Patriotism – A Critical Appraisal

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Patriotism – A Critical Appraisal

“I want to light the lights of patriotism.”
- Lech Walesa

A state, as per political theorists, is a politically organized community and, principally, this organization is underwritten by the essential elements of unity, cooperation and association. The imperative of unity is inevitable for the cultivation of a bond that goes right into making a state a stable enterprise. From time to time, states have come up with many a tactic to carve unity for the obvious purpose of making themselves strong, permanent and viable units. Out of all the tactics so employed in this connection, three stand the tallest:

  • coercion,
  • doling out of incentives, and
  • patriotism.

Out of these three, patriotism has, over the years, proved to be the most influential, hence, the most considered one too. Patriotism, in essence, is also different from the rest of the factors not only in effect but also in its cause, in a way that it creates in a person a certain sense or feeling of selflessness and altruism while the rest proceed on the concrete notions of power politics and the mercantilist cost-and-benefit decision model.

In Search of a Definition

Patriotism is commonly defined as love for one’s country, however, this statement suffers from an acute definitional crisis, as only having feelings of affection for one’s country doesn’t make one a patriot. One may have the tendencies of love and affection towards multiple countries for multiple reasons, too numerous to be counted. So, can one be a multiple patriot? The answer is a simple and blatant no, for patriotism denotes the singularity of passion towards a singular entity. It would otherwise cause a battle of multiple loyalties, which would be a hyper-sensitive ground to tread on, both legally and politically. In addition, there is one more critical issue that this definition suffers from: it doesn’t specify the quantum of love required to be a patriot as mere love is a very low threshold in this context. We all love someone or something but such love is spread in varied degrees. Loving in uniformity will not only make the concept of ‘someone special’ redundant but also nullify the idea of ‘love’ as a whole. Applying it to the point in discussion, we can say that we love multiple things in our lives e.g. our parents, siblings, cities, pets, and so on. So, merely loving our country would be bringing it down to the level of things just mentioned.

It is for this reason that the conceptual idea of patriotism demands the purest kind of love and the most superior and pristine in its essence. In other words, love at a level against which all other forms of love pale in comparison. Similarly, it does not mean a mere tie of love as long as it is not translated into a ‘special concern’ for the land we live in. The feeling of going the extra mile for one’s country is what distinguishes patriotism from mere love. It further includes the element of ‘identification’ with one’s country and pride for anything done positively for the country. Lastly, the feeling of love for one’s country is insufficient if it doesn’t take the form of a compassion of association for its compatriots. This concept would make sense when we assume that we also feel for a person living in the remote hinterland of Balochistan despite never having met him or her.

A Constitutional Duty

It is very interesting to note that besides being a moral obligation, patriotism is a constitutional duty as well. The importance of patriotism is so pronounced and punctuated that it has been described as the basic duty of every citizen. Moreover, it is a peremptory norm and non-derogable legal clause, the breach of which cannot be justified. For the facility of reference, the said article of the Constitution of Pakistan has been reproduced hereunder:

“Loyalty to State and obedience to Constitution and law:

(1) Loyalty to the State is the basic duty of every citizen.

(2) Obedience to the Constitution and law is the [inviolable] obligation of every citizen wherever he may be and of every other person for the time being within Pakistan.”

A Need Of The Hour

Apart from the nobility of the expression, which patriotism certainly has, its significance cannot be downplayed even insofar as its utility is concerned, further enhancing its inherent capital. It is in this context that the need for dissemination of the sentiment of patriotism has been given much impetus in history. According to many sociologists, with the emergence of the family system the interests of an individual got constricted and confined, hence rose the immense need for the establishment of a contrary feeling of all-encompassing character to be ushered into the arena so as to balance the narrow individualistic feelings with the broad-based communitarian compassion and a tendency to feel sympathetically outside one’s family. This idea has been taken forward by Martha Nussbaum in her work titled Political Emotions: Why Love Matters For Justice, where she points out that those who start out with self-interest and inherent bias in mind can turn their complexion through proper projection and implementation of ‘public emotions’, reflected through organs of public political life, which, in extension, will serve to enhance the individual’s circle of concern and shall extend compassion broadly. In addition, the notion of patriotism may serve, as noted above, to create the sacrificial and altruistic ambitions in contrast to the other means employed by the state to ensure an individual’s compliance, such as through coercion or quid pro quo incentivisation which awakens in subjects a specter of commercially tainted cost-and-benefit styled mindset.

