This Week in Justice: Patriotism – vice or virtue?

1 12 2008


Justice, as you may recall, is a large 850+ student course at the college that walks through various issues in moral philiosophy from a wide and established variety of approaches. Right now we’re studying communitarianism: (generally speaking) the idea that we are not self-owned as a liberal might argue (Locke, Friedman, Nozick, Rawls) but rather we are not so completely free because we have specific duties regarding our commmunity which has part-ownership in all of us.

Poll question

The poll question this week was: “Patriotism is not a virtue but a vice, a prejudice in favor of one’s own kind that we should try to overcome.” Do you agree or disagree with this statement?

Answer for yourself then see the results below:

Poll results

Agree – 26%  (41/158)

Disagree – 74%  (117/158)

Challenge Question

I am one of the 26% who agree and so I chose to write a response to the “challenge question” that follows our poll result: Does this mean that we owe nothing more to our our fellow citizens than to everyone else in the world?

My response 

Patriotism, and nationalistic sentiments more broadly, misconstrue the notion of a community and expand it too broadly. The idea that I have a deeper connection with other individuals in Chicago, Wasilla, or New Haven than to someone in London, Cairo, or Hong Kong is mistaken. While we are more likely to share the same language, broad cultural beliefs and political affiliation, having given our implicit consent to the US government does not make us significantly more neighborly, more attached than anyone else I don’t know in this world for the mere fact that I do not know them. The connection is too arbitrary, too anonymous to comprise what a communitarian might argue as a “community”. What I owe to someone else depends both on the special individual relationship I have established with that person on whatever moral basis that has rightfully emerged and the universal, dignity-affirming treatment due to all human beings. To the extent that, yes, I have subscribed myself to the particular political contract established in the United States, I do owe others in this country what I have agreed to in that contract (taxes, etc) but my allegiance, my compassion, and my moral duty are blind to the construct of the nation-state. (To Caesar what is Caesar’s …)

More about today

Now, to complete the story: freezing rain –> unflyable conditions for an eight-seater Cessna –> 6:00 am flight cancelled –> rescheduled to 11 am flight –> home to Boston by 2:45 after a late take-off and some lunch –> saw Ted Kennedy get his honorary diploma with Associate Justice Stephen Breyer and President Drew Faust making speeches and Yo-yo Ma playing Gershwin –> went home for a fancy Junior Dinner at my house –> walked with Senator John Kerry for a few blocks on the way –> ate food and enjoyed myself while hosted by my house-master and College Dean –> am home writing to you.

The exciting twist

In the middle, getting back into Cambridge around 2:45, I receive a personal email from Professor Sandel, the professor who teaches Justice. Subject: “we missed you in class today.” My first thought was: how did they manage to take attendance (and why today of all days)? My second thought: rather unusual to get a personal email about this. So, reading onward, I realize that he put up my comment above on the projector for the class to see and had asked me to talk on the microphone about what I was thinking! I’ve heard the story secondhand a couple of times now and wish I could have been there. I look forward to the next class where I hope to chat a bit about my views.

So, what do you think?



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