Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

In Search of a Morally Acceptable Nationalism

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

In Search of a Morally Acceptable Nationalism

Article excerpt

Nationalism, in particular ethnic nationalism, has been responsible for some of the world's greatest atrocities in the last hundred years. Though we shrink from the extremist passions of nationalism, nineteenth-century German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder offered a different view. He considered the national community to be the necessary medium between humankind and the individual. For Herder, nationality was a living organism, something sacred. He taught that each person "could fulfill his human destiny only within and through his nationality." (1)

Twenty-five years ago--after Hitler but before the catastrophic events in Bosnia and Rwanda--philosopher Isaiah Berlin warned that we still were not appreciating the powerful force of nationalism. As Berlin described it, nationalism holds that "the essential human unit in which [human] nature is fully realised is not the individual, or a voluntary association ... but the nation" and that, for the nationalist, "one of the most compelling reasons, perhaps the most compelling, for holding a particular belief, pursuing a particular policy, serving a particular end, living a particular life, is that these ends, beliefs, policies, lives, are ours." (2)

What should moral philosophers of today say about nationalism and national identity? It would be tempting to argue that the tribal force of nationalism is something the human community must overcome. The most ambitious global ethic would hold that every person on earth has an equal claim to our attention and concern and would demand that every belief be subject to the scrutiny only of pure, impartial human reason. This was the dream of the Enlightenment in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

One cannot, however, ignore that nationalist passions have been liberating as well as oppressive or, what is worse, genocidal. Nor can we ignore the reality that nationalism expresses something deep in human nature. So, I would like to do something more modest but perhaps less dreamlike than urging the transcendence of nationalism. I would like to explore whether there can be a morally defensible nationalism and to suggest what it might entail.

Let me first place nationalism in a larger philosophical and cultural context. Nationalism is a challenge to the traditional moral ideal of impartiality. As stated by nineteenth-century philosopher Henry Sidgwick, the standard approach to ethics requires that one adopt "the point of view of the universe," (3) the requirement of viewing the world as a god-like "benevolent spectator"--counting oneself and each member of one's family as one but no more than one. Present-day philosopher Peter Singer restated this ideal clearly and related it to our larger cultural heritage:

      Consistently with the idea of taking the point of view of the
   universe, the major ethical traditions all accept, in some form or
   other, a version of the Golden Rule that encourages equal
   consideration of interests. 'Love your neighbor as yourself', said
   Jesus. 'What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbour', says
   Rabbi Hillel. Confucius summed up his teaching in very similar
   terms: 'What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to
   others'. The Mahabharata, the great Indian epic, says: 'Let no man
   do to another that which would be repugnant to himself'. The
   parallels are striking. (4)

Much recent philosophical literature challenges the traditional moral ideal of pure impartiality. (5) Perhaps it is no exaggeration to say that we have given only lip service to imperatives such as "love they neighbor as thyself" without ever taking them seriously. Not only is it psychologically impossible to "love" so universally, but few think we should even strive to act with the same concern for all people. We buy things for our children that are not really needed, and few suffer moral anguish or guilt for not using the money so spent to save lives of children in developing countries. …

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