Nationalist Moral Chauvinism

The argument between the moral chauvinist and the moral universalist is an argument over the standard for moral justification. For the chauvinist, if a rule or policy benefits the group to which the chauvinist happens to be a member, then it is justified. One of the chauvinist’s many problems, besides getting morality fundamentally wrong, is that she is a member of many groups. She may be a Catholic, of Chinese origin, and an American citizen. She may be a loyal Michigander, a stalwart of the local community, and a member in good standing of clubs and associations. The chauvinist who prioritizes the nation needs to provide some justification for choosing this membership as especially salient.

I don’t find communitarian conservatives confusing, but I do find communitarian nationalist conservatives confusing, especially when the nation in question is something so sprawling, diverse, and abstract as the United States of America. The USA is already more like, say, a North American Union than it is like the kind of tightly-knit gemeinschaft traditionalists crave. The massive, pluralistic, modern state is already so far down the anti-communitarian slippery slope that communitarian moral chauvinism asserted at the level of the state seems patently ridiculous, like a steam-powered laptop.

What I really think nationalist, anti-immigration conservatives would like is to establish some kind of strong right of cultural preservation without at the same time getting caught in a morass of relativistic identity politics. Well, good luck. At bottom of that desire, I think, is the conviction that cultural and moral chauvinism are necessary conditions for a rich and deeply meaningful life. But if you, like me, have actually been persuaded by the great thinkers of the Enlightenment about the universal nature of morality and rights, then this basically amounts to the claim that meaning in life requires immorality. Of course, it won’t do to baldly assert that the good life requires systematically harming outsiders and violating their rights as human beings, so the chauvinist generally answers the “Why be moral?” question be redefining morality as group partiality, or denying that it is even intelligible to recognize moral obligations simply in virtue of our shared humanity rather than in our shared sectarian identities.

I think low-brow, right-wing pop ideologues are rather more up front than most would-be right-wing intellectuals. They see the world as a place of irreconcilable conflict. Our culture is the best one. Our people are the best people. We are at war to preserve our culture and people against the interlopers, which requires keeping them away. The very presence of people speaking other languages in public threatens our culture, the best culture. And mixture of cultures and genes threatens to lead our people, the best people, to extinction. We may impose almost any cost on outsiders to preserve our culture and our people, because our culture and people are best, and those people are not us. Liberty, free association, dynamism, cosmopolitanism: these are code words for our destruction and those moralizers who rely on them are traitors.