Patriotism is paradoxical or at least it seems to be. On the one hand, we tend to regard people who are disloyal or unpatriotic as exhibiting a kind of moral vice or as lacking an important virtue. On the other hand, being patriotic involves treating people differently on the basis of some arbitrarily drawn line on the map. We can call this problem the problem of moral patriotism.

In this article, I shall distinguish between two versions of the problem of moral patriotism. The first version, which I shall call the old problem of moral patriotism is one that has occupied philosophers for at least a century[1]. What I wish to show in this article is that solving the original paradox gives rise to another paradox which I shall call the new problem of moral patriotism. I shall start with providing a brief specification of patriotism before describing the old problem of patriotism. I shall then provide an account of the new problem and show why it persists even when the old problem is solved.

So, what is patriotism? Here is a serviceable definition: To be patriotic is to love your country and to be loyal to it. Someone counts as loving their country and being loyal to it only if they manifest at least one of the following dispositions:

  1. a willingness to sacrifice one’s own interests and/or take other people’s lives if need be in order to maintain the sovereignty of one’s country.
  2. a willingness to place the interests and well-being of one’s countrymen over those who are not, or
  3. a willingness to work towards the moral improvement of their own citizens and institutions over others.

The above definition is deliberately loose. We need not think that a patriot has to have all three dispositions. However, it is hard to see how someone who lacks all these dispositions is patriotic to any degree whatsoever. With this rough definition on hand, we are now able to articulate the old problem of moral patriotism: How to reconcile universal demands of morality with the demands of special concern which are characteristic of patriotism.

The following examples can help provide some context. Recently, Czech officials seized facemasks bound for Italy which had been donated by the Chinese government[2]. The US, has also recently been accused of seizing face masks in Thailand that were bound for Germany[3]. The French have also seized masks bound from Sweden to Spain and Italy[4]. One reason that governments have been able to get away with such modern piracy during the COVID-19 pandemic is that the voters see such actions as patriotic. On this view, the patriotic thing to do is whatever benefits your own citizens even if this comes at the expense of the lives of other countries’ citizens. This is because one aspect of patriotism is valuing one’s own country’s citizens over those of other countries.

Yet, morality regards all persons as equal. Whether you are a Kantian and regard all persons as having equal moral worth or you are a utilitarian who regards each person’s happiness as valuable as anyone else’s, a fundamental tenet of morality is that all persons are worthy of equal moral concern. This basic equal moral worth of persons is what underlies the first two articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Among other things the first two articles state that:

1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and human rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

2. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty[5]. (emphasis added).

The problem of moral patriotism concerns how to reconcile morality which requires equal concern for all persons regardless of country with patriotism, which requires special concern for your own countrymen. Does patriotism really require that countries secure facemasks for themselves by hook or by crook? If the leader of your country (or the law) tells you to seize a shipment of masks which you know has been purchased by or donated to another country, what should you do? Should you do the so-called patriotic thing or should you do the so-called moral thing? Can the requirements of patriotism and morality be made to mesh?

The old problem of moral patriotism, at the most fundamental level, manifests as two related questions. Firstly, given that morality is fundamentally about having equal concern for all persons, how can patriotism be permissible? Secondly, what are the moral limits of patriotism? These two questions are closely related. The question of how patriotism can be permissible will also tell us when it is.

There are a number of plausible considerations that we can bring to bear on answering these questions. Firstly, morality is not so stringent that it does not permit each person some latitude in pursuing her own interests[6]. If morality was so stringent, then it would be impermissible to buy for ourselves anything that was not a basic need. Perhaps we should donate more than we currently do to charity, but it is implausible that we have no lee way to give more weight to our own interests than those of others. Thus, even if patriotism ends up being somewhat egoistic (since it involves a special concern for the interests of our own countrymen) each of us has some prerogative to look after the interests of our own countrymen than those of some other country. This means that it would, perhaps, be permissible for citizens of your own country to have more educational subsidies than non-citizens. But the prerogative is not unlimited. It is unlikely that the prerogative allows you to simply seize the masks headed to other countries.

Moreover, a duty to be patriotic can be derived from a general duty of justice. In most cases whenever a person has been injured, robbed or killed, they have been wronged. It is a natural to think that justice requires that restitution be provided for the victims or their families, the wrong-doer is punished and similar wrong-doing is prevented. This translates into duties to prevent and correct injustice. The most effective way available to us to carry out these duties is the system of modern states. Governments with discrete jurisdictions exist in order to coordinate the carrying out of these duties. At least that is what they ought to be doing. However, such discrete jurisdictions would not be possible without people in those jurisdictions giving more support to each other and to the government of that jurisdiction than of some other jurisdiction. We can thus derive a duty of patriotism in the following way: In order for justice to be done, countries must exist. In order for countries to exist, people must be patriotic. Therefore, in order for justice to be done, people must be patriotic.

