Sunday, September 02, 2018

Nationalism 002: Miller: Nationality

Miller, David (1995), On Nationality (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 49-80.

In the chapter identified here, David Miller pretty much assumes the legitimacy of nationalism. From this assumption, he aims to go on to show that the moral theory of particularism is better than the moral theory of universalism. This is because particularism, unlike universalism, can handle the moral legitimacy of nationalism.

Of course, if one denies the moral legitimacy of nationalism, then Miller's argument gets off to a rocky start.

Still, this battle between universalism and particularism is important. We can learn some things about morality by looking at this conflict and at what each has to say about nationalism.

Of course, let's begin by defining our terms.

Universalism seems to be a default position in morality. Universalism demands some sort of moral equivalence among individuals. Utilitarianism has the most unashamed accounting of universalism, as it denies that any person's utility is of any more value than another person's utility. It denies (emphatically) that 5 units of Person A's utility is more valuable than 10 units of person B's utility taken in itself.

Yet, we do not live that way. Each day . . . right now, in fact . . . each of us makes choices that do not count each person's utility as equal. In the most obvious case, parents do not consider their child's utility to have the same value as every other child's utility. They give a great deal of added weight to their own child's suffering. If they have to make a choice, they would prefer a state in which their child avoids 5 units of suffering to any number of children on the other side of the planet avoiding 20 units of suffering.

To have a friend is to have somebody whose well-being counts for more than that of a stranger. If a friend mentions that she is moving to a new apartment, it would be natural to offer to help. If a stranger announces that he is moving to a new apartment, well, "That's too bad; I intend to spend my weekend at home relaxing and watching television."

On the subject of nationalism, the claim is that being members of the same state is a type of relationship that creates special bonds and, with it, special rights and duties just as friendship and family relationships do. This thing that universal moral theories have trouble with, particularist moral theories can accommodate without so much difficulty.

Thus, particularism wins.

*The crowd cheers*

But wait . . . particularism "wins" . . . because it accommodates a position called 'nationalism' that I argue is without merit. Some people might consider this to be a bit of a problem.

If certain types of special relationships have moral value, and we must recognize the moral theory that acknowledges that value, then, I would like to know, what about racism?

In addition to forming special bonds with my family and my friends, I could also form special bonds with others of my race. We can easily unite in a common community - a community of white people who, like these other forms of community, can rightfully consider the well-being of other community members more important than the well-being of those who do not belong to our community. We give special status to members of our own race that we do not give to members of some other race.

Immediately, one might object that there is no such thing as a biological category of "race" - that this is a social construct. Yet, the same can be said of family. People do not have the capacity to choose the members of their genetic family. However, the social family is much more fluid, with adoptions and close friendships often blurring the lines between the two with respect to who is to be the beneficiary of certain rights and duties.

The nation state is also an artificial construct. It's size, shape, and composition are determined by the thoughts and ideas of the people who live on both sides of these imaginary lines.

The bonds of race are pernicious and malevolent - to the degree that society is well advised to discourage (condemn) attempts to form bonds on this metric. From slavery to genocide, history has made the problem of racial bonding quite clear.

Clearly, we need a system that evaluates these relationships and figures out a way to determine which relationships are good and which are bad. We need a system that will tell us whether the bonds of citizenship are more like the bonds of family and neighbor, or the bonds of race?

Why are friends, family, and neighborhood bonds good and racial bonds bad?

I would offer the hypothesis that it has a lot to do with power. Family bonds bind units that are small enough that it lacks the power to do a great deal of harm to others.

This was not always the case. In the days of hereditary titles, family bonds provided the same type of foundation of violence and oppression as racial bonds have done. One of the possible responses to that problem could have been to put family bonds in the same category as racial bonds as morally objectionable. However, the solution instead was to abolish heredity titles (or hereditary titles that contained any power). This significantly reduced the harms that resulted from family bonds, allowing those types of bonds to produce far more benefit than harm.

A look at history suggests that national bonds are more like racial bonds than family bonds. They come with varying degrees of power, and it channels those differences in power into activities that do a great deal of harm.

The French Revolutionary Wars, Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, World War I, World War II, the Cold War with its proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan, suggest that nationalism has more in common with racism than with familyism.

Indeed, I do not think it is much of an accident that strong nationalism tends to walk hand-in-hand with increased levels of racism. These are both examples of situations that put "us" - on a grand scale - against "them". "Us" in the case of nation and race is not some small community that others can easily keep in line. It is a community with a power to conquer (and to eliminate) its rivals. And it is often sorely tempted to do so.

Back to the subject at hand - if there is a standard that may be used to evaluate these bonds to determine which of them people generally have reason to promote and which they have reason to squash and hinder - this is not a measure that we can make using particularism or any system that gives special weight to one's own "people". This can only be done from a point of view that gives equal weight to all people - from a universalist point of view.

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