Category Archives: Politics

Critical Thinking 21: Credibility of Sources

I’ve been moved to revive my critical thinking series by the acuteness of the problems people seem to have with credibility judgements in current political debate. Russia has been implicated in the recent use of a nerve agent for attempted murder in Salisbury, England, and in the use of chemical weapons in Syria. In both cases they deny it. Most of us have no direct knowledge of these issues or situations, so we rely entirely on information about them that we get through the media. That means that we have to use credibility judgements – and we need to use them with great care. My own judgement is that the Russian government has very low credibility compared to most Western sources – but to see why you need to look at the kinds of credibility criteria that can be applied and think about each one of them, rather than jumping to conclusions that may be based on your reaction to past weaknesses in Western objectivity. I’d like to invite you to consider the account of credibility below and apply it to this example (and similar ones) for yourself.

This post connects strongly to Critical Thinking 7: Authority and Credibility, which you might also like to look at.

Credibility is an estimation of how much trust to place in a source of information – e.g. a person, an organisation, or a book. Most of the information we actually encounter that is used to support arguments has to be taken on trust, because we are not in a position to check it ourselves. For example, if I’m reading an article about the Large Hadron Collider (a famous massive physics experiment), I am entirely reliant on the physicists who are giving the information to accurately explain their evidence.

There are two extreme attitudes to credibility which would be equally unhelpful: to take everything on trust without question on the one hand, or to believe nothing on the other. If we believed nothing that anyone else told us, then we would could not make use of the vast majority of information we take for granted. For example, I have never been to Australia, so without believing other people I would have no grounds for believing that Australia exists at all. On the other hand, if we believe everything, then we become prey to unscrupulous advertisers, email hoaxes such as “phishing” for bank account details, and sincere but deluded extremists of all kinds in both religion and politics. We need a method of judging others’ credibility. In fact we have all already developed our judgements about this: we believe some people more than others. However, examining the subject carefully  may help you to refine and justify these judgements.

Credibility issues must be carefully distinguished from issues of argument. It is a way of judging the information that feeds into an argument when you have no other way of judging it – not the argument itself. So whilst deductive arguments are either valid or invalid, credibility is always a matter of degree, and judging it is an extension of inductive reasoning in relation to sources.  Credibility is just a way of judging assumptions, where those assumptions consist in claims from certain sources, and we’re not in a position to assess the evidence for those claims ourselves.

An example of a scenario needing credibility assessment
Suppose you are a teacher in a primary school on playground duty, and you hear distressed yells. You turn and see two eight-year old boys fighting. One has thumped the other, who is crying. The crying boy says he was picked on, whilst the thumping boy says the other boy hit him first. Two other boys were witnesses but they disagree about who was to blame.

Perhaps it would be quite common in such a scenario for a teacher to punish both boys due to doubts about who started it: but would this be fair? It is difficult to decide, because both boys (and their respective friends) all have a strong interest in maintaining their side of the story. The witnesses are also divided, so you can’t rely on the weight of their testimony. One possible way out would be to rely on reputations. Are either of the boys known to have lied, or to have been bullies, in the past? If one boy has a record of being involved in lots of fights in the past and the other does not, this might well sway the teacher’s judgement. But of course if this assumption is made too readily it could also reconfirm the “known trouble maker” as such, because even if he is innocent people will assume that he is guilty. Judgements about credibility are always made under uncertainty.

Factors of credibility
When judging the credibility of a person, or any other sort of human source, it is helpful to have a checklist of factors in mind. We are going to consider a list of 5 credibility factors here, which can be easily remembered using the mnemonic RAVEN.
Ability to get information
Vested interest
Neutrality or bias

We will now look more closely at these 5 factors.

Reputation is what we know about a person or organisation’s track record for trustworthiness. This will often come from the assessments of others, whether they are experts or ordinary people. For example, restaurants seek to get a good reputation by being given stars in the Michelin guide. Reputation has also been democratised because it can be so easily shared on the internet, with different book suppliers being rated for reliability on Amazon or different hotels being rated by people who have stayed there on websites like

Apart from an individual or organisation, you might need to consider the reputation of a newspaper, other publication, broadcaster, or website. Generally, for example, the BBC has a good reputation as an objective provider of news coverage, whereas the Sun is well known for being more interested in selling newspapers and pleasing its readers than providing objective reports. This will remain generally the case even if you feel that certain reports have tarnished the reputation of the BBC or improved that of the Sun. All credibility judgements need to be proportional, so you need to think carefully about what proportion of the BBC’s vast output is generally acknowledged as credible, rather than just about a small number of negative instances, in order to arrive at a fair judgement of reputation.

