Saturday, July 4, 2020
The virtue of patriotism
Patriotism involves a special love for and reverence toward one’s own country. These days it is often dismissed as sentimental, unsophisticated, or even bigoted. In fact it is a moral virtue and its absence is a vice. Aquinas explains the basic reason:
A man becomes a debtor to others in diverse ways in accord with the diverse types of their excellence and the diverse benefits that he receives from them. In both these regards, God occupies the highest place, since He is the most excellent of all and the first principle of both our being and our governance. But in second place, the principles of our being and governance are our parents and our country, by whom and in which we are born and governed. And so, after God, a man is especially indebted to his parents and to his country. Hence, just as [the virtue of] religion involves venerating God, so, at the second level, [the virtue of] piety involves venerating one’s parents and country. Now the veneration of one’s parents includes venerating all of one’s blood relatives... On the other hand, the veneration of one’s country includes the veneration of one’s fellow citizens and of all the friends of one’s country. (Summa Theologiae II-II.101.1, Freddoso translation)
Love and reverence for country is thus an extension of love and reverence for parents and family, and has a similar basis. One’s country is like an extended family, and benefits one in ways analogous to the benefits provided by family. Hence, just as one owes a special gratitude and respect to one’s own parents and family that is not owed to other families, so do does one owe a special gratitude and respect to one’s own country that is not owed to other countries.
But it’s not just what your country has done for you that matters, it’s what you can do for your country. As Aquinas also argues, just as one is obliged to provide benefits to one’s own family in a way one is not obliged to provide them to other families, so too ought one to give benefits to one’s own country that one does not owe to other countries. He writes:
Augustine says… “Since one cannot do good to all, we ought to consider those chiefly who by reason of place, time or any other circumstance, by a kind of chance are more closely united to us”…
Now the order of nature is such that every natural agent pours forth its activity first and most of all on the things which are nearest to it… But the bestowal of benefits is an act of charity towards others. Therefore we ought to be most beneficent towards those who are most closely connected with us.
Now one man's connection with another may be measured in reference to the various matters in which men are engaged together; (thus the intercourse of kinsmen is in natural matters, that of fellow-citizens is in civic matters, that of the faithful is in spiritual matters, and so forth): and various benefits should be conferred in various ways according to these various connections, because we ought in preference to bestow on each one such benefits as pertain to the matter in which, speaking simply, he is most closely connected with us…
For it must be understood that, other things being equal, one ought to succor those rather who are most closely connected with us. (Summa Theologiae II-II.31.3)
As Aquinas also says, by no means does this entail that one has no obligations to help those of other countries, any more than one’s special duty to one’s own parents and family entails that one need not ever help other families. The point is just that a special concern for one’s own country and countrymen is not only not wrong, it is obligatory. As one work of Catholic moral theology says:
Piety is owed to parents and country as the authors and sustainers of our being… On account of this nobility of the formal object, filial piety and patriotism are very like to religion and rank next after it in the catalogue of virtues…
Country should be honored, not merely by the admiration one feels for its greatness in the past or present, but also and primarily by the tender feeling of veneration one has for the land that has given one birth, nurture, and education… External manifestations of piety towards country are the honors given its flag and symbols, marks of appreciation of its citizenship… and efforts to promote its true glory at home and abroad. (McHugh and Callan, Moral Theology, Volume II, pp. 412-13)
As with other virtues, the virtue of patriotism is a mean between extremes, and thus there are two corresponding vices, one of excess and one of deficiency. Here is how a couple of standard works of moral theology in the Thomistic tradition describe the first vice:
Excess is shown in this virtue by those who cultivate excessive nationalism in word and deed with consequent injury to other nations. (Prümmer, Handbook of Moral Theology, p. 211)
Patriotism should not degenerate into patriolatry, in which country is enshrined as a god, all-perfect and all-powerful, nor into jingoism or chauvinism, with their boastfulness or contempt for other nations and their disregard for international justice or charity. (McHugh and Callan, Moral Theology, Volume II, p. 414)
As with the virtue of patriotism itself, the nature and unreasonableness of this vice of excess are best understood on analogy with the case of parents and family. Even most people with a deep sentimental attachment to their own parents and family would find it bizarre to suppose that this would entail deifying them, or justify hatred and contempt for other families. But no less unreasonable would it be to take love of country to justify idolatry of country or hatred and contempt for other countries. The monstrous example of Nazi Germany has hammered home to modern people the evil of this excess.
Here is how the manuals just quoted describe the opposite extreme vice:
The virtue is violated by defect by those who boast that their attitude is cosmopolitan and adopt as their motto the old pagan saying: ubi bene, ibi patria (Prümmer, Handbook of Moral Theology, p. 211)
Disrespect for one’s country is felt when one is imbued with anti-nationalistic doctrines (e.g., the principles of Internationalism which hold that loyalty is due to a class, namely, the workers of the world or a capitalistic group, and that country should be sacrificed to selfish interests; the principle of Humanitarianism, which holds that patriotism is incompatible with love of the race; the principle of Egoism which holds that the individual has no obligations to society); it is practiced when one speaks contemptuously about country, disregards its good name or prestige, subordinates its rightful pre-eminence to a class, section, party, personal ambition, or greed, etc. (McHugh and Callan, Moral Theology, Volume II, p. 414)
Here too, the nature and unreasonableness of the vice are best understood on analogy with the case of parents and family. Suppose someone had no special regard for or loyalty toward his own parents or family, on the grounds that we should be charitable and just to everyone and that we shouldn’t regard any family with contempt. This would obviously be a perverse non sequitur. That we have obligations of justice and charity to all people and shouldn’t regard other families with contempt simply does not entail that we don’t have special obligations to our own parents and family or that we don’t owe them a special love and loyalty. In the same way, it is perverse to infer, from the premise that jingoism is wrong, the conclusion that patriotism is wrong too. Avoiding the one extreme does not justify going to the other extreme.
Accordingly, though the kind of cosmopolitanism that puts loyalty to the international community over national loyalty is often regarded these days as morally superior to patriotism, in fact it is immoral, in a way that is analogous to the immorality of refusing to have a special love and loyalty for one’s own parents and family. Similarly immoral are views which replace patriotism with loyalty to one’s economic class (as Marxism does), or one’s race (as both left-wing and right-wing brands of racism do), or one’s narrow economic interests (as global corporations do), or oneself as a sovereign individual owing nothing to any social order at all (as anarcho-libertarianism does).
It follows from all this that it is not wrong to favor immigration policies aimed at preserving the economic standing of one’s own countrymen, any more than it is wrong to be more concerned about the employment prospects of one’s siblings than about those of a stranger. Nor is it wrong to slow or regulate immigration in a way aimed at facilitating the assimilation of newcomers. On the contrary, as Aquinas argued (Summa Theologiae I-II.105.3), a country has the right to make sure that newcomers “have the common good firmly at heart” before being given full rights of citizenship. It is true that the vice of excess where patriotism is concerned can make one excessively hostile to immigration, but it is no less true that the vice of deficiency can make one insufficiently cautious about immigration.
Again, the need to avoid one extreme does not justify going to the other. It requires holding to the sober – patriotic – middle ground.