For Love Of Country?


Raymond Gaita ABC Religion and Ethics – 25 Jan 2017

How can we prevent love of country from degenerating into jingoism, and what kind of road can we build on which jingoism might finds its way back to love?

Racism is again on the rise in many parts of the world and therefore so is an increasing failure of many people to see the full humanity of other people and peoples.

So too are other forces of dehumanisation – often corrupt forms of nationalism that show in responses to asylum seekers and immigrants desperately fleeing conditions of misery, fear and degradations, though not because they are persecuted, as is evident in the thousands seeking better lives in Europe.

Many people appear now to fear that, perhaps within ten years or so, national and international politics will be dominated by crises that are caused and inflamed by the shameful gap between the rich and the poor nations, aggravated by the effects of climate change.

Deepening political instability in many regions of the earth may cause even more people to be uprooted than were uprooted last century. Strong nations are likely to protect themselves in ways that become increasingly brutal, testing the relevance and the authority the parts international law that we naturally think of as dealing with war crimes and crimes against humanity.

It is, I believe, almost certain that my grandchildren’s generation will not be protected as we have been from the terrors suffered by most of the peoples of the earth, because of impoverishment, natural disasters and the evils inflicted upon them by other human beings.

More and more, I fear, the reality of affliction together with the reality of evil will test their understanding of what it means to share a common humanity with all the peoples of the earth, and, to degree almost too awful to imagine, their faith that the world is a good world despite the suffering and the evil in it.

We are therefore under an urgent imperative to think again and radically – in the sense of going to the roots – about how to respond morally, legally and politically to the fact that mere luck ensures that some people enjoy the fruits of the earth while, again because of luck, others suffer the humiliations and miseries of the damned. As, increasingly and perhaps brutally, Western nations are forced to acknowledge, right into in the bones of their political culture, the extent to which their troubles are the result of their colonial adventures, that question will become unavoidable.

Obviously I can’t even try to address this imperative here, but I want to explore some of the landscape in which one should try.

Human nature and the human condition

It is striking how often we now speak of “humanity” in ethically inflected registers, or ethically resonant tones – as when, for example, we speak of seeing or failing to see the full humanity of people or peoples, of dehumanization, or that some ways of being and living are not worthy of our humanity.

It is also striking how often we speak of our humanity as something that is not given to us once and for all, as species membership is, but something to which we are called upon to rise, not until such time as we achieve it – which could be different from one person to person another – but unendingly, for all of us until we die. Some people think of it as a gift we betray if we do not try to be lucid about things that matter most to us, or about what should matter most to us. Socrates meant that, I think, when asked to explain why he could not stop philosophising even under threat of death, he said that an unexamined life is not worthy of a human being.

The ethical inflections of the way we speak about humanity play their distinctive roles when we reflect on the human condition rather than on human nature or on the biological characteristics of the species, Homo sapiens. “Be a human being for once in your life,” is evidently not an injunction to be more fully a member of the species Homo sapiens. And Socrates did not mean that an unexamined life is not worthy of the species Homo sapiens. And, moreover, “He’s not a monster, he’s a human being” is not a reminder that a terrible wrong doer has not forfeited his species membership. Nor for that matter is, “If you want to be treated like a human being, then first behave like one.”

Let me try to explain why I distinguish refection on human nature from reflection on the human condition, though the distinction is a sharp one and there is plenty of back forth between them.

I think of human nature as revealed to us in experience, corrected and deepened by the sciences. Claims about it are characteristically empirical claims and when there is non-collusive agreement about them certified by a community of relevant scholars – usually scientists of one kind of another – they find their ways into textbooks and encyclopaedias, and sometimes earn Nobel prizes.

Refection on the human condition, by contrast, is on the meaning we human beings have made of the big facts of life – birth, death, sexuality, our vulnerability to misfortune, most importantly. It is also reflection on what we are to make, ethically, of the discoveries of the sciences, how to take them into our lives.

Reflection of this kind makes no ground-breaking discoveries. In fact, the concept of discovery in anything like the way it applies in science is for the most part alien to it. Aristotle’s writings on biology are now of only historical interest. But for as long as we are educated we will consider, engage with and perhaps learn from what he said about ethic, politics and tragedy. The same goes for Socrates’s affirmation that it is better to suffer evil than to do it.

I could not produce a very long list of artists of various kinds and philosophers about whom this is true. Thinking about them requires, of course, conscientious attention to relevant evidence of a factual kind. It requires that we think logically, patiently, carefully about how we move from one thought to another. But it requires also that we develop an ear for tone, for what rings false, for what is sentimental, or has yielded to pathos and so on.

