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The Moral Demands of Patriotism


Indians in both political and social spheres have done numerous appeals to patriotism in the last few years, although beliefs promoting it are hardly new. As a unanimously considered virtue, its frequent use is understandable. What’s interesting is how sharply divided those proudly claiming the title are on practical issues. It’s commonly believed that patriotism—or the object of its loyalty: the country—makes significant demands on people. People ought to sacrifice something considerable in their lives for the greater good of the country. Such demands can be justified, such as helping impoverished minorities in the society; but might also be unwarranted, for example calling for discrimination against immigrants. India has recently been a battleground for patriots defending various ethical, economical, and political views while doing all in the name of patriotism.

Firstly, patriotism is defined here as “love of one's country, identification with it, and special concern for its well-being and that of compatriots.”[i] This relationship is based upon the country being the place of birth of the individual. As Simon Keller notes, patriotism also involves, “hav[ing] a motive to see your country as one that meets a certain description, and hence to push yourself towards certain interpretations of the country and away from others.”[ii] This means people using narratives about one’s country that are mostly incomplete are utilized to defend oneself and one’s beliefs, while denying that the opponent holds any correct interpretation. Most people argue how their values are national values and how holding them is both historically justified and consequentially beneficial.[iii]

But what does patriotism (or the country) demand? Does it call for accepting the native culture? Does it ask boycotting Fawad Khan’s movies? Or for shunning usage of Chinese goods? Or for standing in the queues without being critical of the efficacy of demonetization? Is standing for national anthem in the cinema halls a hallmark of patriotism? The problem is that there is absolutely no objective way to decide what goes with “the national spirit”. Something can be beneficial for the country while harming substantially those from other parts of the world, like launching nuclear missiles in wars. In such cases, there might well be a mitigation of our duties towards our country. Duties of patriotism can also be mutually inconsistent with duties towards humanity, nature, family and friends, even rationality when patriotism is based upon bad faith.[iv]

Often, this conflict is resolved by agents depending upon what they value more. But this psychological fact doesn’t answer what should be valued more or how to proceed with evaluating conflicting motivations. The aforementioned instances are extremities that most of us don’t necessarily face. Even though there would be defenders on both sides in such times, most disagreement, especially ones Indians confront, are comparatively trivial. Watching Khan’s movies or using Chinese products or criticism of new policies on social media is not, at least directly, going to threaten national interest. However, the language media uses certainly can make you believe that. Irrespective of the gravity of such situations, there might be correct or incorrect beliefs to hold, particularly those fitting for patriots. Identifying them, though, is a Herculean task and one that people conveniently avoid for propaganda purposes.

The difficulty of accepting non-reluctantly the rationality of patriotism, for some thinkers, is due to the abstract nature of country.[v] This criticism suggests that the country is a social construct and cannot meaningfully be a reasonable object of loyalty; any such loyalty, therefore, is misguided. If one accepts such a line of reasoning, it logically follows that the country makes no moral demands and country simpliciter has almost no duties towards. Such a conclusion is repugnant for most people in India, whose deified notion of the country is more than just a geographical land. It is possible to argue that such a glorified picture is essential for the development and commitment towards social causes. But from this to suggest that there are specific issues which patriots must take a single side on is a non sequitur.[vi]

One possible method to deal with such problems is having a cost-benefit analysis, implementing policies based upon results. But this is only a possible solution; since for those who think actions can be right or wrong regardless of their consequences, this is a ridiculous way of moving forward. Passionate critics of slavery and racism won’t agree to promoting it if it turns out such state of affairs are overall better.[vii] Same is true of those defending or opposing patriotism.

Ultimately, one must accept that there are various ways of being patriotic. Proper decision making, however, requires avoiding inclusion of patriotism in policy making. Emotionally-laden patriotism can be highly detrimental for pragmatic purposes, motivating jingoistic wars and exclusionary laws. There are cases where patriotic feelings might promote collectivistic projects essential for development. However, the fact that the consequences can be both good and bad renders it important to be sceptical in each case. Whatever action one chooses to do must then be justified socially when needed- even if the agent doesn’t owe an explanation, it might help others to choose an appropriate response. The reason why governments ought not to censure minority “anti-patriotic” opinion is because the actions of such minorities (like the ones previously mentioned) don’t harm anyone, at least in the legal and narrow sense. More importantly, dialogue and free speech needs to be valued in such times.



[i] Igor Primoratz, ‘Patriotism’, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/patriotism/

[ii] Simon Keller, “How Patriots Think, and Why It Matters”, in Igor Primoratz (ed.), Patriotism

[iii] Paresh Hate, ‘India’s Obsession with Patriotism- Part 1: Whose Patriotism is it, anyway?’ http://www.youngbhartiya.com/article/india-s-obsession-with-patriotism-part-1

[iv] Simon Keller, “Patriotism as Bad Faith”, (2005), Ethics: The University of Chicago Press

[v] George Kateb, “Is Patriotism a Mistake?’, (2000), Social Research; the exact words Kateb uses are, “[Patriotism] is a readiness to die and to kill for an abstraction: nothing you can see all of, or feel as you feel the presence of another person, or comprehend… a readiness to die and to kill for what is largely a figment of the imagination.”

[vi] Non sequitur: A flaw in logical reasoning where the conclusion doesn’t follow from the previous statement.

[vii] Even though it is arguable that this could be the case, such situations are certainly conceivable.

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Written By Paresh Hate

I do social and political criticism of status quo because it has unresolved foundational issues pertaining to ethics and philosophy that call for scrutiny.

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