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Nationalism and Beyond

Nenad Miscevic

Part Two. Identity, Culture, And Tradition

Chapter thirteen. National tradition as a school of morals

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1We now pass to the line of defense of nationalism which claims that the nation is the best and perhaps the only school of morality and virtue. Individuals acquire sensitivity to moral standards, and the capacity to live up to them, only within a determinate tradition, most often a national one. It is therefore essential that each national tradition be preserved in a relatively pure state, and this demand can trump other demands of morality. Therefore, the love of one’s nation is an important virtue, perhaps even a supreme one, the condition of all others. I will follow MacIntyre’s reasoning very closely, combining his examples from After Virtue (1981) and the defense of the nationally minded attitude in his Whose Justice, Which Rationality? (1994). Here is what our even-handed (but rather tough) nationalist has to say:

  • 1 Compare the summary of communitarian views offered by McCabe (1997, 208).

All of us learn the fundamentals of morality on our parents’ knees, within the community to which we originally belong. The British learn their values from the British tradition, the Bantu from the Bantu tradition, and so on. But this is just a beginning. Like other values, moral ones become visible and available, and remain so only within a communal tradition and practice. As the philosopher MacIntyre puts it: “I can only apprehend the rules of morality in the version in which they are incarnated in some specific community” (MacIntyre, 1981, 10). Let me detail the example given by him. Consider the value of truthfulness. Now, the Pietist child learns about the value by submitting to the Pietist code and practice in matters of truthfulness, the Bantu child makes exceptions when there is a danger of witchcraft as a consequence of following the Bantu code, and little Alasdair tells a white lie to his aunt in accordance with the Anglo-American code. Following MacIntyre I propose to treat these as different traditions of truthfulness.
Here is a related example, offered by M. Walzer in chapter one of his Thick and Thin. Moral Argument at Home and Abroad (1994). He recounts his enthusiasm for the Czech ‘Velvet Revolution’ that brought down the communist regime. He watched the Czech protesters carrying transparents with the words ‘truth’ and ‘justice’ on them. Of course he understood what the words meant: a demand for an immediate end to official lies, and an immediate end to the glaring inequalities between the nomenklatura and the people. His main point, however, is that he would not be able to say what detailed view of justice these Czechs held: their culture and experience has been different from his. When it comes to the nitty-gritty of particular applications of justice—say in health care or the insurance system—it is their tradition that counts for them, not his. He offers a useful terminological distinction, and calls the rich, detailed concept of justice or truthfulness the ‘thick’ concept, whereas the general, more abstract one is a ‘thin’ concept. So, in his view, he and the Czechs share the ‘thin’ concepts of justice and truthfulness, but not the rich, ‘thick’ one. We can apply the distinction to the previous example: the Pietist, the Bantu, and Anglo-Americans share the thin concept of truthfulness, but each has a different thick one, embedded in his own tradition. In short, the real, concrete value is available only to the insider, and there is no moral life apart from concrete, historical communities. We learn the rules of morality from within particular societies, and our community is needed to sustain us as moral agents, and the justification of morality must be in terms of particular goods enjoyed within particular communities. As MacIntyre puts it, “A central contention of the morality of patriotism is that I will obliterate and lose a central dimension of the moral life if I do not understand the enacted narrative of my own individual life as embedded in the history of my country“ (1994, 16).1
Moreover, as MacIntyre has been stressing for a long time, one’s life makes sense only if integrated into a (narrative) unity, and such a unity is achievable only within a tradition. He makes a dramatic, but appropriate statement of the practical consequences of such a view: given the paramount importance of community in fostering one’s moral life, one’s allegiance to the community and what it requires of one—even to the point of requiring one to die to sustain its life— largely surpasses what mere abstract morality would require of one. Only a concrete, historical community, such as a nation, can legitimately demand such a degree of solidarity, can demand that its members unconditionally love it. As the saying goes: Lavinia, love it or leave it!


2We have discussed traditions in general at length. Now, can the general traditionalist line about morals be plausibly and usefully narrowed down to the specific domain of ethno-national concerns? All depends on the claim that the ethno-nation is the basic moral unit, that is, on the moral version of the Nation-as-Basic-Unit Assumption. Let me try to show that it is false and that the contemporary ethno-nation is not a very good candidate for being the school in which we learn rules of morality, nor is it the right framework for substantial moral traditions. Unfortunately, the communitarian writers we are discussing offer no guidelines about what counts as the same (type of) moral code, nor what differences are sufficient for classifying two particular codes as belonging to different types. Therefore, we have to work from examples.

