The Moral Logic of Nationalism

by Jalees Rehman

Charlottesville Unite the Right Rally in 2017, Anthony Crider, via Wikimedia Commons

Why do people endorse political violence such as military attacks even if such violence is detrimental to their own self-interests? The US-led war against Iraq was supported by more than 70% of Americans within days of the invasion in March 2003, and even though the support dwindled over the course of subsequent months and years as it became obvious that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and had not posed a major threat to the US. One could surmise that the US public had simply been misled by its government about Iraq’s weapons program and the support was thus based on a rational self-interest calculation. The fear of being eviscerated by the supposed Iraqi WMDs convinced US citizens do approve of the war. The Iraq war came at a tremendous cost: It is estimated that at least two hundred thousand Iraqi civilians have been killed, with even more deaths attributed to the subsequent humanitarian and political crises precipitated by the war. The war also resulted in the deaths of several thousand American soldiers and a far greater number of American soldiers were wounded. From an economic perspective, it is estimated that at least one trillion dollars has been added to the national debt because of the war. This war was clearly against the self-interest of the American people, especially once it became obvious that Iraq did not possess WMDs. It is therefore all the more surprising that 40% of American adults continue to believe the military invasion of Iraq was the correct decision.  Is this large segment of American society acting irrationally?

The psychologist Jeremy Ginges at the New School for Social Research in New York has been researching the reasoning behind political violence for more than a decade and recently summarized his work in the paper The Moral Logic of Political Violence. He has carried out psychological experiments enrolling Palestinian refugees and Israeli settlers as well as participants from countries across the world such as Nigeria and the United States, with remarkably similar results.

According to Ginges, support for politically motivated violence is often rooted in the identification with an abstract cause such as a nation, a “holy land” or an ideology. When making rational choices about how to respond to external threats, humans indeed act out of self-interest, but according to Ginges, “abstract ideas can become so important that they fuse with an individual’s sense of self, such that threats to these ideas may be processed as existential threats to self“. His research suggests that participation in political violence is not necessarily a breakdown of morality but instead a switch towards deontological reasoning in which the violence can be seen as either completely prohibited or morally mandated to protect a “sacred” abstract idea. Cost-benefit analyses and assessment of the efficacy of violence to achieve one’s goals become less important, instead defending the “sacred” values become paramount.

Ginges’ research on how defending the “sacred” helps justify political and military violence is especially important today with the rise of nationalism in many countries. The US president proudly asserted that he was a nationalist, and nationalist movements are on the rise in Europe, Asia and South America. Nationalism fosters the sense of a “sacred”. George Orwell is his essay “Notes on Nationalism” written during the last months of World War 2 described the key characteristics of nationalism:

I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.

Nationalism inculcates the desire for power and supremacy, it also eviscerates individuality because individuals subscribing to nationalist ideologies fuse their identities with those of the sacred “nation”. This fusion of individuality with the greater abstract cause and placing the “nation” beyond traditional morality (thus transforming it into the “sacred”) is precisely the phenomenon Ginges observed as a justification for political violence.

The rise of nationalism in the US and Britain is manifesting itself with slogans such as “America First” or Brexit, with broad support among the population. A slim majority in Britain voted for leaving the European Union in 2016, and nationalist sentiments hearkening back to the glory of the British Empire and its sacred sovereignty were frequently alluded to in the campaign. Oddly enough, even though several economic analyses have suggested that Brexit could have a tremendous detrimental impact on the British economy and thus go against British self-interest, more than 40% of voters would still support Britain’s departure from the European Union. The rise in American and British nationalism have not yet resulted in the initiation of new wars but there is one concerning symptom in both countries: Hate crimes are on the rise at an unprecedented rate in the United Statesand Britain. Although Ginges focused on studying political violence in the form of military strikes, it is possible that the rise in hate crimes which may be politically motivated are dire indicators of a shift in moral reasoning.


J. Ginges (2018). The Moral Logic of Political ViolenceTrends in Cognitive Science, (in press).