The development of such a sensibility is not optional in reflection about the human condition – indeed, about anything that really matters ethically. Without it, we lose our subject matter. Without it, reflection on ethics, in all its manifestations, is not worth a cracker.

Earlier I said that the requirement to make human beings of our selves has no end. It is not a requirement that some of us could fulfil more quickly than others because we are smarter or in other ways better at it. I was making a point about human beings as individuals. The same is true, I believe, of human beings in various forms of collectivities.

Even in its collective uses, humanity is a verb. The humanity we affirm when we speak of the common humanity of all the peoples of the earth is not fixed, is not a discovery upon which we could settle, upon which reflection of the peoples of the earth could converge as we hope it will on scientific matters.

This is a point of considerable political importance. I’ll discuss it first in connection with national politics, turning later to international politics.

The conditions of reconciliation

It is uncontroversial that Australia’s Aboriginal peoples think differently about what it means to be human than do non-Aboriginal Australians. The difference can be described most generally as lying in their attitude to the natural world and their place in it. That is vague, of course, but it is enough to sustain the point that the difference has inevitably shown itself politically in, for example, disputes and court rulings about land and title and in the many, sometimes angry, arguments about what counts truly (practically) as reconciliation as opposed to merely symbolic gestures towards it.

Perhaps the most bitter disagreements were over whether genocide was at least sometimes, in some parts of Australia, committed against the Stolen Generations, as Bringing Them Home alleges.

Understanding of the wrongs committed against the indigenous peoples of this country obviously depends on an ethical understanding of what they suffered. Understanding of that can never be too distant from their stories and other forms of art that express that suffering. If that is so, then it is obvious that, for the most part, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples of this country do not have a shared understanding of that suffering and, therefore, of how it should inform the ethical characterisation of the wrongs and crimes against them – ethical characterisations that makes those wrongs and crimes what they are.

Given their ethically different conceptions of what it is to be human how, for example, should the Aboriginal peoples understand the idea of a crime against humanity, if the concept of humanity plays any serious role in the ethical characterisation of such crimes? The development of such understanding – one that is truly shared, that truly represents an understanding common to the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal members of this nation – would be unnerving, radical (again, in the sense of going to the roots) and almost certainly novel to the classical traditions of Western political thought.

For that to happen, non-Aboriginal peoples must come to see what is at issue from the perspective of the Aboriginal peoples. That requires more than we usually mean by empathy, because it depends on acquiring new concepts or modifying old ones. Those concepts will determine the character and content of empathy: they will not be its products.

If one is not to hope that compassion and empathy can do things that they cannot, then it is imperative to see that nature of compassion and empathy is always a function of the concepts under which we respond to other people’s suffering or see the world as they do. Victims of injustice often suffer physical and psychological trauma, but they also the suffer the injustice of its affliction, which is often an irreducible focus of their torment and of their need for the injustice done to them be acknowledged in the spirit in which the physical and psychological damage is ameliorated.

Apology, forgiveness, atonement or punishment are appropriate responses to that resentment and torment. Compassion and empathy must be informed by that realisation.

The limits of human rights

I turn now to international politics – or more precisely, to the place that the idea of a common humanity should have in international law and the importance of such law to the ideal that the peoples of the earth might form what could honestly be called a community of nations.

The moral of my discussion of the relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, is that when we acknowledge that racism against them is a denial of their full humanity, we should not think that implies that we now fully acknowledge their humanity, that we know what the ethically inflected sense of humanity comes to in our relations with them. Rather, we must together, rather than unilaterally, see what we can make of the differing conceptions of it. We cannot assume that in the end, if only we are patient, sensitive, generous and attentive enough, we will agree. We might not. We will then have to see what we make politically of that. The same goes for international politics.

Token acknowledgment by the nations of the earth, as they are represented in the U.N., of international law and their opportunistic use of it, has disguised how little real agreement there is about its ethical content, about what it means to commit war crimes, crimes against humanity, and even genocide, for example. I doubt that there is much that could truthfully be called a shared understanding of the ethical content of the preambles to major instruments of international law.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948, states in its preamble that “the recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Many other preambles to important instruments of international laws speak the same language. The Convention against Torture, for example, speaks of the inalienable rights that derive from the “inherent dignity of the person.”

These preambles suggest that the idea of the dignity of humanity, of a dignity that one possesses simply by virtue of being human, underpins the concept of an inalienable right and is fundamental to an elaboration of what it means morally to violate such a right. The moral character of crimes against humanity is often rendered as an offence against the human dignity of those who suffer them. It’s now almost second nature to us to speak human rights and the dignity that has been offended when a person’s human rights are violated.

