed watered-down versions of those of others.

The above are but a few of the factors that plant within us the seeds of patriotism. We are, to put it bluntly, brainwashed while impressionable into believing that patriotism is good, that it is right, and that as citizens of the country we are under a moral obligation to support our own countrymen over those from a foreign land. Once inserted this belief remains ingrained in our psyche for a considerable amount of time, to the extent that even when mature we are markedly less comfortable with foreigners than we are with other Indians. Some of us go as far as to dismiss acquaintances who admit to cheering for a sports team that is not Indian as iconoclasts undeserving of our attention and company.

To many, all this talk may seem an attempt at raising a storm – in a teacup; it does not matter, to those of us who see patriotism as an unconditionally positive character trait, how it is instilled, or when. The purpose of the present article is to question that claim. Is patriotism a merit or a prejudice?

In the first comprehensive philosophical treatise on the subject, Stephen Nathan (1993) characterized patriotism as involving a special affection for, a sense of personal identification with, and a concern for the well-being of, one’s country, and also a willingness to sacrifice to promote the country’s good.

This is by no means the only definition around and indeed one can be patriotic to different degrees.

Extreme patriotism best summed up by the phrase “my country… right or wrong” advocates the casting away of moral considerations whenever major interests of the country are at stake. This amounts to a rejection of morality itself and it is a great pity that ‘extreme patriotism’ is not ‘extremely rare’: politicians play to this beat all the time, and not always unsuccessfully.

Another version of patriotism, championed as ‘robust patriotism’ by Alasdair MacIntyre concedes that the ‘larger interests’ of a country cannot be beyond questioning. However, he insists that one must work for the benefit of one’s nation even if the result of that work may be detrimental to humanity at large. Consequently, even robust patriotism rejects morality, or at least an important part of it: that which concerns universal justice and common human solidarity.

Both forms of patriotism discussed above are, in truth, little more than twisted versions of group egoism built around notions of a shared communal history. The only justification for such beliefs can be that one needs no other reason to love one’s country. JB Zimmerman retorts “the love for one’s country … is in many cases no more than the love of an ass for its stall” (Nathanson, 1993). There is merit in Zimmerman’s argument. Feeling an attachment to the land we are born in makes little sense, given we did not choose to be born there. Also, any feelings of gratitude one may have for one’s country (odd, since ‘country’ is an abstract concept) could well be misplaced. We are law-abiding and tax-paying citizens; aren’t we?

What then is the right thing to feel regarding our country of birth? Utter indifference? Is rejecting the emotional bonds tying us to our patria and embracing cosmopolitanism the just thing to do?

Nathanson proposes that we do not have to go that far, and that while global social concern is an important virtue in all humans there are occasions when it may be good to support one’s country over others. For instance, it is good for a citizen to enlist in the military when his country is at war, as long as the war is for a just cause. Additionally, Nathanson’s patriot is not uncritical of his country nor does he support it unconditionally. He will expect it to deserve that support and concern by living up to certain standards and when it fails to do so, he will withdraw that support.

While Nathanson’s patriotism seems agreeable, especially when compared to its alternatives, there is a flaw: it does not argue that patriotism is a moral duty or even a supererogation quality, merely that it is morally unobjectionable. In other words, patriotism has nothing going for it from a moral point of view and as such can be placed in the same basket as racism or petty regionalism.

Humans are naturally selective. We all have preferences for people we like to hang out with, places we want to hang out at, and groups we want to be part of, but that no matter how important these entities are to us our choices are, at best, of no moral import. They are morally permissible, when kept within limits, but indifferent in themselves. The same applies to patriotism (Primoratz, 2002).

I conclude that patriotism is far from being the moral duty we are brought up to believe it is, is in fact a trait of questionable moral character. Taken to an extreme, it can be extremely damaging, as evidenced by the multiple wars – motivated by patriotism – that have occurred in the past two centuries. Further, there is no evidence or argument to support the claim that patriotism is a virtue, while there is good reason to consider a belief in moral universalism one. There is, however, a moral gray area that encompasses Nathanson’s rather watered-down version of patriotism, which is, if little else, not wrong. Opinions on how much one could, or should, love one’s country can therefore vary from person to person. And they will; feel free to leave your comments below.

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