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Patriotism is a feeling of support for one's own country. An act motivated by patriotism is said to be a patriotic act.

Table of contents
1 Patriotic acts
2 The ethics of patriotism
3 Patriotism and kin selection
4 Patriotism and religion
5 Patriotism and history
6 Patriotism and politics
7 Patriotism and its near-synonyms
8 Resources

Patriotic acts

Generally, any selfless act that directly benefits the nation is considered patriotic. Perhaps the clearest example is the act of risking death in battle. However, many other less dramatic beneficial acts, such as performing the backup work needed to keep a military force functioning, or looking out for the morale of soldiers, are also considered patriotic.

In addition, symbolic acts are also often considered to be patriotic. Such acts would include displaying the national flag, singing the national anthem, participating in a mass rally, placing a patriotic bumper sticker on one’s vehicle, or any other way of publicly proclaiming one’s allegiance to the nation.

The line between the two kinds of patriotic act is blurred by the fact that some people feel that in committing an act of symbolic patriotism, they are raising the determination or morale of their fellow citizens, who then will be more likely or able to commit acts that benefit the nation directly.

Levels of patriotism vary across time and among nations. Typically, patriotic acts and feelings are greater during wartime or when the nation otherwise under external threat. It is less well understood why nations vary in their levels of patriotic feeling. Among modern societies, many have observed a difference between the United States, where symbolic patriotic expression is highly prevalent, and the nations of Western Europe, where symbolic patriotic expression certainly exists but plays a less important role.

The ethics of patriotism

Different people have different opinions about whether patriotism is morally good. Often, these opinions vary according to what sort of patriotism is involved.

Some instances of patriotism induce almost universal admiration. To give just one of many possible examples, in 1940, a number of Dutch soldiers gave their lives in a hopeless cause attempting to defend the Netherlands from invading Nazi armies. This act would be considered by almost everyone to be a clear case of selfless, admirable patriotism.

On the other hand, many of the invading Nazi soldiers doubtless felt, too, that they were engaged in a patriotic act, in this case on behalf of the German nation. Many of them had been indoctrinated in a form of unquestioning patriotism during their teenage years, while they were members of the Hitler Youth. Very few people today, even in Germany, would consider the unprovoked German attack on Holland to have been justified, and to the extent that patriotism facilitated it, then patriotism could considered, in this case, a bad thing. More generally, throughout history, various governments have invoked patriotic feelings to support military aggression, arbitrary imprisonment of aliens, and even murder, acts considered evil by most individuals.

In addition, many politicians have exploited patriotism in attacking their opponents, by calling them traitors. In the view of many, this kind of attack debases political discussion, because it appeals to a visceral negative emotion (that is, angry patriotism), rather than to the voters’ reasoned views on what is good for their country. A commonly cited example of the danger inherent in the political exploitation of patriotism is the case of Adolf Hitler, who rose to power (terminating democracy in Germany for many years) in part by accusing the existing government of treason for having signed the armistice that ended the First World War.

The unpleasant history of the ways that patriotic feelings have been put to use has led some individuals to be skeptical about the idea of patriotism in general. A famous remark of Samuel Johnson, "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel," can be taken to express this view.

Patriotism and other forms of selflessness

It can often be difficult to determine whether in admiring a particular act of patriotism, we are admiring patriotism itself, or rather the selflessness that patriotism often inspires. Returning to an example given above (the German invasion of Holland), we can ask whether any particular self-sacrificing Dutch soldier actually experienced the emotion of patriotism (that is, devotion to the Dutch national state) while he fought. It is possible that some of these soldiers fought because they hated Fascism, because they did not want to appear to be cowards, or because they felt that a soldier always ought to do his duty.

It seems possible, in fact, that there are two meanings for the phrase “patriotic act”. In the broad sense, a patriotic act is any selfless act that benefits the nation, irrespective of motivation; in the narrow sense, a patriotic act is a selfless act that is specifically motivated by patriotic feelings.

