Summer 2008

Toward a globally sensitive patriotism

Martha Craven Nussbaum

Martha C. Nussbaum, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1988, is Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago. She is the author of numerous publications, including “For Love of Country” (1996), “Hiding From Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law” (2004), “The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future” (2007), and “Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality” (2008).

In 1892, a World’s Fair, called the Columbian Exposition, was scheduled to take place in Chicago. Clearly, it was gearing up to be a celebration of unfettered greed and egoism. Industry and innovation were to be its central foci, as America planned to welcome the world with displays of technological prowess and material enrichment. Gross inequalities of opportunity in the nation were to be masked by the glowing exterior of the buildings that came to be called the ‘White City.’1

Advocates for the poor, upset by the plan, got together to think about how the celebration might incorporate ideas of equal opportunity and sacrifice. A group of Christian socialists finally went to President Benjamin Harrison with an idea: at the Exposition the president would introduce a new public ritual of patriotism, a pledge of allegiance to the flag, which would place the accent squarely on the nation’s core moral values, include all Americans as equals, and rededicate the nation to something more than individual greed. The words that were concocted to express these sentiments were: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands: one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”2

As so often happens with patriotic sentiment, however, the Pledge soon proved a formula of both inclusion and exclusion. Francis Bellamy, the Pledge’s author, was himself both a socialist and a xenophobe, who feared that our national values were being undermined by the flood of new immigrants from southern Europe. By the 1940s, required by law as a daily recitation in schools in many states, the Pledge became a litmus test for the ‘good’ American; and those who flunked the test faced both exclusion and violence. Jehovah’s Witnesses, who refused to recite the Pledge for religious reasons, seeing it as a form of idolatry, soon found their children expelled from school for noncompliance. Then, in a Catch-22, the parents were fined or jailed for “contributing to the delinquency of a minor” because their children were not in school.

Patriotism is Janus-faced. It faces outward, calling the self, at times, to duties for others, to the need to sacrifice for a common good, to renewed effort to fulfill the promises of equality and dignity inherent in national ideals. And yet, just as clearly, it also faces inward, inviting those who consider themselves ‘good’ or ‘true’ Americans to distinguish themselves from outsiders and subversives. Perhaps more dangerous yet, it serves to define the nation against its foreign rivals, whipping up warlike sentiments against them. (It was for precisely this reason that Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought that a good nation needed a patriotic ‘civil religion’ in place of the dogmas of Christianity, which he found too meek and pacifistic.3)

For such reasons, people committed to the twin goals of a world in which all human beings have a decent set of life opportunities, and a world in which wars of aggression do not mar people’s life chances, typically turn a skeptical eye on appeals to patriotic sentiment. They see such sentiments as binding the mind to something smaller than humanity; and, in a way, they are not wrong.

Patriotism is a species of love that, by definition, is bounded rather than global, particularistic rather than universal. Although it calls the mind to many aspects of humanity that lead the mind beyond its domestic confines–for example, human need or the struggle for justice and equality–patriotism is also irreducibly attached to particular memories, geographical features, and plans for the future.

If, then, our political doctrine included the thought that duties to all humanity should always take precedence over other duties, or the thought that particular obligations are correctly understood to be derivative from universal obligations (as a way of fulfilling, locally, those general obligations), it would be inconsistent with giving a large role to patriotism.

In my earlier writing on cosmopolitanism, I tentatively endorsed those two claims.4 In the meantime, however, my ideas have changed in two ways.

First, having come to endorse a form of Rawlsian political liberalism, I now think it crucial that the political principles of a decent society not include comprehensive ethical or metaphysical doctrines that could not be endorsed by reasonable citizens holding a wide range of comprehensive doctrines. Clearly, a strong form of cosmopolitanism that denied legitimacy to nonderivative particular obligations could not be the object of an overlapping consensus in a political-liberal state. Many of the reasonable comprehensive religious and secular doctrines that citizens hold do insist on the importance of particularistic forms of love and attachment, pursued for their own sake and not just as derivative from universal duties to humanity. (Indeed, duties to God, in most religions, are particularistic in this way.) So even if I had continued to endorse cosmopolitanism as a correct comprehensive ethical position, I would not have made it the foundation of political principles for either a nation or a world order.

