La Bodeguita was rammed, sweat pouring down the walls. Being the most authentic Colombian restaurant in London, and situated within the Elephant and Castle shopping centre, in the heart of the South American diaspora community, it was an obvious place for Colombians to watch the game. “Even this shopping centre feels like it’s from Bogotá,” said my mate Emilliano, as he offered me delicious enchiladas. The restaurant was a sea of yellow football tops. And the intensity level was hot, hot, hot.
But in the end, I didn’t watch the game with Emilliano. And given the result, I am glad. Instead, I went to The Beehive, a proper British boozer, and watched it with some of the local Labour Party, including our MP, Neil Coyle. I shouted at the screen. Jumped up and down. Stood on my chair, bursting my lungs with song. Drank way too much. And, after the penalties, ended up hugging a rather large, heavily tattooed stranger and kissing another on the head.
In that moment of pure patriotic ecstasy, the pub seemed united in an unusually intimate form of togetherness. After all that, Neil and I had a rather messy argument about Brexit. “If we win the World Cup, Theresa May will call an early election,” someone else suggested. Then we all drank up and staggered home.
What we think about patriotism positions us squarely on possibly the moral question of our day. From Brexit to Trump, from Hungary to Israel, the question of putting our country first has a divisive feel that enrages liberals and internationalists. Because when it comes to patriotism, what liberals understand to be a defining feature of proper moral reasoning, communitarians think of as a vice. And what communitarians think of as an essential aspect of a flourishing moral community, liberals think of as bigotry.
In other words, not only do these two groups both disagree, they disagree in the most extreme way, with both sides thinking that the reason the other uses to adduce their case is precisely the reason they would use to dismiss it. Let me explain.
In his brilliantly organised essay, “Is Patriotism a Virtue?” – published in 1984 but still fresh as a daisy – the towering figure of philosophy Alasdair MacIntyre reflects that according to what he calls liberal morality, “to judge from a moral standpoint is to judge impersonally … independently of his or her interests, affections or social position”. To think morally involves “the moral agent in abstracting him or herself from all social particularity and partiality”.
MacIntyre accepts there is a soft version of patriotism which is “regarded as nothing more than a perfectly proper devotion to one’s own nation which must never be allowed to violate the constraints set by the impersonal moral standpoint. This is indeed the kind of patriotism professed by certain liberal moralists who are often indignant when it is suggested by their critics that they are not patriotic.”
We have all probably watched the football with people like this. Maybe they want to be enthusiastic, if only to join in. But when there is too much hugging and shouting and cursing the referee, too much partisan solidarity, they feel a little too much the approaching shadow of Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori and sit on their hands, smiling nervously. Macintyre says the patriotism of such people is little more than an “empty slogan” and even describes such people as “citizens of nowhere” – this is not a new complaint.
But it is not only the propensity of patriotism towards violence and war that leads the liberal internationalist to be suspicious of it: it is also the sheer lack of reason. Why should the chance act of being born in a particular location so decisively shape one’s identity and moral formation?
A truly rational person would base their moral values on universal principles – justice, fairness, equality – in which each individual’s value counts the same, as with human rights. Thus, to mature as a moral subject, one has to grow out of the limitations of one’s geographical and cultural rootedness and free oneself from the narrowness of its view of the world. Only in this way is universal and rational moral reasoning possible. For the liberal, patriotism inhibits this growth and thus is both dangerous and infantilising.
MacIntyre’s sympathies, however, are not with this position. For, he argues, we never learn morality as such, but always a morality that is embedded within a particular community, with a particular history and social order. And it is only in reference to the goods as described by this social order that my moral values make any sense. The liberal may agree, and say that this is just a starting point one has to grow out of. But as MacIntyre rightly replies, this misunderstands the relationship between morality and the specifics of a particular way of life.
For central to those goods is the enjoyment of one particular kind of social life, lived out through a particular set of social relationships. Thus what I enjoy is the good of this particular social life inhabited by me and I enjoy it as what it is.
It may well be that it follows that I would enjoy and benefit equally from similar forms of social life in other communities, but this hypothetical truth in no way diminishes the importance of the contention that my goods are, as a matter of fact, found here, among these particular people, in these particular relationships. Goods are never encountered except as thus particularised.
This last point is crucial. If the goods we aspire to are particular, then morality cannot be abstract without tearing us away from the source of moral value. Moreover, as Macintyre goes on to add, being moral is hard work, and the temptation to give in to our own narrow interests is always strong, which is why we constantly need the support and encouragement (and potential challenge) from the community to keep us on the straight and narrow.
All of this may make a crucial aspect of morality non-rational, or pre-rational. There is no good reason for me to prize my own culture and social groupings above those of others. Just as, when I tell my mother than she is the best mother in the world, I have not done any empirical research to establish the fact.
But there would be something crazy about conducting this research, because the claim that my mother is the best mother in the world is a declaration of commitment, love and gratitude, not a factual claim about objective reality. So too patriotism. Yet it is on this that our care for each other is grounded; it’s not a general care about humanity as such, but a care about Gill and Steve and Sarah and Sylvester. So to pull away from the specifics of particular lives and social arrangements, to rise above the local towards a rational and universal value, is to pull away from people as they really are.
The long list of the dangers of irrational commitment to one’s patria must not be understated. And on this the liberals are correct. Historically and presently, patriotism has blood on its hands. So too is the very important point that many of our identities are hybrids of various overlapping commitments – my son, for instance, is entitled to British, Polish and Israeli citizenships. What will become of his patriotism?
But it may also be true that there is no other way of establishing and sustaining a rich moral formation other than by an “irrational” commitment to the people one lives among. For communitarians, my hugging the fat English stranger, my “Come on En-ger-land” at top volume, are crucial to our morality solidarity. And it’s just the same with my mate Emilliano shouting for Colombia over in the Elephant shopping centre.
The problem, of course, is that what MacIntyre and I consider moral solidarity, liberals think of as prejudice, even proto-fascism. And what liberals call morality, communitarians view as a dangerous dilution of moral solidarity. And there, in a nutshell, are the culture wars that presently divide us.