Returning to the Dutch example one more time, we can imagine two soldiers, equally brave and self-sacrificing. The first soldier is motivated by a narrow-minded, chauvinistic preference for all things Dutch. The second cares nothing for the Dutch nation as such, but has carefully studied Fascism and has a deep commitment to save the world from its perceived evils. Many people might well admire the second soldier more than the first, even though he could be considered the less patriotic of the two.

Patriotism vs. universal brotherhood

The example illustrates the point that patriotism embodies two things: selflessness, which virtually everyone admires, plus a belief that we owe a greater allegiance to our fellow citizens than to foreigners. It is the latter ingredient of patriotism that is controversial. An opposing concept that many people favor is that of a universal human community, expressed for instance in the idealistic phrase "Alle Menschen werden Brüder" ("all people become brothers") sung in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

The question of whether we are more like brothers with our countrymen than with other people arises constantly in practical life. For instance, immigration laws are based on the principle that the citizens of a country, merely by accident of birth, have an automatic entitlement to live in it, but foreigners do not. Little consensus currently exists about how, in formulating policies, we should weigh loyalties within a nation against loyalties to all of our fellow humans.

In his article "Is patriotism a virtue?", the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre addresses this question in a particularly subtle way. He first notes that most contemporary conceptions of morality insist on a kind of impartial blindness to accidental traits like national origin in the just treatment of our fellow humans—and therefore, that patriotism is inevitably not moral under these conceptions. MacIntyre goes on, however, to construct a sophisticated alternative conception of morality that would be compatible with patriotism.

Patriotism and kin selection

Why do so many people experience intense patriotic feelings? One explanation that has been proposed is that such feelings result, in the long run, from kin selection. The distant ancestors of humanity almost certainly lived in small groups of genetically related individuals. Feelings of intense loyalty to one's own group might have led individuals to take actions that were poorly justified on grounds of self-interest, but helped the group as a whole. Since genes tended to be shared by the entire group, and cooperation likely was critical to group survival, a propensity to experience feelings of loyalty to the group was probably favored by natural selection. This idea was expressed by Charles Darwin in 1871 as follows:

A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.

Since Darwin’s time, evidence for kin selection has been observed among many species that live in small groups. Frequently, animals in such species have been observed taking actions that risk their own lives but benefit the safety of the group as a whole (an example is the issuance of a warning call against predators, an act which directs the predator’s attention to the individual who gave it). Moreover, it is documented that the members of such groups typically are indeed related, and thus share a tacit interest in the long-term success of each other’s genetic endowment.

Today, of course, the feelings of intense patriotism that grip (for example) many Americans cannot possibly be supported in the evolutionary sense by kin selection, since Americans form a huge and genetically very diverse population. Yet the forces believed to have created human nature, and hence these feelings, were in effect over a period of many millennia, during which time all human societies were very small. Evidently, there was nothing to stop the feeling of group loyalty from carrying over, without biological purpose, from small groups to large.

The political rhetoric associated with patriotism often compares the nation to a family, as in, for instance, the terms “Fatherland,” “Mother Russia,” or the patriotic words Shakespeare places in the mouth of Henry V:

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”

In the kin-selection account of patriotism, this kind of metaphor might be viewed as seeking to focus the natural feelings people have towards kin onto the nation as a whole.

The kin selection theory of patriotism is not universally accepted, and the following paragraphs list some alternative points of view.

Among biologists, some believe that the quantitative conditions needed to make kin selection effective in small human societies were not met. The controversy hinges on what numerical values are to be plugged into the (generally accepted) equations of W. D. Hamilton that govern kin selection.

Further afield, there are individuals who accept the theory of evolution in general but reject efforts to invoke it in the explanation of human behavior. Such people would be likely to emphasize the great malleability of the human character, including the apparent possibility of creating patriotism through the instruction of youth, as in the Hitler Youth example above.