The concepts of inalienable dignity and inalienable human rights, as we use them, are clearly of European origins. Indeed, the resonances they carry for us are the heroic resonances of Kant’s moral and political philosophies. That is not of itself a bad thing. Cultures have existed in which there was not even a hint of those ethical concepts and cultures now exist which regard them as absurd – absurd to think that Saddam Hussein was owed a fair trial, for his sake rather than because it might place the integrity of the legal system on a slippery slope.

That an imperative so sublime as the one that requires us to respect the humanity, even of those guilty of the foulest crimes, should show itself in ways as prosaic as observing courtroom procedure might seem paradoxical. It might make us complacent, forgetful of how wondrous it is that humanity should ever have come to that affirmation.

In much of my work, I have tried to reclaim a sense of such wondrousness, to create the right conceptual space in which it can find an authentic and compelling voice that could answer someone who says that if you want to be treated like a human being then you should first behave like one – that people like Sadaam and many of the fighters for ISIS are vermin. I must add, however, that I would not trust someone who affirmed that even such people possess inalienable dignity to which we owe an unconditional respect, unless they were tempted to believe – as many people do, as Churchill did of Nazis charged at Nuremberg – that they should be shot like rabid dogs.

But I dread the prospect of a world in which my grandchildren could no longer affirm – for it is, an affirmation, an act of faith that reason and science cannot make secure – that even the most terrible evil doers, those whose characters appear to match their deeds, who are defiantly unremorseful and in whom we can find nothing from which remorse could grow, are owed an unconditional respect, are always and everywhere owed justice, for their sake, rather than because we fear the consequences if we do not accord it to them.

Nonetheless, though criminal governments have sometimes shamelessly responded to criticism of their conduct as being Western impertinence, the protestation that talk of human rights is a Western imposition on the ethical traditions of other cultures sometimes has point. Indeed, one could say that the way we now speak of human rights has, paradoxically, made it difficult to identify the deepest of our ethical reasons for inventing the idea – that, indeed, rather than supporting the idea of a common humanity it undermines the prospect of it.

I suspect many will find that too paradoxical even to be intelligible, so I will try to explain why I say it, seeking help from Simone Weil, a French philosopher who died in 1943 at the age of 34. In a slightly unfair polemic against the moral importance we accord to human rights, she says:

“If someone tries to browbeat a farmer to sell his eggs at a moderate price, the farmer can say: ‘I have the right to keep my eggs if I don’t get a good enough price’. But if a young girl is being forced into a brothel she will not talk about her rights. In such a situation the word would sound ludicrously inadequate.”
The reason Weil says it would be ludicrously inadequate for the girl to protest that her rights had been violated is not because it would be pointless to do so – although, of course, it would be. It is because she believes that the concept of rights of is radically incapable, of itself, to take us to an understanding of the moral terribleness of what the girl suffers. Imagine someone who said, “My God, look at what that brute did. He has violated her human rights.” What is terrible is not that he has violated her rights: it is that he has violated her.

I hope that I will not be misunderstood about this. I am not suggesting that we try to banish talk of human rights. The battles for what we call “human rights” and for the acceptance that all the peoples of the earth share an inalienable dignity that defines their common humanity have been among the noblest in Western history. God only knows where we would have been had we not fought and won so many of them.

However, talk of human rights needs to be embedded in, to draw upon, to be richly mindful of, and always take us back to a richer vocabulary that reveals what it means ethically for a person’s human rights to have been seriously violated.

If we rely on the concept of rights to do much of the ethical work alone, we will uproot it from its source and find ourselves ethically illiterate in the characterization of the terrible wrongs people suffer – wrongs, that as the phrase “human rights” suggests, should be of concern to all human beings, by virtue of the fact that they are human beings. Then talk of rights will undermine rather than support the hope that the peoples of the earth will acknowledge their common humanity and the profound ethical implications of that acknowledgment. We will undermine the prospects of the kind of conversation between the peoples of the earth that would give us reason to hope that we could become genuinely a community of nations, made such by rendering ourselves answerable to international law, at least in regard to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Just as a sense of fellow national feeling is sentimental unless we supported by the institutions of justice that show that it matters to us that our fellow citizens are wronged and that wrongdoers remain our fellow citizens justly held to account but never banished, so the idea of a common humanity will be empty, as will the ideal of a community of nations, unless people in all nations show in a concern for grievous wrongs done to peoples of other nations.

Admittedly, the sense in which such a community exists is still rather thin but it is not meaningless. The ethical core of the concept the concept of crimes against humanity, I suggest, is that they are crimes against the constituency of human kind – crimes that must be the concern of all human beings in their capacity as political beings. That, as I said earlier, is a precondition for the existence of a community of nations answerable to international law. They are crimes of concern to all human beings for whom it matters that their political identity is partly formed by the fact that they belong to such a community of nations.

