Patriotism is a feeling of love and devotion to one's own homeland (patria, the land of one's fathers). This article surveys the concept of patriotism from the viewpoints of history, politics, ethics, and biology.
Generally, any selfless act that directly benefits the nation is considered patriotic. Perhaps the clearest example is the act of risking death in battle. However, many other less dramatic beneficial acts, such as performing the backup work needed to keep a military force functioning, or looking out for the morale of soldiers, are also considered patriotic.
In addition, symbolic acts are also often considered to be patriotic. Such acts would include displaying the national flag, singing the national anthem, participating in a mass rally, placing a patriotic bumper sticker on one’s vehicle, or any other way of publicly proclaiming one’s allegiance to the nation.
The line between the two kinds of patriotic act is blurred by the fact that some people feel that in committing an act of symbolic patriotism, they are raising the determination or morale of their fellow citizens, who then will be more likely or able to commit acts that benefit the nation directly.
Levels of patriotism vary across time and among nations. Typically, patriotic acts and feelings are greater during wartime or when the nation is otherwise under external threat. It is less well understood why nations vary in their levels of patriotic feeling. Among modern societies, many have observed a difference between the United States, where symbolic patriotic expression is highly prevalent, and the nations of Western Europe, where symbolic patriotic expression certainly exists but plays a less important role. Various theories have been advanced, often related to the relative ages of the countries, and the historical perspective of European countries given the violent Nationalism they experienced in the 20th century.
The types of acts considered patriotic depend very much on ones point of view. Acts that one person considers patriotic may appear treasonous to another. For example, both soldiers and war resisters may consider their actions driven by a love of their country and a desire to see the greatest good for it, while at the same time seeing the others' actions as damaging and unpatriotic.
The ethics of patriotism
Different people have different opinions about whether patriotism is morally good. Often, these opinions vary according to what sort of patriotism is involved.
Some instances of patriotism induce almost universal admiration. To give just one of many possible examples, in 1940, a number of Dutch soldiers gave their lives in a hopeless cause attempting to defend the Netherlands from invading Nazi armies. This act would be considered by almost everyone to be a clear case of selfless, admirable patriotism.
Yet many of the invading Nazi soldiers doubtless felt, too, that they were engaged in a patriotic act, in this case on behalf of the German nation. Many of them had been indoctrinated in a form of unquestioning patriotism during their teenage years, while they were members of the Hitler Youth. Very few people today, even in Germany, would consider the unprovoked German attack on Holland to have been justified, and to the extent that patriotism facilitated it, then patriotism could be considered, in this case, a bad thing. Throughout history, various governments have invoked patriotic feelings to support military aggression, arbitrary imprisonment of aliens, and even murder, acts considered evil by most individuals.
In addition, many politicians have exploited patriotism in attacking their opponents, accusing them of betraying the nation. In the view of many, the nature of these comments harm political discussion and provide less opportunity for deliberative democracy to flourish, because it appeals only to a visceral negative emotion (that is, angry patriotism), rather than to voters’ reasoned views on policy.
A commonly cited example of the danger inherent in the political exploitation of patriotism is the case of Adolf Hitler, who rose to power (terminating democracy in Germany for many years) in part by accusing the existing government of treason for having signed the armistice that ended the First World War. (See November criminals.)
Patriotism distinguished from selflessness
It can often be difficult to determine whether in admiring a particular act of patriotism, we are admiring patriotism itself, or rather the selflessness that patriotism often inspires. Returning to an example given above (the German invasion of Holland), we can ask whether any particular self-sacrificing Dutch soldier actually experienced the emotion of patriotism (that is, devotion to the Dutch national state) while he fought. It is possible that some of these soldiers fought because they hated Fascism, because they did not want to appear to be cowards, or because they felt that a soldier always ought to do his duty.
It seems possible, in fact, that there are two meanings for the phrase “patriotic act”. In the broad sense, a patriotic act is any selfless act that benefits the nation, irrespective of motivation; in the narrow sense, a patriotic act is a selfless act that is specifically motivated by patriotic feelings.
Returning to the Dutch example one more time, we can imagine two soldiers, equally brave and self-sacrificing. The first soldier is motivated by a narrow-minded, chauvinistic preference for all things Dutch. The second cares nothing for the Dutch nation as such, but has carefully studied Fascism and has a deep commitment to save the world from its perceived evils. Many people might well admire the second soldier more than the first, even though he could be considered the less patriotic of the two.
