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Wednesday, November 18, 2015


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I do think that belonging to a family is sufficient for loyalty, and likewise belonging to a nation. But I wouldn't say the same for all groups to which people may belong. I don't accept the general principle that, if person P belongs to some human group G, then it's morally permissible for P to be loyal to G. I think there could be some groups so thoroughly bad, so undeserving of any kind of positive feeling, that it would be wrong for anyone to be loyal to those groups. What makes it permissible for P to be loyal to nation N, I've been saying is that N is *his* nation, but I need to say now that what makes it permissible is (also) that N is his *nation* rather than some other kind of thing.

You anticipate that I'll now say that nations, unlike some other human collectives that we can imagine, are always at least somewhat good and worthy of loyalty in some important ways. For example, they are going to be made up ultimately of families and neighbors and networks of friendship and trust and, on the whole, a general mutual understanding and trust generally oriented toward some good things such as caring for children. Could there really be something we could intelligibly characterize as a 'nation' that did not involve some of these kinds of traits? If not, could such a thing really be totally evil or worthless?

The fact that a given human being belongs to a nation is a morally rich and complicated kind of fact! It isn't like belonging to the set of countable things. Obviously the mere fact that I belong to the set is no basis for any special feeling towards its other members. But anyway, suppose I grant that there are possible beings whose nation is truly worthless in all ways. Is that important? It follows only that I have not offered an account of the moral permissibility of patriotism in all possible worlds. Do I need to offer such an account in order to explain the basis of patriotism in this world, or in worlds like this one?

If someone says 'My country right or wrong' and means only that he has some degree of loyalty to his country regardless, then that seems defensible or permissible; but it would be a mistake to infer that this permissible degree of loyalty permits taking the side of his country in any conflict, even when his country is the aggressor, has committed atrocities, etc. It's a tough question how the permissible kind of patriotism might be balanced against other moral considerations, just as it's tricky to figure out how special duties to particular others are balanced against impartial or 'agent-neutral' duties... But it doesn't follow that there are no special duties to particular others, e.g., one's children or parents or lovers or close friends. There are lots of ways to diagnose the jingoist's error or moral failure, it seems to me, without denying that he may be justified in loving his country just because it is his. (And remember too that he is supposed to love and be loyal to his 'nation' rather than its government; so the same point may often hold for which cultural authorities are taking 'sides' or doing bad things to others.)

I suppose that participants in this debate are aware of MacIntyre seminal lecture of this topic 'Is patriotism a virtue?' (for those who aren't read it: http://tinyurl.com/og72vzn)

Thanks for the interesting series of posts, Bill. Is it correct to assume that by *moral permissibility* you mean something like "p is morally permissible ↔ there is no moral obligation to avoid p"? And by *moral impermissibility* you mean roughly "p is morally impermissible ↔ ~p is morally obligatory"?

Hi Bill!

As a former Bostonian you might remember when Billy Bulger was President of the University of Massachusetts and was asked by a grand jury where his fugitive brother might be. He refused to say. The US attorney said, “Just to be clear Mr. Bulger you feel more loyalty to your brother than to the people of the commonwealth of Massachusetts?” He answered:

“I never thought of it that way but I do have a loyalty to my brother, I care about him. I hope that I'm never helpful to anyone against him. I don’t have an obligation to help anyone catch my brother.”

Do you think he was right? Or was this loyalty morally permissible? I am not sure what Whitey was up to during that period, which would be relevant. He might have been retired in his cozy Santa Monica hideaway. I think the mere fact of brotherhood trumps, to some degree, other duties Billy has, like to rectify the injustice of a capital criminal enjoying freedom.

Then again, you have Ted Koszinsky; his brother rightly turned him in. The pull of loyalty seems morally permissible up to a point, but is not unconditional; but that is the case with all or most obligations.

Loyalty to your Aryan Nation crosses the line, but the actions and policies of most nations are more morally ambiguous and I think it is permissible for loyalty to have some weight in one's moral calculus. This is why I think Edward Snowden is a traitor. If the NSA were conducting involuntary genetic experiments on human beings, loyalty would certainly be trumped. But thinking the incredibly complex consequences of his leaks would turn out to be so much better than not acting, that they justify betraying his country, shows a lack of moral judgment.

