Summer 2020

Patriotism & Moral Theology

John E. Hare

This essay examines the question of the moral justification of patriotism, given a Kantian view of morality as requiring an equal respect for every human being. The essay considers the background in Kant’s moral theology for his cosmopolitanism. It then considers an extreme version of cosmopolitanism that denies a proper place for love of one’s country, and it engages with a contemporary atheist cosmopolitan, Seyla Benhabib, suggesting that there are resources in Kant’s moral theology to ground the hope that she expresses but does not succeed in grounding. Finally, it considers patriotism as a perfection of cosmopolitanism, in the same way that love of an individual can be a perfection of love of humanity. The essay suggests that defensible versions of cosmopolitanism put constraints on what kind of love of one’s own country is morally permissible. But these constraints require the background in a Kantian moral theology.

John E. Hare is the Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale Divinity School. He is the author of God’s Command (2015), God and Morality: A Philosophical History (2007), Why Bother Being Good? The Place of God in the Moral Life (2002), God’s Call: Moral Realism, God’s Commands, and Human Autonomy (2001), and The Moral Gap: Kantian Ethics, Human Limits, and God’s Assistance (1996).

Patriotism has often been negatively evaluated. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, for example, said that “patriotism from an absolute perspective is simply another form of selfishness,” that social groups are held together by emotion rather than reason, and that love for one’s country “slews into nationalism.” This essay is an attempt to locate a kind of justifiable patriotism. I will be arguing from a modified Kantian ethical framework, which is widely considered by political theorists to be among the major moral frameworks that can guide democratic societies. Since Kant is also one of the founders of cosmopolitanism, which is the view that we are citizens (in Greek, politai) of the cosmos, I will need to consider whether patriotism and cosmopolitanism are consistent.

Kant proposed as the supreme principle of morality what he called a “categorical imperative,” of whose formulations or formulas I will mention two. The formula of universal law states: “Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” I interpret this to mean that Kant is asking us to prescribe for an imagined system of moral permissions: that is, like the system of nature, covered by universal laws that eliminate singular reference from my maxims (where a maxim is the prescription of an action together with the reason for that action), and thus eliminate reference to me, the agent. “It follows from universalizability that if I now say that I ought to do a certain thing to a certain person, I am committed to the view that the very same thing ought to be done to me, were I in exactly this situation, including having the same personal characteristics and in particular the same motivational states.” The second formula, the formula of humanity, states: “So act that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means.” Kant based this kind of respect for the dignity of a person on what all rational beings have in common: namely, their autonomy.

The kind of justifiable patriotism I want to defend will require a modification of these formulas of the categorical imperative interpreted in these ways. Strictly, for a maxim to prescribe love for a country morally would require, by universalizability, that I be able to eliminate singular reference to that country (that region of space and time). The name for a country is a singular term, making singular reference. If I say, for example, that all Canadians are virtuous, I am making reference to a particular region of space and time in which those people live. I think we should allow that maxims can be morally permissible where singular reference is not eliminable, even in principle. It is morally permissible for me to help my friend Elizabeth get bats out of her house, even if I cannot eliminate reference to her even in principle from the maxim of my action, because my obligation comes out of the particular texture of our relationship and its history.

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