Patriotism, Liberalism, and Morality

By: Jacob Taylor

What follows is a 2 page assignment I turned in for my Political Theory class. It is in direct response to Is Patriotism a Virtue? by Alasdair MacIntyre. The prompt for this was verbal, and roughly "Pick one of these writings, read it, and tell me what you think".

His definitions are good. He marks well the differences between patriotism and people fighting for good ideals under the banner of patriotism, ideals that could be supported by any one, from any nation. Moreover that patriotism is a regard for the best achievements of the nation in which they live, and the characteristics that make their system unique. Being particularly enamored with the context of your nation, and its achievements. Such that many countries may fight for freedom, but for a patriot they only recognize fully the achievements of their own nation.

Though he defends the other side, I agree that morality and patriotism are incompatible. It stands to reason that particulars about where you where born, when, and to whom should not matter much. But they are rightly pointed to as some of the most important facts to a patriot. This fervor over irrelevant details (patriotism) is precisely opposite to moral thought and action (acting or thinking in some sort of a universal-good way). I think, for arguing the other side, he does a decent (not perfect) job of laying out a liberal view of morality. His examples, though not comprehensive, are good at showing the fundamental conflict.

I think I would go farther than he does though. He says that a more modern liberal moralist view would be that one could be patriotic, but only within the confines of morality. A person's patriotism must never overstep their impersonal morality, essentially. And he says this is wrong, or at least completely opposed to patriotism, because a patriot is driven to improve his and his countries situation (even if, perhaps especially if, it's at the expense of another nation) by going to war to secure those resources, and that modern patriots would call this emasculated patriotism. I don't disagree with calling it emasculated patriotism, but I also don't support the subjugation of other-people that patriotism explicitly condones and wouldn't mind emasculating it within a moral framework.

I think he gets mired in details too easily. In section 3 he attempts to refute the liberal claim that morality is initially taught as a subset of the universal moral values, and that as a means to the end of learning the generalized values it is useful. He hammers hard at the point of particularity in those moral rules, even once generalized, and how that is fundamentally counter to the concept of liberal morality. I don't agree that there is no generalized morality. One of the examples given is the value he thinks may be universal, that children should respect their parents, but argues that the details of how that respect is shown or acted upon would differ from culture to culture. And I agree, but to me this completely supports the liberal moral view that each unit (be it individual or household) can determine what is best for itself. Assuming respecting parents is a universal precept, each family would naturally implement that slightly (if not vastly) differently. I find this differentiation to be part of being human, and that the opposing side of patriotism leads to unnecessary national homogeneity. I find this an especially troubling concept in a country such as America, where we are based on immigrants coming here however they will. Quite literally our uniting feature is how diverse we are.

The concept he seems to miss here is that liberalism prescribes a moralist overarching structure, so that any subunit can self-organize to implement these universal ideals for themselves (or not, so long as they are all honoring their social contracts and not negatively impacting others within the system). He completely rejects this, saying that as soon as a person is outside of their “particular” system of morality, they cease having a reason to be moral. It flat out doesn't follow. If you're emancipated from your particular morality and have discovered the universal forms of those specific rules you were indoctrinated with as a child, you know that you owe it to your fellow human to be moral. He goes on to suggest that you need social proof of your morality (and help with weak areas) in order to be moral. That “I can only be a moral agent because we are moral agents”, which is true to some extent I guess, but the problem is that the slave owners in the south all thought themselves to be very much upstanding moral gentlemen, which we know believe to be quite untrue. It just isn't a very strong basis for critiquing liberal morality.

He also seems to be trying to somewhat encapsulate liberal morality inside patriotism, wherein he suggests that they are merely two different ideas of morality but that the liberal one could exist inside a patriotic society (due to a few people not believing in the system here and there not being directly harmful to said system, I assume). I think it's the opposite. And contrary to him, I don't think a liberal society will necessarily (or ever, if I'm being honest) degrade to the point of losing all social ties. I think if we had a system so morally created, we would have patriots who would go to war to protect such a pure implementation of universal morality.

He states and then covers a counter-argument of the supposed rootlessness of any true moral actor, that they wouldn't have a home or whatever. We have a concept for this now, and it's a sort of world citizen, where every place is your rooted place. I think the people who aspire to that, and reasonably execute it, are closest to the liberal moral system and can see its threads within all cultures. I see this as closest to my ideal – rooted in all places, yet also aloof. I don't think MacIntyre thinks this is possible. And yet we have many people, some of whom work for governments and supra-national organizations whose life's work is improving everyone's lives, helping make newly formed governments closer to that moral ideal.

He outright states, in section 4, that the liberal morality is one derived from removing oneself from all situations and evaluating critically all those systems which the person participates in, and that necessarily this does not happen for everything with a patriot because some fundamental portions of the structure and function of society must remain in-tact and unquestioned for everything to keep on working as it has. He makes an expansion on this explanation by modeling a civilization or culture as a project which moves into the future (but is rooted in its history). This, he says, alleviates the patriot from the danger of having certain ideas which cannot be touched. It does alleviate the argument, but it doesn't remove the danger inherent in keeping so much cruft and potentially bad ideas in the culture. Lots of cultural practices we now know to be actively harmful to its members. I'm not sure how he would reconcile this. I think he would suggest that it's more important to be “rooted” in your culture than doing everything just perfectly (or striving to do so). That's perhaps a more core kernel of what I disagree with.

I see liberal morality as a framework which supersedes patriotism. The example he gives at the end is of the need for a nation to have an armed force to defend itself – and that if a nation had sufficiently swayed towards liberal morality there would not be enough patriots who rejected that morality to fight those fights. I think many proud liberal moralists stand up today to defend our right to contain both of these opposing ideals. It's well within reason that an autonomous entity could decide for itself that the whole is greater than the individual and that they should thusly be prepared to sacrifice their own lives in service of that. That, to me, fits perfectly with a liberal ideal of morality. It's a choice you get to make in liberal morality, but not in patriotism. I must consequently find liberal morality more appealing.