Patriotism in peace and war

Patriotism is most fervently displayed in times of war and impending war. Even during times of peace, patriotism is often expressed in commemorations of war and in ceremonies involving the military. Is patriotism, then, necessarily warlike? Does patriotism lust for violence? Or is there an achievable form of patriotism grounded in respect for humanity in general, and aimed at achieving peace?

This talk was part of the 2015 series on conflict jointly presented by The National Library of New Zealand and Victoria University of Wellington.

These notes are not a transcript of the talk; they are a summary of the main points made.

Simon Keller

Professor Simon Keller teaches ethics, and political philosophy at Victoria University.

Simon Keller is not an employee of the National Library, and as such his ideas and opinions are his own.

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Patriotism is a familiar presence in war. The parties to war – not always, but usually – are countries. To motivate soldiers to fight in a war and to motivate the public to support a war, we appeal to patriotism. War, plausibly, needs patriotism. Does the relationship work in the other direction too? Does patriotism need war?

There are indications that patriotism is intrinsically warlike, in some sense and to some degree. The most solemn and sincere displays of patriotism tend to be associated with commemorating war, or in other ways with the military. New Zealanders express patriotism by visiting the battlefields where their ancestors fought. In the present debate about changing the flag, it is widely accepted that those who have fought for New Zealand have a special kind of ownership of our national symbols and identity. Patriotism is a form of loyalty, and loyalty is most clearly displayed through acts of sacrifice; the paradigmatic form of sacrifice "for country" is the sacrifice made by soldiers in war.

Statement with room for a signatory, reading 'A true patriot: Following the example of the King, and in order that I may be of the greatest service to my Country and carry out the wishes of the Commander in Chief at this time of National peril, I promise until the end of the War to Abstain from all Intoxicants (except when such are ordered by a doctor) and to encourage others to do the same.'New Zealand Alliance for the Abolition of the Liquor Traffic, A true patriot, 1915. Ref: Eph-A-ALCOHOL-Temperance-1915-01.

The ethical status of patriotism is a source of continuing debate in political philosophy, and also in education, and in public life more generally, especially as we face the challenges and opportunities offered by globalization. Should we be patriotic? If so, what kinds of patriots should we be? The question of whether patriotism is necessarily warlike is of central relevance to questions like these.

Whether patriotism is necessarily warlike obviously depends on what patriotism is. One common response to the question is, "It depends what you mean by patriotism." That’s true, but not all definitions of patriotism are equal.

In what follows, I want to trace a series of arguments offered by philosophers concerning the relationship between patriotism and war. Having traced these arguments, I want to say something about what patriotism is and what dangers it brings with it.

Patriotism and partiality

A patriot loves her country and is loyal to her country. Patriotism is a form of loyalty, and loyalty involves partiality. If you are loyal to something, then you give it special treatment, as compared with similar things towards which you are not loyal. A loving parent gives special treatment to her own children, a loyal friend gives special treatment to her friends, and so on.

Loyalty raises some familiar dangers: bias, nepotism, corruption, exploitation, subservience, and so on. But no one can be opposed to loyalty altogether. In families, friendships, and elsewhere, partiality is a natural and valuable part of life.

One thought about patriotism, then, is that while it can be warlike, it does not need to be. It can be the good kind of loyalty rather than the bad kind. Partiality, of the right kind, is natural and desirable, and this goes as much for patriotism as for other forms of loyalty. Patriotism can be an extension of virtuous loyalty within a family. It can be a source of community feeling, solidarity, mutual concern and cooperation, and shared identity: all good things. Patriotism of the right kind can promote sympathy and concern between nations, as love within families can promote sympathy and concern between families.

Several philosophers distinguish between kinds of patriotism, and say that the right kind of patriotism is the kind that is not warlike. They favor forms of patriotism that they variously call "liberal patriotism", "moderate patriotism", "constitutional patriotism", and "cosmopolitan patriotism".

The argument goes like this. Patriotism is a form of loyalty. There are obviously non-warlike forms of loyalty. So you can be patriotic in a non-warlike way. So patriotism need not be warlike.