Ability to get information
This covers a range of ways that people may or may not have been able to access what they claim to know through experience: ability to observe, ability to gain access, and ability to recall. If someone claims to have observed a foul at a football game that the referee judged wrongly, their testimony is of less weight if they were five times further away from the incident than the referee was and could only see it distantly. If someone claims to have seen documents that their company or government would never have actually given them access to, this would also reduce credibility. If someone is known to have an unreliable memory, or only remembers something in a vague way, this would also affect the credibility of their claims.

The ability to observe is also relevant to the distinction (often used in history) between primary sources and secondary sources. A primary source is one which records a person’s experiences directly, but a secondary source gets the information second hand. So, for example, if an officer wrote a memoir of his experiences in the Battle of Waterloo, this would become a primary historical document in gaining information about that battle, but a historian who used that document, together with others, to write a book about the battle would be producing a secondary source. On average, primary sources tend to be more worthy of credibility in reporting an event than secondary ones, but primary sources can be unreliable (the officer might not have been in a good position to see what was happening in the whole battle, for example) and secondary sources may sometimes give a more comprehensive picture with greater expertise and neutrality (see below).

Vested interest
A vested interest is something that a person has to gain or lose from a certain outcome. For example, a salesman has a vested interest in getting you to buy his company’s double glazing, because they will give him extra commission if he sells it to you. This gives him a reason to give you a possibly misleading impression of its high quality, low price etc. Vested interests can cut both ways, though: there can be a vested interest to deceive (as in the case of a salesman), but also a vested interest to tell the truth, for example where someone’s job depends on them maintaining a good reputation for reliability. As well as an incentive for stretching the truth a little bit, a double glazing salesman also has a vested interest in keeping close enough to the truth not to be subject to legal action for grossly misrepresenting his product.

It’s important to keep vested interests in perspective, because most people have some vested interests in both directions. Nearly everyone has something to gain from getting your money or your support or even your friendship, but on the other hand they also have the incentive of maintaining a social reputation as reliable, and – if they are a professional – for maintaining their career prospects, which depend on that reputation. However, in cases like advertising or political campaigning it’s obvious that the vested interests lie strongly in one direction.

If someone is an expert on the topic under consideration, then this normally adds substantially to their credibility, because they will know a lot more of the facts of the matter and also understand the relationship between them. We all rely on expertise constantly: the doctor, the computer technician, the academic on TV or writing a book. You can look for formal academic qualifications (BA’s, MA’s, & Ph.D.’s) as evidence of expertise, or it may just be a question of professional experience or life experience (e.g. someone has worked 20 years as a gardener, or practised meditation for 10 years, or whatever). People who hold university posts in a subject, or who have written books on it, are often the starting-point in the media when an expert is needed.

Apart from whether expertise is genuine, the other thing you might want to consider when deciding whether to trust it is whether it is relevant. Someone with a Ph.D. in physics may know a bit about biology, but not necessarily that much. The fact that someone is an Olympic gold medal winner may give them expertise in how to train in their sport, but not necessarily about, say, politics or business. ‘Celebrities’ who are largely famous for being famous, may assume expertise on subjects that they don’t actually know more than average about.

From the Middle Way point of view, it is also worth considering that expertise in modern society often results from over-specialisation that may lead people into making absolute assumptions that are specific to their highly specialised expert groups. This means that whilst highly specialised experts may be very reliable on very specific points within their expertise, the moment their judgement starts to involve synthesis or comparison with other areas it may actually become less reliable, because they may have effectively sacrificed their wider objectivity for the sake of specialisation. For example, when well-known specialised scientists start talking about ethics or religion I often have this impression – not that they are not entitled to express their views on these topics, but that their views are very narrowly based. On the other hand, there are also other people whose expertise is more broadly based.