It seems to me that proper patriotism is grounded in an appropriately felt and expressed gratitude to one's country for providing a stable, orderly place and a culture in which he can be rightly nurtured and educated, in which he can form good friendships and family relationships, and in which he can reasonably seek to become personally complete and to contribute to the well-being of others. In short, a country that helps him and his fellows to flourish as rational and moral agents.

This suggests that an essential aspect of what the patriot appreciates in his country is a system of values which transcends that particular country. In this sense, it seems that patriotism rightly understood is morally permissible, but that it is a means of expressing a devotion to a higher end, rather than an end in itself (perhaps the jingoist confuses the means with the end). It is a way of living according to what is sometimes called "the moral point of view".

It seems, then, that patriotism is a matter of proper gratitude and devotion to one's country on the condition that it exemplifies values which enable him to live virtuously from the moral POV. If one is from a country that, say, is systematically opposed to this end and deliberately attempts to prevent its people from living in accord with it, then it is hard to see what would ground a genuine patriotism.

"It is therefore morally impermissible that you abstract away from his attributes and deeds and consider merely the fact that he is your friend."

This argument shows that the kind of loyalty I am describing is impermissible only if (1) that kind of loyalty requires me to consider only the fact that he is my friend, and (2) considering only that fact gives me a reason (of loyalty) to do pretty much anything that may seem to serve some interest of his. (Such as, for example, helping a rapist or terrorist get away with his crimes.) But I doubt (1) and (2).

Consider (1). Loyalty comes in degrees; as we seem to agree, there can be inordinate loyalty as well as ordinate loyalty. So the question is whether healthy loyalty to my friend is loyalty to some degree such that, if I am that loyal, I won't rat him out even if he is a serial rapist or terrorist or whatnot. And I would ask why _that_ very high degree of loyalty should be considerate proper or ordinate or reasonable. Loyalty is one value or virtue amongst many others; there's no reason to assume that the proper exercise of loyalty to my friend could permit me to ignore all duties to non-friends, for example. (This is why the 'moral code' of criminals who think 'rats' are bad seems so dubious and dingy. A 'rat' may be bad for some reason, e.g., he only ratted in order to gain some advantage over his fellow criminals, or to get a lighter sentence. But the _mere_ fact that he informed on his friends doesn't seem like any kind of wrong or vice at all; that's just what he should have done; so it can't be that the 'rat', in ratting, fails to display a proper or ordinate kind of loyalty.)

My objection to (2) is related to these thoughts. Since there are surely limits on the degree or kind of loyalty proper to a friend, it doesn't seem to me that 'abstracting away' from all other facts will provide me with a reason not to call the cops. Rather, abstraction just raises the question of what I should do: what else should I take into account? It doesn't give me any good reason to be a 'rat' or not to be one.

So likewise, there are surely many limits on what a properly patriotic person will do from patriotism. Wishing to kill anyone on the 'other side' merely because they are there rather than here, for example, seems to be plainly an inordinate form of patriotic loyalty. But healthy patriotism, as I understand it, does permit a very wide range of actions and ways of life that would have no justification otherwise. For example, a person who loves his hometown or region and works to stop mass immigration because he senses that the distinctive character of his homeland will be lost, or because he fears for his co-nationals and cares more for their interests than those of the immigrants. I stick by the claim that what underwrites this modest notion of healthy patriotism is the fact of belonging. (And if someone has to do more than what is permissible from mere patriotism, then other justifications will have to come in.)


Thanks very much for linking to that outstanding article which we all should read if we haven't already.


Here are my definitions.

It is morally permissible that p =df it is not the case that it is morally obligatory that ~p.

This is the deontic analog of the alethic-modal definition:

It is possible that p =df it is not the case that it is necessary that ~p.

It is morally obligatory that p =df it is not the case that it is morally permissible that ~p.

