Virtues of War – Patriotism

To sweep us along in the interest of time in order to hear from our guest Gen Martin Dempsey, let’s press quickly into MacIntyre, or at least my summary of his essay “Is Patriotism a Virtue?” Before we do that, let’s outline some linguistic issues we face in the event we are using the word “patriotism” in a way divorced from its historic meaning.

Our English word “patriot” derives from the singular masculine nouns patriotes (πατριώτης) in Greek and patriōta in Latin, each from the root pater, or father. Its literal translation might be something like ‘fatherlings’, but it shares an association with patris, or country, in a similar way the Hebrew word bayit (בָּ֫יִת) or “house” implies both genealogical heritage and boundaried structure.

If we look up its etymology, or linguistic history, “patriot” comes to us from the French patriote, which, during the early enlightenment period, implied “loyal and disinterested supporter of one’s country.” By 1755, however, the word had assumed an overtly derogative meaning; “one whose ruling passion is the love of [their] country.”[1] Eighteen years later, the same British dictionary added “a factious disturber of the government.” It might be noted this later revision was added the same year that the Tea Act was signed in Britain and that Boston harbor briefly took the name Earl Grey Bay. I’m sure it was just a coincidence that three years later, those “factious disturbers of the government” signed, sealed, and delivered the Declaration of Independence.

The latter mischievous connotation prevailed for some time, becoming popular outside the United States in European resistance movements during the two world wars. But to be clear, the American meaning is ironic insofar as our country was still technically ruled by the British Crown, so our revolution was not just one of violent force, but also one of meaning and language. At least for a time, we removed the root word, patris, from the compound itself. Irony comes to us from the Greek eirōn (εἴρων) for dissembler, someone who professes beliefs and opinions that he or she does not hold in order to conceal his or her real feelings or motives. Sound morally wrong? An eirōn was a stock character in Greek theater, one who takes down a boastful adversary.

The most helpful definition I have found for patriot, which reveals my bias as a Christian, I suppose, is from Pope John Paul II. In 1995, he spoke before the United Nations in New York City, knowing full well the American use of “patriotism” before the global community. He defends the love of country by contrasting it, properly, I think, with “nationalism.” Speaking to diplomats representing the countries of the world, he insisted

we need to clarify the essential difference between an unhealthy form of nationalism, which teaches contempt for other nations or cultures, and patriotism, which is a proper love of one’s country. True patriotism never seeks to advance the well-being of one’s own nation at the expense of others. For in the end this would harm one’s own nation as well: doing wrong damages both aggressor and victim. Nationalism, particularly in its most radical forms, is thus the antithesis of true patriotism.


So how does MacIntyre fit into all this (besides being Catholic)? Well, for starters, MacIntyre also uses contrast to make his point; he pits a particularist morality (of virtue) against a (liberal) impersonal morality, via characters.

Liberal Moralist characterThe Liberal Moralist must object to patriotism as a virtue or good because it “places our ties to our nation beyond rational criticism.” (18) In other words, the obligation to be objective and impartial (i.e. “rational”) comes to contradict the necessary duty to a specific set of people or geographical boundaries which patriotism entails. Patriot, for the Liberal Moralist, comes to mean something like ‘national apologist;’ one who defends their own nation over and above cosmopolitan globalism. A defining feature of the liberal critique is what MacIntyre calls “patriotism by contrast,” (4) for it is only permitted to those of the nation itself (i.e. only Americans can be patriots, and protecting American people or property are more important than, say, any truly substantive representative democracy that ‘we’ might export).

Moralist of Patriotism characterThe Moralist of Patriotism, on the other hand, will claim that liberalism “renders our social and moral ties too open to dissolution by rational criticism.” (18) The liberal fallacy, they will argue, is not only that “right/good” can only be determined by pure, detached reason (which may never be socially embodied) but also that any particular self-interest disqualifies reasonability. For example, by speaking about veterans in my own particularity as a veteran, the Liberal Moralist reduces my agency to mere self-interest and I can therefore not be trusted as a reasonable agent. But the Moralist of Patriotism may ask ‘What real application, or social embodiment, is possible for the purely rational agent?’, and ‘Why can invested parties not also be reasonable?’ Perhaps because the Moralist of Patriotism is not found in our culture nearly as much as the Liberal Moralist, MacIntyre does not put much effort into constructing a positive account of patriotism based on what seems to be the position closer to what he argues for in After Virtue.