Neutrality or bias
Finally, you can assess someone’s claims according to their overall approach to the topic and the kind of interpretation they make of it. Some people may clearly set out to be as objective as possible, whereas others adopt a deliberately biased approach in order to promote a particular point of view. Honest bias is probably better than false neutrality, but you need to be aware of the ways that the biased approach will limit people’s interpretation of the facts. For example, the comments of a politician arguing for their policies are going to be biased in favour of promoting those policies – compared to, say, a political journalist from the BBC who sets out to analyse the issue in a more objective way that explains the different views of it.

Bias should not be confused with vested interest, although they may go together in many cases. Someone can have a vested interest, yet take an objective and balanced tone when explaining the facts as they see them. On the other hand, someone without a lot of vested interests may be inspired by sympathy with one side or the other to weigh strongly into a debate: for example, the actor Joanna Lumley got involved in the campaign to give immigration rights to the UK to Nepalese Gurkha soldiers in the British army. She clearly had nothing much to gain from this herself, but nevertheless was a passionate advocate of the cause.


So, do you believe the Russian government? The judgement needs to be incremental and comparative. So, compare it to another source, say the British government on the Skripal Case. What are their reputations, their abilities to get information, their vested interests, expertise, and record on bias? These all need to be put together, with none of them being used as an absolute to either accept total authority or to completely dismiss.


For an index of all critical thinking blogs see this page.

Picture: Franco Atirador (Wikimedia Commons)


How not to be a Conservative

A little while ago I purchased a book from a bookshop called ‘How to be a Conservative’ by Roger Scruton. I realised as I was buying it that I was feeling some embarrassment. It was a bit like buying a pornographic magazine. What if somebody saw me? What if someone thought I was a Conservative too?

Conservatives may put down this embarrassment to mere social conditioning. It’s true that my parents were liberal (which means middle of the road in England), and the majority of my friends have always tended more to the left than the right. But I don’t think that’s the only reason for my instinctive sense that being thought a Conservative would be shameful. As political polarisation advances, those on the left increasingly seem to see Conservatism, not as a coherent alternative political philosophy, but as a mask for the most unreflective exploitation. In the UK and the US at least, Conservatives are often seen as the epitome of narrow self interest. They are the allies of the big business and media interests who have brought about increasing social inequality, the stagnation of ordinary people’s standards of living, the starving of public services and the welfare state, and the galloping excesses of the rich as they plunder the world’s resources and exploit the ignorance of the poor. I think I can be excused for being concerned about any possible mistaken association that I support all that.

When I read Scruton’s book, however, I found, predictably, quite a different story. A fair section of that story I found quite coherent and in many ways in harmony with the Middle Way. Scruton is a thoughtful philosopher, but I did find him very uneven, sometimes slipping into the political prejudices of the Daily Mail (on issues like immigration and the EU) in a way that seemed to have no clear relationship to his overall case. The Middle Way Conservative case owes a lot to late 18th Century thinker Edmund Burke, and was discussed in Barry’s podcast with Amod Lele as ‘literal conservatism’. It recognises that human society depends on a complex inter-related web of relationships, institutions, cultures and values that has developed organically, not by planning. Revolutions threaten to destroy that rooted organic structure and all that is good in it. Over-reliance on the bureaucratic state can also destroy the deeply-rooted motivations and relationships of civil society, which are quite independent of the state. Scruton also stresses the ways in which our feelings of ‘home’ and of beauty and sanctity are rooted ones that depend on all these organic cultural relationships.

There are some important ways in which thinkers who have influenced me in recent years would agree with Scruton. Iain McGilchrist is a conservative who would stress the ways that the over-dominant left hemisphere can result in political dependence on an instrumental bureaucratic mindset. A more balanced relationship between the hemispheres is likely to result in more openness to the unplanned and unrationalised messiness of traditional civil  society and religion. The work of Jonathan Haidt also points out the way in which Conservatives typically draw on a wider range of values than do liberals and socialists: not only care, justice and liberty, but also loyalty, sanctity and authority. Liberals and socialists do have a sense of loyalty, authority and sanctity of their own (think of the authority of past Labour greats, like Nye Bevan the founder of the NHS, for UK Socialists), but they often have trouble acknowledging that these values have much of a place in politics. Nassim Nicholas Taleb talks about the importance of ‘skin in the game’. It’s too easy to have an abstracted position on the reform of society and the things the government ought to do, but it’s what we actually have a stake in that’s morally important.

