Patriotism; desirable or harmful?


Is patriotism a virtue or is it a vice?
A discussion of why unthinking patriotism can be foolish and unethical

Patriotism is defined in Wikipedia in October 2004 as "a feeling of love and devotion to one's own homeland (patria, the land of one's fathers)."

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In practice the simple concept of patriotism can lead to the idea, "I love and support my country, right or wrong". Patriotism is convenient for the governments and political parties that run nations, don't just accept it without giving it some critical thought, and vote smart.

When you think of your love for your homeland, are you thinking of your love of the land you live in, or of your nation? The distinction is important.

There is a contradiction in patriotism, if the people and government of your nation either fail to look after, or actively damage, the country you love then you have reason to despise your nation.

Created 2004/10/29, last edited 2020/08/28
Contact: David K Clarke – ©
I am an Australian citizen, although not proud to say so

"Australia, Australia, I love you with all my heart,
My liver, my giblets, and all my other parts."

Patriotism: a short-sighted concept

Two problems associated with patriotism concern me, one is to do with the definition of one's country; that is, the land or the nation? The other is discussed here.

Reading the definition of patriotism at the top of this page you might at first wonder how anyone could argue that patriotism is not a good thing. The problem is not so much with the love for one's own country, it is the implied exclusion of other countries from that love. If one holds ones own country to be more important, superior, and more to be loved than other countries then doesn't it follow that other countries, and probably their citizens, are inferior?

The error of patriotism is not so much to do with inclusion (one's own country) but with exclusion (every other country).

It has often been said that in the modern world we live in a global village; in this world we must learn, not just to love our own land and nation, but to love the whole world.

Why should your or my love stop at the border of our nation? On the other hand, isn't it much more natural that our love be mainly for that part of our nation with which we are familiar? For example, I have not yet visited north Queensland (part of my nation, Australia); can I, in any meaningful sense, love north Queensland as much as I love the Flinders Ranges, with which I have been familiar since childhood; and is it likely that I can love north Queensland more than any other part of the world that I have never visited? Looking at the question from the other end: I have visited Vietnam several times and love the place; am I wrong to love Vietnam and not love north Queensland?

The patriotic concept of placing one's own nation before other nations is very artificial. Obviously it must have developed after the rise of nation states; before then people's loyalties would have been for the family, tribe, village, or some other local societal group. Patriotism – directed specifically to the nation – must be one of the greatest successes of propaganda in history. If patriotism is interpreted as being loyalty to one's national government, it can mean "I will support my country, right or wrong". If the government of one's nation is corrupt and immoral, an honourable citizen cannot and must not support it.

Love of one's land as distinct from love of one's nation

I should say at this point that I see no harm in the love of the land one lives in. It is natural and, I suspect, good, to feel a love for the landscapes that you grew-up with, the way the seasons change in your homeland, the vegetation, the animals and birds. As an Australian I have a special attachment to gum trees for example.

What I am discussing on this page is patriotic feelings for ones nation. Encyclopaedia Britannica defines nation as "A community of people composed of one or more nationalities and possessing a more or less defined territory and government". (The distinction between land and nation is not necessarily a simple one for an Australian, because the entire continent is also the nation. I include Tasmania in both, from the point of view of landscapes, flora, fauna, and people.)

The contradiction in patriotism

My love for my land, Australia, tends to make me despise my nation. I believe that many US citizens, if they gave the matter sufficient thought, would feel the same way. Our governments are damaging our lands by their determined ignoring of the damage done by greenhouse related climate change. The Howard and Bush governments' belligerent approach to international relations are damaging the world and damaging the way in which we, the Australian and US peoples, are seen by the people in the rest of the world.

The Australian governments – state and federal – are elected by the people of Australia, so the people are as culpable as the governments. Neither does the great majority of the Australian people care enough about greenhouse/climate change to change their ways of life.

There is another reason why someone who loves the Australian land might despise the Australian nation. The Australian government involved the Australian nation in the Iraq war and the Australian people voted the same government back into power after the beginning of the war.

Australia will suffer from climate change as much as any land, yet the Australian government (whether Liberal under Howard, or Labor under Rudd) seems determined to be the most greenhouse-irresponsible in the world. As the climate changes, vegetation types will die out in some areas, associated animal groups will go too. Landscapes will change, perhaps become unrecognisable. Some entire species will no doubt be lost for ever.

If an Australian loves the land as it is, how could he or she love the nation? The nation includes the people who democratically voted in the government that is irreparably damaging the land; and the nation very much includes the government.

