COLUMN - Patriotism incompatible with morality

Patriotism incompatible with morality

According to Leo Tolstoy, "The sentiment (of patriotism) is merely the preference of one's own country or nation above the country or nation of any one else." In this definition the phrase "above the country or nation of any one else" is important because this sense of superiority, dominance and urge for expansion of power of the state over other countries may lead to aggression and hostility among nations.

There is also a middle ground or "moderate" form of patriotism. Nathanson defines moderate patriotism as "a special affection for, identification with, and concern for one's own nation and a willingness to act on its behalf, but within the limits of morality i.e., provided one does not violate the "legitimate needs and interests of other nations and their nationals."

Finally, there is the universalist's view of patriotism. This view is based on human unity. Universalists would not feel any special concern for their countries' well-being because they regard national boundaries and other differentiations among people as arbitrary. Are extreme and moderate patriotism compatible with secular and religious morality? The answer is no.

Extreme patriotism is irrational, or as Tolstoy calls it "stupid," because if every country believes in her superiority, all but one is wrong. It is also at variance with secular morality and representative of an ideal exactly opposite to that of Christian morality. The great ethical teachers have agreed that the Golden Rule asks do unto others, without qualifying who the others are, as you would have them do unto you as basic to any humanistic ethics. In Matthew 22:39, Jesus says "Love thy neighbor as thyself." The question, then, is who is my neighbor? The parable of the good samaritan answers that question. The samaritan helped a Jew, thus transcending the narrow loyalty of nationality.

Extreme patriotism is also at odds with the secular morality. For example, according to utilitarianism, the moral end to be sought in all we do is the greatest possible balance of good over evil. Pursuing the goal of extreme patriotism -- i.e., superiority -- and at the same time balancing the good and evil resulting from such pursuits may indeed be, as Tolstoy argues, an impossible task.

The case for moderate patriotism is not very promising either. According to the advocates of moderate patriotism, if there is a conflict between two nations over natural resources or competing conceptions of the good life and the other side is "right," we are morally obligated to support the right party regardless of our national sentiments. If both sides are right, we should make an attempt to find a just solution to the dispute. In these situations, moderate patriotism becomes indistinguishable from the universalist's view. If two nations cannot find a just solution and they go to war, however, moderate patriotism enjoins us to support our nation-state. If that is the case, there is no difference between extreme and moderate patriotism and the moral objections raised for extreme patriotism apply to moderate one as well.

To gain moral freedom, the rational individual ought to detach himself from the burdens imposed upon him by a particular social, political or economic system. Patriotism by its very definition requires allegiance -- partiality to a particular nation-state -- and hence rules out rational criticism. Once rationality is out, the door for all kinds of irrational attitudes, such as jingoism, chauvinism or racism is wide open. Finally, the moral standpoint and the patriotic standpoint are systematically incompatible. Hence whoever defends patriotism defends immorality as well.

If you still insist on calling yourself a patriot and are reluctant to be labeled as a racist (Paul Gobmerg: "Patriotism Is like Racism" Ethics,1990), scoundrel (from the famous remark of Samuel Johnson that "patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrel"), irrational and many other unpleasant labels, you may characterize your patriotism as love or devotion to the country assuming that such love or devotion does not violate the constraints set by impersonal morality. Of course that type of patriotism is an "emasculated" one and tantamount to nothing but a set of empty slogans and displays so rampant in today's society.


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