Scruton’s presentation of conservative values involves a basic appeal to balance. Most of his book takes the form of a discussion of ‘the truth of…’ a range of positions: nationalism, socialism, capitalism, liberalism, multiculturalism, environmentalism, internationalism, and conservatism. This effectively requires him to go through a sorting process in each case that involves thinking about what elements of each position are really compatible with a rooted, organic approach to civil society. For example, when he discusses ‘the truth in capitalism’ he points out the ways in which the free market offers a much more efficient way of determining the fair value of something in trade than any other. However, he also points out that the functioning of a free market depends on there being a stable society with certain basic moral norms, creating trust, on which that market depends. Scruton argues quite convincingly that some things don’t have a price and should not be sold, because to do so would corrupt the more basic structure of civil society on which the market relies. He also criticises the appeal to the free market of those who are passing on their costs to future generations by leaving a negative mark on the environment that will affect them.

There seems to be a basic compatibility between Burkean conservatism and the Middle Way. It is sceptical in a very embodied way, recognising our situated place in time and space. It also puts a lot of emphasis on incrementality – incremental, organic change is the only realistic and sustainable sort of change for humans. There is something highly integrative, too, in the conservative emphasis on the relationship between past, present and future. We delude ourselves if we think we can uproot ourselves from the past, and we bear a great responsibility to future generations. So why, in the end, do I also end up disagreeing with Scruton profoundly in many places? Why, too, does the idea of voting Conservative still seem as unthinkable as it has been all my life?

The main reason is that Conservatives are nowhere near conservative enough. Their appeal to a range of human values, where it happens at all, is far too selective and unreflective, and does often seem motivated by the interests of an economic elite under a very flimsy cover of conservative philosophy: as we have seen recently in the US, for example, in the flagrant voting through of tax cuts for the rich.

Objections to the ‘bureaucratic’ state are also deeply inconsistent, when Conservatives seem to have imposed far more bureaucracy on public services than any others, motivated by an overriding imperative to ensure value for money for taxpayers. Far from enabling genuine integrative growth in the realms of education and health, Conservative rule has imposed a crippling burden of bureaucratic distrust and disabling resource cuts on the professionals who work in these sectors. Far from enabling an organic balance of values to emerge, Conservatives tend to place a relentless emphasis on loyalty to the nation-state (as opposed to other levels of organisation) and fairness in terms of market rates (as opposed to many other sorts of fairness). In their dogmatic distrust of state power, they have often allowed corporate power and corporate bureaucracy to override the interests of workers. Far from respecting the sanctity of the environment, many Conservatives actively deny the threat of climate change, and are active in handing over protected areas to business interests. The trusted authority of the professional, the sanctity of the environment, the fairness of equity between employers and employees, care of the vulnerable – these all seem highly neglected values amongst Conservatives today.

There seem to be many different possible reasons for the ways that Conservatives have betrayed conservatism, but there seem to be two particular Faustian pacts that stand out. The first Faustian pact was with neo-liberalism, and dates back to the 1980’s and the era of Thatcher and Reagan. At first this may have corrected some excesses of the ‘bureaucratic state’, but it went on to to absolutise the power of the market rather than holding it in balance with other values. We have seen how destructive this has been. The other, more recent Faustian pact has been with nationalism. There is no reason at all why our sense of rooted loyalty, of ‘home’, of organic identity should particularly take the form of national rather than local, regional, continental or world identity; but Scruton, along with many other Conservatives, seems to simply assume that it must. The result of this way of thinking in the UK is Brexit, where Conservative breadth has given way to nationalist populism, and the visionary project to integrate a continent is under threat.

Can there be another political ideology whose application to practical policy is so shot through with contradiction and hypocrisy? No, I am in some ways conservative, just as I am in some ways socialist or liberal or green. But the best expressions of conservative philosophy seem to clearly recommend voting for left-wing or Green parties that attempt to rectify the imbalance of the ‘Conservative’ rule we have experienced. You would have to put this conservative on a torture rack to get him to vote Conservative.