In The Age of Globalisation

Globalisation has most often been defined in negative terms such as de-nationalisation and de-territorialisation, etc. This makes it more exposed to a nationalist and regionalist backlash, for obvious reasons of fear. One thing which is certain is that globalisation has come and it has come to stay, and the sooner we find ways to reconcile with it, the better. The world historically has always been on the move and this is not a new development but the difference being this time that it’s caused by positive incentives like trade, commerce, tourism, etc. and not by negative factors like war, famine and drought. The other marked difference has been the intensity. Cross-border flows have given rise to diasporas which in turn have given rise to the curious case of multiple loyalties among people, spread across the globe, making it an uneasy proposition in the equation of law and politics and necessitating and punctuating the importance of the idea of patriotism even further.

A Misconceived Idea

Dealing with the idea of patriotism is like playing with fire. The concept has inherent capacity, if taken to an extreme, to develop into belligerent jingoism, both nationally and internationally, as has been seen during Hitler’s era.

It also sometimes smothers the voices of reason that may challenge it and muffle them into silence only for being different. Also, it can be used as a tool by states, mostly to translate their cruel and draconian designs on the people. In such extreme circumstances, patriotism becomes more of a doctrine for exclusion than inclusion and might be used to alienate or maginalise certain factions. Certificates of loyalty are doled out and those left out are labeled seditionists. Dissenting voices are labeled mouthpieces of Satan. Difference becomes a disease and thinking, a crime. In Samuel Johnson’s words, patriotism becomes “the last refuge of the scoundrel”. Such militarist and irrational associations with the concept might also lead to the rise of sub-nationalist and sub-patriotic tendencies threatening the cohesiveness of the state as a whole. This orthodox and uncritical version of patriotism, when pushed to the limits where a cup of intellectual endurance runs over, is difficult to put up with, but this doesn’t in any way go on to cast aspersions on the concept as a whole, which is needful, noble and relevant if reasonably adopted.

Patriotism as a Virtue

The conceptual understanding of patriotism might have made it clear that it’s no easy water to sail on. There are wheels within the wheel that need an answer of an effective and clear kind. Normally, peacenik patriots have a very stringent criterion for their country to live up to – some objectively high moral standards of universal justice – before they can endorse its standpoint, but that shouldn’t be taken to believe that they condition their support to the country upon fulfillment of the said certain standards and not otherwise. In that case, what will happen if another state has in possession such virtues which are lacking in one’s own country? Will one switch their patriotic loyalties? An ancillary question arises here: who shall finally decide the content of principles that the state has to live by? Absent any such globally recognized catalogue of rules, people will be left to their whims and workings of subjective consciousness to chalk out such rules and all citizens will have a charter of their own. It will be an invitation to utter chaos. On the contrary, there is another lot of patriots who accord blanket approval to all actions of their own country. For them the rule is that their country alone is their country and since it is their country, it is entitled to their undisputed loyalty and unwavering commitment. This form of patriotic ambition is dubbed by J.B. Zimmermann as, “the love for one’s country … in many cases is no more than the love of an ass for its stall”. But however egoistic, acerbic and irrational it may seem, it surely qualifies as patriotism. The truth, however, lies somewhere between these two extremes. The middle-way here would be the right way and finding it would be no less than a Herculean task.

A Moralistic Notion

A connected question to the debate above is whether patriotism is a moral doctrine, immoral notion or amoral conception. On bare perusal, I would unequivocally pronounce that there is no such thing as amorality in this world, especially when it comes to the greatest questions of the time. It reminds me of Dante Alighieri’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy, where he said the following words, which had also been subsequently tampered with by Martin Luther Junior:

“The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.”
- Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Part-I, Inferno

Jurisprudentially, morality is universal, impartial, transcends national frontiers and is tied to none but the supreme cannons of natural justice and humanity, while group egoism is at odds with its requirements. Some go even further to suggest that not only is it moral but ‘morally mandatory’. If this line is strictly followed then there remains no room for a national version of morality. Yet, the question as to the moral vires of patriotism is disputed. The answer to it may be broadly categorized into 5 different formulations for a comprehensive idea:

a. Extreme Patriotism

This is a Machiavellian idea of trumping all moral considerations when it comes to state interests with no care being given to the ideals of justice and injustice or kindness and oppression, come what may.  This strand of thinking can be sloganeered as “our country, right or wrong” and if seen objectively, it cannot be right. This being too tight a formulation has no space for any second opinion. It seems like mortgaging the cardinal canons of justice to the requirements of expediency and takes one to a point where real estate is more valuable than the great cause of humanity. As aptly put:

