“An Appeal to Moderate Patriotism”

By Braedan Zimmer

Patriotism is often associated with an unconditional love and support of one’s country, even at the expense of all other countries. A patriot in this form (an extreme patriot) can be dangerous and radical, at times using violence for the betterment of their country without exhausting all other means of achieving their aims; extreme patriotism is often decidedly detrimental to society. That being said, a different form of patriotism stands to be encouraged. Stephen Nathanson explores a form of patriotism called “moderate patriotism.” The moderate patriot, as he describes, has a loyalty and special affection for his country, but operates within the limits of morality. This means that if the moderate patriot’s country is undertaking immoral actions, the moderate patriot will not support his country. Moderate patriots are equally as partial to their country as extreme patriots, with all the same love for it. The moderate patriot, however, holds his country morally accountable, which in turn leads him less frequently to war when other means of peacemaking are attainable.

Extreme patriotism is an exclusive preference for one’s country that is subversive to morality, while moderate patriotism allows one to deeply love and prefer one’s own country while respecting moral obligations to humanity as a whole. Leo Tolstoy describes extreme patriotism as “the exclusive desire for the well-being of one’s own people” (Nathanson 536). Because the extreme patriot will not be opposed to the hostile treatment of other countries, when his country stands to benefit in some way, he is morally inferior to the moderate patriot. In contrast, moderate patriots do not turn a blind eye on morality while pursuing good for their country. In accordance with moderate patriotism, Zdenko Kodelja quotes Nathanson in saying that “the Golden Rule…does not say ‘do unto your fellow countrymen as you would have them do unto you’. It says ‘do unto others’, and the lack of a qualifying term shows that all others are meant” (537).

While the adherence of moderate patriotism to morality separates it from the dangerously preferential tendencies of extreme patriotism, Alsadair MacIntyre criticizes moderate patriots for not being genuinely patriotic (Nathanson 540). He questions the conviction with which they support their country when situations cause patriotic actions to conflict with morality. One example MacIntyre offers is a country’s conception of the “good life.” MacIntyre contends that moderate patriotism cannot be reconciled with a moral standpoint (Nathanson 543). He uses the example of the Iroquois Indians, explaining that the raids on their traditional enemies are an important part of their “good life” (Nathanson 543). Nathanson sums up MacIntyre’s argument: “moderate patriotism is empty, since it requires sacrificing one’s own community’s way of life if objective moral assessment shows it to be wrong” (543). He disagrees with MacIntyre, though, maintaining that moderate patriots can recognize the need to change certain aspects of their culture, but it does not mean they do not understand what is being lost, or that they will not work to try and find other ways to express the aspects of culture that need expressing (544). Nathanson contends that if, to the Iroquois, raids are an opportunity to prove the high achievements of valour and martial skill, then the moderate patriots who worked to stop the raids may also search for a different outlet to display the virtues of their culture (544). He continues that if actions of a certain country were exempt from moral criticism because they are essential for the good life, then “we would be unable to condemn slavery because the niceties of the plantation life required it” (544). These arguments suggest that moderate patriots do genuinely prefer and love their country, but they maintain that even their own country’s actions aren’t immune to moral scrutiny.

Tolstoy in 1897

In terms of the effects of morality on a country’s affairs, moderate patriotism is preferable to extreme patriotism in that it is much less conducive to war. Nathanson quotes Tolstoy in saying that “the root of war is the exclusive desire for the well-being of one’s own people: it is patriotism” (536). While Nathanson admits that Tolstoy is guilty of overstating when he says that war is the unequivocal product of patriotism, he maintains that the extreme patriot’s exclusive desire for the good of their own country can easily lead to war if it stands at odds with the good of other countries. Sigal Beth-Porath makes the observation that, with the encouragement of extreme patriotism, war can turn “the citizen” into “the solider” (317). Nathanson entertains the logical procession that if one cares only about one’s own country, and one’s country could benefit from possessing things that another country currently possesses, then what would stop one’s country from going to war to obtain those possessions in the name of the country’s good (541)? Moderate patriotism is not guilty of the same dangerous preferential tendencies as extreme patriotism. A moderate patriot, as Nathanson describes, can “sense that patriotism can be carried too far and that moral constraints do apply to actions taken on behalf of one’s country” (541). Here he posits that a moderate patriot can understand when their country’s actions can’t be morally justified, and will no longer support his country when that time comes. In this way, moderate patriotism works against some of the brutal wars fought for immoral reasons, wars that may have been started by an extreme patriotic mentality.

In relation to war, MacIntyre again criticizes moderate patriotism, using resource conflict as his example. He describes a situation in which two countries are both in need of a certain resource to survive, but there is only enough for one country. He predicts that, in this situation, moderate patriots would be unable to justify taking the resource because it isn’t morally right, while extreme patriots would be willing to go to war to secure the resource for their country (Nathanson 541). The inability to do whatever is necessary to preserve the well-being of their country leads MacIntyre to believe that moderate patriots would be unable to defend their country. Nathanson only partly agrees with MacIntyre’s appraisal of the situation. He points out that, in this situation, extreme patriots would not count the lives of the other country’s people as significant losses if they are able to secure the resource (Nathanson 541). They would unhesitatingly pursue the resource by any means necessary, including the possibility of war. In contrast to MacIntyre’s arguments, though, Nathanson does not feel that moderate patriots are necessarily useless defenders of their nation. Logically, the moderate patriot would first examine the claims to the resource made by both countries. If the opposing country’s claim is greater, offers Nathanson, then the moderate patriot might urge their community to make a sacrifice (542). If the moral strength of each country’s claim to the resource is the same, however, and only one country can survive, the moderate patriot would not logically be indifferent to which country dies; he would defend his country. The same principle is observable with a father and his child. If there are many seats on a carnival ride, a father is not going to fight another father to ensure that his child gets on first. Contrarily, if it is the last carnival ride of the day, and there is only one open seat, the father is not going to offer it to the other child; he is going to do what he can to make sure his child gets to enjoy the ride. We see in these examples that extreme patriotism can cause people to move too quickly to war; however, when defence of a country is needed in extreme situations, moderate patriots would be as effective as extreme patriots.

As clearly demonstrated, the moderate patriot’s capacity to love their country is much the same as a patriot of the extreme nature. The moderate patriot’s commitment to not only their country, but to moral justice leads them to take more care in conflict, and go to a greater length to avoid war with other countries than extreme patriots. The fact that moderate patriots do not follow their country blindly, but let their actions be guided by morality allows them to be greater stewards of their country as well as superior global citizens. Patriotism in its extreme form is dangerous and breeds violence, but in its moderate form, it is a welcomed virtue that allows people to feel deeply connected with their country without forgetting their ultimate and necessary connection to humanity as a whole.

Works Cited
Ben-Porath, Sigal. “Wartime Citizenship: An Argument for Shared Fate.” Ethnicities 11.3
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Kodelja, Zdenko. “Is Education for Patriotism Morally Required, Permitted or
Unacceptable?” Studies in Philosophy and Education 30.2 (2011): 127-40.
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Nathanson, Stephen. “In Defense of ‘Moderate Patriotism’” Ethics 33.9 (1989): 535-52.
JSTOR. Web. 25 Oct. 2015.