welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


The Puzzle Of Patriotism

Phil Badger tries to make sense of a tangle of pride, identity and metaphysics.

“If you believe yourself a citizen of the world then you are a citizen of nowhere.”
UK Prime Minister Theresa May, October 2016

My national identity seems to me to be both contingent and coincidental. Being born British, while quite lucky in terms of my life chances and political rights, wasn’t something of my own doing. Therefore it is no more something for me to be proud of than my being born in the middle of the twentieth century. I was once told a (possibly apocryphal) story about a former Prime Minister of Belgium who, when asked if he was proud of his nationality, replied that the question was ridiculous and that he might as well be asked if he was “proud of being a man.”

Some people will find this idea simply outrageous. For them there is nothing accidental about nationality. Such people hold what I might call a ‘metaphysical theory’ of their identity: consciously or otherwise, they feel that a kind of spiritual thread connects together those who share a particular nationality so that they also share a set of mutual obligations and rights.

Not me. When I was about fourteen, the BBC put on one of its series aimed at educating and informing the population. In this particular case, the actors pretended to be philosophers such as Plato and Socrates. I suspect that the whole thing was a ghastly hamfest; but for me the important thing was that a toga-clad Socrates asked his pupil “How should men live?” Putting aside the inherent misogyny of the question, this was a crucial moment in my young life. First, the revelation that people actually asked questions like that was mind-blowing; second, the seed was planted that there could be an answer to it which pertained to humans in general and not just to those in my own community. At that moment, with deference to Socrates, I became a citizen not of a small town in northern England, but of the world.

In this article I’m going to do my best to get to grips with the idea of patriotism in the most generous-spirited manner I can muster. I will refrain (after now) from references to Dr Johnson, who opined patriotism to be “the last refuge of the scoundrel” and instead examine a trio of philosophical models of patriotism.

Model 1: Communitarian Patriotism

In his wonderful book Justice (2010), the ethicist Michael Sandel tells a well-authenticated story about Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Lee, it seems, began the American Civil War as an instructor at West Point military academy, and, respected military genius as he was, was approached by Abraham Lincoln with an offer to take command of the Union armies in the coming conflagration. The story goes that Lee asked Lincoln for a night to think the offer over. Lee spent that night pacing his rooms and juggling the competing claims of principle (he was apparently no supporter of slavery) and loyalty to hearth and home. In the end, Lee chose the demands of filial loyalty over those of abstract principle. He refused Lincoln’s offer, and headed south to defend a system he despised rather than take up arms against his fellow Southerners.

What are we to make of this story? Sandel’s view – one he knows will outrage the liberal-minded – is sympathetic to Lee’s position. He points out that for most people the feeling of connection to our homes, our communities, and their histories, is what gives us our sense of who we are. This is the communitarian view. Conversely, for liberals, ideally, the individual decides upon his or her principles from a position of detachment.

Lee’s story brings into sharp relief the gulf of incomprehension that exists between the liberal and the communitarian on the issue of identity. For the liberal, the notion of what we might call ‘inherited responsibility’ is simply an absurdity: I am no more responsible for the crimes of the British Empire than a Russian person of my age is for those of Stalin. But for the communitarian the idea seems plausible, even obvious. Of course, the liberal is willing to accept that we might owe something to those who are still suffering the impact of past actions by our co-nationals – for example, political chaos in the Middle East – but only to the extent that we are still benefiting from them. If my grandfather robbed your grandfather, that’s nothing to do with me, so long as his ill-gotten gains didn’t put me through university.

You might be feeling a little uneasy at this point. Specifically, you might be feeling an intuitive sympathy for the communitarian view. You might even be thinking that there’s something psychologically odd about the kind of person who can’t grasp it.

If so, you are in good company. In his book The Righteous Mind (2012), the evolutionary psychologist Jonathan Haidt sees such liberals as lacking something that most people have as a matter of instinct. He does not precisely say we’re defective (although he comes close), but he certainly thinks we’re evolutionary anomalies, born without the full range of moral intuitions possessed by others.