Patriotism vs. universal brotherhood
The example illustrates the point that patriotism embodies two things: selflessness, which virtually everyone admires, plus a belief that we owe a greater allegiance to our fellow citizens than to foreigners. It is the latter ingredient of patriotism that is controversial. Some people oppose the concept of a universal human community to patriotism, as expressed for instance in the idealistic phrase "Alle Menschen werden Brüder" ("all people become brothers") sung in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
The question of whether we are more like brothers with our countrymen than with other people arises constantly in practical life. For instance, immigration laws are based on the principle that the citizens of a country, merely by accident of birth, have an automatic entitlement to live in it, but foreigners do not. Little consensus currently exists about how, in formulating policies, we should weigh loyalties within a nation against loyalties to all of our fellow humans.
In his article "Is patriotism a virtue?" (1984), the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre addresses this question in a particularly subtle way. He first notes that most contemporary conceptions of morality insist on a kind of impartial blindness to accidental traits like national origin in the just treatment of our fellow humans—and therefore, that patriotism is inevitably not moral under these conceptions. MacIntyre goes on, however, to construct a sophisticated alternative conception of morality that would be compatible with patriotism.
Patriotism for other countries?
History includes many cases of individuals who acted with impassioned selflessness on behalf of countries not their own. For example, the Marquis de Lafayette was a Frenchman who fought for the independence of the thirteen British colonies in America. The "Philhellenes," western Europeans who fought in the Greek War of Independence, are another example; as are the Americans who fought on the Allied side before the entry of their country into the First World War. Such cases call into question what we mean by "patriotism": for instance, was Lafayette an American patriot, or the Philhellenes Greek patriots?
Alistair MacIntyre would claim that they were not; that these and similar cases are instances of idealism, but not of patriotism. Under this view, Lafayette was only devoted to the ideals of political liberty that underlay the American Revolution, but was not specifically patriotic for America. For MacIntyre, patriotism by definition can only be a preference for one's own country, not a preference for the ideals that a country is believed to stand for.
The opposite view is also widely held: for instance, many Americans who profess to be patriots would claim that their patriotism is not an arbitrary preference for America, but is rather is based on special virtues (for instance, "freedom"), that are specially, perhaps uniquely, possessed by America. Presumably, for such individuals, it would be quite coherent to claim that Lafayette was an American patriot, since he fought on behalf of (what are held to be) American virtues.
Patriotism and kin selection
Why do so many people experience intense patriotic feelings? One explanation that has been proposed is that such feelings result, in the long run, from kin selection. Our ancestors certainly lived in small groups of genetically related individuals. Feelings of intense loyalty to one's own group might have led individuals to take actions that were poorly justified on grounds of self-interest, but helped the group as a whole. Since genes tended to be shared by the entire group, and cooperation likely was critical to group survival, a propensity to experience feelings of loyalty to the group was probably favored by natural selection. This idea was expressed by Charles Darwin in 1871 as follows:
- A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.
Since Darwin’s time, evidence for kin selection has been observed among many species that live in small groups. Frequently, animals in such species have been observed taking actions that risk their own lives but benefit the safety of the group as a whole (an example is the issuance of a warning call against predators, an act which directs the predator’s attention to the individual who gave it). Moreover, it is documented that the members of such groups typically are indeed related, and thus share a tacit interest in the long-term success of each other’s genetic endowment.
Today, of course, the feelings of intense patriotism that grip (for example) many Americans cannot possibly be supported in the evolutionary sense by kin selection, since Americans form a huge and genetically very diverse population. Yet the forces believed to have created human nature, and hence these feelings, were in effect over a period of many millennia, during which time all human societies were very small. Evidently, there was nothing to stop the feeling of group loyalty from carrying over, without biological purpose, from small groups to large.
The political rhetoric associated with patriotism often compares the nation to a family, as in, for instance, the terms “Fatherland,” “Mother Russia,” or the patriotic words Shakespeare places in the mouth of Henry V:
- “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”
In the kin-selection account of patriotism, this kind of metaphor might be viewed as seeking to focus the natural feelings people have towards kin onto the nation as a whole.
The kin selection theory of patriotism is not universally accepted, and the following paragraphs list some alternative points of view.
Among biologists, some believe that the quantitative conditions needed to make kin selection effective in small human societies were not met. The controversy hinges on what numerical values are to be plugged into the (generally accepted) equations of W. D. Hamilton that govern kin selection.
