THE MORALITY OF PATRIOTISM
di Donatella Rinaldi
LSE – London School of Economics and Political Science
WHY PATRIOTISM IS MORAL.
In some account of morality it is utterly relevant to know the root of the self inclusive of whereabouts and family background in order to assess moral commitment. Communitarian thinkers (Walzer, M.  “Thick and Thin : Moral Argument at Home and Abroad”, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press) are adamant that the morality we acquire is learned from and through the life of the community we live in ( the “thin” of moral argument, according to Walzer, which is the maximum meaning of morality). The set of moral rules distinctive of a particular community arises from the way in which its members in the past responded to a set of events whose main feature was that their being utterly problematic led to question or reformulate the traditional rules these individuals employed to act morally. In spite of the rearrangement to a specific circumstance, the starting point of moral action is obedience to rules intrinsic to that particular society and its institutions (i.e. regard for the elderly is different seen among various communities. In Mediterranean countries the tendency is to look after the elderly in the cosiness of the family house and even though the price to be paid is to jeopardize the career of the women in the nuclear family, who are usually the carers, the high regard for the elderly in those communities deems as immoral to let them live in well equipped hospices. In English speaking countries where women emancipation is stronger, the choice about tending to the old and the sick is left to the individual. The choice of pursuing a career and let the old parents leave in a care home is morally justifiable.) The renewed morality is nonetheless a highly specific morality, contingent upon the traditions and customs of the institutions of a particular community.
Liberal thinkers object that this conception of morality is misconstrued. The full comprehension of what is moral comes only when rules framed in terms of particular institutions are understood as application of more general moral rules. The genuine moral agent must progress and free himself from social particularity and adopt a standpoint devoid of social particularity.
The problem with this liberal argument is its abstractness. The good towards which a moral choice is oriented is more likely to be found in the good pertaining the particular peoples of one’s community than in the multifaceted universal ideals of toleration, freedom, justice. What justifies abiding to a set of moral rules are the rules of morality as framed in the community where one lives. No allegiance to a group or community means to be relegated in a limbo of moral irrelevance (Kymlicka, W.  “Multicultural Citizenship” Oxford University Press). Moreover, it is undeniable that moral agency is a daunting task for human beings whose immediate desires and edonistic appetites put them in the difficult position of struggling endlessly in order not to fall into temptation and back off. Individual moral weaknesses are counteracted by the collective morality of those around me. “No man is an island”, according to poet John Donne, and this adage is undeniable in its truth if we think of our morality as reinforced within a community. Our morality arises from the way others regard us, from what we owe to them as well as from the way in which the others regard themselves. In this way the social ties of a known community become the prerequisite for morality and patriotism and its components are given the status of central virtue.
CONTEMPORARY MORAL LIBERALISM.
A good political theorist should always justify the rationale of his thinking against contrasting arguments and though I am reluctant to include myself among political thinkers and more prone to the definition of “apprentice” among scholars of political theory, this is what I intend to do in this final paragraph.
Why we should reject the liberal idea that patriotism is a vice ? What are the wrongs of this argument ?
The supreme good in the liberal idea is the process of emancipation, the acquisition of Berlin’s negative freedom from external and internal constraints. Social constraints are by definition the strongest of all and their critique and subsequent replacement is conceived as the essential motor of change against the status quo. From this standpoint the unconditional loyalty that patriotism at times requires is not acceptable since it rules out the sorely needed criticism that is harbinger of transformation. The liberal critique against patriotism consists of accusation of conservatism and irrationality. Is there anything more irrational than the patriotic refusal of questioning long held beliefs grounded in the particular of the community and instead accepting them irrespective of their intrinsic rationality ? For the liberals there is certainly nothing more irrational than that. But is this what really a patriot does ? A patriot is keen on exempting from any critique the nation as a foundational project whose roots are anchored in a more or less distant past in which a moral distinctive community claiming political autonomy through the articulation of its social and political institutions was given life, but the same doesn’t hold true for those who detain power in that particular nation. It is a patriotic duty to fight against those political leaders who have betrayed the original foundational project, since a patriotic allegiance is contingent upon the leader devotion to further the national project instead of hindering it. Patriotism is thus a means of change, the junction between the past that conferred a distinctive moral identity and the future well-being of that original project.
There are countless examples of patriots without an identified power or government. In the Italian movement for independence and unity in the seventeenth century, historical figures like Garibaldi fought for the idea of Italy even before an Italian government existed. Many others are the examples of patriotic dissidents within the nation that fought for the country against its government (Orange Revolution in Ukraine against Russia backed new Prime Minister in 2005; the most recent Green Revolution against the oppressive Iranian regime).
I have sufficiently showed that the accusation of conservatism launched by liberalism against patriotism is utterly unfair, as patriotic ideals have mostly been behind the greatest changes in history.
The most difficult moral dilemma that patriotism has to face is when the support for the original project of the nation one belongs to clashes with what is in the best interest of mankind. In Nazi Germany to devote to the national original project meant committing to the most appalling atrocities humanity had ever experienced. Can patriotism go as far as to support concentration camps ? The more reasonable answer to this problematic question is that rational thinking can provide the ground for repudiating morally unacceptable features of the country actual institutions and life. Inner morality acquired through universal values that stems from religious or not religious ethics may limit what can be done in the name of the nation. That said, universal values appear to make their comeback at the expense of the particular and this is what makes patriotism a double-edged sword whose latent moral danger has always to be taken into account. Yet, liberalism and its impartial morality doesn’t provide us with better reasons to avoid the above mentioned moral dilemma. Liberalism has still to further the analysis about the mysterious force that forges our allegiance to the standards of impartiality and makes us reject personal interest centred decisions. The strength of reciprocity in the discourse of moral understanding has left no room for the appeal to impersonal rationality as the trigger of moral agency. The danger posed by liberalism is represented by its frenzy to break down long held social ties left to the destructive energy of rational criticism.
For this reason I accept the fact that liberalism and patriotism will always be at odd one with the other. The United States are the paradigmatic example of this troubled coexistence: on the one hand the liberal idea of religious freedom that let religious communities to pray and preach without constraints and on the other hand the typical American patriotism that engages in the ideal of the American Constitution all those who live in the American soil, and founds its morality on the American ideal of morality.
Contemporary moral patriotism is the ideal that turns armed forces in men and women who are prepared to sacrifice their own lives for the sake and safety of the country whose love and devotion share with others. We shouldn’t let liberal moral impartiality turn them into sceptics men and women whose willingness to fight for their country is contingent upon their own individual evaluation of the rightness and wrongness of the cause of war which is grounded on impartial standards irrespective of the interests of their own community.
The path from impartiality to passivity and avoidance of obligation is a danger we come across with if we don’t give patriotism its proper place.
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