One of the things wrong with Haidt’s view is that he fails to see that the detached liberal position is not based on an odd moral intuition but on a kind of achievement which requires work. Many of us as children and since have indulged in national pride but liberals have learnt to treat these psychological tendencies with a certain caution and allow them only limited weight in wider, more universal schemes of values.

Patriotism © Steve Lillie 2018. Please visit www.stevelillie.biz

Model 2: Contractual Patriotism

Contractual theories of patriotism acknowledge the ‘accidental’ nature of identity yet seek to maintain that we nevertheless have special obligations to those who share membership of our particular communities. There is no notion here of there being an actual contract. Only if you become a naturalised citizen is there ever some kind of official ‘signing up’. Instead what is usually invoked is a sort of implicit contract based on mutual benefit and shared hazards.

A common way of understanding how such implicit communal loyalties develop is through considering ‘The Prisoner’s Dilemma’. In the classic version of this thought experiment you imagine yourself as a criminal who has been arrested with your partner in crime. The police separate you for purposes of interrogation, and you’re told that if you confess you’ll receive a lesser punishment than if you don’t say anything and yet are found guilty because your colleague confesses. However, the only way you can be found guilty is if either of you confesses. If neither confess, you both go scot free. Of course, the implication is that the same offer is being made to your friend. Your decision becomes a matter of strategy. You could assume the loyalty of your accomplice and stay silent – a position that carries with it the obvious risk that he won’t stay silent; or you can sing like the proverbial canary. What would you do?

One limitation of the standard prisoner’s dilemma is that it is a one-off situation in which neither person has any incentive to do anything but look after their immediate interests. Other versions of the game have proposed a repeated (‘iterated’) form in which you get to play the game over and over again, so that over time you can punish disloyalty by giving back in kind. The most successful strategy for establishing stable co-operation then turns out to be initial mutual cooperation, followed by tit-for-tat.

All of this has much to do with how implicit contracts are built up. In 1968 the economist Garrett Hardin published a hugely influential paper called ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, in which he predicted ecological disaster. Commons resources are resources not owned by any particular individual, such as fish stocks in the ocean or communal grazing land. Hardin predicted that these resources would be decimated because no-one would have any incentive not to exploit them – the logic being that if I don’t grab what I can others will and the resource will soon be gone anyway. What Hardin got wrong, at least in part, was that the actions of the users of commons are not one-off events. If we both live in the same village and you let your herd of sheep overgraze the common land, then I, the local blacksmith who have only a couple of goats which I keep for milking, will be seriously unhappy with you. This won’t much matter if you never need a blacksmith or your shoes mending (my brother is the local shoemaker), but you will. Our lives are a kind of iterated prisoner’s dilemma in which, in due course, my daughter has a pretty good chance of marrying your son. You might think twice before ripping off one of your grandchild’s other grandparents.

This suggests that localism is a good strategy for producing high levels of co-operation. Of course, we won’t be entirely self-sufficient, so we’ll establish trading relationships with outsiders who will win our trust or not based on a larger-scale version of the same iterated interactions. No doubt the definition of who ‘we’ are will be modified over time, and ultimately ‘our’ community might become the nation state.

The problem with this view concerns what we might call the limits of pragmatism. In the context of our local community I might treat you fairly because I need to do so. The flaw in the pragmatist position is that at the scale of the nation state things are just too big and complex for this to work. We simply can’t build up relationships of trust based on mutual dependency with people whom we will either never meet again, or increasingly, never meet at all. Looking around my study there are few, if any, items that I can see that are locally sourced. My bookcases came from a very nice shop my partner found, but I have no idea where they were made, and my laptop certainly isn’t a local craft product. By the same token, the reason that there are still fish in the North Sea is more to do with soulless regulation achieved at the supranational level than through the iterated contact of fishermen.

