It is time, once again, to be philosophical. My chosen topic today is this: Is Patriotism a moral duty?

In general we often talk about being patriotic as though it is a duty, an obligation, and the right thing to do. We even go so far as to praise the patriots of our enemies, since they at least have a sense of moral honor which guides their actions. In one sense our problem with the terrorist is that they are not patriots, since they have no particular loyalties to a sovereign nation. The difference between the terrorist and the freedom fighter is that the freedom fighter is a patriot, loyal to their nation and their people. The terrorist, on the other hand, is a traitor and if they have any loyalties those loyalties serve only an ideology or a faith. That is not to say that all religious people are terrorists, but it does raise an interesting problem.

The religious person, the person who believes or has a particular faith, is loyal to their faith more than to their country. The only way to resolve this tension is to unite church and state, or at least to claim that the church supports the state. Otherwise the government of a society will always be threatened by religion, since religion presents an alternative system and power base against the government’s system and powerbase.

Yet we are speaking here of patriotism, duty, loyalty, and morality. If there is any hope to answer our original question then we need to clarify our terms. Now, rather than doing an etymological study of my terms I instead intend to make observations about the way in which we come to learn the concepts associated with those terms. I intend to do a phenomenological reduction on my terms, and see what core concepts lay at the center of all of my observations and interactions with those terms.



Before I know what patriotism, duty, or morality are, I know loyalty. Loyalty is the most basic thing I run into in my life since I run into it very early on. Children understand loyalty quite well, and in some sense all of our more complex moral notions are based on the simple idea of loyalty. Here it is loyalty is the notion that I should support and care for those who have supported and cared for me. So one could say that loyalty is inspired by self-interest but it is equally inspired by an interest in the welfare of others.

As a child I make friends based on the concept of loyalty. I share my toys with you, so you share your toys with me. I gave you some of my snack so you should give me some of yours. You see in the most obvious sense possible loyalty is simply the exercise of fairness. I have it as a basic notion from childhood that my actions and decisions create effects. Thus, even as a child, I understand that I am responsible for what I do since the notion of responsibility is simply the idea that my actions bring about effects which would not have occurred without me, thus I am the cause of those effects and the praise or blame of those effects can be placed on me.

So now loyalty comes about when I apply my simple understanding of responsibility to the fact that other people have been nice to me. My parents, my friends, my teachers, and even my siblings have benefitted me. These people have taken it upon themselves to cause the effect of my benefit and my happiness. Since they have effected in me a sense of happiness and well-being then I find myself responsible. If I have benefitted from the actions of another person then I am responsible to return the favor. This is especially true when you consider that I want to continue to benefit from interactions with those around me, rather than to be harmed by those interactions. So the idea of loyalty comes from the notion that I am responsible to help those who have helped me since I want to continue to benefit from my relationships rather than to be harmed by them.

However this is also what makes loyalty a conditional kind of situation. I have no loyalty to those who do not benefit me, since those who harm me or do not benefit me do not create in me a sense of responsibility to do good to them. Consider this problem:

A parent wants to get their child to be honest about whether or not the child has been sneaking cookies before dinner. Now a parent could tell the child they must inform on themselves and tell the truth. Yet the child will then most likely lie, since the child will obviously realize that it is not to their own benefit to turn themselves in for cookie theft. Alternatively the clever parent can tell the child that it upsets the parent when the child lies to them. The parent can push this by saying that they are “disappointed” in the child’s behavior, and that this disappointment creates a sense of unhappiness with the child. The child will then be ready to turn themselves in almost instantly. Why? The child will realize that they are being disloyal. The child will feel anxiety and fear over the possibility that someone, to whom they are responsible, could be hurt by their actions and the child will try to fix this harm. Now the child is partially self-interested here since they care about maintain the relationship by which they, the child, benefit. Yet they also care about the parent’s feelings and they feel loyalty and responsibility to help those who have helped them.



Now consider this next problem:

A parent wants to get their child to eat all of their vegetables. The child tastes them and quite easily decides that eating this revolting food is not in their own interests and so they refuse. The parent could try to appeal to the child’s sense of loyalty, or the parent could try to appeal to the child’s sense of duty. The parent decides that duty is the right call and so they say, “There are starving children in ___, and they don’t get to eat vegetables like you do. So you should be grateful for what you have and eat your vegetables.” This may or may not work, but the point is that this is significantly different from appealing to loyalty.