3To start from moral development, the crucial phase is early socialization. A child’s first notions of fairness and duty seem to be acquired rather early, in the context of family and peer group, long before any significant contact with the (ethno-)nation at large. (Some authors even think it is innate.) Neither is adolescent socialization particularly nation-bound in contemporary societies either. Often, moral character is essentially formed before any significant appeal to specifically national values finds its way into the heart of the acolyte. Now, the pro-nationalist could reply that small groups are just pipelines transmitting ‘(ethno-) national morality’. But in that case we must point to a banal fact: for most small and middle-sized ethno-nations there is no specific moral tradition which would distinguish them from their neighbors. The Catalonians cannot base their claim to independence upon any specifically ‘Catalonian’ morality, distinct from the ‘Castilian’ one. To use MacIntyre’s example of truthfulness, there is no specifically Serbian code of truthfulness distinct from a Bulgarian or a Romanian one. (Remember, ethno-nations want to distinguish themselves from their immediate neighbors; moral contrasts between Serbs and Eskimos, if such exist, are simply not relevant in this context.) This means that a given Serb could have acquired strictly identical standards of truthfulness, say, anywhere in the Orthodox Balkans and probably even further afield. As a school of morals, a town, a nation-state, and a micro-region are often on an equal footing; if anything, smaller neighborhoods play a more prominent role in early socialization than such relatively large areas as nation-states.

4More importantly, moral traditions unite people of very different origins: the Catholic tradition unites Italian and Irish, Croats and Argentines; the Confucian tradition encompasses all of East Asia; the Orthodox Church unites Macedonians, Bulgarians, and Greeks, groups which would hardly agree to become one nation; and so on. Now, what about the borders of great cultural circles? Do not Poles legitimately see themselves as defenders of a valuable Catholic moral tradition in the face of (or in the teeth of, as some would put it) Russian and Ukrainian Orthodoxy? And is not macro-regional cultural belonging in this context an important pillar of national belonging? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that it is often invoked when needed (in our Polish example, against Russians); no, in the sense that appeal to it is neither very principled nor consistent. To keep with the same example, when describing the historical conflict with Catholic German crusaders, Polish romantic nationalist writers tend to forget the very same trait that seems so essential when the Russians play the role of enemies. The choice is obviously tactical and pragmatic, not principled and moral.

5Let me add that I find Walzer’s example of the Czechs puzzling. They are not an exotic tribe, with a morality profoundly different from the Anglo-American one. His giving up of ‘thick’ understanding because of his inability to recommend the detailed organization of particular institutions for the Czechs seems too hasty: of course, no one can form an idea of how to organize the health-care system for a people justly and in detail simply by watching a short TV-movie about them, but this does not show that the people in question have fundamentally different moral values from those of the TV watcher. (I could not give competent advice on the same topic, even to my best friends with whom I share a lot of moral views; am I therefore a moral stranger to them?)

6Furthermore, most contemporary nations exhibit not only internal diversity but a transnational closeness of particular sub-populations, as illustrated by the following simple example: given two Western nations, which are overall rather conservative, there will certainly be some feminist (or environmentalist, or whatever) groups in each, such that they are by any reasonable standard of closeness of moral codes, morally closer to each other than to other groups in their own nation. Professional morality is one example; to take an illustration that should be close to MacIntyre’s heart, even in the good old times the morals of a Scottish priest were closer to those of his French colleague (celibacy, complicated property laws, obligations and liabilities related to sacraments) than to the moral code of his own Highland peasants. This is relevant to MacIntyre’s other claims on behalf of the ethno-national community, not just the learning claim. Consider his idea that our community is needed to sustain us as moral agents, and consider the feminists and the priests in our example. For both groups, ‘our community’ is the community of commitment—fellow feminists, or fellow priests— that primarily sustains them as moral agents. In short, many groups compete for the loyalties of individuals, not just ethno-national communities.

7In light of these two points consider the view that the justification of morality must be in terms of particular goods enjoyed within particular communities. Bear in mind that the word ‘particular’ is ambiguous between an indexical, person-relative and a general meaning. A Croatian victory over Serbs is a particular good, mainly, if not exclusively, for Croats; in this sense such goods are tied to given communities but have little to do with the justification of morality. On the other hand, ‘particular’ can mean ‘of a particular kind’, for instance a particularly Croatian truthfulness, as opposed to a Slovenian one. In this sense, it would be morally relevant if it were available; but a particular Croatian truthfulness is nonsense, unworthy of a serious philosopher. (Here is a problem for more philosophically oriented readers: suppose you want to understand Spinoza’s, or Schiller’s, or the pope’s ethical teaching. How do you proceed, given that they are not your co-nationals, at least not all of them? How is ethics to be taught? Divided into sections by the national origin of important philosophers? There is more: the pope is a Pole and, naturally enough, a Catholic; how should he preach morals to non-Polish Catholics if Polish morals are essentially national?)

