Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Nationalism 004: I Am a Globalist

I am a globalist.

I equate nationalism with war. Wars are, in turn, “Nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!”
In saying that I am a globalist, I am saying that there should be a level of bureaucracy above the national level that enforces peace and cooperation among states. This implies a loss of sovereignty. Yet, it is the same type of loss of sovereignty that people give up when they join a state.

As a result of living in a community, I have given up my right to do certain things . . . to drive drunk, to violently assault people I do not like, to enslave those that I think will be productive workers, to drive on the left side of the road. There are certain disadvantages to giving up these options. There are certain advantages as well.

There are also reasons to do such things that have nothing to do with personal advantages or disadvantages, such as moral reasons. One country’s obligation not to destroy a city in another country does not depend on the ability of the first country to develop.
David Miller (1995) provides us with a defense of nationalism built on an ethics of relationships between individuals. Actually, Miller seems to take nationalism as a given, and uses this as a defense of particularism over universalism. The former, and not the latter, can explain the nature of nationalism. However, we can use this to examine the case for nationalism.

Universalism is, indeed, a natural ally of globalism. Universalism holds that morality is universal - no person has greater moral worth than any other. This means that an individual in a nation on the other side of the world cannot be thought of as having less moral worth than your neighbor.

However, as Miller points out, we do not treat everybody the same. We have a moral permission to treat those who stand in a special relationship to us better than others. We can scarcely find the parent who is indifferent between the welfare of his or her own children and a child on the other side of the world. When we do find such a person, we are more inclined to morally condemn that person than judge that person to be the epitome of moral virtue.

Relationships between parents and children are only the most striking example of these types of relationships. It extends to siblings and other members of one’s immediate and extended family, to groups one belongs to such as a church or sports team.
As Robert Goodin (1988) argues, we are not only entitled to treat those related to us better in some aspects of life we may treat them worse in others. A nation may extract taxes from its citizens, confiscate property for public use such as to build a road, and conscript them for military service. An impartial universalist system of ethics has trouble with both sides of these relationships.

In light of this, we have two questions to answer. The first is whether universalism can handle these special rights and duties that seem to arise from relationships with particular individuals. The second is whether globalism depends on universalism.
Concerning the first question, I wish to argue that there is a problem with the idea that these rights and duties that arise from relationships are fundamental moral principles. They can be subject to evaluation, meaning that one must appeal to an outside standard to determine if such relationships have moral merit.

There are those who argue that we are under a set of rights and responsibilities arising from the relationship of race. In the same way that somebody being a member of the same family generates certain rights and responsibilities, the fact that somebody is of the same race creates a special relationship as well. This relationship allows one to privilege people of the same race over those of a different race.

One may object that race does not exist as a biological category – it is a social construct. However, the nation is also a social construct with artificial boundaries that exist merely where people opt to draw them. In fact, the family is an artificial construct as well, allowing for adoption, disowning, marriage, divorce, and for close friends to become “like family”.

The moral problem of racism does not prove that Miller is wrong about an ethics built on particular relationships that one might call “familyism”. However, it does suggest that we need to look for a relevant difference between the two. Then we can see where nationalism shares the legitimacy of familyism or the illegitimacy of racism.

This needs to be a short paper, so I am simply going to leap to the suggestion that the difference between familyism and racism concerns power. Integrated mutual loyalties seem to provide significant benefits when the units involved are small enough that the weight of everybody else in the community is enough to prevent these loyalties from leading to the abuse of outsiders. However, integrated mutual loyalties become problematic when one group obtains the power to enforce its will on other groups. At that point, the idea that the “in group” or “us” has greater moral significance than the “out group” or “them” tends to result in abuses. Indeed, it tends to result in the types of abuses that has defined our history, from slavery to genocide to war.

Even the integrated mutual loyalties of family become problematic when it is combined with power. The empirical and royal dynasties that have occurred through history provide evidence of this. The Roman Empire enjoyed a long span where Roman emperors had no legitimate heirs and “adopted” their successors – choosing competent people to take the role when they died. This era is known as “the five good emperors”. It ended when Marcus Aurelius handed the title to his son Commodus.

The problems that arise from the integrated mutual loyalties of family is precisely why many organizations adopt norms again it for positions of power, if they do not prohibit it outright. It is why judges and other officials must recuse themselves from cases involving family members.

If it is the case that these integrated mutual loyalties among a morally more significant “us” as opposed to a morally less significant “them” become problematic when they are combined with power, this suggests that nationalism has more in common with racism than it does with familyism (in the absence of inherited titles). In only the last two centuries, the Crimean War, World War I, World War II, the Cold War with its proxy wars in Korea and Vietnam, Afghanistan, the global inability to take effective action on climate change and other global threats, identify the problem of linking integrated mutual loyalties at the national level with power.

None of this refutes the fact that integrated mutual loyalties of family, friendship, and other social organizations and groups, appear to be important to overall quality of life. People generally have reason not only to tolerate, but to encourage and protect such institutions, so long as no group acquires excessive power.

A nationalist may assert that the proper principles to use are those that are (at least according to legend) incorporated into the Peace of Westphalia: let each state determine the principles of its own territory without outside influence. However, there is an immediate tension here regarding whether these principles themselves are going to be imposed on countries, or whether a nation will be free to ignore them and adopt a principle of violent interference with their neighbors. To impose these principles universally would seem to require a nod towards universalism.

In fact, there is room in a globalist ethics not only for the principles of impartiality and equality, but also for the universal value of autonomy. We allow this at the level of family where we say of each parent that they may raise their children as they see fit – within limits. Allowing a community to overrule family decisions in some matters (e.g., abuse) is fully compatible with a broad presumption of autonomy in all other matters.

This leads to a question of what to do when these groups come into conflict.

If Group A approaches the conflict that Group A and its members are privileged over a Group B and its members, then we can see how this dispute can become very unpleasant very fast. If we are going to have any hope of ending this without bloodshed, the only principle that makes sense is one that denies privilege. The participants enter the negotiation as equals, perhaps best presenting their dispute before an impartial arbitrator. In short, while Miller’s particularist principles may govern relationships within the group, either we approach disputes between groups under the universalist principles of equality and impartiality, or there will be violence.
Habermas denies the role of integrated mutual loyalties even at the level of the nation state. He distinguished between national identity and citizen. National identity consists of these systems of integrated mutual loyalties. The nation state may have started when these people with integrated mutual loyalties sought self-rule. However, they have since evolved to become organizations of cooperation and coordination among collections of different groups of integrated mutual loyalties. The principles of cooperation and coordination among varied groups must be the universalist principles of impartiality and equality.

I am a globalist. Globalism does not deny the importance of relationships of integrated mutual loyalties. Indeed, it can recognize them as being important to people and, like their interest in avoiding pain and violence, as something to be protected where they do not create more problems than benefit. However, when different sets of integrated mutual loyalties come into conflict, this is the time to set these integrated mutual loyalties aside and try to reach a solution that everybody can agree, as opposed to a solution that “us” tries to impose on “them”.


Goodin, Robert E. (1988). "What is so special about our fellow countrymen?" Ethics 98 (4):663-686.

Habermas, Jurgan (1996). “Citizenship and National Identity: Some Reflections on the Future of Europe”, as reprinted in Between Facts and Norms, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1996.

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

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