This is the deontic analog of the alethic-modal definition:

It is necessary that p =df it is not the case that it is possible that ~p.

It is morally impermissible that p =df it is not the case that it is morally permissible that p.

This is the analog of the alethic-modal definition:

It is impossible that p =df it is not the case that it is possible that p.

It is merely morally permissible that p =df It is morally permissible that p, but not morally obligatory that p.

This is the deontic analog of:

It is merely possible that p =df it is possible that p but it is not the case that p.

I think we are on the 'same page.'

"It is morally impermissible that p =df it is morally obligatory that ~p" follows from the above.

It is great to hear from you, Tony. When are you going to saddle up your iron horse to visit us?

Thanks for the excellent example.

I find Billy Bulger morally revolting. Whatever loyalty he has to his scumbag of a brother is trumped by what ought to be his loyalty to the people of Massachusetts. This is especially the case since 'Billy' was a high official in the Commonwealth of Mass.

It is also arguable that Billy's turning in Whitey would be an act of true loyalty: if Billy *really* cares about Whitey would he not want the latter to undergo the correction of a just punishment? (*Nice* Irish Catholic boys that they are, don't they have some residual concern for their souls?)

So even if Whitey's being Billy's brother is sufficient for Whitey to be a legitimate object of Billy's loyalty, which I deny, it still doesn't follow that Billy ought not turn him the murderous SOB in.

You seem to see a difference that makes a moral difference between the case of Whitey and the case of the Unabomber. What exactly?

To address some of the questions raised earlier in the discussion, it seems to me that patriotism is indeed some kind of love or commitment to a particular group of people, not just a set of principles or type of culture. To see this, imagine that there is Twin America on Twin Earth. Suppose that both America and Twin America are in wars with other countries and that you want to help as a patriotic citizen. It seems to me that helping America would be patriotic, but it doesn't seem patriotic if you were to up and leave for Twin America and help them. But if that's right, then patriotism can't depend simply on loyalty to certain principles or loyalty to a type of culture, because Twin America has the same principles and type of culture as America.

That said, I think that devotion to a set of principles or type of culture can be virtuous as well, although it seems that we don't have word for this kind of virtue. ('Principled'?) And it seems that whether one should prioritize one's principles or a certain type of culture as opposed to a particular group of people will depend upon the situation.

Bill keeps pressing for an explanation of how being a member of some group can be sufficient grounds for patriotism or loyalty to that group given that some groups can be evil or morally without worth. But if patriotism or loyalty are virtues, they are reactions, decisions, and emotions that are properly proportioned. I think that what Jacques is attempting to show with his examples is that, in certain cases, the properly proportioned response to one's group will not be agreement, protection, or encouragement. That doesn't mean that one doesn't still have special obligations to that group. It's just that what they are or how they manifest will shift depending upon the nature and actions of that group.

Hi Bill,

Man, I would love to have the time to saddle up and ride to Arizona. It's on my bucket list!

But a lot depends on what Billy knew. If he knew, for example, that that his fugitive brother was likely to lay low in his Santa Monica hide out, or wherever, and not harm others; that the FBI was likely to catch him soon anyway, or that the FBI was largely responsible for Whitey being free in the first place, since they let him operate for many years in exchange for information about other gangs, then I would not blame him for not testifying against his brother.

On the other hand, the brother of the Unabomber turned in Kaczinsky in 1995, just a few months after his last bombing in April of that yeaar. He rightly thought he was an immediate threat to innocent people.

Regarding, “true loyalty” I might try to convince him that he should turn himself in and repent, but I guess I don't have the faith you do in using force and prison to inspire redemption.


As one of my aphorisms has it, take care that an entry on your bucket list does not lead to a premature kicking thereof.

While a lot does depend on what Billy knew, if he knew about the horrendous murders then I see no difference with the Unabomber case.

I say Billy was a moral bum for not turning in Whitey.

Contra Jacques, I say that the question of the moral permissibility of loyalty cannot be answered under abstraction from the character and attributes of the object of loyalty. Otherwise we move in the direction of tribalism and what to call it? Nepotism? Familialism?

