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.” 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.
The 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).
The 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?
 Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language was the first attempt to enforce language by explicit standard.