Is Patriotism a Virtue? | Jerry Salyer | The Dispatch at Catholic World Report
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.
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.