“To me, it seems a dreadful indignity to have a soul controlled by geography.”
- George Santayana

b. Robust Patriotism

Normally, the question of where and from whom one learns a principle is of no importance. Alasdair MacIntyre argues, however, that the very content of morality depends upon where it is learnt from and who taught it because morality is necessarily communitarian and cannot be individualistic, hence is to be learnt from the community and detached from the communitarian concept. It is but an idle floating island in the huge sea of meaning. One’s history and identity is part of a larger set of history, identity, values, institutions and aspirations. If I don’t understand myself as part of the larger history of my nation, how do I explain the feeling of pride for something that I didn’t directly do but the nation did, or what I owe my nation and what it reciprocally owes me.

MacIntyre’s posits that the “popular version of patriotism” tends to conflate two concepts i.e. government and the nation as a whole. The patriot’s allegiance, he argues, is not for the status quo power, but to “the nation conceived as a project”, while the incumbent government is open to criticism in light of the country’s true aspirations, ambitions, character and history, should they conflict. To this end, this kind of patriotism is rational and critical. But he further asserts that some projects of nation or “large interests” are too important to be admitted to critical scrutiny. This line of argument, on the other hand, makes patriotism ‘a fundamentally irrational attitude’. Critically, as Tolstoy puts it, such a version of patriotism is egoistic, exclusive, aggressive and the root-cause of international tensions and wars, or at least has a tendency to go in this direction. But that’s too early a jump at conclusion as, given state sovereignty and the liberty to chase goals, one form of international conflict is natural whereby a side has to be taken. Furthermore, an unquestioned support doesn’t necessarily mean an unscrupulous one, for again it depends on the cause being justified than the factum of uncritical support which will act as the determining factor.

c. Moderate Patriotism

Between the two extremes of partiality and impartiality and expansive cosmopolitan ideals of morality and narrower views of nationalism as discussed above, there is but a middle ground for a middle approach.

In the view of Baron, there are multiple levels of moral deliberations, broader (universal) and narrower (nationalist) and they may not necessarily collide with each other, making room for a particularistic morality like patriotism to thrive in a way that “it is good for an American to judge as an American, and to put American interests first” and there’s nothing wrong about it. Similarly, another middle-of-the-road approach has been propounded by Stephen Nathanson, who argues that the “impartiality required by (universal) morality allows for particular attachments”, such as the Ten Commandments, a cornerstone of Western morality which prescribes high principles of universal justice alongside partial and particular notions like “honor your father and your mother”. This form of patriotism is moderate, not unbridled, does not in any way enjoin the patriot to further the interests of his or her country through any means and under any circumstances, and recognises the constraints placed on its aspirations by morality. Moreover, this school does make its patriotism conditional, hinging a person’s devotion to the state upon fulfillment of some high sounding universalist ambitions. In this way, the proponents of this school have found a middle ground between sweeping cosmopolitanism allowing for no loyalty and attachment to one’s country, and robust or extreme patriotism rejecting universal moralist considerations.

d. Deflated Patriotism

A debt of gratitude is the most commonly cited basis for one to be patriotic. Socrates also belongs to this fabric of thought and holds that our country has done much for us by giving us life, liberty, language and identity, etc. so it’s only just that such debt must be repaid. In extension, large entities like schools, institutions or even the state act through some persons, so in a way gratitude to the state becomes an abbreviated way of offering gratitude to those persons through whom the state has acted i.e. the compatriots. There is but a worry to this idea which is that if a state fails partially or fully in ensuring that these benefits get trickled down to an ordinary citizen, the person concerned will be within his or her right to withhold their loyalty or gratitude towards the state for that matter. In other words, the extent of gratitude depends on the extent of the services that the state has been able to provide in the first place. In such a situation, should the success of the state to guarantee and uphold these fundamental rights be the actual determining factor?

