In Defense of a Reasonable Patriotism

As a political theorist, I have followed George Kateb’s work with admiration for decades. He always challenges me, even when (as on this occasion) he does not persuade me.

I begin with a point drawn from Aristotle. Even if, as I believe, a certain kind and degree of patriotism is a virtue, that is not necessarily the case for every kind and degree. I can reject “My country, right or wrong” without ceasing to be a patriot. I can believe that other objects of regard (my conscience, for example) on occasion outrank my country without ceasing to be a patriot. The fact that blind or excessive patriotism often has terrible consequences does not mean that reasonable and moderate patriotism does so. While Kateb’s fears are not wholly unwarranted, they seem to be directed to the erroneous forms of patriotism, not to the phenomenon tout court.

Kateb works hard to drive a wedge between love of parents and love of country. The latter, he suggests, is at most a flawed metaphor. I am not convinced. Love of parents and of country are not the same, to be sure, but it does not follow that one’s country cannot be a legitimate object of affection.

To be sure, a country is not a person, but it begs the question to say that love is properly directed only to persons. It abuses neither speech nor sense to say that I love my house and for that reason would feel sorrow and deprivation if disaster forced me to leave it. (I have had such an experience.) A country is, among other things, a place, a language (one’s “mother tongue”), a way of life, and a set of institutions through which collective decisions are made and carried out. One can love these things reasonably, and many do. Consider immigrants who arrive legally in the U.S. from impoverished and violent lands. Their lives are arduous, but they at least enjoy the protection of the laws, the opportunity to advance economically, and the right to participate in choosing their elected officials. Is it unreasonable for them to experience gratitude, affection, and the desire to perform reciprocal service for the country that has given them refuge?

Kateb is clearly right to insist that citizens don’t owe their “coming into being” to their country in the way that children owe their existence to their parents. But here again, his conclusion does not follow from his premise. Surely we can love people who are not responsible for our existence: parents love their children, husbands their wives. Besides, refugees may literally owe their continuing existence to countries that offer them sanctuary from violence. Is it less reasonable and proper to love people or institutions that save our lives than those that give us life?

Nor do I understand why a reasonable patriotism implies the denial of self-ownership. If we agree to become members of a community, surely we are accepting a package of privileges and responsibilities. Does Kateb agree with Robert Nozick that taxation is on a par with forced labor? I believe, with Justice Holmes, that taxes are the price we pay for civilization — that is, for the opportunity to live in communities that offer us security and opportunity we could never attain on our own.

But isn’t dying for one’s country different from paying taxes? Of course, and some theorists have used the difference as the basis of an argument against the military draft. But whatever one thinks about that issue, the United States today has all-volunteer armed forces. So Kateb must make a bolder claim: it is irrational to choose a life that puts you at heightened risk of dying for your country. That is why he uses terms such as “indoctrination” and “mystique” to explain what induces individuals to make such choices.

I cannot quite believe that Kateb believes that there is nothing worth dying for. If he does not, then he must explain why it is reasonable and admirable when, for example, parents sacrifice their lives to protect their children but not when citizens do so for their country.

Let me end on a philosophical note. In his article “Patriotism as Bad Faith,” Simon Keller argues at length against the proposition that patriotism is “a character trait that the ideal person would possess,” at least if one’s conception of the good or virtuous human being includes a propensity to form and act upon justified belief rather than distorted judgments and illusions. Toward the end, Keller acknowledges that “Consistent with all I have said is a defense of patriotism as a character trait that has instrumental value.”

