Much that Martha Nussbaum says is wise and welcome. This is particularly true of her educational proposals. The goal of a cosmopolitan education is to acquaint students with the human soul — with the great themes of human living, and the ways in which different individuals and communities confront them. In part an education of this kind will emphasize variety and conflict: the variety of values, projects, and ways of life in which human beings have found fulfillment, and the conflict among them. But what cosmopolitanism stresses, above all else, is commonality — the conviction that this variety and conflict exists within the human soul and constitutes our shared inheritance. It is commonality that matters most to Nussbaum and her insistence on it is a welcome counter to the mood of insularity and particularism that at the moment is quite strong among American educators.
Of course, Richard Rorty also means to emphasize the importance of commonality in his defense of patriotism, and Nussbaum’s criticism is merely that he fails to carry his campaign far enough, defining what is common by America’s borders rather than humanity as a whole. In a broad sense, therefore, Rorty and Nussbaum are allies. Their real adversary is the person who claims that the values and experience of one or another particular group are incommunicable to anyone outside it, and who insists that all talk of the human soul is nonsense from the start. This is a popular view today, but a pernicious one, and Nussbaum, like Rorty, wisely rejects it.
Nussbaum’s remarks about patriotism are less convincing, however, at least so far as they are directed at the American variety. Patriotism is a feeling of primary allegiance to a particular group, membership in which is accidental. In this respect, it resembles the loyalty people sometimes feel to their families, which of course has often been the wellspring and model for patriotism itself. To put such loyalties first — to put them ahead of one’s devotion to humanity as such — is, in Nussbaum’s view, to make “the morally questionable move of self-definition by a morally irrelevant characteristic,” and often, she says, encourages people to do terrible things. In her judgment, then, patriotism is both morally illegitimate and dangerous. Nussbaum concedes that if the order of priority is reversed — if a person’s patriotism is constrained by an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole — these objections vanish. It ceases to be either illegitimate or dangerous — no more so, anyway, than family affection — but in that case it also ceases to be patriotism as most of us understand it.
Whatever force Nussbaum’s argument may have in other cases (like the Indian), it offers too simple a view of American patriotism. To see why, it will help to draw a distinction — overlooked by Nussbaum — between the content of American patriotism and its emotive source. By the content of American patriotism I mean the complex of ideals and practices that are most often invoked when Americans who claim to be patriots are asked what their country stands for, and hence how they define the substance of what Nussbaum calls their “specifically American citizenship.” From the very start of the republic these ideals and practices have included a commitment to the principle of equality, to freedom of movement and expression, and to constitutional government (which itself is a composite ideal made up of many parts — democratic representation, the separation of powers, judicial review, and so on). We have not always lived up to these ideals. Indeed, sometimes we have failed miserably and even today the most that one can say is that we are on the way to their achievement. But these ideals, however imperfectly realized, derive from the Enlightenment and were framed in the 18th century’s culture of stoic cosmopolitanism. In their institutional specificity they go beyond the concept of “the moral community made up by the humanity of all human beings,” or Kant’s kingdom of ends, or the abstract notion of human rights. But they are consistent with all these concepts, and may plausibly be viewed as a response to the challenge of giving the broad generalities of cosmopolitanism a concrete and workable form that is responsive to the complexities of human life — as an effort to bring cosmopolitanism down to earth. In this sense one might say that the content of American patriotism and that of cosmopolitanism overlap or even converge.
But if that is so, it has often been asked, what is specifically American about these ideals and practices? Any person may embrace them, any government may adopt them. Our foreign policy, at its most idealistic moments, has sought to show just this. Looking only at the content of American patriotism, then, we will be hard-pressed to justify a feeling of supreme loyalty to this one country, a willingness to put its claims above all others’, as contrasted with a loyalty to the cosmopolitan values that America endorses but can never claim are peculiarly its own. If we look only at its content, in other words, it is hard to see what can justify American patriotism at all.
The justification is to be found elsewhere — in the historical struggle of the American people to live up to their ideals and in the sacrifices they have made to protect and promote them. This struggle and these sacrifices are peculiarly American, even if the ideals themselves are not. They are historical facts, not philosophical abstractions. They belong to the realm of deeds, to the past, and not to the realm of speculation. They are part of a national biography that is as distinctive as the biography of any individual, and in these facts, these deeds, it is proper to feel a pride that is uniquely our own.