Further afield, there are individuals who accept the theory of evolution in general but reject efforts to invoke it in the explanation of human behavior. Such people would be likely to emphasize the great malleability of the human character, including the apparent possibility of creating patriotism through the instruction of youth, as in the Hitler Youth example above.
Still other people would reject the kin selection theory of patriotism simply because they reject the theory of evolution on which it depends. Often such individuals rely instead on religious beliefs to understand why the human character is the way it is. From this point of view, one possible account of patriotism would be that God has permitted individual people to become either good or evil (a consequence of the doctrine of free will), and that patriotism is simply a natural behavior of good people.
Patriotism and religion
Throughout history, patriotic feeling has often been linked to religion. At various points in history, particularly in time of war, various relations of religion and patriotism have prevailed.
In one variant, patriotic participants in a war acknowledge that the enemy worships the same god, but judge that this god is on their own side, thus providing the external justification for patriotism noted just above. This is perhaps a fair characterization of the attitude of many of the participants in the American Civil War or most of the fronts of the First World War. Another variant is for each side to worship different gods, acknowledge that the other side’s god exists, and believe that their own god is superior. This may have characterized the conflicts between the ancient Israelites and their Canaanite opponents, as narrated in the Old Testament. Yet another version of religious patriotism is the belief that a god or set of gods is on one’s side, and that the god or gods of the other side simply do not exist. This view often characterized the beliefs of the European powers during the colonialist period, when their armies often fought against pagan opponents.
Under any of these circumstances, religion can provide a satisfactory account to its believers for what otherwise would be a paradox, namely, that both sides in a conflict can feel patriotic at the same time. The idea would be that the other side is in fact fighting against God’s will, and thus can be considered to be engaged in a false kind of patriotism.
While patriotism often appeals to religion, not all religions countenance patriotism. For example, some Restorationist Christian denominations, such as Jehovah's Witnesses and Mennonites, refuse to participate in patriotic acts and ceremonies and refuse to wear patriotic attire.
Patriotism and history
Levels of patriotism in all nations have varied through history, and it is an intriguing puzzle for historians why this should be so.
It is tempting to think that democratic government is a cause of patriotism. For instance, it could be imagined that the military forces of Ancient Greece succeeded in fending off much larger numbers of attacking Persians because ancient Persia was a despotism, whereas many of the Greeks lived in democracies, which gave them a sense of solidarity and hence of patriotism. Similarly, it is often thought that the French Revolution, by freeing the French of the yoke of monarchy, set off a great surge of patriotism that led to the great (if ultimately temporary) success of the French armies in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.
This theory cannot be entirely true, since there have been many states that had tyrannical systems of government but nonetheless had very high levels of patriotism. Two have already been mentioned here: early 19th-century France (after Napoleon had made himself emperor) and Nazi Germany.
Patriotism and politics
Patriotism can be both for or against the current government of a nation. Supporters of the current government may hold the opinion that patriotism implies support of one's government and its policies, and that opposition to the government's policies amounts to treason. But in other instances, rebellion against a corrupt or tyrannical government may be justified as an act needed to save the nation, and thus is likewise motivated by patriotism.
Patriotism and related concepts
Patriotism is sometimes associated with ethnocentrism, i.e. the belief in the inherent superiority of one's own people, however this may be defined. However, in the case of ethnocentrism, the people in question need not form a nation, but can be a smaller or larger unit. Moreover, the term ethnocentrism is generally used negatively, whereas the term patriotism is quite often used positively.
It is also sometimes problematic to distinguish between patriotism and nationalism, as some people tend to use nationalist as a near-synonym for patriot. However, nationalism (but not patriotism) also has a particular meaning, expressing a desire among a people to form an independent nation.
The word chauvinism denotes a narrow-minded and thoughtless but impassioned dedication to a particular cause, and thus is always used negatively. The cause can be of any kind (hence the widespread use of the phrase male chauvinism), but the term can also refer to national chauvinism; that is, a negative characterization of patriotism.
Lastly, the word jingoism is similar to patriotism, but it can only be used negatively, to denote a variety of patriotism deemed to be aggressive and thoughtless.
Patriotism and recent U.S. history
After September 11, 2001, there was a surge of patriotic feeling in the United States, which was manifested in many of the phenomena discussed above. For instance, displays of symbolic patriotism became ubiquitous, as Americans took to attaching multiple flags to their automobiles and the outside of their homes. As in previous episodes of intense patriotism, the political climate came to include accusations of national betrayal and even treason. For example, Tom Davis claimed that his political opponents were giving "aid and comfort to our enemies". President George W. Bush claimed "If you're not with us, you're against us." In the U.S. Senate, Republican senator Trent Lott exclaimed "How dare Senator Daschle criticize President Bush while we are fighting our war on terrorism?"