In his stirring polemic, “Is Patriotism a Mistake?,” George Kateb seems to me to do just that. Patriotism, he argues, is an intellectual mistake because its object, one’s country, is an “abstraction” — that is, a “figment of the imagination.” Patriotism is a moral mistake because it requires (and tends to create) enemies, exalts a collective form of self-love, and stands opposed to the only justified morality, which is universalist. Individuals and their rights are fundamental; one’s country is at most a “temporary and contingent stopping point on the way to a federated humanity.” Intellectuals, especially philosophers, should know better, Kateb insists. Their only ultimate commitment should be to Enlightenment-style independence of mind, not just for themselves, but as an inspiration to all. In this context, “A defense of patriotism is an attack on the Enlightenment.” From Kateb’s standpoint, it is hard to see how civic virtue can be instrumentally good if the end it serves — the maintenance of one’s particular political community — is intellectually and morally dubious.

But Kateb is too honest an observer of the human condition to go that far. While the existence of multiple political communities guarantees immoral behavior, government is, he acknowledges, not just a regrettable fact but a moral necessity: “By providing security, government makes possible treating other persons morally (and for their own sake).” It would seem to follow that the beliefs and traits of character that conduce to government’s security-providing function are ipso facto instrumentally justified, as civic virtues. That is the basis on which a reasonable patriotism may be defined and defended. Yes, the individual community that makes moral conduct possible is embedded in an international system of multiple competing communities that invites, even requires, immoral behavior. But as Kateb rightly says, rather than positing and acting on a non-existent global community, “One must learn to live with the paradox.” As long as we must, there will be a place for patriotism.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • “Patriotism is love of country. What kind of love is that?” asks George Kateb, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics, Emeritus at Princeton University, in this month’s provocative lead essay. According to Kateb, patriotism is the kind of love that suggests our lives are not our own, that we should be prepared to kill and die for the state: “Being owned, we owe the state or the country a debt, a ‘blood-tax’ that must be paid when the state demands it,” Kateb writes. After treating the reader to a learned account of the uneasy place of patriotism in the liberal, social contract tradition, Kateb concludes, “Patriotism, more than any other passion in political life, makes virtues do the work of vices while promoting the praise of vices as disguised virtues. It thus sustains enormous moral perversity. If no one were a patriot, the world would be better off than it now is, when almost all are patriots.”

Response Essays

  • In his reply essay, the American Enterprise Institute’s Walter Berns, author of Making Patriots, argues that the value of patriotism, the love of country, depends on the nature of the country to be loved, and criticizes George Kateb for failing to distinguish between virtuous and vicious forms. Berns notes that historically patriotism has been linked with ideas about popular sovereignty, which gave rise in the 17th Century to new ideas about the rights of man. “From these new principles came new governments, first in America, then in France, and with them came a new understanding of patriotism” fundamentally different from “the sort of filial piety associated with classical Sparta.” Berns finds Kateb agreeing that a legitimate liberal democracy needs citizens willing to defend it. “Although [Kateb] ends up saying the world would be a better place without patriots,” Berns writes, “he has to concede that a government by consent is dependent on them.”

  • The London School of Economics political theorist Chandran Kukathas argues that George Kateb “takes the state far too seriously, and fails to realize that it is the state, and not patriotism itself, that is the source of the problem.” Patriotism, Kukathas claims, is a symptom “of the place the state has in the life of a person or of a people.” When people come to think there is a problem that only the state can solve, patriotism tends to surge, but “they will come to think this because the state and its acolytes have persuaded — tricked, cajoled, manipulated, deceived, conned, frightened, bullied, sweet-talked — them into believing so.” However, the state is not going anywhere, and therefore neither is patriotism. So “we should just get used to patriotism, patriots, and their discontents,” Kukathas concludes.

  • Like Walter Berns, the Brookings Institution’s William Galston faults George Kateb for failing to distinguish between virtuous and vicious forms of patriotism. He then observes that one may love one’s country without loving it in the way one loves a parent. Moreover, Galston argues, if we need the state, as Kateb admits, then it seems we may need patriotism. “It would seem to follow that the beliefs and traits of character that conduce to government’s security-providing function are ipso facto instrumentally justified, as civic virtues. That is the basis on which a reasonable patriotism may be defined and defended.”