Each of MacIntyre’s characters agrees that patriotism is a “permanent source of moral danger,” which MacIntyre seems to imply is some kind of flaw. (15, 18) But why should a virtuous person fear moral danger? Certainly, moral decrepitude implies something like social (eternal?) damnation, but the opposing ‘risk’ is of moral excellence and social (eternal?) glory. Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean is literally an average, and it seems intuitive that an Aristotelian like MacIntyre would be fine with the balancing act he calls “moral danger.” After all, the noble mean is perfectly realistic in that it can be “socially embodied” by actual human beings, who face the moral dangers of innumerable vices everyday…

MacIntyre’s critique of liberalism and its moralists is that reason has become overemphasized in advanced liberalism and that the contrasting impulse to jettison reason is in fact merely flipping the liberal coin back to Emotivism. When MacIntyre says “good soldiers cannot be liberals,” he’s also saying they can be neither detached rational beings nor morally relative Emotivists. This may be why he claims that military service, whether of the highest general or the lowliest private, cannot be “contingent upon their own individual evaluation of the rightness or wrongness of their country’s cause,” at least not by a neutral standard (because such a standard doesn’t truly exist). The phrase I heard often in my short time in the Army, that we didn’t ultimately fight for flag or freedom, but for the man or woman on their right or left, requires a kind of detached morality that leans Emotivist.

But is that true? Does a nation’s cause unilaterally determine the exclusive moral structure of its armed conflicts? If “good soldiers cannot be liberals,” but for the twin vices of detached rationality and relativizing Emotivism, does it follow that they cannot be virtuous? If they can, then what will be distinctively martial virtues? This is THE central question posed by this course.

Here is where I think we can lean on MacIntyre for an account of martial virtue, or at least for the particular virtue of patriotism. He summarizes the difficulty thusly, “the patriot may find that a point comes when he or she has to choose between the claims of the project which constitutes his or her nation and the claims of the morality that he or she has learnt as a member of the community whose life is informed by that project.” (15)

The object of the patriot’s regard, then, is an “ideal, not the nation” itself. (4) Construed properly, an ideal worthy of loyalty may take differing forms for individual communities, but each ideal will “underline the moral importance” (16) of a common good shared despite particular narrative differences; say, for example “the best interests” (14) of a shared humanity. “What the patriot is committed to” MacIntyre suggests, “is a particular way of linking a past… with a future for the [national] project.” (14) In other words, the extent to which a nation departs from the moral architecture that has formed its members and pursues a destiny or telos incompatible therewith, that in any way threatens a common human good, “patriots” act in the interest of their own national ideal and of humanity by obstructing those in power who have decoupled the narrative trajectory of a morally coherent national project with its hope for a future.

The example MacIntyre gives, of Adam von Trott, is not virtuous patriotism, but rather may be what Pope John Paul called “nationalism.” Although Trott resisted Hitler and Nazism, he still had in mind the interests of the German volk, not “the best interests” of all humanity. In simply aspiring to replace Hitler, rather than overthrow national socialism and repent of their two world wars, von Trott acted to preserve the same imperialism which unified his nation in 1871 under Kaiser Wilhelm I. The story of Austria’s annexation in 1938 by Hitler, was a direct reflection of the same nationalist aspirations. Put another way, it may be that Hitler’s rise to power was fully in keeping with the ambitious trajectory of the German people, an element of their story for which no defense could be made, for defense implies rejection of guilt.

Before I close, I’d be remiss if I did not point out the prophetic irony with which MacIntyre concludes his essay. An immigrant writing in 1984, under President Reagan, the first who had been trained as an actor, he writes of his adopted country in morally vague terms, perhaps with full intention. He calls for an examination of “the political and social history of modern America,” coyly wondering if a fundamental characteristic thereof would have to be “a central conceptual confusion, a confusion perhaps required for the survival of a large scale modern polity.” (19) He gives us some sense of the danger involved, of “discovering that we inhabit a kind of polity whose moral order requires systematic incoherence in the form of public allegiance to mutually inconsistent sets of principles.” (19)

Perhaps tellingly, he then promptly (and “happily”) signs off, leaving the question to us…


Questions for Discussion

  • Is there such a character as the perfect rational being to which MacIntyre’s Liberal Moralist aspires? What kind of person would they be, or can you cite an example?
  • Is there such a character as the Emotivist Self? What kind of person would they be or can you cite an example?


