Nation and nationalism

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S039-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 05, 2022, from

3. Problems of nationality

Nationalist ideas raise a number of important questions in ethics and political philosophy. This section addresses three. Do we owe special obligations to our compatriots? How can the idea of national self-determination be justified? How should we resolve disputes about borders, and in particular secessionist demands by national minorities?

The first question arises because the claim, common to all forms of nationalism, that we owe special loyalties to our compatriots, seems to collide directly with the idea that morality requires us to show an equal regard for every human being, without making distinctions. Most moral philosophers, especially utilitarians and Kantians, embrace the idea of ‘equal regard’, which may be labelled ethical universalism. We should weigh the interests of all human beings equally, or show each person equal respect regardless of their particular relationship to us. This points to a form of cosmopolitanism (see International relations, philosophy of §4). But many of these philosophers, recognizing how demanding and how far removed from ordinary moral ideas strict universalism is, have also tried to make room for particular loyalties, including national loyalties. They argue, for instance, that duties that are universal in scope may be discharged most effectively if each us takes responsibility for the welfare of a small number of others. Or they argue that members of particular communities may be regarded as contractually obliged to give one another special assistance, the justification for such contracts (or quasi-contracts) again being universal in form.

The weakness of these arguments is that they have difficulty showing why nations should be singled out as the groups to which special obligations are owed. If I am a utilitarian, for instance, why should I acknowledge a special responsibility to contribute to the welfare of the poorer members of my own national community when there are people much worse off in other countries? Even if my sympathies are presently biased towards those closest to me, do I not have a duty to correct this bias for the sake of maximizing overall utility? It seems that if we are to recognize national obligations, we have to abandon universalism as a complete picture of ethics and allow particular obligations to enter at ground level, so to speak. We need a picture which allows us to connect questions about personal identity - who we are, where we belong - with questions about our responsibilities to others (MacIntyre 1984).

Turning next to national self-determination, critics of nationalism such as Kedourie (1966) have argued that nationalist appeals to a national or popular will are fundamentally misguided, and that our concern should be with the quality of government - whether it observes the rule of law and protects our rights, for instance - rather than with its source. If we are governed well by outsiders, we have no justified grounds for complaint. This challenge forces us to look more closely at the reasons for favouring self-determination, of which there are several.

One such reason has to do with our interest in protecting and fostering the common culture that provides us with the resources for a meaningful life. This is especially the case when the culture in question is the culture of what Margalit and Raz (1990) have called an ‘encompassing group’. The best guarantee that such cultures will not be destroyed or forcibly altered is to be governed by representatives who also participate in the national culture. Given the pressures currently exerted on national cultures by worldwide commercial forces, this argument has obvious force.

A second reason concerns the part played by nationality in fostering trust between the members of a political community. Where a shared national identity creates mutual trust, it becomes easier to agree on particular disputed issues - each side having more incentive to reach a compromise - and there is also a better chance of winning support for policies that aid one section of the community at the expense of others. Of course this argument can be turned on its head by those who favour a state with minimal responsibilities: if your aim is to disable the state from doing very much, you should prefer it to be multinational in character, so that each community will try to block policies that favour the others (this argument was advanced by Lord Acton (1907)). But those for whom social justice is an important value, and those who place a premium on achieving political agreement by democratic means, will favour political communities that are held together by national solidarity.

Finally we come to the problems posed for nationalist doctrines by disputed boundaries and demands for secession. If the peoples of the world were neatly divided into separate nations living on well-defined territories, the principle of national self-determination would be easy to apply. But in reality populations are very often interspersed in such a way that any territorial division will leave many people living under national governments with which they do not identify; and national identities, too, may be somewhat ambivalent. What are we to say about groups such as the Basques, the Québecois and the Scots, who appear to identify in part with larger nations but also have distinct identities of their own that they want to express politically?

Problems such as these have led many liberals to conclude that appeals to nationality cannot settle the question of where the borders of states should be drawn. We must be guided by other values: we should decide borders on the basis of individual consent, allowing any subcommunity to secede from the state by majority vote as long as it extends the same right to its own minority groups (Beran 1984); or we should permit secession when the seceding group can show that it is the victim of serious injustice or that it is threatened with cultural extinction (Buchanan 1981).

These responses may underestimate the versatility of nationalist principles, however. The solution prescribed by these principles will vary depending on the facts of each particular case. Where a state currently houses two or more distinct and well-defined national communities, the case for a peaceful divorce will be very strong. Where a small minority lacks a territorial base and is dispersed throughout a larger national community, the best solution may be to open up the existing national identity to that minority by removing or playing down divisive elements - for instance, by diminishing the role played by religion - so that in the longer term it will be able to integrate without annihilating its own culture. Where we find subcommunities nesting inside larger communities, as in the examples given above, national self-determination suggests devolving power to these subcommunities so that they are able to protect and express their own culture, without breaking up the state as such, since this continues to give expression to their wider identities and loyalties.

There will none the less be tragic cases in which no redrawing of borders or restructuring of political authority is able to give divided communities adequate protection and self-determination. Conflicts such as that created by the partition of Bosnia cannot be resolved by appeals to these principles. Such cases remind us that nationalism cannot by itself be a complete political philosophy. At the very least we need to add to it principles such as human rights, which set limits to what may be done to communities and individuals in the name of the nation.

Citing this article:
Miller, David. Problems of nationality. Nation and nationalism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S039-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

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