On the Morality of: Patriotism

With the American presidential inauguration soon to arrive, this seems like an opportune time to say some words on patriotism. Is love of country an emotion that can be felt by a freethinker? Is this an allegiance as irrational as the tribalisms of human prehistory, or can there be something about one’s country that makes it worth loving, even fighting or dying for?

I’ve written in the past about tribalism, the irrational loyalty to arbitrarily defined groups of people, and the havoc and destruction this tendency has wrought in human society. At first glance, patriotism might seem to be an emotion rooted strongly in tribalism. It’s hard to deny that this is at least partly true. After all, one’s home country is – for most of us, though not all of us – determined arbitrarily by place of birth. People from every corner of the world exalt their own nation and praise it as the ideal society, and clearly not all of them can be right. And patriotism, like the worst kinds of tribalism, often inspires extreme partisanship, hatred, demonization of outsiders as Other, and open warfare over disagreements that, ultimately, are about very little. Not for nothing did John Lennon sketch out utopia by inviting us to “imagine there’s no countries”.

And yet, there’s an opposing consideration, which I mentioned in my post on one-world government. As bad as excessive patriotism is, the alternative is worse.

Ultimately, countries are not patches of ground, but structures of ideas. What most defines a country is not its geographical borders: after all, we don’t consider ancient Rome and modern Italy to be the same nation, even though they occupied much of the same ground. What defines a country is its system of law and government, its way of organizing its people. The existence of separate countries allows the human race to test out a diversity of ideas on how best to govern ourselves, and when one succeeds, it stands as an example to all the rest. Just such an example was the American Revolution, which reawakened the spirit of democracy in the world and marked the beginning of the end for kings and tyrants. Lovers of liberty throughout the world can cite similar inspiring examples from their own histories.

Patriotism is what moved these revolutionaries to action, what gave them a vision to strive for. Their connection to their own land and their own people gave them a sense of resolve that, so far, the amorphous cause of “humanity in general” has failed to evoke. That is too vague a banner to rally behind – to move us, we need something more concrete and more definite.

The existence of countries aids moral progress in another way: it makes it possible to advance one step at a time. At this point in human history, if we were to try to unite the human race under one banner, the sure result would be either crippling stagnation or brutal autocracy. No other kind of government would be able to accommodate (or, in the case of autocracy, to trample over) the impossibly broad and complex range of desires and concerns among different groups of people. Having separate countries allows some issues to be tabled so that we can focus on the rest. (For an example of what happens when you try to take everyone’s wants into account at once, consider the United Nations, which is well-intentioned but mired in diplomatic gridlock on virtually every issue of importance.) As well, it limits the power of despots and demagogues, however successful they may be at home, by creating boundaries beyond which they hold no sway.

As I’ve said before, in the far distant future – when humanity’s moral outlook is more unified, and many of our sacred cows dispensed with – we might be able to think about dissolving political boundaries. But in the near term, we need separate countries so that moral progress can be achieved one region at a time, rather than having to change everything to change anything. With a free flow of immigration, the competition among nations rewards those that are freest, most prosperous, and have the strongest and fairest institutions, and sends an example to the rest of the world to do likewise. When those facts are considered, I believe it is justifiable even for atheists to be patriotic about their country, to want to improve it, and to be proud of its achievements.

Of course, like any other institution, patriotism can spin out of control and become blind, destructive partisanship. The ethic of “my country, right or wrong” has led to terrible evils – corruption and graft, secrecy, unjustified war, erosion of the rule of law, and loss of faith in the self-correcting nature of democracy. Rather than worship our home country unconditionally, we should favor it with a mature and responsible patriotism, one that does not overlook its flaws but rather seeks to correct them. With this realization in hand, we should bear in mind that those who criticize a country are not always its enemies, but can in the long run be its truest patriots and friends.

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