National shame and love of country

Racism and ugly forms of nationalism are again resurgent in many parts of the world, including in Australia. Some Australians are ashamed of this, of our cruel treatment of refugees and, of course, our treatment of the Aboriginal peoples.

Shame is an interesting concept when applied to national politics. It is a way of acknowledging responsibility for something that one has become caught up it, even though one may not be guilty by deed or omission – though, of course, one may be. The shame felt by many Australians is of a kind that presupposes that their identities have been formed by their attachment to, often love of, the country. They express that identity when they use “we” to express national fellowship rather than merely to record the fact that they belong with other Australians to a national group.

Such people, for whom shame is a painful form of love for, rather than a reason to reject, their country, try to awaken in us, their fellow citizens, an acknowledgment that we share a common humanity with refugees and their families, and to make such an acknowledgment inseparable from the “we” of national fellowship, hoping that most Australians will embrace rather than resist the fact that Australia belongs to a community of nations, constituted as such by international law.

Conservative politicians speak more often of love of country, of pride in what the national has achieved and what our soldiers have done to protect the national interest, than politicians of the left. Talk of national shame, however – and worse, the suggestion that our soldiers, like the soldiers of all nations, should be answerable to international criminal courts – is anathema to them.

But, by the same token, the refusal of many on the left to take seriously the need most human beings have for roots realised in national forms, has been one of the reasons for Brexit and the development of right-wing nationalist paranoia more generally. Because the left generally has not been prepared to take seriously talk of love of county, fearing that it will always decline into ugly, often murderous forms, it has not taken seriously the questions, “How can we prevent love of country from degenerating into jingoism, and what kind of road can we build on which jingoism might finds its way back to love?”

The obligation to think hard about this is fundamental and urgent because the need people have for roots and their protection by military force will not go away any time soon. The reasons go deep. Here is Simone Weil again:

“We owe a cornfield respect, not because of itself, but because it is food for human beings. In the same way we owe respect to a collectivity – country, family or any other – not for itself but because it is food for a certain number of human souls. One sack of corn can always be substituted by another sack of corn. The food that a collectivity supplies for the souls of those who form part of it has no equivalent in the entire universe.”
Real love of country can be identified by at least two markers: by the desire to love truthfully and by the desire to love without the shame that would be the only truthful response to the wrongs done on behalf of the nation by our leaders, or in time of war, by our soldiers.

Because it fastens onto something that is inevitably a mixture of good and evil, love of country is always a mixture of gratitude, pain, joy, sorrow, pride, shame and sometimes guilt. In the circumstances that make them appropriate, each can be a form of love of country, just as severe criticism of one’s country can be a form of loyalty to it, and the desire to love without shame and without lies a form of concern for its welfare.

Concrete universality

It is a truism that the international laws that constitute the nations of the earth as a community of nations express values that are in some sense universal. It is natural and common to think that the universal values expressed in those laws are principles that can be abstracted from the cultures of the nations that are answerable to those principles. Those values, this thought continues, could be – and ideally should be – expressed in a language that consciously disengages from the local, historically conditioned associations and resonances of natural languages.

But there is another way to think of universality. We see it if we reflect on the fact that understanding what it means to commit and to suffer the crimes prohibited by international law is often deepened by art – when a film, a painting, a play, a novel or a poem, for example, moves us. Art provides a different model for universality than does science or a political or moral philosophy that seeks universal principles abstracted from the concrete circumstances of peoples who are intellectually and spiritually nourished by the way they have been rooted in this or that culture.

“Every writer needs an address,” said Isaac Bashevis Singer, even if it is more than one. That is a fine way of putting the point I have been trying to make. Great literature potentially speaks to all the peoples of the earth – that is one of the reasons we call it “great” – but only as translated from one natural language to another.

That is not because we have been unable to develop a single universal language, as some hoped to do with Esperanto. It is because that is the kind of universality that is appropriate to the content of literature – content which often cannot be separated from its form and whose form cannot be separated from the contingencies that have nourished particular cultures, particular forms of living and particular natural languages – “vital mediums,” as Weil called them.

Only in such mediums, in the natural languages distinctive to them, can we elaborate what it means ethically to violate someone rights, to commit crimes against humanity or against the laws of war.

Raimond Gaita is Professorial Fellow in the Melbourne Law School and the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne, and Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at King’s College London. He is the editor (with Gerry Simpson) of Who’s Afraid of International Law? This article is an edited version of his keynote address to the 2016 Integrity 20 Conference at Griffith University.

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