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Is Patriotism a Virtue?

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Is Patriotism a Virtue?

Depending on context, philosophy and geography, the term ‘patriotism’ can be interpreted from many different perspectives by scholars. The most prevalent trend is to define this term as love and obligation to one’s own country. Ancient Greeks viewed patriotism as collective notions of language, ethics, justice and commitment to a set of universal values and principals. As one of the most revered philosophical figures of the twentieth century, Alasdair MacIntyre in his book Is Patriotism a Virtue? presents a comparative analysis of patriotism based on moral foundations.

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This article is going to elaborate on MacIntyre’s argument as presented in Is Patriotism a Virtue?

Identifying patriotism is one of the basic philosophical issues among scholars. Bearing in mind so many contradictory outlooks on the same topic, especially with regards to liberal conceptions of patriotism, Alasdair MacIntyre gives an elucidation in the beginning as to how patriotism can be identified. According to him, patriotism is not merely standing in defense a nation’s beliefs and constructs simply because it is more related to the realization of the self rather than obsession with nationalism.

The moral ideologies associated with patriotism are to be ascertained more than anything else. So in this regard, patriotism is not just about showing a strong support for one’s own nation; rather it lends support to one’s own ideals or felt perceptions, which may or may not tally with that of the nation. Once this ideal is set, anyone can propagate it in best interest of the nation and the well being of its citizens. He also points out that patriotism cannot mean thoughtless commitment to one’s own country without paying any heed to the characteristics of that country. It might be noted that patriotism and nationalism began to differ conceptually from eighteenth century onwards. MacIntyre’s extreme and robust forms of patriotism deviate from the stereotypical notions of generalization. He vehemently upholds the belief that each nation has its particular and unique set of nationalistic principles and hence, each citizen must form independent moral and ethical ideals unique to the country he/she lives in. This also helps in establishing justice systems relevant to the cause of a nation. Those who support the idea that moderate form of patriotism is morally superior to extreme forms need to consider that a patriot should not evaluate the merits and achievements of other countries in the same way as they should do with their respective countries.

On one hand, there is a strong nineteenth century view that patriotism is a virtue. This view stood in stark contrast to what came to practice in the intellectual realm in the 1960s. It interpreted patriotic notions as vice. MacIntyre neither defends any of these points of views, nor does he negate anything. Rather, he just attempts to dig deeper into the issues that set them apart from one another.

Partial context of patriotism with regards to benefits derived from one’s own nation or spouse is another interesting argument MacIntyre discusses. He observes that loyalty to one’s own possessions – be it the nation or spouse depends both on their merits as well as the benefits gained. While the partiality of any relation is irrefutable, it also throws up another ethical dilemma. Which point of view is to be considered as more ‘ethical’? Does a person show patriotism out of love or does it just to express gratitude for what is given by the nation to him/her? As the second option is more plausible, one can relate the term with vice and not a virtue.

MacIntyre’s views on morality are hinged on two distinct accounts: one which is liberal and doesn’t provide any ground for patriotism at all; and another perceives patriotism as a fundamental virtue. If one tries to merge these two accounts from a rational point of view, they will seem incompatible. So one has to make a choice in terms of which school of thought one should go with. If taken separately, the first argument can be analyzed in two different ways. Humans as moral creatures have no other alternative but to abide by general notions of patriotism. In this sense, if one has to lead a life of moral development and moral education, commitment to country cannot be compromised with, for an individual lives within a community framework that requires to abide by certain nationalistic principles. So the individual moralities and ideologies become less important as opposed to the moral norms of the nations itself. The second analysis from the first argument follows the reverse path of freedom and personal judgment. In other words, a citizen feels that he can set himself/herself free from the loyalty of his/her own country but he/she must not do so.