8Next, the appeal to the narrative unity of life does little to relate it to the ethno-nation more closely than to any other group that happens to play a role in the narrative. For some persons, the fact that they are women is vastly more important than their ethnic belonging; for some it is their status as workers that counts, in terms of socialization, standards of valuing and acting, and the unity and meaning of life. Some pro-nationalists might be tempted to use as an additional argument the following considerations, offered by Charles Taylor, which relate to the value-providing role of language: “The language we have come to accept articulates the issues of the good for us. But we cannot have fully articulated what we are taking as given, what we are simply counting with, in using this language” (Taylor, 1989, 36). If we take ‘language’ here in the sense of a particular language—Dutch, Swahili—a case can be made for linking the issue of good with the ethno-national tradition. (It is not clear whether Taylor meant it the way the ethno-nationalist line would develop it.) Remember that we are dealing with specific distinctions between ethno-nations. How plausible is it to claim that ‘language’ which articulates the issues of the good for us in specific terms is ethnic language, not just the ‘language of morals’ or of praise and blame? I submit, not very much. Take the Romance family of languages: is the ‘issue of the good’ differently articulated in Italian, Castilian, Catalonian, and French? How differently? Is blame in Italian ‘incommensurable’ with blame in French? How about ‘truthfulness in German’ as opposed to ‘truthfulness in French’? Remember, the task at hand is not to distinguish the Asian Taoist tradition from the European Christian one, or to discuss the fine details of Japanese in contrast with English, but to find justification in terms of a specific ‘language of the good’ between geographically close (ethno-) nations: their members are supposed to preserve their specific ethno-nationally bound and transmitted values. How about mixed marriages, say, between an Irish person and a German? Do they normally suffer from moral incommensurability? Or what about translating works on moral issues? Is the practice of using translations in court, when discussing matters of moral importance, a madly irrational practice, giving the lie to our deepest moral commitments? Is it irrational to translate Spinoza’s Ethics into Polish, a language distinct from Latin? How about translating Taylor and MacIntyre into French? Is this necessarily a falsification? The obvious answer is ‘no’. The whole line is sheer nonsense (and I hope Taylor did not have this extreme in mind).

9Finally, it is not clear that moral traditions should be as determinate, closed, and fixed as MacIntyre is claiming, in order to provide individuals with values and standards of life. But this is a point that reaches further than the narrowly ethno-national issue, so before discussing it let me recapitulate: patriotism would be able to trump other moral considerations only if the ethno-nation were the central and perhaps only provider of moral value. This is, however, far from the truth.


10We have not finished yet. Even if the ethno-nation is not the right carrier of moral tradition, or at least not in most cases, some other community might turn out to be. In that case such a community would inherit the sanctity of tradition or practice, if the practice is actually sacrosanct, that is, such that it should not be replaced by another one on pain of moral anarchy. As already noted, I take the traditionalist to be making a claim about the need to preserve given practices and traditions. Again, one general problem is that there is no agreed standard of sameness of tradition, so that the defender can always downplay the changes, claiming that the tradition is still the same, and the critic can always point to innovations and claim that the tradition has been subverted.

