Is the true patriot one who is committed to supporting and preferring the actions of his country simply because they are the actions of his country? Or is a real patriot one who loves his country because he loves the common project her citizens pursue?…
During his inaugural address, President Donald Trump stated, “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.” He proclaimed “a new national pride will stir our souls, lift our sights, and heal our divisions.” Echoing much of his campaign, President Trump called on citizens to “Make America Great Again.” In a recent essay, Paul Krause observes that many have criticized the President’s sentiments as examples of nationalism and xenophobia.* He suggests, in response, that such love of country has a long tradition in the Christian tradition, going as far back as St. Augustine. Love of one’s country, Mr. Krause argues, is not only permissible but virtuous.
I wish to focus more closely on this question and ask whether, and why, love of one’s country is in fact a virtue. The contemporary political philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre posed the question of whether patriotism is virtuous. I will argue, following MacIntyre, that to answer this question requires that we consider precisely what the patriot loves when he loves his country. Love of country, when expressed as commitment to a shared project directed towards the genuine common good with one’s fellow citizens, is indeed a virtue. When it manifests itself as a commitment to support the actions of one’s nation to the exclusion of all others, love of country becomes a clear vice. I will proceed by first briefly reviewing Mr. Krause’s defense of love of country. Next, I will consider the two ways in which we might view love of country. Finally, I will suggest that the current rejection of “love of country” might be better characterized as a conflict between competing images of one’s country.
Mr. Krause observes: “Over the past six months it has become so common to see and hear, almost to a nauseating effect, the phrase ‘Love Trumps Hate.’ The intent is obvious. But like many words, has love lost its effect and understanding in society today? Love, like so many things, has become subverted to the whims of a consumer culture and politicized zeal.” Mr. Krause suggests that “it is deeply troublesome that the love of country has been thoroughly demonized as backwards, irrational, and hateful. But we know that love is rational, and so too is love of country.” He is critical of those who react to calls for loving one’s nation as prejudiced and hateful. When, for example, President Trump vows to put America and Americans first, his supporters see this promise as exemplifying love of the United States. The soldier faces danger and perhaps sacrifices his life out of love of country. He prefers the good of the country over his own good, and therefore he is willing to give his life. This love, so Mr. Krause argues, is far from vicious or unjust. Certainly, Mr. Krause has on his side Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the whole classical tradition. Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, argues that, “even if the end [or purpose] is the same for a single man and for a state, that of the state seems at all events something greater and more complete whether to attain or to preserve; though it is worthwhile to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for city-states” (I.2). So, love of country is love of a great good.
A difficulty, however, is that we still do not know the object of one’s love when one loves one’s country. Mr. Krause emphasizes that love is rational. Love always has some object identified sub specie boni by reason, and so love of one’s country should be of such a nature. It is not, Mr. Krause says, an uncritical acceptance or “a blind allegiance to ‘American Exceptionalism.’” So there must be some rational determination by which we recognize that the nation is a good. These rejoinders, however, still do not give us a clear picture of the object of the patriot’s love. I will now present two possibilities for the object of the patriot’s love. One would offer the opportunity for virtue and a recognition of the good. The second, however, would follow from a single-minded adherence.
MacIntyre addressed this issue in a 1984 lecture at the University of Kansas entitled “Is Patriotism a Virtue?” First, MacIntyre notes, “Patriotism is defined in terms of a kind of loyalty to a particular nation which only those possessing that particular nationality can exhibit.” I, as an American, express my love for the United States by showing loyalty to this nation and not another—for example Sweden, Canada, or Australia. MacIntyre describes patriotism as, “one of a class of loyalty-exhibiting virtues… other members of which are marital fidelity, the love of one’s own family and kin, friendship, and loyalty to such institutions as schools and cricket or baseball clubs.” The wife not only loves her husband, she also shows a clear preference to her husband over other men. By marrying him, she gives her exclusive commitment to him and no one else. The same can be said for dedication of a parent to his children. A father gives his time and resources first to his own children. The same can be said for loyalty to the Red Sox over the Yankees, Ford over Chevy, or any other such dedication. Thus, the patriot is one who shows loyalty to his own nation. This loyalty means that he loves his nation over others, sacrifices for his nation before others, and seeks the good of his nation in preference to all others.