[1] Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language was the first attempt to enforce language by explicit standard.

Audio from in-class discussion with GEN Dempsey:

3 thoughts on “Virtues of War – Patriotism

  1. In my opinion, Patriotism is a difficult term to define as it can mean a multitude of things to different individuals based off of their life experiences. Furthermore, what would give me, or any other individual, the basis for refuting others interpretation of Patriotism as it draws from their individual feelings and identities? It is in this way that I found MacIntyre’s reading on patriotism to be interesting as it focused away from what I always considered to be a feeling, and made it into a sort of philosophy tied into both identity and morality. MacIntyre describes patriotism to be, “nothing more than a perfectly proper devotion to one’s own nation which must never be allowed to violate the constraints set by the impersonal moral standpoint” (MacIntyre 6). This standpoint removes the moral requirements for patriotism that allow for justification of actions that are attributed to patriotism. For example, MacIntyre references how politicians justify their devotion to America because they claim that American philosophy is righteous as it is defending the world against the evils of communism. MacIntyre would argue that while an American may be proud of the moral virtue of democracy, that alone does not make them an American patriot because even non-Americans can support the idea of democracy but only an American can be proud of their identity as an American.
    This explanation of patriotism reminds me of Chris Kyle’s depiction of patriotism in his book American Sniper. His definition of patriotism does not delve into the philosophical intricacies that MacIntyre does, but I feel as though it paints an even better picture about what patriotism can really mean to an individual. In his description, Kyle recounts an experience he had during his first deployment to Iraq. After engaging in a long drawn out firefight in excruciatingly hot desert conditions, Kyle and the marines he was serving alongside raised a flag upon the rooftop of the building they had been fighting in and played the national anthem. There were a few injuries sustained during the firefight, but every military personnel at the firefight stood and saluted the flag as the national anthem played. Kyle described this experience as being very emotional and moving as it demonstrated the bond between the soldiers on the ground and the country for which they were fighting.
    Kyle’s patriotism is demonstrative of MacIntyre’s philosophies because his feelings for his country were in a way separated from his actions as a soldier. Kyle viewed his participation in war, and the killing of the enemy as a patriotic duty. When asked if he regretted killing so many of the enemy he responds that he wished he had killed more because that would have saved the lives of his countrymen that enemy wanted dead solely because of their nationality. I do not believe that Kyle is advocating for the moral virtue of killing someone, but his devotion to his country made it so that he had to do so in order to protect the country that he has prioritized over his personal moral code.

    -Alec Kunzweiler
    Duke Political Science ’17

  2. I want to leave behind the binary of liberal moralist-patriot moralist. I think Derrida helps us here (see “Of Grammatology”). If there is such a thing as morality, it involves intentionally operating within our structural entanglements to find ways to participate in the deconstruction of the teleological determinisms that serve to limit eschatological possibilities (that is, a democratic future that is yet-unknown). In this way, patriotism as a virtue is love of humanity and the earth in such a way that the future is not limited by the present. Telos here does not reside in the realm of the signified (which Derrida would say is just more signifiers of signifiers), but it’s a recurring event that occurs in history, and can never be grasped, delineated or universalized. If we are human beings, we necessarily have material existences, and those existences entail particular political and geographic entanglements, and so in order to love and serve our little corners of the earth (which we necessarily must try and do), we have to operate WITHIN those particularities in order to ensure an open (free/democratic) future. If our political or geographic entanglements present unsustainable compromises, we may have to change the nature of those entanglements (which necessarily involves a deconstruction of self and worldview). In this way, patriotism is a universally human EXPERIENCE (but not teleological, per se), different not in quality but in particularity.

    • In this way I, following Derrida, posit that it cannot be said that one person is MORE patriotic than another. One can only say that one’s experience of patriotism is marked, primed and sustained by one’s particular entanglements, and those entanglements can, and do, change throughout one’s life.

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