The MWS Podcast 127: Tim Farron on Liberalism and the Middle Way

Our guest today is the British politician, Tim Farron. Tim was the leader of the Liberal Democrats from July 2015 to July 2017. He’s been the Member of Parliament for Westmoreland and Lonsdale since 2005 and he’s here to talk to us today about Liberalism, its origins and development, its core values and how it might relate to the Middle Way.

MWS Podcast 127: Tim Farron as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_127_Tim_Farron
Click here to view other podcasts

A Hurricane of Paranoia

Is there any end to the flow of paranoid conspiracy theories seeded in the internet ocean? Like hurricanes, they seem to proceed implacably, one after the other. Not only do we have the illuminati, the reptilians, the 9/11 conspiracy theories, and the revival of flat earth beliefs, but more recent theories seem to suggest that almost no action is so bad that it can’t be attributed to the mysterious ‘deep state’. There were some who alleged that the Sandy Hook shootings were a set up, and now – before the hurricane has even struck the coast of Florida, there are those who allege that the hurricane itself is the creation of the all-manipulating authorities. What distresses me about the rising tide of conspiracy theory is the way in which closed loops of confirmation bias are increasingly fed by the ‘echo chamber’ effect of social media, aided by the widespread lack of the kind of critical thinking skills required to challenge them. The effects feed not only disinformation, but quite unnecessary social and political conflict. Just when everyone needs to be on the same side, dealing with enormously traumatic events, they end up undermining the whole basis of experiential judgement on which common humanity could develop. Although as I write, Hurricane Irma has not yet hit Florida, the consequences of a section of the population seriously believing that it’s all been set up by the US government can hardly seem anything but deeply insulting to those who will shortly doubtless risk (and possibly lose) their lives to save others, in the service of the very same public authorities who are being blamed for the disaster by these conspiracy theorists.

In many ways, a conspiracy theory is no different from any other absolute belief. Those in the grip of an absolute belief do not weigh up the evidence and select the most likely explanation for it: rather they select evidence that fits the beliefs that obsessive desire or anxiety are urging on them, and ignore or dismiss all alternatives. In this respect conspiracy theorists are no different from medieval dogmatists – they just have access to better communications technology. They trade on uncertainty, pointing out that there is no way of disproving their belief, but completely ignore that the same point applies to a wide range of other possible competing beliefs that can also not be disproved. Unrealistically expecting disproof, they remain attached to their conspiracy theory in its absence, but can only do so because the comparison of probabilities simply does not figure in their thinking. Any challenge to the theory is likely to be seen as under the deluded spell of the all-powerful conspiracy that otherwise rules the world. By maintaining and spreading such beliefs, too, social capital is earned by gaining prominence in the in-group, whilst to seriously question their basis is to risk that status and thus risk rejection by that group.

Those who attempt to offer ‘facts’ to refute conspiracy theories merely feed them by providing more of the same absolute language. The whole context in which they exist is one of dualistic opposition, so that the direct opposing of one ‘fact’ by another reinforces defensiveness. It is only by becoming reflectively more aware of the limitations of our knowledge, as well as positively confident in justified belief, that we can start to disentangle the kind of thinking that fuels conspiracy theories. By holding off from claims about ‘truth’ and ‘falsehood’, but nevertheless investigating justification, we would be practising the Middle Way.

The belief that Hurricane Irma is created by the US government, like most other conspiracy theories, involves a weight of assumptions that make it vastly improbable when you start to consider those assumptions. The video that I linked above merely argues that there is a record of the US government researching and testing weather manipulation in the past, but gives no evidence at all that weather manipulation on the scale that would be required to either create or stop a hurricane is or ever will be possible. Even if it was, a large number of people would have to be in on the plot, and the government would have to have some kind of motive for doing it (the video falls into its nadir of incoherence when trying to explain why on earth the US government would want to engineer Hurricane Irma). But, of course, mere improbability and weight of assumption does not figure at all for a conspiracy theorist. The shadowy authorities are powerful enough – so they can do anything, it seems.