You may have noticed the tribalism among blacks. Juan Williams and Colin Powell refuse to condemn the BLM movement. It's a sort of race-loyalty that I think we ought to find repugnant. It's as if these otherwise admirable individuals are telling us that they are blacks first and Americans second. Something similar in Geraldo Rivera, another outstanding American, but in his own mind an Hispanic first. Very bad, in my opinion.

Prison rarely inspires repentance in moral scum, but it does restore justice, and if Whitey has a soul and the prospect of an afterlife, then Billy shows true loyalty by ratting him out here below for the sake of his post-mortem welfare.


I will do my best to keep my fists in the wind and rubber on the road!

Speaking of kicking the bucket, what if you had a grown son (so you were no longer responsible for him) on one track, and a stranger on the other, and that famous troublesome runaway trolley car is careening toward the junction. Would you flip a coin on the basis of universal principles, or save your son on the basis of familialism?

Shouldn't pure loyalty (not reciprocation or adherence to principles) have some pull? (no pun intended)

And if you don't think this captures the philosophical point, why?

Let's label the feelings of the patriot for his nation 'partiality'. Partiality comes in degrees. If you think that any kind of patriotism is legitimate, you have to allow that some degree greater than 0 is permissible.

Which property of the patriot's nation makes his non-0 partiality permissible? Say that an indexical property is one that is (essentially) individuated in relation to the patriot. Either the relevant property is indexical or it is non-indexical. Suppose it is non-indexical, e.g., the property of being a nation that provides some important human goods for some people. But many nations have that property. So if that property is supposed to justify partiality with respect to one nation, over against the others that share the property, the justification fails. Suppose the property is indexical, e.g., the property of being the nation that provided _me_ or _my_ family or _my_ community with important human goods. There are similar indexical properties of other nations. Japan provides Japanese people with important goods. So why am I justified in being partial to my own nation rather than Japan? The answer (if there is one) can only be that I am not Japanese, that Japan is not my nation. But then the purported justification begs the question. It requires the tacit assumption that partiality is permissible.

I take this to show that if patriotism, hence partiality, is a permissible attitude, the permission is based on the fact that only one nation is mine. It can't be based on a non-indexical property of my nation; but if it is based on an indexical property then any permissible partiality that I feel for my nation in virtue of that indexical property is in turn based on the fact that only one nation is mine. Finally, I conclude that if partiality of some kind is justifiable, as it must be if patriotism can be justified by reference to indexical properties such as the ones proposed above, then it can also be justified by reference to the simple indexical property of being-my-nation. For it must be justifiable on that basis if it is also justifiable on any other, more complex basis.

Even if this reasoning is sound, it leaves it an open question what *degree* of partiality is justified by the simple indexical property of being-my-nation. Maybe it's degree 3 on a scale of 0-10, and 3 is not the kind of partiality that would involve fighting for my nation even when I know it is an unjust aggressor. Or maybe 3 is far below the degree that would involve the stupid and evil tribalism of the 'Black Lives Matter' movement. (So that's how I would try to avoid Bill's reductios.)


If the stranger is truly a stranger then one doesn't know his value. If the son is a high-quality human being, then this gives me a good reason to save the son -- a reason having nothing to do with his being my son.

Now suppose the other guy and my son have exactly the same value -- whatever exactly this means, and however we would determine it -- then I grant you that the son's being my son would give me a good reason to prefer my son. But not by itself, but in conjunction with the son's value.

If the other guy is of high value and I know this and my son is known by me to be a worthless bum, then I should save the other guy.

Suppose I have to choose between saving a beloved cat that is my cat and saving a human being who is a stranger. Surely I should save the human being.

Does this not show, assuming you grant my 'surely,' that an object of regard's being mine is not sufficient to justify my preferring it over a competitor?

Good discussion, gentlemen.

Jacques rightly brings up the question of partiality. I should think that patriotism can be justified morally only if partiality can be justified morally. For it is a conceptual truth that one can be patriotic only with respect to one's own country. A Canadian who is a Francophile may love France more than he loves Canada, but his love of France is not patriotic while his lesser love of Canada is.