This way of justifying the permissibility of patriotism also accounts for its limits. Citizens owe a country loyalty and love so long as the government in the country does a reasonable job of securing justice. Severely unjust regimes like Nazi Germany or North Korea are not owed the loyalty of their citizens. In fact, these governments are so unjust that it would be impermissible to be loyal to them. In addition, even in reasonably just countries, patriotism cannot justify actions which would compromise basic justice. The value of patriotism on such accounts is dependent on its ability to secure justice. Where patriotism is detrimental to basic justice, patriotism becomes dis-valuable and hence impermissible. Thus, when countries commit acts of piracy even if it somehow counts as patriotic to do what your country says, we should not do these things.

Given this satisfactory solution to the old problem of moral patriotism, we are now able to articulate the new problem. It seems to be the case that loyalty is owed to the country only if it delivers some set of goods: securing some adequate level of justice. However, this seems transactional in a way incompatible with our common-sense idea of patriotism. Patriotism, it seems, just cannot be the kind of thing where we offer loyalty in exchange for some basket of goods. Yet, if we are patriotic only if the country is sufficiently just, that is exactly what seems to be happening. Thus we now have a puzzle. If patriotism is appropriately constrained by morality, it does not really seem like patriotism anymore. The corollary is that any patriotism worth its name would be immoral.

One objection may be that I am confusing obedience to the government with patriotism. On this thought, it is obedience to the government which is justified because of a general concern with justice and which is thus limited to those cases in which such obedience is compatible with basic justice. However, the government is not the country. The country is the people. Therefore, loyalty to the country cannot be equated with obedience to the government. Loyalty to the country is instead more about caring about the welfare of your own countrymen.

While loyalty to the country is distinct from obedience to the government, the objection does not succeed. Here is why: If loyalty to the country is just about the well-being of the people in the country, then sometimes the patriotic thing to do would be to quickly make one’s own country surrender to a foreign enemy. Such a situation would occur in those cases where the invading country would do a significantly better job of securing basic justice for your own country than the existing government. After all, under the government of the invading country, your fellow countrymen’s wellbeing would be improved significantly.

To make things more concrete, suppose South Korea were to invade North Korea to liberate its people. Under the South Korean leadership, the North Koreans would do significantly better and have access to freedoms which they have been unjustly deprived of by the North Korean government. Moreover, they would be in a market economy instead of a command economy. Notably, market economies generally do significantly better than command economies in terms of raising the wellbeing of the people in that economy[7]. Given that this is the case, if the South Koreans invade the North, the North Koreans should quickly surrender in order to limit bloodshed as much as possible. The North Koreans have a duty of justice to surrender to the south. However, while it may be just, it is hard to see how it is patriotic to do so. Surrendering to the enemy just cannot be the kind of thing that counts as patriotic.

With this we return to the new problem of moral patriotism: A patriotism that is conditional on achieving basic justice seems objectionably transactional. If the North Koreans would actually surrender to the south, they would not seem genuinely patriotic even if what they did was morally obligatory given their circumstances.

To sum up, solving the initial paradox gives rise to a new paradox. Is there some other solution to this problem? Or, will we ultimately have to reject patriotism as fundamentally and intrinsically immoral?


[1] See Leo Tolstoy, “On Patriotism” and “Patriotism, or Peace?” Writings on Civil Disobedience and Nonviolence, Philadelphia: New Society Publishers (1987) and George Kateb “Is Patriotism a Mistake?” Social Research (2000) 67: 901–24

[2] Confusion after Czech officials seize China-donated masks bound for Italy, Straits Times, 22 March 2020

[3] US swoop sees 3M masks allegedly diverted from Berlin, Financial Times, 4 April 2020

[4] France seizes millions of masks, gloves intended for Spain and Italy, Daily Sabah 3 April 2020

[5] United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (1942), URL: https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/

[6] See for instance Marcia Baron , “Patriotism and ‘Liberal’ Morality,” in D. Weissbord (ed.), Mind, Value, and Culture: Essays in Honor of E.M. Adams, Atascadero: Ridgeview Publishing Co., (1989) 269–300; Stephen Nathanson, “In Defense of ‘Moderate Patriotism’,” Ethics, 99: (1989) 535–52 and.Stephen Nathanson,  Patriotism, Morality, and Peace, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield (1993)

[7] Rana Hasan, M.G. Quibria, and Yangseon Kim, “Poverty and Economic Freedom: Evidence from Cross-Country Data”, East West Centre Working Papers no 60 (2003)



To cite this article:
Anantharaman Murali, "The New Problem of Moral Patriotism," in Paradigm, July 22, 2020, https://paradigm.suss.edu.sg/the-new-problem-of-moral-patriotism/.

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