Sunday, May 20, 2018

Patriotism: Good, Bad, or It’s Complicated?

Spoiler Alert: It’s complicated.

Before I can talk about patriotism I have to talk about altruism. Webster’s Dictionary defines altruism as, “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others.” The dictionary also includes a second definition of altruism; one that I learned in my biology classes in college: Altruism is, “behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species.” Basically, it’s risking or sacrificing yourself to help others.

In nature, as in humanity, altruism is prevalent among close kin- for example, parents helping their kids, siblings helping each other, etc. Biologists theorize that altruism evolved because of a type of natural selection called “kin selection.” I.e., families bearing the genetic mutations that cause altruistic behavior were more likely to survive and pass on their genes than were families made up of purely selfish individuals. Thus the altruism genes spread throughout the species.

Altruism in nature is not strictly limited to closely-related individuals, though. Kindness to unrelated group members, and even to strangers, also occurs. That kind of non-kin altruism probably evolved because of the shared benefits for individuals cooperating in pairs or groups. It’s the “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine” principle. The classic example is birds in a flock each contributing some time to predator lookout duties while the rest of the flock feeds. The individuals on lookout duty don’t have as much time to eat, but the whole flock gets the benefits of having an early warning of approaching predators, and there’s an understanding that every member of the flock will contribute some to lookout duty. Of course, there’s a bit more to it than that. For example there are complex and still-evolving theories regarding the cost-benefit tradeoffs of various selfish vs. altruistic behaviors, mechanisms for enforcing reciprocity of non-kin altruism, etc. To make a long story short, biological science has shown us that the capacity for altruism, the instinctive desire to help relatives, partners, group members, and even strangers, is millions of years old, predating the human species.

Human altruism is particularly interesting and challenging to study because of our high intelligence, and complex, hierarchical, social structures. Our considerations of altruism weigh costs and benefits to the self in relation to family, coworkers, community, religious/ethnic group, city, sports team, political party, state, nation, international alliances, humanity, and/or the global ecosystem. The relative well-being, safety, and stability that many modern humans enjoy, as compared with non-human animals that live short lives of constant stress and mortal peril, owes largely to our advanced (albeit imperfect) altruism. However, the overlap among the levels of human altruism creates a lot of potential and real conflict in our altruistic decision making processes. Consider, for example, whether you would serve your nation at a risk or cost to your family. Conversely, would you serve your family, at a cost to your nation? And would you serve your nation at a cost to humanity or the global ecosystem? These are difficult and important questions.

We are now ready to talk about patriotism, which, for the purposes of this discussion, I am defining as altruistic attitudes and behaviors at the level of state or nation. Patriotism is seen by many as unequivocally virtuous, but I’ll contend that patriotism can go a lot of different ways, and that it should be considered carefully in the context of broader ethical principles and the other levels of altruism. I will begin my “patriotism is complicated” thesis by outlining some kinds of patriotism that are bad. Then I will conclude with a recommendation on what I view as “good” patriotism.

Bad types of patriotism:

Bad Patriotism Type 1: Being patriotic to a bad country

*If your country’s goals or actions are bad, your patriotic support of the country furthers that badness.
*In a bad country, a noble alternative to simple supportive patriotism would be participating in efforts to reform the country. However, I think that trying to escape the country, or simply laying low in defense of one’s own life would also be understandable and forgivable.
*Some criteria that I think could classify a country as “bad” are: 1) the government violates fundamental human rights, for example by endorsing slavery, 2) the government is seriously corrupt or incompetent, resulting in the suffering of its citizens.
*Some examples of countries that I think are bad, according to these criteria, are: Isis, Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Confederate States of America, Taliban-led Afghanistan, North Korea, etc.
*Note: There can be good people in a bad country.
*Also note: A country can be bad for a period of time, under the thrall of a particular bad group of leaders, but may not be permanently bad. For example, Germany has been a pretty good country since Nazism was defeated in WWII. The opposite can happen, too- a good country can go bad.