Ethical patriotism

Igor Primoratz offers a variant of the above argument that purports to identify a kind of patriotism that is by its nature non-warlike.

Patriotism is a form of special concern for your own country. One way to be especially concerned for your own country is to have a special concern for its moral performance. You can care about whether your country serves the causes of peace and justice. Since this is a form of special concern for country, it qualifies as a form of patriotism: Primoratz calls it "ethical patriotism". Ethical patriotism is not warlike.

Patriotism and peace

Stephen Nathanson believes that patriotism needs more content than Primoratz’s account allows. To be a patriot, you need to want your country not just to measure up to independently specified standards, but to flourish on its own terms, in its own distinctive way. (There is a difference between the visions of a New Zealander who wants New Zealand to flourish and an American who wants America to flourish.) Patriotism always involves a narrative about a country and what sets it apart from others: what it stands for, where it comes from, where it’s going.

Nathanson believes that patriotism is inevitable. He thinks that the challenge for advocates of peace is to construct narratives on which the country’s cause is the cause of peace. His argument:

Patriotism is a special commitment to a national project. There are always competing stories about what a given country’s national project is. It is usually possible to construe a country’s national project so as to make it look like a project that supports peace and justice. So it is usually possible to be a patriotic advocate of peace.

Communitarian patriotism

Now for our first argument that links patriotism explicitly with conflict. Alasdair MacIntyre is an advocate of patriotism, but he thinks that the forms of patriotism advocated in the arguments above are "emasculated". They are emasculated because they, in various ways, make the cause of the country subservient to certain universal principles and values. This, he says, is not true loyalty. (Imagine a parent whose driving commitment was to make her child fit certain independently specified universal standards, rather than flourishing in her own distinctive manner.)

Like Nathanson, MacIntyre thinks patriotism involves a commitment to a national project. With a national project comes a national way of life. The way of life to which you are committed, as a patriot, will probably conflict with other ways of life. MacIntyre uses an example of the clash between the farming life of one community and the raiding life of a neighboring community. We can easily come up with contemporary examples too. The argument, then:

Patriotism involves commitment to a particular way of life. Ways of life conflict. If you are a patriot, then when your way of life conflicts with another, you will take your own side and commit yourself to defending it. Patriots of other countries will take opposing sides. So genuine patriotism is always braced for conflict.

Note again that MacIntyre supports patriotism. He thinks we should be committed to our own particular national forms of life, and that we should defend them against others. Morality is about commitment to a community, and communities come into conflict.

Kateb on patriotism and war

The arguments above have been something of a warmup. I now want to talk about a vigorous attack on patriotism offered by George Kateb, in his paper "Is Patriotism a Mistake?" His words are worth quoting directly.

A country is not a discernible collection of discernible individuals like a team or a faculty or a local chapter of a voluntary association. Of course a country is a delimited territory. It is also a place, a setting, a geography; it has landscape, cityscapes, perhaps seascapes; it has old buildings as well as new ones; it has historical sites; it has a light, an air, an atmosphere; it has a special look. But it is also constructed out of transmitted memories true and false; a history usually mostly falsely sanitized or falsely heroized; a sense of kinship of a largely invented purity; and social ties that are largely invisible or impersonal, indeed abstract, yet by an act of insistent or of dream-like imagination made visible and personal. What, then, is patriotism, really? It is a readiness to die and to kill for an abstraction: nothing you can see all of, or feel as you feel the presence of another person, or comprehend. Patriotism, then, is a readiness to die and to kill for what is largely a figment of the imagination.

Patriotism is inherently disposed to disregard morality, well short of regard for others. Armed entities can never think of anything but self-promotion; their leaders never think for a moment of giving equal consideration to other peoples, much less preferring them. None of them does. The moral disposition is wholly alien to international relations, because self-preservation, no matter how defined, is permanently thought endangered. You can love particular persons without having to dislike or hate others; but you cannot love an abstract entity like a country and not dislike or hate other countries, because countries are, from their nature as organizations of and for power, in actual or latent competition.

Patriotism is not only disguised self-worship, not only eager self-abjection, not only voluntary self-exploitation; above all it is idolatry. As with many idols, the worship is destructive and self-destructive. The essential tie between people and society becomes sacrifice: sacrifice of oneself, of one's fellows, of one's adversaries.