I do not, however, even endorse cosmopolitanism as a correct comprehensive doctrine. Further thought about Stoic cosmopolitanism, and particularly the strict form of it developed by Marcus Aurelius, persuaded me that the denial of particular attachments leaves life empty of meaning for most of us, with the human psychology and the developmental history we have. The dark side of Stoic thought is the conviction that life contains merely a sequence of meaningless episodes, once particular attachments have been uprooted; and the solution to problems of particular attachments ought not to be this total uprooting, so destructive of the human personality.

It should be, instead, an uneven dialectical oscillation within ourselves, as we accept the constraints of some strong duties to humanity, and then ask ourselves how far we are entitled to devote ourselves to the particular people and places whom we love.

This, then, is my current comprehensive ethical position, and it makes plenty of room for patriotism, especially in a form that accepts the constraints of global justice.

As it happens, this position allows me to incorporate–both in my political doctrine and in my comprehensive ethical doctrine–an insight firmly grasped by thinkers of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: that national sentiment is also a way of making the mind bigger, calling it away from its immersion in greed and egoism toward a set of values connected to a decent common life and the need for sacrifices connected to that common life.

Italian revolutionary and nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini, seeing the many ways in which the rise of capitalism threatened any common project involving personal sacrifice, believed that national sentiment was a valuable “fulcrum,” on which one could ultimately leverage universal sentiment toward the goal of a just world. He doubted that the immediate appeal to love all humanity could motivate people deeply sunk in greed, but he thought that the idea of the nation might acquire a strong motivational force even when people were rushing to enrich themselves.

Mazzini’s argument for patriotic sentiment goes something like this.

  1. It is good, ultimately, for all human beings to care strongly about the good of all humanity.
  2. Human beings are, by nature, somewhat narrow and particularistic in their concerns, and are not able to form a strong attachment to all humanity directly.
  3. Human beings are, however, able to form a strong attachment to the nation, seen as the embodiment of both memory of past struggles and commitments to a common future. 
  4. The nation, because of its connection with common memory, episodes of suffering, and common hopes, is the largest unit to which such strong attachments can be directly formed.
  5. Such national sentiments, if rightly targeted on things of genuine importance, such as human liberty and human need, will give people practice in caring about something larger than themselves, jolting them out of the egoism that is all too prevalent and preparing them for enlarged concern for the liberty and well-being of all humanity.
  6. Human beings ought to cultivate patriotic sentiment, as a basis for global concern.

Mazzini offers an attractive route out of egoism to global concern through a rightly focused nationalism. These days, however, one might doubt premise 4. In the nineteenth century, nations looked very large. As Germany and Italy were unifying, pulling nations together out of disparate regional entities and the loyalties they had traditionally inspired, it seemed natural to think that calling the mind to the nation was already a way of calling it to something very vast. The success of that call seemed, to many people, to show that global concern was only a step away. John Stuart Mill even said that the world was simply a “larger country,”5 and that the strength of patriotic feeling showed that his “religion of humanity” was possible.

Today, we are much more skeptical about the nation. We think of it as smaller, not larger, as confining the mind rather than enlarging it. Many people believe that nations should not exist in a future decent world order, and many more doubt that the nation is the largest unit to which human beings are capable of feeling a strong and vivid loyalty. Any contemporary argument for sentiments that give the nation a special place must begin, then, by explaining why it ought to have any place at all.

My own argument for patriotism is rather different from Mazzini’s, but reaches a similar conclusion: national sentiment can play a valuable role in creating a decent world culture. I contend that:

  1. The nation-state, including a strong form of national sovereignty, is an important good for all human beings, if the state takes a certain (liberal, democratic) form. Any decent world culture should promote the continued sovereignty and autonomy of (liberal and democratic) nation-states and protect the rights of citizenship associated with them.
  2. Nation-states of the sort described cannot remain stable without moral sentiments attached to their institutions and their political culture.
  3. The sentiments required cannot be supplied merely by allegiances to smaller units, such as families; cities; regions; and ethnic, racial, or gender groups: they must have the nation (under some description) as their object.
  4. So, there is a good reason for nations of the sort described to engender sentiments of love and support in their citizens.
  5. National states of the sort described need the moral sentiments even more if they are going to undertake projects that require considerable sacrifice of self-interest, such as substantial internal redistribution or copious foreign aid, the overcoming of discrimination against traditionally marginalized groups, or the protection of allies against unjust domination.
  6. Such projects are good projects for nations to undertake. Therefore, we have even stronger reasons for the cultivation of nation-directed moral sentiments.

