Is Patriotism a Virtue?

The fact that so few public figures openly challenge the value of patriotism indicates not a genuine consensus in favor of patriotism, but only that few public figures have given much thought to what patriotism actually is.

“The man who has no country has no God, either.” – Dostoevsky

Whether they find him persuasive or no, few readers will deny that Alasdair MacIntyre is one of the most significant Catholic philosophers of our time. Titles like Whose Justice? Whose Rationality? and After Virtue have inspired many to further his critiques of the West’s pluralist system, even as others have sought to refute him. While debates about MacIntyre’s work have generally revolved around the role of religion in the public square, there is yet another dimension to his thought which deserves attention. How we respond to three of 21st-century America’s most pressing and controversial issues—immigration, trade, and foreign relations—depends in no small part upon how we regard national identity.

So it behooves us to consider the question MacIntyre poses in the title of his 1984 Findley lecture: Is patriotism a virtue?

The question is not a rhetorical one. The fact that so few public figures openly challenge the value of patriotism indicates not a genuine consensus in favor of patriotism, but only that few public figures have given much thought to what patriotism actually is. As MacIntyre points out, there is an inherent conflict between patriotism and the modern West’s liberal democratic ethos. Similar to “marital fidelity, the love of one’s own family and kin, friendship, and loyalty to such institutions as schools,” explains MacIntyre, patriotism is “a kind of loyalty to a particular nation which only those possessing that particular nationality can exhibit.” Such personal loyalties are incompatible with the liberal standard of universal neutrality, he explains, because for the liberal,

to judge from a moral standpoint is to judge impersonally. It is to judge as any rational person would judge, independently of his or her interests, affections and social position. And to act morally is to act in accordance with such impersonal judgments. Thus to think and to act morally involve the moral agent in abstracting him or herself from all social particularity and partiality.

If we accept the Enlightenment moral theory upon which liberalism is based, MacIntyre concludes, we must concede that “‘patriotism’ is not merely not the name of a virtue, but must be the name of a vice.” In other words, if the essence of morality lies in impartial detachment and patriotism means giving weight to personal history—to contingencies like “where I was born and what government ruled over the place at that time, who my parents were, who my great-grandparents were and so on”—then the more patriotic we are the less moral we are, and vice versa.

Some have sought to neutralize the conflict between patriotism and Enlightenment morality by redefining the object of the patriot’s commitment—i.e., the nation. Journalist Peggy Noonan provides a characteristic example; she dismisses attachments to place, community, and culture, recommending instead that patriotism as traditionally conceived be supplanted by “love for and fidelity to the ideas and ideals our country was invented to advance – freedom, equality, and pluralism.” In response to such attempts to adopt a more enlightened approach to patriotism, MacIntyre contends that the patriot simply does not have the same outlook as “those who are protagonists of their own nation’s causes because and only because, so they assert, it is their nation which is the champion of some great moral ideal.” Whether replacing the traditional nation with the propositional nation is right or wrong, it is not so innovative as its proponents seem to think:

[I]n the Great War of 1914-18 Max Weber claimed that Imperial Germany should be supported because its cause was the cause of Kultur, while Emile Durkheim claimed with equal vehemence that France should be supported because its was the cause of civilization. And here and now there are those American politicians who claim that the United States deserves our allegiance because it champions the goods of freedom

Yet however we may regard various idealists and their ideals, MacIntyre continues, in their activity they may be distinguished in two ways from the patriot as such: “[F]irst it is the ideal and not the nation which is the primary object of their regard; and secondly insofar as their regard for the ideal provides good reasons for allegiance to their country, it provides good reasons for anyone at all to uphold their country’s cause, irrespective of their nationality or citizenship.”

Put another way, a citizen who claims to love his country solely because he subscribes to its principles might be compared to a son who claims to love his mother only because, after having taken a long hard critical look at her, he has decided that she, a person of high ideals and correct opinions, is worthy of his love. Setting aside just how disturbingly inhuman this hypothetical son would be were his claim true, we must at least recognize that by his own admission his attitude is hardly an example of filial piety. Likewise, devotion to a set of abstract propositions—even noble and true propositions—is not at all the same thing as love for one’s native land, and attempts to conflate the two will (at best) lead to confusion.

MacIntyre himself seems reluctant to take a firm stand in the debate between patriots and liberals, and instead remains content to point out the profound dilemma faced by the would-be liberal patriot. In one intriguing passage, however, he suggests that traditional patria may be not only compatible with morality, but a necessary condition for it:

If first of all it is the case that I can only apprehend the rules of morality in the version in which they are incarnated in some specific community; and if secondly it is the case that the justification of morality must be in terms of particular goods enjoyed within the life of particular communities; and if thirdly it is the case that I am characteristically brought into being and maintained as a moral agent only through the particular kinds of moral sustenance afforded by my community, then it is clear that deprived of this community, I am unlikely to flourish as a moral agent […] Detached from my community, I will be apt to lose my hold upon all genuine standards of judgment. Loyalty to that community, to the hierarchy of particular kinship, particular local community and particular natural community, is on this view a prerequisite for morality.

An argument can be made, then, that culture is to morality as grammar is to communication. The point is not that any given culture (or language) is necessarily superior to any other, but that each man needs to be steeped in some particular culture (or language) if he is to engage in moral reasoning (or communicate.)

The preceding also makes clear why the subversion of patriotism should be important to everyone interested in defending what Pope John Paul II called the culture of life. It makes no sense to jettison the patriotic sentiment simply because it is “obsolete”, “irrational”, or “unscientific,” and then expect people to respect other sentiments—sentiments of reverence for unborn life, say, or sentiments in favor of marriage—which are clearly neither more nor less progressive, rational, or scientific than is patriotism. To be fair to militant leftists, they are only being sincere and consistent in applying their professed principles, more sincere and consistent than many who call themselves conservative. There is an inner logic to the assault upon and subversion of what remains of Western civilization’s institutions. If to judge from a moral standpoint really is to judge impersonally, then not only patriotism but also marital fidelity, love of family and kin, friendship, and school spirit are all vices too.


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About Jerry Salyer 37 Articles
Catholic convert Jerry Salyer is a philosophy instructor living in Franklin County, Kentucky.