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Callan on Love and Patriotism

Patriotism requires love of country. We all know that. Yet we do not usually consider patriotism seriously in relation to love, which is how I propose to consider it. In so doing, I try to throw some light on the question of patriotism’s moral status. I begin by sketching some claims about what is worthy of love, what might count as a reason to love, and what it is to love well or badly. These provide the basis for a contrast I draw between morally innocent and idolatrous love, which in turn yields a distinction between an innocent patriotism and its idolatrous mutations. But the moral innocence of one kind of patriotism does not mean that anyone has an obligation to be patriotic or that patriotism counts as a virtue. I reject the view that patriotism is obligatory by examining the contrast between patriotic love and the love between parents and children, where an obligation to love has been traditionally and plausibly imputed. To identify the conditions under which patriotism might count as a virtue, I turn to the conception of moral learning defended in Part III of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. …

The case I make for the moral value of patriotism under some nonideal conditions is entirely consistent with the following reasonable surmise: whatever benefits come from honorable patriotism are outweighed by the harm done by its idolatrous counterparts, to say nothing of the consequences of still baser passions that masquerade as patriotism. If humanity could make a bargain with God to make patriotism disappear, so that all its harms evaporated along with its benefits, maybe we should take the deal. But no such bargain is on offer. We live in the midst of societies in which patriotism remains a potent force in many people’s lives. When their patriotism is implicated in tribal hatreds and delusions of national grandeur, we wish that it would simply go away. Yet the object of our wish will often be a worse outcome, and it will certainly in general be a less feasible option than enticing their patriotism in a morally better direction. After all, being told to give up what you love is a harder message for anyone to heed than being told that you should love it better. Unfortunately, blanket indictments of patriotism that refuse to make moral distinctions within the indicted category merely obscure the range of practical responses that are necessary to foster the good it enables and mitigate the evil it promotes.

Eamonn Callan (2006), “Love, Idolatry and Patriotism,” Social Theory and Practice 32:525-546.

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