How would one defend premise 1? The classic defense is Grotian: a legitimate national state provides people with a role in creating the institutions and laws that govern them. It is thus a key expression of human autonomy. One may have a lot of autonomy elsewhere in one’s life, but if one has no voice in the choice of policies affecting one’s society’s ‘basic structure,’ i.e., the set of institutions that governs one’s life chances pervasively and from the start of a human life,6 one is cut off from an extremely important good.

Of course, other institutions might do this job equally well, or even better: the world state; the large NGO; the United Nations; the multinational corporation; the ethnic group; the state, the city, the family.7 All of these can be decisively rejected, however, on grounds of access and accountability. The contenders that have not been eliminated are a federation of nations, such as the EU, and smaller self-governing units within a federal nation, such as the states of the United States and of India. Such political entities do offer some reasonable degree of access and accountability. Both, however, ultimately fall short of the nation-state in accountability and protection of basic rights, at least at the present time. We should keep reexamining these cases as new information becomes available. But currently, and for the foreseeable future, nations are critical for the promotion of people’s well-being and life opportunities.

As for my premise 2, Rawls defends this in A Theory of Justice, especially since his state is very ambitious in the sacrifices it asks of its members in the name of justice.8 Habermas offers a similar moralized account of supportive sentiment, in his defense of a “constitutional patriotism.”9

It is plausible, however, that the moral sentiments on which Rawls relies are a bit too transparently rationalistic to do the job he assigns to them. He fails to consider (although he does not deny) that an essential motivational role, in connection with the love of just institutions, may be played by more indirect appeals to the emotions, using symbols, memories, poetry, narrative. People are sometimes moved by the love of just institutions presented just as such; but the human mind is quirky and particularistic, more easily able to conceive a strong attachment if these high principles are connected to a particular set of memories, symbols, narrative, and poetry.

My claim is that the emotions of citizens in a Rawlsian well-ordered society are, or should be, like this: that is, fixed on the moral meanings of the political conception (thus attaining stability for the right reasons, and not merely a tradition-governed type of stability), but held to those meanings by rituals and narratives of a kind that must be more particular, more uneven, more aesthetic, more tragic, and more silly than anything explicitly envisaged in Rawls’s text.

These rituals and narratives might possibly be confined to what Rawls calls the “background culture”–but on the other hand, inasmuch as they are essential vehicles of public reason, there is no reason to confine them to that role. Candidates for election, legislators, and even judges might use such symbols and poetic references, and songs and stories, if they do so in a way that reinforces and deepens the moral meaning of the political conception. We just need to be sure that citizens develop a type of ‘purified’ patriotism that is reliably linked to the deeper principles of the political conception, that does not exalt the United States (for example) above other nations, and that focuses on suffering humanity wherever it occurs.10

.  .  .


  • 1All of this is well portrayed in Erik Larsen’s novel The Devil in the White City, a work of popular semifiction that has, at the same time, a serious historical thesis.
  • 2The history of the Pledge is exhaustively documented in Richard J. Ellis, To the Flag: The Unlikely History of the Pledge of Allegiance (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2005). The words “under God” were added to the Pledge in 1954, during the cold war. I discuss the Pledge and the legal conflicts surrounding it in Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality (New York: Basic Books, 2008), chap. 5, 8.
  • 3Jean-Jacques Rousseau, On the Social Contract, book IV, chap. VIII (“On Civil Religion”). One good modern edition is in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Basic Political Writings, trans. Donald A. Cress (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1987), 220–227.
  • 4Martha Nussbaum, “For Love of Country,” in For Love of Country: A Debate on Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996). I am extremely grateful to Paul Weithman for comments that showed me the need for this clarification.
  • 5J. S. Mill, “The Utility of Religion,” 1874 (posthumously published).
  • 6This definition of ‘basic structure’ is that used by Rawls in Political Liberalism.
  • 7On the world state, see Martha Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 313–314.
  • 8John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971), 479– 504. Although Rawls came to doubt the specifics of this section by the time he wrote Political Liberalism, he continued to assert that the just society needed to operate with a “reasonable political psychology.”
  • 9Juergen Habermas, “Citizenship and National Identity: Some Reflections on the Future of Europe,” Praxis International 12 (1992–1993): 1–19.
  • 10David Miller, On Nationality (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).
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