The role that these shadowy authorities play (the ‘deep state’, the ‘liberal establishment’ and its ‘fake news media’, the Communists, the Reptilians etc.) is very similar to that played by God in medieval times. The vaguer the actor the better, so that any inconvenient new developments can be readily attributed to it . It’s not necessary to offer any allegations about who exactly did what, since a vague suspicion is actually more powerful in inducing this kind of absolute belief. This shadowy authority is also, in Jungian terms, a projected archetype: an open potential that we have for power in ourselves is attributed to something beyond us.

But for those watching the video offering ‘proof’ of such a conspiracy theory, these considerations are unlikely to figure. In order to maintain critical awareness, the alternatives need to be available to you whilst you are watching such a video, or at least immediately afterwards. That for many people they obviously are not seems to be more than anything due to gaping holes in our education systems, which still leave many people without any practice in exercising that critical awareness. All the rest of us can do, I think, is try to support others in thinking things through, whilst trying to avoid simply inducing a dismissive reaction through too direct a challenge. Together with that, we can positively acknowledge the archetypes in us, not out there, and positively investigate the complexity of causation in an event like a hurricane, which may be our fault in some respects (looking at the wider context of climate change) but not in others. As the hurricane heads across the straits, my thoughts are with the people it is about to strike. For their sake, if for nobody else’s, please do not uncritically share conspiracy-mongering!

Picture: Hurricanes Irma and Jose on 6th Sept 2017, NASA (public domain)

Nationalism and Patriotism

[The following is an adapted chapter from Middle Way Philosophy 4: The Integration of Belief. It’s of special relevance given recent political events!]

Nationalism is an ideological commitment often, but not always, associated with conservatism. However, the fact that it can take liberal or socialist forms (as under the recent leadership of Alex Salmond in Scotland, or the anti-colonialist left wing leadership of such figures as Julius Nyerere in Tanzania) shows that it is worthy of separate treatment rather than being treated only as an aspect of conservatism. It could also be argued that most politicians add a seasoning of nationalism to their other ideologies – one that needs a separate critical perspective. For example, there are few politicians who will not appeal to ‘national interest’ to justify a stance in international negotiations, apparently without embarrassment.

Nationalism focuses specifically on one kind of value foundation of the six identified by Jonathan Haidt: that of loyalty. Loyalty to one’s country is predominantly loyalty to one’s compatriots and to the cultural (or perhaps linguistic and religious) traditions of that country, but also perhaps loyalty to that patch of the earth itself. Such loyalty clearly has a rooted basis in our moral experience, and in its benign, non-exclusive and non-ideological form may be defined as patriotism. I would suggest that patriotism involves an embodied sense of one’s relation to a particular ancestry, ethnicity, environment, language and culture, to deny which would be as fruitless as denying our bodies. Those who assume, explicitly or implicitly, that they are neutral in these respects must be deluded, for there is nobody with a body, for example, who can label other people ‘ethnic’ whilst they are not, or assume that their regional or class-specific language is the default and other people speak ‘dialects’.

For my own part, then, I try to acknowledge that I am an Englishman. What’s more, I’m a middle class educated Englishman subject to a particular set of cultural assumptions that go with that background. Although my culture and language are increasingly part of a globalised norm that tends to assume itself to be the default, these norms are actually very specific in their origins. Standard British English, which I use when writing, is just the one of many dialects of English that happens to have become dominant, but if you were hearing me speaking instead of reading, my delivery would be more obviously influenced by my physical state, background and environment, for example including a mildly northern English pronunciation. My geographical environment – that of an ecologically robust, damp, maritime, temperate, fertile, and heavily populated corner of Europe – is also only one of many specific geographical environments that help to form people’s cultural responses and assumptions, not some sort of default normality. I love the landscape and cultural heritage of England and embrace that specificity.

However, nationalism as normally understood, though made meaningful by this embodied patriotism, contains an additional absolute or metaphysical element: a belief in the absolute identity and value of the nation-state. Since belief in the nation-state means belief in the absoluteness of a set of boundaries and the value of what lies within those boundaries, it is a form of metaphysical field-belief (a belief about absolute boundaries). Such field-beliefs are in no way a necessary accompaniment of patriotism, for I can love my country without believing either that it should necessarily have particular boundaries or political organisation, or that the value of its assumed interests overrides other values. I could continue to love England, for example, whether it became part of a European superstate or whether it was divided up into micro-states, and even if the interests of its inhabitants in maintaining a particular level of wealth or land ownership needed to be greatly compromised to share that wealth or land with newcomers.