Apart from entertainment, what does Kateb’s story offer that sets him so far apart from the philosophers considered so far? Many of those philosophers would say that Kateb is simply focusing on one extreme or illiberal form of patriotism and failing to notice others. But Kateb in fact has a far more sophisticated story to tell. Let me try to discern a couple of arguments from among his claims.

Countries as militarized

To be a country is hold a monopoly on the use of force over a region. A country is sustained ultimately from its power to subdue military threats. A country is always braced for violence. To be loyal to a country is to be braced to defend it militarily. Patriotism is a preparedness to die and kill for a country.

Countries as abstractions

A country is necessarily an imagined, abstract entity that is taken to unite people who in fact do not know each other and have nothing much in common. Because a country cannot be known, it is very difficult to show loyalty to it by serving its interests. Instead, the way to show loyalty to the country is to carry out grand acts – acts of destruction and sacrifice – in its name. That’s why patriotism lusts for war.

Where does this leave us?

The progression of arguments about the ethics of patriotism shows us, I think, that the more we think about patriotism, the more we see that patriotism is not really analogous to familiar interpersonal loyalties. This is for two reasons, each indicated, in one way or another, in Kateb.

  1. Countries just are not like persons, or families, or "delimited groups".
  2. Patriotic loyalty to country is not just a generic form of love or loyalty. The way a patriot thinks about her country is not just like the way a parent thinks about her child or a friend thinks about her friend.

I want to build on these two insights to make my own argument about the ethics of patriotism. I don’t think that patriotism is necessarily warlike, but I do think that it is necessarily unthinking, in a certain sense.

The psychology of patriotism

The distinctive patriotic emotion is pride in country. It makes little sense to say, "I am a patriotic New Zealander, but I feel no pride in being a New Zealander". In this respect, patriotism is different from (say) love of a parent. It makes sense to say, "I am thoroughly ashamed of my mother, but I love her anyway", but not "I am thoroughly ashamed of my country, but I am a patriot anyway". Pride combines two components.

The first is identity. To be proud of something, you must identify with it. You can admire Switzerland, you can even love it, but you can’t be proud of it, because you do not identify with it in the right way (unless you are Swiss). As a patriot, you see a little bit of yourself in the country and a little bit of the country in you.

The second is endorsement. Pride is a positive attitude. To be proud of something is to take there to be something good about it. To be a patriot is to take your country to merit your loyalty, because it is, in some central respect, good.

Understanding the role of pride in patriotism helps understand the need to construct a country as an entity that carries its own distinctive narrative. You need to find something in the country of which you can be proud. And you need to take that to be something that somehow includes you – something that encompasses part of your identity.

Patriotism has a cognitive component. To be a patriot, you need to carry with you an understanding of what your country is, and on that understanding, your country must be represented as something good – something worthy of your allegiance. That is why patriotic texts and ceremonies always emphasize what is (purportedly) good about the country and its people. Patriotic ceremonies are always, at some level, celebrations.

Patriotism also has an emotional component. The patriot needs to find a way to identify with a huge complicated abstract entity. That is why patriotism is nurtured through songs, spectacular displays, expressions of solemnity, and rousing symbols.

The danger of patriotism

The patriot accepts a positive picture of her country – an imagined ungraspable abstract entity – as a matter of her very identity. Her patriotism takes the form of a commitment to a country as it meets a certain positive description: my free country, my egalitarian country, my laid-back friendly country, my country with its grand artistic tradition.

My concern about patriotism, then, is that it suppresses certain forms of reasoning. It proposes, as a matter of loyalty and identity, a picture of the country that will always be somewhat exclusive, somewhat sanitized, and a matter of controversy. When something is accepted as a matter of loyalty and identity, there are strong emotional blocks to questioning it. Patriotism puts strong emotional blocks on legitimate public debate. This does not mean that patriotism is necessarily directed towards war, but it does mean that the sorts of justifications that arise in thinking about whether to go to war are less likely to be questioned by patriotic people.

By Simon Keller

Professor Simon Keller teaches ethics, and political philosophy at Victoria University.

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