Another concern is whether the debt of gratitude depends upon the underlying cause of the service so rendered. For instance, if the state has done its citizenry any favour for its own popular imagery and not out of a moral burden, does it deserve the gratitude (patriotism) of the citizens concerned? Similarly, if the citizens respect the rights and liberties of other citizens out of fear (law’s sanction) and not compassion (wrong reason), do they merit gratitude? The question then is whether gratitude should be calibrated and re-calibrated from person to person depending on the genuineness and ingenuity of the services rendered or be given a blanket benefit of doubt as to the real reason for being nice all the time and eventually equalizing them behind the proverbial ‘veil of ignorance’. But the fundamental problem in the acceptance of this argument is that the feeling of patriotism is not regulated merely by the conception of quid pro quo, since those who do not receive the fullest of the state’s benefits are also liable to owe gratitude to the state in absolute degrees. Similarly, even if one receives more benefit comparatively from a foreign state than one’s own state, the foreign state will not be entitled to the patriotic gratitude from the person concerned while the state of nationality will be.

e. Ethical Patriotism

Unlike all of patriotism’s predecessor formulations – which focus mainly on the mundane and non-moral considerations involving husbanding of state’s material resources, preserving its natural capital, securing its historical frontiers and making it rich, powerful and influential – ethical patriotic ambition focuses on the moralist aspirations and concentrates more on enhancing the moral strength of the nation, nationally and internationally. It believes in investigating the moral wrongs of the country, rectifying them and offering apologies to the wronged, whenever needed. A patriot of this kinds derives his or her moral identity from the moral stature of his or her “patria” (homeland). If a state acts in an unjust manner and oppression has been carried out towards people outside its borders, the responsibility for such an act would befall those at the helm of affairs – including those who implemented it, lent support in these designs, or even those who didn’t do anything directly but silently and knowingly received the benefits accruing from the said act of injustice thereby establishing complicity. As a consequence of the assumption of moral responsibility, one is exposed to the darts of moral blame as well.

Political Underpinning

Since the emergence of the nation-state, it has been a widely held belief that some sort of nationalism is an inevitable pre-political basis to establish unity, solidarity and cooperation among citizens and make them sacrificial for the common good.

The 20th century witnessed a lot of strains and stresses caused by extreme nationalism. The suggested antidote had been political patriotism which de-emphasised the pre-political ties of the common race, ethnicity, ancestry, caste, colour, creed and cuisine, etc. It also harmonised and fraternised nation-states on the model of self-constructed notions of ‘civic nationalism’ or political patriotism in this context, conveniently avoiding the fault lines and the difficult-to-satisfy criteria of nationalism.

Such issues led the celebrated political theorist, Dolf Sternberger, to propose in 1959 the idea of a “fatherland” as opposed to the classic concept of “motherland”. Fatherland, he argued, was our constructed by us, infused life into by us, constituted by us and subsequently guarded by us. Later in 1979, he refined his concept into the theory of “constitutional patriotism” aka verfassungspatriotismus.

The very term, at a later date, got adopted by another philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, who further refined the concept and stated that such nationalism/patriotism had supplanted erstwhile loyalties, arising out of national and cultural bond, with those of self-constructed nationalism, reared and nurtured by the laws made and the set of rules unanimously agreed upon by society. This formulated a solid foundation for the establishment of the state eventually dispensing with the requirements of cultural and national homogeneity.

A similar idea of “covenanted patriotism” has been advocated by another scholar named John H. Schaar for even more pluralist states which are too fragmented and heterogeneous to admit natural patriotism – USA being a “melting pot” of nationalities is a valid case in point where inter-sectional unity has been created through a covenant and not by any unanimity.

This newly emerged idea has, however, seen praise and suspicion in equal degrees with the exponents of the former claiming and prognosticating the establishment of a European constitutional patriotism, while those suspecting it consider it too thin a basis to be able to create a fictional unity and association, let alone identity. The canvas of humanity is as broad as the possibilities attached with the concept. Let’s see which way the wind blows and fetches favour to whom.



Is Patriotism a Virtue by Macintyre
Cultivation of Nationalism in modern India: a critical appraisal by Santosh Kumar
“Love and Politics” By Stanley Fish, The N.Y Times, Oct. 14, 2013
Patriotism, Project Gutenberg Self Publishing Press, World Heritage Encyclopedia
Anderson & Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (1991)
Global Politics, 2nd edition, by Andrew Heywood
World Politics: Trends and Transformation, 10th Edition, by Charles W. Kegley
The many faces of Patriotism by Phillip Abbott, Chapter “Compassion and Terror” by Martha C. Nussbaum


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of or any other organization with which he might be associated

Sultan Ahmad

The writer has served in the judiciary for 25 years and has worked as a deputationist in various departments including the Provincial Ombuds Office, Election Commission of Pakistan and Islamabad High Court. He has been part of the visiting faculty at Punjab Judicial Academy and Himayat-e-Islam Law College and is currently practising law at Lahore High Court.

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