Many believe that the surge in patriotism was the factor that enabled a number of major changes in national policy. The (significantly named) USA PATRIOT Act, which was hurriedly passed in late September, 2001, was designed to combat terrorism but is considered by many to constitute a harmful assault on civil liberties. It is also possible that the patriotic surge created a political climate under which it was possible for the Bush Administration to launch wars first in Afghanistan and then (far more controversially) in Iraq.
Like almost all wars, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq appear to have increased patriotic feeling. As casualties have mounted and opposition to the war has increased, a pattern seen earlier in the Vietnam War has reemerged: those in favor of war consider that those who oppose it are unpatriotic, or even outright traitors. Several conservative commentators have indicated they feel that news that paints the US in a negative light is giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Since war opponents understandably resent such accusations, the political debate has taken place in an atmosphere of increasing anger.
Whilst there was a groundswell of international outrage and support for the US public after the September 11, 2001 attacks, the link between the war on terrorism, the 2003 Iraq War and US patriotism has been difficult for some outside the US. Modern Western Europeans, particularly in the United Kingdom (perhaps due to its imperial history) and Germany have tended to view any ostentatious display of flags and national symbols as small-minded, jingoistic or, what is worse, racist - they have also been associated with Football Hooliganism (see Nationalism for more discussion on this topic). While patriotic statements appear to have played well to the US domestic audience, they necessarily exclude foreigners - and many abroad feel that the attributes described as typically or exclusively American - freedom and democracy - are not only found in the United States, and to claim so is inflammatory.
It has been claimed that patriotic fervor has decreased the ability of Americans to obtain objective information about the world situation. In particular, the journal Political Science Quarterly published research showing that those who obtained their news from outlets that appear to make a concerted effort to be patriotic were more likely to have factual misconceptions about the Iraq war. These misperceptions were: that weapons of mass destruction had been found, that evidence linked Saddam Hussein to Al-Qaeda, and that world public opinion favored the war. Respondents that received their news from public broadcasting, conversely, were far less likely to hold these perceptions.
It has also been claimed that liberal Democrats opposed to the war in Iraq are not patriotic Americans. Hollywood was also at the brunt of America's new patriotic feelings post 9-11, and many artists were snubbed by the American public as a result of their opposition to the war.
Sources and further reading
- Bar-Tal, Daniel, and Ervin Staub. Patriotism. Wadsworth Publishing: 1999. ISBN 083041410X.
- Blattberg, Charles. From Pluralist to Patriotic Politics: Putting Practice First Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN 0198296886.
- Cohen, Joshua, and Martha C. Nussbaum. For Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism. Beacon Press: 1996. ISBN 0807043133.
- Primoratz, Igor. Patriotism. Humanity Books: 2002. ISBN 1573929557.
- Viroli, Maurizio. For Love of Country: An Essay on Patriotism and Nationalism. Oxford University Press: 1997. ISBN 0198293585.
- Alasdair MacIntyre's essay on patriotism was published as a pamphlet by the Department of Philosophy of the University of Kansas and is available in many university libraries.
The Second World War by John Keegan (various editions; e.g. Penguin USA 1990, ISBN 014011341X) addresses the intensification of patriotic feeling in Europe during the 19th century, and how it ultimately helped facilitate the First and the Second World Wars. Keegan also vividly describes how Adolf Hitler used accusations of treason to help attain power.
Treason : Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism, by Ann Coulter (Crown Forum, 2003; ISBN 1400050308) attempts to show that liberals in America have often been disloyal to their country.
- The quote from Darwin above is from Chapter 5 of his book The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). The book is available in a number of modern editions (for an inexpensive one: ISBN 1573921769); and also on line at http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/charles_darwin/descent_of_man/index.shtml.
The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (various editions, e.g. Oxford Press, 1990, ISBN 0192860925) provides extensive discussion, with examples, of kin selection.
The Third Chimpanzee, by Jared Diamond (various editions, e.g. Perennial, 1990, ISBN 0060984031) discusses the role of biological factors in human behavior, including behaviors characterizable as patriotic.
- http://www.pitt.edu/~inb1/homeopathy.pdf is a skeptical look by a historian at the kin-selection theory of patriotism.