Friday, August 25, 2006

Friday dinner party conversation stopper

In the context of a discussion of Rousseau, Tzvetan Todorov neatly articulates one of the driving problems that extends from classical thought to contemporary political philosophy and ethics:

"Patriotism, then, has an inherent flaw. By preferring one segment of humanity over the rest, the citizen transgresses the fundamental principle of morality, that of universality; without saying so openly, he acknowledges that men are not equal... Now true morality, true justice, true virture presuppose universality, and thus equal rights. And yet in order to be able to exercise one's rights one must belong to a state, and thus be a citizen: there are no rights except within a juridical space underwritten by the establishment of a frontier separating inside from outside. The expressions 'rights of man' and 'world citizen' thus both entail internal contradictions. In order to have rights, one must be not a man but a citizen; yet - with apologies to Voltaire - only states have citizens, not the world. To be in favor of rights thus implies being on the side of the citizen, and yet the best principle of justice is that of universality."

- Todorov, On Human Diversity

8 comments:

Rendell said...

And yet, we also know that we aren't all equal, and probably wouldn't ever want to be, at least completely.

Maybe inequality isn't a problem, as long as everybody's doing alright. That way you still get to cheer for old numero uno.

flaco delgado said...

Ah, good ol' Sweatpants.

helmut said...

We aren't all equal in bio-physical terms, true. But none of us had any choice over that.

MT said...

We say that a patriot is willing to die for his or her country, or for an idea. If patriotism is as simple and idealistic a concept as it seems, and if it's ever sincere, then I think a patriot is loyal only incidentally to particular people and ever-ready to defend first a system of social organization. That's why "exporting American-style democracy" is patriotic. The "individualism" that American patriotic rhetoric talks about is a sneaky code word--which seems to be about state laws and agents interfering only an eency beency bit in the relations and competition between individual citizens (so long as they're not endangering the social system to which the patriot is loyal first and foremost).

helmut said...

You can be patriotic without feeling the need to evangelize what you're patriotic about.

Maybe a social system. Depends on what you mean. We're not patriotic necessarily about state structures like the educational system or welfare, except indirectly. We're patriotic about the mystical notion of the nation. This is why a complete stranger on the opposite coast may be viewed by the patriot as a member of his national community (and worth dying for!). It's a learned (some say indoctrinated) sentiment based on chance (that you were born and/or raised in one place rather than another). In this sense, patriotism and nationalism are what engender patriotism and nationalism in that the nation doesn't exist without the patriotism / nationalism. A curious phenomenon.

When you play it out in moral terms, it looks pretty silly. Thus, the attraction of cosmopolitanism, which is itself overly abstract and perhaps incoherent.

I think we're really caught some in between.

MT said...

I see why you balk at "social system" as poorly defined and abstract, but it's every bit as defined and concrete as loyalty to your mother or father. Personalities evolve, tissues slough off, but by convention there remains no question to whom we are referring. Such a convention in effect exists for "The United States of America" and other countries like "France." Permit me to be so bold as to suggest that the philosopher acknowledge it.

helmut said...

We are talking about the same thing, I guess. The distinction usually made in political philosophy is between state or society (gesellscahft) and community (gemeinschaft), where "nation" is viewed on the same terms as community. That is, a community the size of a family or of a nation retains various characteristics such as shared values, language, culture, etc., a sense of loyalty that bonds people together, etc. Society or state, on the other hand usually refers to the less affective elements of social organization. The term gesellschaft sums this up best, perhaps, by referring to society as the administrative structures of organization (some of which may also inspire a sense of loyalty).

I think you mean "nation," rather than "social system," at least ss in the sense that a sociologist might use it.

Nations obviously exist. But they exist as creations of the human imagination. We have pretty obvious markers (like US or France) to refer to nationhood. The markers in these cases are easier because the nation is supported by statehood. In cases like Palestine or Kurdistan, it's much less obvious. Palestinians and Kurds lay claim to nationhood based on those same things states and citizens of states apply to themselves as nations. But they don't have states and wish to have states so that they may govern themselves as nations.

Still, the problem arises when we try to point to wehat makes a nation a nation. When we talk about US nationality, for example, if we only mean citizenship, then we're actually speaking of the administrative powers of the state. If we're talking about patriotism, we're talking about the affective dimension of belonging to a nation. In large, pluralistic societies such as the US (and France) the whole idea of what counts as the core of the nation - in this affective sense - is in dispute. So, it's obvious what we mean when we say "USA" in terms of a nation-state, but it's not obvious what we mean when we refer to "USA" as a nation. This is because our affective ties vary from person to person and by degree.

The other side of this coin is that, historically, the idea of the unified nation has often been manipulated in order for those in power to convince the people to do their bidding. So, we see things like "it's unAmerican to say X or think X." That kind of accusation appeals to our sense of patriotism. But it's cynical, because there is a policy decision underriding it that is then made without the real participation of those it will affect.

MT said...

Maybe I mean "nation," but I don't want the Kurdish problem you described, and if I'm allowed to use "social system" literally and vaguely (so as to encompass culture), I think the word is solid enough. This urge to define a nation feels like a rush into abstraction and a pythagorean agenda. Was I absent the day we agreed on the postulates and what theory we're testing? I guess I see why this is a conversation stopper.