Patriotism compared to religion

I am an atheist. I sometimes wonder how Christians can believe that they have the answers to the big questions and all the Muslims, Jews, Buddhist, Hindus, etc. are wrong. Of course most Muslims believe that they know the truth and all the others, including the Christians, are wrong.

Isn't there a parallel with patriotism? The patriotic Australian believes that his country is better than all the others. The patriotic Chinese knows that the Australian is wrong and China is the best country in the world. Both would fight and die "for his county". Why?

Socrates is recorded as saying "I am a citizen, not of Athens or Greece, but of the World." I would go even further; we should think of ourselves not just as being a citizen of the world, but being a part of the biosphere: that is, a part of all life on earth.

The roots of patriotism

Patriotism as the love of one's nation state can go back no further than the concept of the nation state. As implied by the quote from Socrates above ("I am a citizen, not of Athens or Greece, but of the World."), the ancient Greeks used to generally have feelings of patriotic duty toward their city state, Athens, or Sparta, or Corinth, say, rather than for Greece. In pre-civilisation societies people would have had patriotic sentiments for their family, extended family, or tribe.

Even in post-Roman feudal Europe, people would perhaps have felt more strongly connected to their city or village rather than to their nation. Their village, to a large extent, would have been their world.

In the modern world many people feel stronger connection to their religious group, their ethnic minority group, or even their motorcycle club than they do to their nation-state.

Over the past several centuries, governments, especially I suspect Western governments, have been very successful in directing feelings of patriotism away from the land, the group or the tribe, toward the nation-state. Governments rely on feelings of patriotism from the people of the nation; they use such feelings to their advantage.

Peoples don't go to war against other peoples without being first fired-up with hatred and xenophobia by governments. Wars might achieve something, sometimes, for governments; they very rarely achieve anything for peoples.

Fight and die for your country?

A group of Vietnamese civilians including a little girl, Kim Phuc, fleeing from a napalmed village.
Girl in the picture
The famous Vietnam war photo by Nick Ut
Men from my country, Australia, and from the USA, fought in the Vietnam war. It is questionable whether the war was justified from the start. It achieved nothing and caused enormous death, destruction and misery.
I suppose the ultimate patriotic act is to fight and die in a war for one's country (the distinction between land or nation is important here). To do so with justification one should be thoroughly convinced that the cause of one's country and its government is better than that of the country against which you are going to war. Where is the evidence that either Australia, or the USA are exemplary and therefore have the right to force correction onto other countries?

And then there is the question: is killing for one's country right when in almost all other cases killing is a terrible crime?

There are times when fighting and risking death for one's country and what it stands for is probably justified. I believe that fighting against Nazism and Japanese Imperialism was morally justified in the Second World War. But what moral high ground does Australia (or the USA) hold in 2006?

If you are considering fighting for a cause, I suggest that you fight for principals that are worthy, things like freedom, justice, fairness to others, generosity. To fight for a country, just because it is the one you live in, and ignoring its failings, would, in my view, be foolish in the extreme.

Patriotism, loyalty and nation

Our government, and that of the USA, seems to equate patriotism to national loyalty and a willingness to place our nation before all others. They seem to hold this sort of 'patriotism' as a great virtue in a citizen. Is love of one's own nation to the exclusion of others a virtue?

Some people in Germany during World War Two concealed Jews from the authorities. They were placing their own beliefs of right and wrong before the law of the land, which said that they should report all Jews to the government. Were they wrong to do so? I suspect that most people would say that they did right because it was the government's policy of exterminating Jews that was wrong.

It seems then that we do not owe loyalty to our nation – as represented by the government of our nation – if that government is behaving immorally. Or would it be more accurate to say that a patriot, in a nation whose government was behaving immorally, would be morally obliged to work against that government? ("The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing": Edmund Burke.)

What could any government do that is more immoral than to involve its nation and its people in an unjust, unnecessary, counterproductive, illegal, futile, and terribly destructive war that caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians and the displacement of millions of others? Especially when the people that the government supposedly represented overwhelmingly did not want their country involved in the war. Of course I am referring to Australia and the Iraq war that started in 2003.

Patriotism would be misplaced in Australia and the USA in 2005

The governments of Australia and the USA in 2005 are morally corrupt, similarly to the way that the government of Germany in the 1930s was corrupt. They have an unsustainable, short sighted, selfish outlook; they care much more for the wealthy among their citizens than for the poor, and they are dominated by the corporations that fund their political campaigns. Perhaps most importantly, they lack any standing as responsible members of the community of nations.

Their faults have most strongly been demonstrated in their recent decisions regarding the Kyoto accord and the invasion of Iraq.

The citizens of Australia and the USA must learn to adopt a more global outlook if the corruption is to be reversed.