Patriotism: The Last Refuge Of A Scoundrel

Is patriotism compatible with Humanist values?

Presenter: Paul Kammil

December, 2011

“It is lamentable, that to be a good patriot one must become the enemy of the rest of mankind.” -Voltaire

Perhaps before we start it is necessary to define what values Humanists hold. Here’s to my mind what are perhaps an incomplete set of humanist values. During the course of the discussion we should be able to expand on this.

  • Respect for life.
  • Curiosity (if this is a value) about the world in which we live.
  • A thirst for knowledge (discarding non-reality-based thinking when appropriate).
  • Truth and honesty (are these aspects of the same thing?)
  • Respect for the integrity of the individual — implying that an individual has a right to self-determination, which does not imply a right to interfere with others.

Where does “love” fit in, or even “morality”? Indeed, what are these two often mentioned “values”?

Moral “codes” are often lists of what not to do, rather than how one should be expected to live one’s life. Clearly the archetypal “moral code” is the 10 Commandments. To my mind most of the Commandments could be incorporated in Respect for life, and in truth and honesty.

Indeed, the first four Commandments all make the assumption that there is a supernatural being, really nothing to do with morality:

  1. Thou shalt have no other Gods before me.
  2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth:
  3. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.
  4. Thou shall not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.

This comes from Exodus chapter 20, for those of you who might want to know.

It’s not until the fifth commandment that we get into “honour your father and mother”. So, there are really only six Commandments at most. It appears to me that these can further be reduced down to what might be termed “family values” such as not committing adultery and not coveting your neighbour’s wife, and not committing crimes such as murder, or bearing false witness.

What are these “family values”? What is meant when we claim to “value family”? Is this not simply an evolutionary force in which we — or our genes — favour our genetic inheritance over competing genes from other “clans”? As an extension of this to others in our immediate surroundings (our clan) do we not favour our genetic inheritance among our immediate neighbours over those in other nations, and is this not perhaps an evolutionary basis for “Patriotism”?

So, we now need to define “Patriotism”. Something that one of my favourite philosophers Bertrand Russell once said strikes me as interesting. “Patriots always talk of dying for their country and never of killing for their country.” What precisely therefore does patriotism mean?

Patriotism is not:
1. Defending a nation’s cause because it is a champion of a great moral ideal.
-It is the ideal and not the nation that is the primary object of regard.

2. Mindless loyalty to one’s own nation having no regard for the characteristics of that nation.

So can Patriotism be said to be loyalty to a particular nation which only those possessing that nationality can have?

In 1994 Richard Rorty, a well-known American philosopher wrote in the New York Times a piece that is worth reading:

He identifies the political “left” as being unpatriotic. This is of course, within an American context.

Martha Nussbaum, an Ivy League law professor, argues that Rorty fails to understand the breadth of what she has lately come to call Cosmopolitanism, which is a broader view of how humans might cooperate rather than become polarised by “national” characteristics, almost a view that “we are citizens of the world” as she describes Diogenes having stated. (Nussbaum 2011)

My last piece of suggested reading comes from, again, another philosopher. This is Alasdair MacIntyre, one of the main proponents of “virtue ethics” which is an alternative to both Deontological, and Utilitarian ethics. I could never quite get my head around this, but the following extract may give you a flavour of his argument, concerning patriotism.

“Patriotism cannot be what it was because we lack in the fullest sense a patria. The point that I am making must not be confused with the commonplace liberal rejection of patriotism. Liberals have often-not always-taken a negative or even hostile attitude towards patriotism, partly because their allegiance is to values which they take to be universal and not local and particular, and partly because of a well-justified suspicion that in the modern world patriotism is often a facade behind which chauvinism and imperialism are fostered. But my present point is not that patriotism is good or bad as a sentiment, but that the practice of patriotism as a virtue is in advanced societies no longer possible in the way that it once was. In any society where government does not express or represent the moral community of the citizens, but is instead a set of institutional arrangements for imposing a bureaucratized unity on a society which lacks genuine moral consensus, the nature of political obligation becomes systematically unclear. Patriotism is or was a virtue founded on attachment primarily to a political and moral community and only secondarily to the government of that community; but it is characteristically exercised in discharging responsibility to and in such government. When, however, the relationship of government to the moral community is put in question both by the changed nature of government and the lack of moral consensus in the society, it becomes difficult any longer to have any clear, simple, and teachable conception of patriotism. Loyalty to my country, to my community-which remains unalterably a central virtue-becomes detached from obedience to the government which happens to rule me.”(Mackintyre 1992)

It strikes me that, to some extent, it depends on your political affiliation as to how you view patriotism. Nevertheless, if you are not aware of this, I am, and remain, a British citizen. Since the 1970s I have viewed myself as a citizen of Europe, and have therefore, to some extent, taken on board Martha Nussbaum’s cosmopolitan viewpoint, feeling most patriotic towards Europe.

There are any number of contradictory quotations that I could have thrown at you, and indeed the title of this discussion gives you two. I’m sure you can find others.