The implicit contract based on pragmatism and acquired trust that binds us to our fellow citizens locally is not one that ever has the chance to evolve to the national level. From the outset nations were governed by abstract laws and values. In the terminology of the sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920), the local involves Gemeinschaft (community) and the national involves Gesellschaft (impersonal) models of social cohesion. And it gets more impersonal over time as the scope and complexity of government increases and co-operation becomes more global. Edmund Burke’s ‘small battalions’, what we usually call ‘civil society’, have necessarily given way to ‘big government’. For many people this is a matter of profound regret. It’s even a problem for those proponents of the activist state who want citizens to be more than consumers/tax payers with strong ties only to their own families. Personally, I love paying tax when I can see it being used to improve the community and make my and others’ lives longer, healthier, and more secure; but this seems to some a rather pallid basis for social cohesion, and one prone to fall apart at the least suspicion (justified or otherwise) of freeloading, by individuals or groups.

Model 3: Reasonable Assent & Patriotism

The last model I’ll consider is associated primarily with Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant argued that we owe the state our loyalty to the extent that it embodies laws that any rational being would consider just. The exact qualities and laws that such a state might have and make are a matter for serious debate; but the point is that if they can be agreed upon, their reasonableness confers legitimacy and, therefore, obligation.

This model of patriotism has several major advantages over the others. Firstly, it gets around a famous objection to the idea of implicit contractual consent made by David Hume. Hume likens the idea of our belonging to a society to which we automatically owe obligations to the condition of a press-ganged sailor who is provided with food, water and a bunk on a ship if he works, but who was never asked if he wanted to go along for the ride. By contrast, Kant’s position is that we owe an obligation to our society only to the extent that the society keeps a bargain that anyone would reasonably accept, given the option. If the community falls short of its laws being reasonable, then our obligation to it to that extent vanishes.

Of course, communitarians aren’t going to be impressed by this, since it is the felt rather than the thought aspects of obligation which concern them. Indeed, they may (wrongly) see Kant’s argument as reducing identity to a consumer choice, rather than, as he would argue, the rational duty of a rational agent.

An advantage of Kant’s position is that it gives us a way of understanding our obligations which is far more applicable to our current circumstances than one based on a shared language, culture, or frequent interactions. Regardless of the promises of some politicians, the developed world will have to learn to live with the reality of mass migration, which will only become more pressing as climate change renders it a necessity. Bangladesh is going to sink, and globalisation is not going away either. Indeed, if we want to preserve any genuine (as opposed to a tourist theme park) localism, countries need to work together, since multinationals have a habit of riding roughshod over diversity unless prevented by regulation from doing so.

However, it is arguable that Kant’s approach constitutes the death knell of patriotism. On Kant’s model, ‘we’ are not those who share geography or culture in common, but rather, those who reach similar conclusions about the values that define a just society. The list of values might not entirely coincide for all liberals, but it would be surprising if they didn’t include notions of respect for individual autonomy, the rule of law, and democracy. Regardless of minor disagreements, liberals the world over have more in common with each other than with the communitarian conservative who lives next door to them and shares superficially similar cultural traditions.

For liberals the power of tradition is explainable in anthropological rather than moral terms. My own country is mired in traditional strangeness (we have, for example, a hereditary head of state, a partly unelected legislature, and an established church); and while US citizens might see their country as a comparative paragon of Enlightenment rationality, they are manifestly no less prone to nostalgia. When Kantian rationalists do get misty-eyed – the sight of a Spitfire in flight gets me every time – it is not patriotism that inspires the emotion but an altogether more abstract commitment: the aeroplane is emblematic of the triumph of the values Nazism aimed to extinguish. I’m even moved by the sight of the EU flag which, despite that institution’s multiple failings, represents an attempt to collectively face up to shared challenges by societies which have huge amounts in common. Cosmopolitans aren’t folk swept along by the emotional impact of listening to one too many John Lennon songs, but people who have reached conclusions and committed themselves accordingly. This is, in the end, what might make us seem strange to many people, because it takes work to be sceptical about the kind of tribalism that is natural to most of us. Like Edmund Burke, people tend to prefer prejudice to abstraction, so that feeling, often and tragically, trumps reason. We live in a world where we can no longer afford to let it do so.

© Philip Badger 2018

Phil Badger studied social sciences, including economics, psychology, and social policy, with philosophy, and teaches in Sheffield.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X