Patriotism is artificial

One of the arguments I often hear in discussions about immigration and war is that we have special obligations to our countrymen over foreigners. This idea is mysterious to me, since it seems pretty obvious that the distinction between countryman and foreigner is artificial and could not have any moral significance.

To see how it’s artificial, consider the American Civil War. Suppose I live in the state of Georgia. In 1860, I have special obligations to people in the Union. In 1861, the state I live in breaks off from the union and considers itself part of a new country called the Confederate States of America. I assume that my obligations now extend only to those people in the Confederate States, since that is my new country.

Here we see that my obligations to other people depend on choices made by politicians. According to this theory, rights come not from God (as often claimed) but from select men who have the ability to lower the moral status of a person through the stroke of a pen.

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2 Responses to “Patriotism is artificial”

  1. David Says:

    If we are talking about obligations on government, then since government (or its agents) claim special powers over citizens, it seems to make sense it would have special obligations towards them. If we are talking about obligations between individuals, then do we hear much about the importance of citizenship?

    If borders did move about randomly, then it seems reasonable to expect patriotism would decrease or die. But since they are fairly stable, citizenship then becomes a stand-in for other things such as shared culture, shared history, shared lawful responsibilities to government. (Not saying it’s right to hang much moral importance on it, but it’s not arbitrary then.)

  2. Andy Hallman Says:

    I was thinking about my post earlier today and it dawned on me that it isn’t clear what my duties would be as a Georgian in 1861. On the one hand, the state I live in has joined a new country. But the country I swore allegiance to still exists, so it looks like my state is committing treason against my country (this is exactly how the northern states viewed the matter). However, if I help the Union and the Union loses, a funny thing happens. I become not a patriot but a traitor. Just ask Benedict Arnold. So it looks like the patriotic thing to do is to fight on whichever side is going to win.

    If we are talking about obligations on government, then since government (or its agents) claim special powers over citizens, it seems to make sense it would have special obligations towards them.

    Does it? White southerners claimed special powers over slaves. Did they also claim that this meant they had special obligations toward slaves? Isn’t this how a lot of kings thought of their subjects? The kings thought they had powers over their subject, but this didn’t mean their subjects had rights. One is considered superior to the other so it’s not necessary for the stronger one to compensate the weaker one in any way.

    If we are talking about obligations between individuals, then do we hear much about the importance of citizenship?

    Yes.

    But since they are fairly stable, citizenship then becomes a stand-in for other things such as shared culture, shared history, shared lawful responsibilities to government. (Not saying it’s right to hang much moral importance on it, but it’s not arbitrary then.)

    Citizenship may be a stand-in or proxy for other traits but that doesn’t solve the problem if those other traits are also morally irrelevant. For instance, people may want to keep out immigrants because they think the immigrants will be of a different race. This works only if we think racial discrimination is just.

    Actually, the borders of the U.S. moved fairly often in its first 150 years of existence, so this has been an issue for a long time. In prior centuries, the borders of the European empires changed with each new conquest, so it was an issue for them, too. Even now that borders are more stable, there are a lot of foreign-born people in the U.S. To a patriot, it’s not clear whether the appropriate policy is to turn them into citizens so that their rights will be upheld or to withhold citizenship from them so we don’t have to bother with their rights.

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