Bad Patriotism Type 2: Unquestioning patriotism

*I would define unquestioning patriotism as loyalty to country in the absence of any objective assessment of the quality or morality of the country and its actions.
*It is associated with a false assumption that the country is permanently and inherently good, and that everything the country does must be supported.
*In its extreme form, unquestioning patriotism views questioning as not merely unnecessary, but as actively unpatriotic. “How DARE you question America!?”
*A variation on unquestioning patriotism is unquestioning patriotism applied just to certain parts of the government. For example, some believe that the military, police, and president must have our unquestioning support, but that it’s OK to question other parts of government like the congress, the courts, and the IRS. “God damn the IRS, but how DARE you question the military!?”
*The reason this type of patriotism is bad is that it can easily lead to Type 1 bad patriotism, by failing to recognize and correct the country when it’s going bad.

Bad Patriotism Type 3: Misanthropic patriotism; aka "Hate-triotism"

*This is the angry type of patriotism that involves hating other people, both inside and outside the country, in order to strengthen a kind of in-group cohesion.
*It depends on the generally false notion that it’s those “others” who are a threat to the greatness or the security of the country, and that the others and their filthy ideas must therefore be subjugated or purged.
*Some of the hate is stirred up by demagogues, who intentionally provoke fear, jealousy, and hate against scapegoats both inside and outside the country. “The foreigners are taking our jobs!”
*Some of the hate starts when unquestioning patriots feel “attacked” by others within their country who do question things. (See American death skull "Love it or Leave It" t-shirt design.) Then strife grows between the questioners and the unquestioning defenders.

Bad Patriotism Type 4: Fake/Hypocritical Patriotism

*Practitioners of this type of patriotism emphasize patriotic rhetoric, displays, and symbolism while making relatively little effort to actually behave altruistically with regards to the country.
*Fake/hypocritical patriots are quick to condemn others for being or seeming unpatriotic.
*If you plaster national flags all over your yard and denounce those protesting the government, yet you refuse to pay taxes, you may be a fake/hypocritical patriot.
*Fake/hypocritical patriotism is common among politicians, who may use it cynically to manipulate unquestioning patriots into acting on their behalf.
*This is also known as “chicken hawk” patriotism.
*The song “Fortunate Son” by the band Creedence Clearwater Revival provides a good critique of this kind patriotism.

Good Patriotism:
*Despite all the ways that it can go wrong, I think that patriotism is an important type of altruism. It has a valid place in the nested hierarchy of the types of altruism- somewhere between altruism to family and community and altruism to humanity and the global ecosystem.
*Over thousands of years there has been a general expansion of our species’ bubble of altruism from small family groups to tribes, cultures, city-states, and broader levels of organization. But the instinctive sense of in-group mutual interest kind of fades and weakens at the broadest levels. Likewise, our logistical abilities to organize and care for our groups are increasingly challenged as the groups become broader. For example, we may not yet have the will or ability to ensure universal medical care at the global scale, but we can do it at the national scale. Global goodness should be the ultimate goal, but national goodness is an important and achievable level to focus on to get us there, and patriotism can help with that.
*I don’t have a fool-proof prescription for creating good patriotism, but I think it can start with taking a sober inventory of the state of one’s country, including both its strengths and its faults, and working to make it better.


Unknown said...


Alex (Carey) Marvin said...

Patriotism is just another instance of the general principle that we tend to like those people and social institutions that we identify with - similarity and familiarity are the two best predictors of liking. Is it not a truism that, in general, people tend to love their families? This is not something that should be considered a virtue, since it's entirely expected, nor is it something enforced. It is totally natural and built into our brains through evolution. It's not like there's a big problem in too many people not loving their families sufficiently. On the contrary, problems tend to arise when people love their families too much, or too unrealistically.

It is the same thing with patriotism. This is not something that needs to be taught or consciously nurtured, and in no way should it be considered a special virtue. But it certainly can become a problem if your love for your family is uncritical, or if it demands that you be less loving of non-family people. I think most of us would be pretty suspicious of somebody who goes out of their way to be constantly singing the praises of their own family. So let's not give anybody special credit for doing likewise about their own country.

James Douglass said...

Those are really good points, Alex. I agree that extreme emphasis on filial loyalty and patriotism can be to the detriment of other social ethics.