Such metaphysical field beliefs can be spotted as absolute assumptions that are required to reach particular policy judgements. For example, the belief that ‘national interests’ override the interests of those in other countries assumes an absolute rather than incremental distinction between the interests of those in one nation and those in another. This results, for example, in conflicts over resources or in immigration restrictions. If we compare these assumptions about national interests with those of an individual, they are equivalent to ‘self-interest’ – that is, a frozen representation of a self and its desires that is identified with at a particular time. Not only do the inhabitants of a country not necessarily identify with the particular boundaries and interests its government represents on its behalf, but it may actively prefer foreign ones, just as individuals may identify with others rather than themselves. The problem is thus not that nation-states, like individuals, have particular desires so much as that the represented context of those desires is assumed to be absolute and eternal. Nor is the problem with boundaries as such: nations need boundaries as a basis of action, just as individuals do, but those boundaries do not have to be absolutised. Boundaries on a political map, like those in language, can be provisional, accepted for practical reasons in the ongoing recognition that those reasons may change.

Though nationalism can be defined by this absolutised loyalty, it may also incorporate a range of other values depending on the circumstances. If a part of an existing nation-state demands independence, the emphasis is likely to be on liberty. If one nation is oppressed by another, the emphasis will be on fairness. If compatriots are suffering, the emphasis may be on care. If the nation has a clear leader such as a monarch, the authority of that leader is likely to be closely tied to loyalty to the nation. If the nation is closely associated with a specific religion, notions of sanctity are also likely to play a part. However, in each of these cases it would also be possible to detach the other value from the nationalistic beliefs. For example, in the recent referendum in Scotland on independence (2014), values of liberty and fairness were important for many Scots who voted ‘yes’ to independence, and who felt oppressed by the rule of Conservatives from London that they had not elected; but it would be possible to protest against this constraint and unfairness without tying it to the concept of Scottish nationhood.

The metaphysical elements of nationalism become even more pronounced in its extreme form as Fascism. Fascism not only maintains absolute field-beliefs in the nation, but also in the race that inhabits that nation. The difficulties of creating and maintaining an absolute division between a pure in-race and an inferior out-race became rather ludicrously apparent in Nazi Germany, where the stereotype of the pure Aryan did not fit Hitler himself very well, and Nazi men who were sexually attracted by Jewish women resorted to accusing them of using black magic to bewitch them rather than admitting their compatible humanity. Ideas of sanctity also tend to get embroiled in those of racial purity, with whatever lies beyond the zone of racial purity arousing disgust. Fascism also relies on the absolute authority of a leader in a way that supports totalitarianism.

Nationalism can be distinguished from most other political ideologies  in its central reliance on specific metaphysical beliefs, rather than on value foundations that may or may not be absolutised (such as the care and fairness that are central to socialism). This means that there are also counter-beliefs to nationalism that deny these beliefs, such as internationalism and cosmopolitanism, which deny national boundaries or deny the exclusivity of value involved in national interests. Like most metaphysical denials, these are mistaken if they simply assert the opposite, in this case that national boundaries have no justification at all or that the desires of national groups have no value. Internationalism becomes metaphysical when it denies patriotism and the experience of loyalty when rebounding from the dogmas of nationalism. Our international sympathies can become gradually extended in a way that is integrated from an embodied starting point, but this process can be blocked rather than aided by a discontinuous leap to a wholly international perspective.

Internationalism thus offers a false middle way between the extremes of conflicting national absolutes, when it is instead patriotism that offers an experience of loyalty to country as a value foundation in experience. One’s patriotism might potentially expand to include a positive identification with all other nations, but I do not need to have necessarily experienced all other nations and find them meaningful to adopt a Middle Way response to my own. Genuine internationalism thus needs to develop from the roots of a non-exclusive identification with one’s own country, and the confusion or repression of such roots is more likely to result in shallow nationalism than in genuine internationalism – just as the denial of one’s individual desires does not create the conditions for loving others.

Of related interest: Cosmopolitanism

Picture: Medal ceremony from the 1984 Olympics (Creative Commons: Wikimedia Commons)