11Let us therefore return to the truthfulness examples, in which case MacIntyre has already done the job of identifying particular traditions for us. Remember that the Pietists, the Bantu, and contemporary Anglo-Americans (the culture MacIntyre perhaps means by ‘ours’) all value truthfulness. Now, as already mentioned, the Pietist child learns about the value by submitting to the Pietist code and practice in matters of truthfulness, the Bantu child makes exceptions when there is a danger of witchcraft as a consequence of following the Bantu code, and little Alasdair tells a white lie to his aunt in accordance with the Anglo-American code. MacIntyre treats these as different, which is a rather strict criterion of sameness. (He has to, of course; otherwise he would prematurely arrive at a position of universal morality.) However, he himself draws the reasonable conclusion that each of the codes embodies the value—presumably the same one—of truthfulness. What is it about the three codes that makes each of them a candidate for preservation (immunity, in short)? Suppose that Bantus soon come to realize both that there is no danger of witchcraft, and that aunts are excessively vulnerable to criticisms from their nephews, and thus “the reformulation of their beliefs or the remaking of their practices” come close to the Anglo-American code on details of truthfulness. Would there be anything wrong with this? Or, to take a more serious and more realistic example: in many Mediterranean cultures young gentlemen are taught that truthfulness is not mandatory ‘in matters of love’, that is, that successfully hidden male infidelity is a good thing; that is the Mediterranean code and practice through which the young males acquire their ‘imputed characters/roles’. Well, a young Don Giovanni grows up, does some thinking about how he would feel if his beloved did the same, and decides that cheating is cheating. What is wrong with this rejection of imputed roles? Given that the final value is universal, and that differences come from largely minor matters, morally speaking, there must be something about the path to the value that makes it immune to criticism. What is it? MacIntyre, and most other communitarians, are curiously silent on this issue. They stress that the apprentice has to submit to authority in order to learn, and has initially to accept the rules as given; but what about mature moral reflection? It is incredible that they think that one should not change one’s behavior upon learning that there is no witchcraft, or coming to realize that lying to a woman who loves you is just lying to a loving human being; they are too humane and sophisticated for this sort of moral blindness. Let us survey the possibilities.

12The least persuasive answer is merely to reiterate that there is no grasping the value of truthfulness outside a particular practice. Our Don Giovanni has transcended his native practice in the direction simply of a more general rule. The native practice has helped him, and enabled him to grasp the value of truthfulness at least in a masculine context; but once his moral eyes are opened he is obviously pursuing the value outside his native context. The availability of this option shows how difficult it is for the theoretician of narrowly bound practice to uphold his view in the pure form. If he wants to avoid relativism, he has to admit that native practices open individuals’ eyes to values that are universally binding, at least to some extent (that is, perhaps, subject to a lot of qualifications). But then, the practices have only an instrumental importance, that of a good transmitter. If, on the other hand, he takes values to be particularized to narrow practices (which MacIntyre himself avoids at all costs), he will end in relativism, in courage-for-Bantus being incommensurable with courage-for-Europeans. Thus he will lose any right to claim an intrinsic moral value for particular practices binding for those who are not already participants in them.

13A better, but rather simple-minded answer is that since there must always be some particular path to truthfulness, we should retain the given particularized codes as the most viable paths. (I mention in passing the desperate answer that the very fact that you must take some path makes the path you actually take immune; if that were true of physical paths, no road building would ever have been started.) This is economical, but will not do if the enlightened Bantus protest strongly enough; their judgment of moral irrelevance has more weight than the mere practicality of the Bantu code. An even better answer along the same lines is that the final state is essentially path-dependent: if you have started from the Mediterranean code, your allegiance to truthfulness will carry the marks of its origin, whatever finished form it may eventually take. It is the whole narrative of your coming to realize the wrongness of lying ‘in love’ that characterizes your final, enlightened state. (It is the whole narrative of the abolition of slavery that characterizes the present state of the American nation.) This may well be the case, but what does it establish? Should we preserve the male-chauvinist traits of the Mediterranean code just in order to rejoice in the wisdom and moral strength of those who have overcome them? (How about retaining just a bit of slavery, for the greater glory of those who reject it?) Of course not. The extra triumph of overcoming the barriers is sweet, but this does not make perpetuating blindness or suffering justified or even mandatory. One could object to my style of criticism that I have over-dramatized the differences between codes-cum-practices, replacing the innocent examples featuring aunts and witchcraft with the morally laden example of male chauvinism. My answer is that only serious differences count: if the divergences between codes are morally frivolous, they offer no serious ground for the right to preservation. On the other hand, if you want to have such a right for practices, the divergences must be morally serious, like those which I have just presented. (A different line available to the nationally minded moralist would be an open, pluralist line, claiming that the diversity of values is a good in itself. This is not part of the argument from intrinsic value, and is rather foreign to authors like MacIntyre and Taylor. We shall dedicate chapter fifteen to this line.)

14All in all, the preservationist conservative approach to morality is difficult to uphold since it is at the same time based on particularized practices, but aims at avoiding relativistic particularism (at least judging by the best attempt[s] in the field). The main tension within it is the one between the particularity of narrowly defined practices and the non-relativity of the thick values they (are supposed to) reveal. The preservationist ways out are not very appealing. One is to give up non-relativity, and to acquiesce in a relativist morality. But relativism offers no general ground in favor of preservation rather than of overthrowing any given moral code. The other is to define practices in a broad fashion, say, taking the whole complex of social interaction as a single practice. This would save our theoretician from relativism but make the preservation of the practice utterly banal: of course, people will go on interacting socially, so this practice is in no need of special care.

