Thursday, May 19, 2005

Patriotism and bad faith

Conservative Philosopher links to a quote of Simon Keller on Patriotism as bad faith. I beg to differ and offer a different take on patriotism. I admit I have no fully worked out theory, but I thought it was worth a shot.

One way to look at patriotism is to consider patriotic loyalty as a social compact. Patriotism can be viewed as a manifestation of an understanding of reciprocity between a large number of individuals. These individuals are bound to some agreement of reciprocal altruism as enforced by a commonly understood and agreed upon system of rules and governance.

So, I can love my country because it enforces a set of understandings about how we can cooperate with each other – in a way that perhaps is beneficial to all. Conversely, one may be xenophobic because she has no reason to believe that a foreigner believes that he is bound by the same set of rules as my fellow countrymen. The foreigner may defect in a way that your own countryman would have a much greater difficulty doing.

It seems pretty easy to believe that others around you are bound by certain rules and standards, while people who are from different places are not. Deciding to support, even blindly support, people with whom you have an enforced pre-existing trust-relationship seems a lot wiser than supporting people who might have a strong incentive to defect against you, and a weaker disincentive not to.

There seems to be little question about bad faith unless there is a prior presumption and agreed upon understanding of good faith. In the case of a foreigner, (whom the patriot may seemingly arbitrarily like less) there is no understanding of what it would be to act in good faith. Good faith is relative to a common system of practices. It is easy to act with good faith toward a fellow citizen, as there is an accepted standard, and as a last resort, an agreed-upon enforcement procedure. It is much harder to act in good faith in the absence of both.

This is of course for patriotism on a scale of preferring your countrymen versus those individuals of other countries, eg, in cases of who to give preference to in admission to your universities, who to give charity to, or who to invite to your parties. But does it cover the cases of preferring the policies of my country versus the policies of other countries?

Yes, it applies here too. The assumption is that the policies of your country are designed to look after your best interest and the policies of other countries are designed to look after the best interests of their citizens.

It is the same problem. I have a reason to prefer (even blindly prefer) the policies that are designed to look after my best interest over those of another’s best interest in the absence of any external agreed-upon and enforced standard of good faith. One would have to be foolish to promote the best interest of another when it is at her own expense.

Even promoting “the good” is not an option in the absence of outside constraints enforcing the good that has been promoted, regardless of who benefits.

So patriotism does not seem to be, either on the level of the individual or on the level of the country, a bad faith concept. Bad faith only makes sense where there is a mechanism for good faith. Given the diversity of views that exists in an international setting, it is hard to argue that there is a common enough concept of good faith to make patriotism a bad-faith concept.


30 something said...

Game-theoretical arguments of this type might be helpful if we want to understand the behavior of lieutenant commander DATA, but game theory lacks a human element so necessary for insight into us imperfect humans, who are as much governed by our prehistoric brain-stem as by the frontal lobes. People are patriotic mostly in irrational ways. They root for their country in the same way they root for their home team.
There is no rhyme or reason for it. You root for whoever it closest.

Somehow people have a tendency to think that the social mores, moral convictions and religious beliefs held by people in the immediate surrounding within which they happened to have been born are correct, enlightened and inspired by God. How else can you explain Flatbush? That’s all there is to it. What makes patriotism particularly pernicious though is the easiness with which governments who are so inclined can use it to their ends.

Now I’m am not saying that America is not objectively a good country. What I am saying though is that the qualities of this country have nothing to do with the reasons that the average person out there is a patriot.

Karl said...

As usual you take all comments to be psychological. This one is not. My point was philosophical, not psychological. I could care less why people are patriotic. I am looking here to define and perhaps justify it, not explain its appeal to people. People are patriotic because their parents are, because they are stupid, or because they are extremely sophisticated or all of the above, or none.

But it is the same for religion. People are religious because they are stupid, smart, or their parents are. But that psychological question is completely independent of the question "what is religion?" and "does God exist?". God can exist, and perhaps be proven to exist and yet people can still believe in him because they are delusional and paranoid.

My only point is that patriotism does not have to be taken as bad faith, rather it can be taken as an issue of trust, and that is to say that patriotism can be JUSTIFIED, in terms of trusting relationships. That is a separate question from why people do it.

It would hardly be a refutation of Hobbes or Locke to say that there is a psychological reason for the social contract, or there isn't one. Maybe there is maybe there isn't, but they are both independent of the philosophical ground we gain by using it as a heuristic for understanding the foundations of government.

Some questions are just not psychological.

Karl said...

Sorry about the above. I hope it didn't come off too harsh.