The liberal contention of patriotism overstates the consequences of the fact that any individual is bounded to his/her community and nation by moral education, standards and measures. In this sense, a person plays the role of a moral agent in carrying out his/her responsibilities for the community and nation. But the liberal argument puts forward the view that an individual is not committed to lifelong allegiance to any form of morality imposed on him by the community he/she belongs to. A person is perfectly entitled to use his own ethical and judgmental sense and critically scrutinize the established notions. What MacIntyre suggests is fiddling around with the morality of the community in an extreme way. But Igor Primoratz and Aleksandar Pavkovic opine that an individual, by applying his own thoughts, should be able to challenge the preconceived beliefs and commitments of a nation. (Primoratz, Pavkovic, p. 25)

MacIntyre propels the need for rational examination of the prevalent convictions within a community. Generally it is observed that any community is built on the basis of diverse philosophical and practical beliefs that contradict each other. Same or rival groups within a community often differ in matters of moral obligations and commitments. The first and foremost task of a moral philosopher is to figure out the areas of disputes and disagreements in order to settle them. Now, keeping in mind the thesis topic, we need to look into the speculation that patriotism is not a virtue. MacIntyre gives a set of arguments to counteract his previously supported position where he declared patriotism to be a virtue. The theory of impersonal judgment cannot stand for patriotism within the rules and ethical obligations of a country. Nobody living in a country is free to implement in reality his/her own beliefs, for it may result in conflicting scenario from a broader interest. So a person must withdraw himself/herself from giving partial judgments based on his own beliefs. This argument typically leads to another one, proclaiming the course of individualistic thought process of an individual, and proving that patriotism and moral standpoints can never be clubbed together; they are two entirely separate entities.

A roundabout way of stating the same argument is that patriotism is marked by dedication to one’s own nation, which does not require breaching of objective viewpoints. But this argument is weak in that no plausible explanation can be found when two countries require the same resources and yet both can’t get access to it. As a citizen, one must need to prefer one country to another in such a scenario. He/she cannot remain objectively tilted towards a generalized notion because patriotism is all about prioritizing one’s own country.

In Is Patriotism a Virtue?, MacIntyre provides a logical sequence of arguments that leads to a conclusion:

“1. If I can apprehend rules of morality only in a specific community


2.      If morality’s justification is in particular goods of particular communities


3.      If I am created and maintained as a moral being in a community


4.      Deprived of this community, I am unlikely to flourish as a moral agent.  Without community, there are no standards of judgment.  Patriotism gives those standards.” (University of Central Florida, 2006)

The liberal explanation for morality is given vividly with citations taken from a learning domain. Under moral commitments, issues of where and from whom are as significant as the commitment itself. Now those issues become irrelevant once the liberal explanation comes in. In context of moral allegiance to one’s own community or country, an individual feels obligated to abide by the set rules and principles the community has, and at the same time, it throttles the liberal outlooks of that particular individual. The author also touches upon rules of morality from social context. According to his observance any set of rules must be justifiable by the parameters of its social implications – to what extent the society is able to enjoy the benefits and outcomes of goods.

This tree of argument and derided conclusion clearly explicates the author’s perspectives on the theme of patriotism as a virtue. If any rationale goes missing from the argument, we are unlikely to draw the same conclusion. So it might be noted that an overall analysis of the thesis topic at hand promotes the idea of patriotism from a highly individualistic standpoint, explaining it in relation to social standards of morality and justice. To sum it up, we can neither state boisterously that a pair of rival moralities can never be true (in case of patriotism to be treated as a virtue or a vice), nor do we make a claim that both are false. What ultimately accounts for is impatience that does not wait eternally for a particular wing of philosophy to take effect on practicality. Thus, Alasdair MacIntyre’s Is Patriotism a Virtue? can be interpreted more as a speculative doctrine of philosophy rather than as a treatise having considerable practical significance.

Work Cited

Primoratz, Igor, and Pavkovic, Aleksandar. (2008). Patriotism. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

University of Central Florida. (2006). Alasdair MacIntyre, “Is Patriotism a Virtue?”. Retrieved February, 18, 2009 from http://pegasus.cc.ucf.edu/~stanlick/patriotism.html


Cite this Is Patriotism a Virtue?

Is Patriotism a Virtue?. (2016, Oct 26). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/is-patriotism-a-virtue/

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