Duty: having an abstract obligation to a concept or absent persons.

Duty will not work on the child that is too young to understand it, but if you have laid the groundwork then you can use this effectively. Whenever I tell my child to eat their vegetables, because of starving children elsewhere, I am attempting to get my child to see that they have a duty to act a certain way. Yet this obligation in the first place can only exist if my child already works with an assumption of loyalty as the basic moral force.

When I claim that my child should care about the absent starving children I am demanding that they take responsibility and transfer that to something that they clearly have no power or effect over. In essence I demand that they take the notion that they are the cause of effects and hypothesize this notion. If my child is properly moved then they should see that they have something like a kind of loyalty to the starving child. They will realize that in some complex way their refusal to eat their vegetables has an effect on that child elsewhere. They will then, if they have been properly instructed, realize that they have a duty to always be mindful of the starving child whenever they eat. Thus they will always be careful not to waste food since to waste food is to cause harm to the abstract idea of the absent starving child.

My point is this, the concept of duty is built on the concept of loyalty. In the first place children understand loyalty because they see how their actions have immediate effects in the world around them. They are able to determine that they should be loyal to whoever helps them and that they have no loyalty to those who have no positive effect on them. Yet when we transfer the notion of loyalty to an abstract concept or an absent person then loyalty becomes a duty. Duty then becomes a universal moral law to always act in a certain way. The starving child always exists as a moral constant against which my actions may always be judged, simply because the starving child is a mental fabrication. In other words duty is based on my ability to project and imagine hypothetical cases and then to fix those cases in my consciousness as permanent realities.

Loyalties can and do change based on how I perceive the people to whom I am loyal, benefitting or harming me. Yet duty remains fixed and permanent precisely because it is based on an abstract mental projection and not on any real human interactions with other persons.



Simply put morality is the set of rules and laws that governs my interactions with other people. So the question for us is this, is morality based on a sense of duty or on a sense of loyalty?

Insofar as duty is simply an abstract form of loyalty then clearly all morality ultimately derives from my natural inclination towards loyalty. Yet we also want morality to have an unchanging nature, so that moral laws apply even when we do not feel like it. I want it to be wrong to kill an innocent person regardless of whether or not that person is a person to whom I am loyal. In fact we often see loyalty as threatening to morality, since loyalties change but moral laws should remain constant.

Thus morality derives from our notion of duty, especially duty as the concept of having abstract obligations to ideas or absent mental projections.
(as an aside there are many other ways to create or derive a system of morality, but the morality of duty is the one we most often associate with patriotism)



By now it should be obvious that patriotism is a duty, and an especially moral one. Patriotism is the sense of obligation we have to a nation, which is a decidedly abstract concept. Thus patriotism exceeds any sense of loyalty I have to my family, and in a strange way it also exceeds any sense of loyalty I might feel towards the people of the country. There is a very real way in which patriotism might require me to harm or kill any number of citizens of the nation, so long as these acts preserve the integrity and stability of the “nation” itself.

Then if patriotism means disregarding all of my personal loyalties, in favor of an abstract obligation to “country”, then who actually is benefitting from patriotism? It still makes sense to think about morality in terms of benefit and harm since that is the basis for loyalty. So certainly in being patriotic I am acting in a way that benefits someone. Since my actions are still able to cause harm and benefit even if my intentions are aimed at an abstract concept.

The people who benefit from patriotism are the people running the government. Even in a democracy where the power base of a nation changes, still the idea of patriotism is loyalty to that country and thus a benefit to those running it.

However, there may actually arise a situation in which my sense of duty to the “nation” requires me to destroy the government or kill masses of citizens. Why? Duty is an expression of my own (deeply self-interested) mental projections of an abstract entity which deserves my loyalty.

I determine my duties by making my sense of self-interest and personal benefit into abstract qualities. Thus I am patriotic only insofar as what I think of as the “nation” is being benefitted. I am also not patriotic if I do not see how my actions will benefit the “nation” in which I believe.


Patriots are dangerous people really since they have no basic loyalties to which we can appeal, and basic human loyalties to other people are the foundation of all social human interactions. Yet the patriot sees only duty, and a duty to an abstract concept which they invented. They love their nation and they will fight and die for it, and they will destroy anyone who threatens their beloved ideal.