15Here is a final illustration of the tension between the traditionalist view and the actual plurality of traditions/practices. The philosopher Hilary Putnam, a leftist liberal sympathetic to very moderate nationalism (“patriotism”, in his wording) tries to defend the school-of-morality argument by appeal to the plurality of styles of the ‘good life’ (Putnam, 1996, 94, 95). “Ways of life require centuries of experimentation and innovation to develop”, he rightly notes, and proposes a nice compromise: “Tradition without reason is blind; reason without tradition is empty.” Now, what is the final proposal to be derived from this appealing slogan? Putnam suggests “critical intelligence and loyalty to what is best in our traditions, including our national and ethnic traditions” (97). First, notice the plural; Putnam introduces himself as an American, a practicing Jew, and a philosopher. This is precisely what our nationalist does not accept: he is a community monist, and for him it is one identity, in this case the American one, that counts. Secondly, notice the appeal to ‘critical intelligence’ that has to find out what is ‘best in our traditions’. The nationalist can only shudder: it is not the philosopher who has to discern what is best in ‘our traditions’, for him it is Our Tradition—in the singular—which decides what is best for us and teaches us virtue. (As Rorty puts it, the Left should abandon theorizing if it wants to become truly patriotic [Rorty, 1998].) I take it that the contrast epitomizes the predicament of liberally minded intellectuals who flirt with ‘patriotism’; the better part of themselves wins over traditionalist rhetoric.

16Let me briefly return to practical matters. Suppose a government takes seriously the view that morals—in their serious, ‘thick’ dimension—are essentially national, as our nationalist would enjoin them to do. For instance, it starts seriously to believe that there is a British morality, essentially different from the Dutch or Danish varieties. What would the consequences be? A mild negative consequence is that one should have serious worries when traveling even to a neighboring country, or when encountering a Dutch or a Danish colleague: God knows what set of values they find compelling! A more serious but still rather direct one is a generalized and justified moral suspicion of all people who are not one’s co-nationals. (Never trust a foreigner!) Worse, if’thick’ moral codes are so divergent, one can only devise a very modest, ‘thin’ code for dealing with any kind of foreigners. What about marrying a Dutch woman and having to deal with the thick moral abyss this may open? (Walzer believes Czechs have a substantially different ‘thick’ morality from his: imagine you are in love with a Czech person and ask Walzer for advice about a relationship, or, God forbid, marriage!) Now, the indirect consequences could be much worse: some of the ugliest items in nationalist propaganda all over the world consist in claiming that the other nation or group is ‘morally different’ (which in the context means ‘defective’). Talk of the ethno-nation as a unit of moral code encourages such claims, and can therefore be simply irresponsible, besides being inaccurate and false. Of course, a civilized nationalist most often stresses that the other’s moral code is ‘moral’ in some sense; he is not literally agreeing with the propaganda, only providing suitable ammunition that can be misused. Moreover, in situations of conflict it is salutary to point out the plain fact that two enemy nations share a common moral code, contrary to what the propaganda claims.

17Agreeing that cultures and traditions are valuable, we arrive at conclusions opposite to the nationalist ones. Each individual belongs to at least several cultural spheres, which need not be concentric: a Protestant English person belongs to one circle (language, common history) that groups him with a Catholic Scot, and to another (denomination) that groups him with other Protestants, for example, with the Dutch. His language takes him close to Americans, his geographical and historical ties to continental Europe. Each of these belongings is potentially valuable, and our individual should be free to choose which one(s) to consider more dear to his heart. Moreover, the human being is an animal endowed with curiosity. Many individuals have at least the possibility and opportunity to expand their native circle of cultural belonging, by falling in love with yet another culture, by conversion to another, possibly exotic denomination, or by entering or exiting the church altogether, by mixing one’s own private cocktail of religious convictions the way many people do nowadays. Now, if cultural belonging is valuable, so is the acquisition of new belongings.

18The plurality of belongings is indeed a school of morality, not of the parochial morality of local or ‘Bantu’ truthfulness, but of concern for all fellow human beings. Furthermore, mere passive belonging is, for some individuals at least, just a prelude to a more active kind of engagement. Culture is a framework for moral creativity, which starts from given tradition(s) but moves beyond.


1 Compare the summary of communitarian views offered by McCabe (1997, 208).

© Central European University Press, 2001

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