Suppose arguendo that Canada and France have exactly the same value as nations in the way that, say, the USA and USSR did not have the same value as nations. (I'm being tendentious, of course, but if you are reading this in the first place then you ain't no liberal.)
I say a Canadian is morally justified in preferring Canada over France by making it the object of his patriotic love and loyalty just because he is a Canadian, just because Canada is his country.

But if Canada were like the USSR or like Nazi Germany, the Canadian's beig a Canadian would not justify his patriotism.

I think partiality is justified. We don't have the same duties to everyone. First come my duties to myself (if there are duties to self). Then come duties to dependent children. Then my duty to my wife, whether dependent or not. And then perhaps to other relatives, with the blood relatives taking precedence over the in-laws. And then to close friends, then nearest neigbbors, etc. It is messy, complicated, and there is no way we will agree on all the details. But we should be able to agree that partiality is justified in these sorts of relationships.

>>I take this to show that if patriotism, hence partiality, is a permissible attitude, the permission is based on the fact that only one nation is mine.<<

I disagree. Granted, only one nation is mine. Granted, one cannot be patriotic except toward the nation that is one's own. But for patriotism to be morally permissible it is not sufficient that only one nation is mine; my nation's being mine does not, by itself morally justify my patriotism. For also relevant is the character/quality/attributes of my nation.


It strikes me as vicious abstraction to try to get the nation off by itself apart from its attributes.

The dialectic of 'bare particulars' is lurking in the background.

I am BV. But does this fact suffice to justify my love of self?

My opinions are mine. Does this fact justify my holding my opinions to be better justified than your opinions? (Yes, I shifted from a moral to an epistemic use of 'justified.')

The trolley car scenario addresses a point I've been pondering. It seems to me that personal investment and responsibility for others are important aspects of patriotism.

Take personal investment. One's patriotism, at least in part, corresponds to his personal investment in his community. His special appreciation for his community is linked to his investment in that community.

Take a U.S. citizen who, in a responsible manner, values his country. He may also rightly value another country. But he invests his life in his own country and hopes to see it, and his countrymen, do well. He doesn't invest his life in another country to the degree that he does in his own. He may (and should) will the good for people in other countries, but his goodwill toward his fellows involves a singular investment in their lives. Similarly, any disappointment he has with his own country will be distinct from a disappointment he might have with another country.

Jean Marie Le Pen sees a hierarchy of attachments. He said something like: first my commune, then my département, next my région, then La France.
He would seem to suggest something about a multiplicity of identities culminating in one overarching allegiance.
When your black public figures/politicians seem to prefer to identify by race rather then nationality (re BLM) does their choice raise questions about the rival claims of various forms of identity and their precedence?


That sounds right.

Bill you said,

"But for patriotism to be morally permissible it is not sufficient that only one nation is mine; my nation's being mine does not, by itself morally justify my patriotism. For also relevant is the character/quality/attributes of my nation."

I noticed from other comments, and our discussion, there might be a false dichotomy here, depending on what you mean by the character, quality, and attributes of my nation. I agree with you the bare particularity of being mine does not morally justify the partiality of patriotism. On the other hand, valuing the attributes and principles of your country that other nations can and do share is cosmopolitanism and does not capture the partiality of patriotism. But perhaps there are some attributes of your country not instantiated in any other country, that can justify partiality. Elliot mentions a good one: personal investment. That is indexical in the sense that YOUR investment is yours alone; and while you can invest yourself in other countries, if you live in a particular country, most of your investment is probably there. It seems morally permissible for you to show partiality to projects you have invested in. There are probably many other such attributes. And some might make you obligated to show partiality, not just permit you to. For example, everything else being equal, I would argue you are morally obligated to save your son on the track. But as some of your examples, (and Jacques) point out, this communitarian partiality can only go so far, and must be weighed against other moral (more universalist Kantian) principles.

Bill, having just read your recent longer post, my post above might be beating a dead horse. Ha!

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