Still other people would reject the kin selection theory of patriotism simply because they reject the theory of evolution on which it depends. Often such individuals rely instead on religious beliefs to understand why the human character is the way it is. From this point of view, one possible account of patriotism would be that God has permitted individual people to become either good or evil (a consequence of the doctrine of free will), and that patriotism is simply a natural behavior of good people.

Patriotism and religion

In fact, historically, patriotic feeling has very often been linked to religion. At various points in history, particularly in time of war, various relations of religion and patriotism have prevailed.

In one variant, patriotic participants in a war acknowledge that the enemy worships the same god, but judge that this god is on their own side, thus providing the external justification for patriotism noted just above. This is perhaps a fair characterization of the attitude of many of the participants in the American Civil War or most of the fronts of the First World War. Another variant is for each side to worship different gods, acknowledge that the other side’s god exists, and believe that their own god is superior. This may have characterized the conflicts between the ancient Israelites and their Canaanite opponents, as narrated in the Old Testament. Yet another version of religious patriotism is the belief that a god or set of gods is on one’s side, and that the god or gods of the other side simply do not exist. This view often characterized the beliefs of the European powers during the colonialist period, when their armies often fought against pagan opponents.

Under any of these circumstances, religion can provide a satisfactory account to its believers for what otherwise would be a paradox, namely, that both sides in a conflict can feel patriotic at the same time. The idea would be that the other side is in fact fighting against God’s will, and thus can be considered to be engaged in a false kind of patriotism.

While patriotism often appeals to religion, not all religions countenance patiotism. For example, some Restorationist Christian denominations, such as Jehovah's Witnesses and Mennonites, refuse to participate in patriotic acts and ceremonies and refuse to wear patriotic attire.

Patriotism and history

Levels of patriotism in all nations have varied through history, and it is an intriguing puzzle for historians why this should be so.

It is tempting to think that democratic government is a cause of patriotism. For instance, it could be imagined that the military forces of Ancient Greece succeeded in fending off much larger numbers of attacking Persians because ancient Persia was a despotism, whereas many of the Greeks lived in democracies, which gave them a sense of solidarity and hence of patriotism. Similarly, it is often thought that the French Revolution, by freeing the French of the yoke of monarchy, set off a great surge of patriotism that led to the great (if ultimately temporary) success of the French armies in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

This theory cannot be entirely true, since there have been many states that had tyrannical systems of government but nonetheless had very high levels of patriotism. Two have already been mentioned here: early 19th-century France (after Napoleon had made himself emperor) and Nazi Germany.

Patriotism and politics

Patriotism can be both for or against the current government of a nation. Supporters of the current government may hold the opinion that patriotism implies support of one's government and its policies, and that opposition to the government's policies amounts to treason. But in other instances, rebellion against a corrupt or tyrannical government may be justified as an act needed to save the nation, and thus is likewise motivated by patriotism.

Patriotism and its near-synonyms

Patriotism is sometimes associated with ethnocentrism, i.e. the belief in the inherent superiority of one’s own people, however this may be defined. However, in the case of ethnocentrism, the people in question need not form a nation, but can be a smaller or larger unit. Moreover, the term ethnocentrism is generally used negatively, whereas the term patriotism is quite often used positively.

It is also sometimes problematic to distinguish between patriotism and nationalism, as some people tend to use nationalist as a near-synonym for patriot. However, nationalism (but not patriotism) also has a particular meaning, expressing a desire among a people to form an independent nation.

The word chauvinism denotes a narrow-minded and thoughtless but impassioned dedication to a particular cause, and thus is always used negatively. The cause can be of any kind (hence the widespread use of the phrase male chauvinism), but the term can also refer to national chauvinism; that is, a negative characterization of patriotism.

Lastly, the word jingoism is similar to patriotism, but it can only be used negatively, to denote a variety of patriotism deemed to be aggressive and thoughtless.


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