Another way in which we might consider love of country is if we consider one’s nation as a common project. What do I mean? Consider a symphony orchestra. Each musician in the symphony is a part of a whole. That whole has as its goal the performance of beautiful music and the unified skillful playing of instruments. The dedication that any one of the musicians shows to the orchestra is not merely due to the fact that he is a member of this orchestra. He joins this particular orchestra because he believes in the quality of the music it performs. On occasion, he might even criticize the musical choices made by those in the administration. Perhaps the choice of this piece over that piece does not advance the artistic skill and musical excellence of the musicians. Administrators often choose profitable pieces over artistically challenging, though less popular, performances. This tradition of musical excellence is one that a given artist might support, and so his loyalty to the ideal that this orchestra embodies.
We may then view the nation in a similar way. MacIntyre describes this view of one’s country as, “a project somehow or other brought to birth in the past and carried on so that a morally distinctive community was brought into being which embodied a claim to political autonomy in its various organized and institutionalized expressions.” On this view, the nation is a project directed towards a common and genuine human good. I, as a citizen, am a participant in this work. I view my commitment to this particular project as a commitment to that good. I am loyal to the good that serves as the goal of the common project. MacIntyre explains that “what the patriot is committed to is a particular way of linking a past which has conferred a distinctive moral and political identity upon him or her with a future for the project which is his or her nation which it is his or her responsibility to bring into being.” The nation represents a tradition. The patriot, on this alternative view, is dedicated to the particular goal to which his nation strives. His devotion is a devotion towards a goal, and he thus he measures the achievements and actions of his nation against that goal.
When we compare these two accounts of patriotism, we see that one approach would be a virtue and the other a vice. If, by love of country, we mean something like the first sort of patriotism, wherein the patriot is loyal to and prefers this nation over others simply because it is his, it would seem that such a habit is open to vice. This patriot is committed to supporting and preferring the actions of his country because they are the actions of his country. Whether these be humanitarian projects or imperialistic goals, the saving of a nation or the genocide of an entire people, they are the acts of his nation. Surely, such unconditional support could only be irrational and vicious. On the other hand, should the time come that the individual judges that a given act by his nation, conceived as a project, is deeply inconsistent with the goal of that nation, then the patriot would not support the acts of his nation. In this regard, such a rejection of the acts of one’s nation would in fact be a virtue. It would show support for the goods to which this nation is in fact ordered over the particular individuals in power. Such an ability to scrutinize one’s nation and the desire for truth and the good could only be virtuous. Thus, the first form of loving one’s country would be a vice, the second form a virtue.
Returning now to Mr. Krause. He views rejection of loving one’s country as deeply at odds with an ancient tradition. Perhaps, however, the question we must ask of Mr. Krause is precisely what is it that citizens are meant to love? It certainly could not be any actions by the government, and Mr. Krause acknowledges as much by noting that love of country is not an irrational love. It is not, so Mr. Krause argues, that we should love our own country and its policies simply because they are the actions and policies of our country. Such blind devotion would clearly be vicious. This form of patriotism would be a failure of reason to identify a good. It must mean, then, that we conceive of some project to which our nation is directed and we give our loyalty to this project. In such a case, those whom Mr. Krause criticizes might simply hold a different view of the good of our common project. So, perhaps it is not simply love of one’s nation that critics of President Trump reject, but rather that they see his statements and policy decisions as contrary to the American project. His plans to build a great southern wall to stem illegal immigration or his emphasis on assisting Americans first to the exclusion of others, unless it is in America’s interest, is contrary to their view of the American project.
What this consideration presupposes, however, is that there is in fact some shared good to which we Americans direct ourselves. Is there a particular project to which we might point, the American project, that is the object of our love? It would be difficult to point to anything specific as the American project. It is perhaps more apt to say that there are a number of projects. Such conditions would seem to suggest that America is not one nation but in fact many nations. It is this plurality of projects that makes claims regarding the justness of loving one’s country so problematic. Mr. Krause’s criticism, then, is insufficient. In order to justify loving one’s nation, we must be able to define precisely the object of that love. If love, as Mr. Krause notes, is rational, then we must discern what is the good reason perceives in one’s nation. It could be that what is loved is the American commitment to liberty and the democratic process. If so, then perhaps Mr. Krause’s criticism holds true. Love of country could be the love of the acts of this particular American government, in which case such love is irrational. It could also be that what we perceive is simply the conflict among the multitude of American projects. One project, perhaps, is the commitment to those were born, raised, and now live within the United States. Another project could be the pursuit of global equality.
Unless and until we can identify the American project, it seems like criticizing love of one’s country will lead us nowhere. We will still have to ask, “whose country? Which patriotism?”
*See Paul Krause’s essay here. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
 Alasdair MacIntyre, “Is Patriotism a Virtue?” The Lindley Lecture (University of Kansas, 1984), 4.
 MacIntyre, 13-14.
 MacIntyre, 14.