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Patriotism as an Environmental Virtue

Patriotism as an Environmental Virtue

Patriotism as an Environmental Virtue

Define “patriotism” as love for one’s country and devotion to its well-being. This essay contends that patriotism thus defined is a virtue and that environmentalism is one of its most important manifestations. Patriotism, as devotion to particular places and people, can occur at various levels, from the local to the national. Knowing and caring about particular places and people and working to protect them is good for us and good for them and hence a good thing overall. Knowing and caring and working less on behalf of more remote places and people is also good, since it allows us to focus our efforts, act effectively, and do more good in the world. Philosophical analyses of patriotism by Alasdair MacIntyre and Martha Nussbaum are complemented by the more “down to earth” understanding of the virtue presented here. While patriotism’s dangers are undeniable, so are the dangers stemming from lack of patriotism. The proper answer to bad patriotism is not cosmopolitanism, but good patriotism: the kind illustrated by environmental activists.
LINK to PDF of full paper:  PatriotismasanEnvironmentalVirtue


By:  Philip Cafaro

Colorado State University



Have you ever read an academic philosophy paper that goes into every detail of the definition of environmental patriotism?  Try it. The careful thought and examination is impressive.


I think that patriotism is a good thing. Or rather, I think that the right kind of
patriotism is usually a good thing. Patriotism, like all good things, can go wrong in
various ways and wind up doing more harm than good. I don’t mean to ignore
patriotism’s dangers, and address some of them below. Meanwhile, putting my main
thesis into what I hope is a slightly clearer form, I assert: ‘‘Patriotism is a virtue.’’

What do I mean by patriotism? My dictionaries’ primary definitions of
‘‘patriotism’’ are ‘‘love of and devotion to one’s country’’ and ‘‘devotion to the
well-being or interests of one’s country’’ (Soukhanov et al. 1992; Brown et al.
1993). These definitions accurately capture current usage. However, older
understandings of ‘‘patriot,’’ ‘‘patriotism’’ and even ‘‘country’’ were more flexible,
allowing for patriotic connection and devotion to various particular localities and
groups, at smaller scales than the nation-state (see entries in the unabridged Oxford
English Dictionary). I find this older understanding of the term appealing, in
recognizing the range of patriotic connections open to individuals, and the
possibility of less abstract, more ‘‘grounded’’ forms of local patriotism.

Let me stipulate then that in what follows, by ‘‘patriotism’’ I will mean love,
devotion, and a strong differential concern for one’s own locality, state, region, or
country, shown both in thought and action.1 When I say ‘‘concern,’’ I mean concern
for both the places themselves and the people who live within them. When I say ‘‘a
differential concern,’’ I mean you care more about these places than you do about
other places, or places in general; and that you care more about these particular
people than you do about other people, or people in general. And this concern is
shown in substantial activity on their behalf.

A patriot is particularly concerned to defend his own country and countrymen
and women, however, broadly or narrowly he defines these, and to promote their
well-being and interests. He might condemn an imperialistic war between two
foreign countries and boycott the aggressor country’s goods. But he will risk his life
to defend his own country from attack. A patriot might condemn the exploitation of
poor laborers in third-world sweatshops, and sign a petition asking Nike to change.
But she will care more about poor people in her own community and spend some of
her own valuable time to improve their lives (work one evening a month in a soup
kitchen; testify before the city council in support of affordable housing). This
differential attentiveness, concern, and action are what I take to be patriotism.2
What do I mean by virtue? ‘‘Virtue’’ is the generic term commonly used for any
character trait people wish to commend. In both common speech and philosophical
discourse, ‘‘the virtues’’ refer to those traits whose possession we believe makes a
person a good person, or a better person than she would be without them. They do
this by helping people succeed in what we take to be our characteristic or important
activities and endeavors.

For the most part, current philosophers endorse one of two different conceptions
of virtue. On the one hand, there are moralistic conceptions, such as Julia Driver’s:
‘‘a moral virtue is a character trait which, generally speaking, produces good

consequences for others’’ (Driver 1996, p. 122). Here virtue is explicitly altruistic:
good because it secures good consequences for others, not for the virtuous
individual herself. Driver offers this as a definition of moral virtue, but she
recognizes no other kind. Virtue simply is moral virtue. Excellent people are people
who act morally.

On the other hand, there are conceptions of virtue that equate it with human
excellence more comprehensively understood. For example, Martha Nussbaum
defines the virtues as character traits which dispose us to ‘‘choose and respond well’’
across the full range of human experience (Nussbaum 1993, p. 245). In this way, the
virtues promote the flourishing of the virtuous agent herself, as well as the
flourishing of those around her. This expanded notion of virtue supports a broader
list of virtues. On this view, the virtues may include moral virtues such as kindness
and justice and generosity, personal virtues such as self-knowledge, integrity and
commitment, and intellectual virtues such as patience, intelligence and clarity of
expression. Because there is more to life than living morally, I think this more
expansive view of virtue deserves to prevail, and follow it below.

However, even this broad view of virtue needs broadening, because just as
human flourishing involves more than moral excellence, it also involves more than
human excellence. We depend on nature. In particular, our continued existence
depends on maintaining key ecosystem services (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
2005) and our full flourishing depends on preserving sufficient wild, untamed
nature for our physical, intellectual, and spiritual sustenance (Thoreau 1971;
Leopold 1949). Arguably, virtue also involves recognizing the intrinsic value of
nonhuman beings and responding accordingly (Rolston 1988; Swanton 2003, pp. 46,
94). For all these reasons, my own list of virtues includes environmental virtues
such as temperance, stewardship, and respect for nature: qualities that further
ecological sustainability, the necessary grounding for human flourishing (Wensveen
2001). Such environmental virtues have recently been usefully explored and
typologized by Sandler (2007). Sandler, however, forgot to include patriotism
among them (hence this article).

The virtues, then, on my view, are all those qualities that help us perform
characteristic, essential, or important human activities well. They thus facilitate
personal, social, and ecological flourishing—the flourishing of all life. I believe this,
ultimately, is what makes them virtues (Cafaro 2004, pp. 45–65). Vita qua vita
bonum est. It is sometimes necessary to distinguish individual, social, and ecological
flourishing for analytic purposes, particularly when they conflict, or appear to
conflict. But in my opinion, all three are so supremely valuable and so intimately
related that no human character trait that undermines any one of them counts as a
genuine virtue.

Once again, this expansive definition of ‘‘virtue’’ differs from common usage and
much philosophical usage, which often limits virtue to moral virtue, narrowly
understood. Since I intend to argue that patriotism is a moral virtue—a character
trait that promotes altruism and helps us act rightly toward other people—as well as
an environmental virtue, you may disagree with my broad definition of virtue and
still agree with me that patriotism is one. But the broad definition is important to
fully understanding my argument, which is that patriotism is good for nature, good

for human societies, and good for us as individuals—this last, despite the fact that it
sometimes does involve self-sacrifice.

LINK to PDF of full paper:  PatriotismasanEnvironmentalVirtue


Just an example of creative symbols.

The Ecology Flag is a cultural symbol used primarily in the 1970s by American environmentalists. It is commonly thought of as a symbol of people’s commitment to clean up the environment. It is commonly thought of as a symbol of people’s commitment to clean up the environment.

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