Other historical facts, to be sure, make it proper to feel a shame uniquely our own. But not everything in our history is shameful. There is much to be proud of, much that is inspiring, and much that lays a burden on us — the living — to redeem the sacrifices of the past by perfecting the great vision for whose sake they were made. This pride, this inspiration, this burden is specifically American even if the vision is not. The content of that vision — and hence the content of American patriotism — is cosmopolitan. What justifies the feeling that America is special and entitled to a dominant place among our loyalties is the singular historical record of struggle and sacrifice which the American people have compiled on behalf of universal ideals to which men and women everywhere may pledge allegiance. It is in this historical record and not in the content of these ideals themselves — in history not in thought — that the emotive source of American patriotism lies.
This is Lincoln’s point in the Gettysburg Address. America was dedicated at its start to a cosmopolitan ideal — “the proposition that all men are created equal.” But it is now engaged, Lincoln says, in a war “testing” whether a country so committed can “endure,” and great sacrifices have been made to show it can. These are American sacrifices, peculiarly our own, and they justify — in Lincoln’s view, demand — a renewed dedication to the ideal of equality itself. Everyone has a moral reason to affirm this ideal. But we Americans, Lincoln insists, have another special reason for such affirmation — an historical reason based on the fact that we have not only declared our commitment to equality but spilled blood to achieve it. This gives our loyalty to the cosmopolitan ideal of equality a peculiarly American character and transmutes it into patriotism, into a loyalty toward the unique historical adventure that is America itself. Other documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the decisions of the Supreme Court — develop more fully the content of America’s ideals. But the Gettysburg Address, with its contrapuntal themes of commitment and history, principle and sacrifice, ideals and blood, illuminates in a way these other documents do not the emotive source of American patriotism and the justification for it.
Still, one might wonder whether “justification” is the right word. History and sacrifice may explain patriotic feeling, the sense of a peculiar and deep loyalty to one’s country. But can they ever — even in America — justify it?
There are two things I would say about this. First, the world is at present divided into states, and this is likely to remain true for some time to come. No cosmopolitan authority is presently able to enforce cosmopolitan ideals. The responsibility for such enforcement necessarily falls instead to those states that endorse these ideals, and no state has larger responsibilities in this regard than America. The best way of advancing the cause of cosmopolitanism, for the time being at least, is to strengthen the commitment that Americans feel to their country’s own historical mission of promoting democratic constitutionalism around the world. This commitment is not jingoism — the belief that Americans are better than other people and that their interests must always come first. It is a patriotic appeal to take up, again, the universal cause for which we have made particular sacrifices and taken particular risks in the past. Given the division of the planet into nation states, the road to cosmopolitanism must now and for some time to come run through local commitments of this kind — at least in countries, like the United States, whose deepest values are cosmopolitan in nature. And if these commitments are to remain both true and strong, young Americans must be trained to understand the universality of their country’s ideals and at the same time to feel the special obligation that grows from its historical struggle to achieve them.
Second — to return to the Gettysburg Address — others who have gone before us in America have taken huge risks and made enormous sacrifices in pursuit of the vision of a continental nation composed of diverse peoples bound together by a shared commitment to freedom and equality and the habits of democratic government. It is up to us, Lincoln says, to redeem their sacrifices — in the only way we can — by carrying this project forward. We owe it to them to do so. This is not an obligation we owe to humanity at large, but to specific individuals related to us by the accidental fact of our common membership in the American community. In this respect, patriotic duty resembles the obligation children owe their parents, though it is not merely because earlier Americans provided for us that we owe them this duty of support; it is because they worked and suffered to advance the country’s honorable values. Patriotism is a feeling of duty to the dead — “the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone” (Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address). It grows from a sense of indebtedness to the dead, from the feeling that living Americans owe their greatest moral treasure — the special obligations that our national biography creates — to the sacrifices of the dead, and from the conviction that this debt can be repaid only by meeting our inherited obligations. This is what American patriotism is, and also the justification for it.
I know that what I have just said will be unconvincing to many. In intellectual circles, who feels much of an obligation to the dead these days? Or at least an obligation to our dead? The dead belong to the past, to the world before we entered it. We — the living — didn’t make that world but found it already in place. From our point of view, it is an accident, a piece of luck, that we have the past (and the dead) we do. The most powerful moral conviction in America today is the belief that what is accidental lacks ethical significance and, more specifically, that it cannot be a source of rights and obligations. The claim that Americans cannot have special duties on account of their special but accidental past is a corollary of this fundamental conviction. The only duties we can have, many now believe, are those that follow from the requirements of reason, which are general and non-accidental. This is the main theme of Kant’s moral philosophy, and until that philosophy is effectively challenged, patriotism of every kind, including the American, is bound to remain under a cloud of suspicion.
Martha Nussbaum’s attack on American patriotism is suffused with the spirit of Kant’s ethics. It is an irony that in her earlier writings she did so much to revive the Greek idea of moral luck and to remind us of the limits of an antifatalistic morality that discredits patriotism in all its forms and a great deal else besides.