Tolstoy on Patriotism

Via Bryan Caplan, we get this quote from my favorite author, Leo Tolstoy:

If an American wishes the preferential grandeur and well-being of America above all other nations, and the same is desired by his state by an Englishman, and a Russian, … and all of them are convinced that these desires need not only not be concealed or repressed, but should be a matter of pride … and if the greatness and wellbeing of one country or nation cannot be obtained except to the detriment of another nation, … – how can war be avoided?

And so, not to have any war, it is … necessary to … destroy what produces war. … the desire for the exclusive good for one’s own nation – what is called patriotism. And so to abolish war, it is necessary to abolish patriotism, and to abolish patriotism, it is necessary to it is necessary first to become convinced that it is an evil, and that is hard to do.

Bryan comments:

A hundred years later, Tolstoy seems more perceptive than ever. In the modern world, how often do countries actually have anything to fight about? 

I intend to take this position:  I prefer what is good for the world, over what is good for my country, and when USA patriots disagree with others about what is good for the world, I’m not particularly likely to take their side.  But I wonder: Do I really take this position? 

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  • http://profile.typekey.com/nickbostrom/ Nick Bostrom

    When some point of contention comes up, it might help if there were a more impartial body that could deliberate and issue a verdict. You could then move your opinion closer to what this hopefully less biased body had concluded… Some kind of court of opinion, with a jury consisting of regular people sampled representatively from a variety of remote, neutral countries for example. The sides to the dispute would each present evidence and lay out the reasons why they think their own country is right, and the deliberating body would conduct an investigation, call expert witnesses, etc., and finally the jury would vote. If you consistently tended to side with your own country against the verdict of such a body, you should suspect yourself of having a patriotic bias.

    In the absence of such a body, it might still help to focus your thinking on trying to predict what such a body would conclude if it were assembled, rather than directly think about whether your country is right or not. You could also look at proxies such as opinion polls in independent countries, votes in the UN general assembly etc. for clues as to how the hypothetical deliberating body would decide. Or you could simply adjust all your first-order judgments a little bit in favor of the adversaries of the US to compensate for your presumed patriotic bias.

  • Dagon

    Aggregation on this level doesn’t work very well for me. I prefer what’s good for the world over what’s good for my country, but that’s far too general a statement to have any meaning.

    What does “good for a country” and “good for the world” really mean? I like things that are good for individuals, and I readily admit that my empathy is not consistent across individuals or even time. I generally make choices that make my life and those I relate to better, even at the expense of others.

    I’m not particularly likely to take the side of a politician who appeals to national pride to do something stupid. I AM likely to take the side of a neighbor who I know and like and has a large effect on my life.

    This can look a lot like patriotism. But it’s just boring old self-interest.

  • http://neighbors.webcrossing.com/tlundeen Tim Lundeen

    Generally speaking, what’s good for the US is good for the world and vice versa. The US is the wellspring of innovation for the world, and creates tremendous value. We value personal freedom and individual rights, and I think those values are the foundation for making the world a better place. So I rarely see a conflict 🙂

  • http://profile.typekey.com/halfinney/ Hal Finney

    It’s not easy to overcome the patriotism bias. If people agree with the idea of my recent posting about a “big issue” bias, I do think that most issues where patriotism is relevant are “big issues”. Learning to overcome big issue bias can be a big help towards getting over patriotism bias.

  • Stanford

    Perhaps the U.S. is unique in that what is good for the U.S., or what the U.S. patriots think is morally right, is generally good for the world, whereas this is less true for other countries. This would indicate that the truth is not normally distributed, and it is not in our interest to go “with the crowd”.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/brucekbritton/ Bruce Britton

    To find out if Robin ‘really takes this position,’ one route is to consider the whole continuum of possible such positions
    ranging from Robin’s ‘selfish genes,’ in which he prefers himself along with those who share his genes, like his parents and children, but not his wife or best friend,
    then ascending to preferring those who share only some genes, like distant blood relatives, and so on, passing one’s country on the way,
    all the way up to the ‘Universal Viewpoint ‘ (one of Bernard Lonergan’s) including all members of the human species.
    Does he include future humans, and at what discount rate? an active subject these days. And does he go beyond this to include in his universal viewpoint the animals (PETA, Jains), and some include trees (Earth First), and even rocks and air (Gaia). At that point, Nick’s proposal would get impossible to implement. To see how far Robin goes we must also consider an attack by aliens, would he want to know first how (pick a trait) they are? Another important scenario is an attack by Robots, especially ones smarter than humans. That is, what does Robin include in ‘the world?’

    A quite different route to see if Robin ‘really’ takes this position would be to ask him about his house that he pictures on his web site, is he aware that there are many people who do not have a house as nice, or at all? If he ‘really’ takes the position that he wants what is best for the (people of the) world, has he considered giving all he has to the poor, and making off for Sub-Saharan Africa? That is, are we talking here about Robin’s behavior or just his speech behavior.

    Going meta here, one lever we need to settle this question is what he means by ‘really.’ Are we talking about his behavior, or about his ability to claim to have a belief without feeling like a liar, or about his strength of conviction, or what?
    And as in my first paragraph, we need to know what he means by ‘world.’

    But then what? Settling the language would not settle the issue if the question is an empirical one. And even if we did the appropriate experiments, we could still be hung on the invincible privateness of Robin’s mental life: anything he tells us might be a lie, or an unconscious self-deception.

    All of which is to the effect that the question is not finally answerable until we specify what would safisfy us as a true answer.

    So the first step is to do that.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/halfinney/ Hal Finney

    It’s interesting to see this U.S.-centric chauvinism here. A study last year found that the U.S. was tied for number one in patriotism:

    “On the 2003/2004 National Identity Study of the International Social Survey Program, the United States tied with Venezuela for first place in national pride. As Table 1 shows, the US ranked first on domain-specific pride and second on the more nationalistic, general national pride. Venezuela scored second and first on the two scales and thus shared an overall first place rank with the United States. National pride in the United States was higher in 2004 than in 1996. Most countries showed little change over this period and more had declines than increases.”

    See pages 3 and 4 of this magazine (PDF) for the complete rankings.

  • http://areasonableman.com/ Gil

    Hal implies that the high-level of U.S. patriotism is evidence of a problem.

    But, if the interests and values of a country are better aligned with the interests and values of all people, then we should expect to see more rational patriotism there.

    I’m not talking about the acts of government, I’m talking about the dominant values.

    I think a good test of how well a country is aligned with interests of the world is to imagine that all immigration/emigration restrictions were removed from all countries.

    Where would people choose to go?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/brucekbritton/ Bruce Britton

    If we are talking about Tolstoy and Mr. Caplan, it only takes one of the countries to ‘ desire its greatness and well-being’ to the point of war. The other country, if attacked, can’t necessarily be accused of overly desiring its greatness and well-being.

    It might be interesting to address specific wars: the Russians’ with Hitler, the South Koreans’ with Kim Il Sung, South Vietnam with Ho Chi Minh, and Kuwait with Iraq.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Nick, yes, it would be great to hear verdicts of random juries on many world issues.

    Bruce, I didn’t mean to suggest I counted strangers near as much as myself; just that I want to count distant strangers near as much as nearby strangers.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    I think a good test of how well a country is aligned with interests of the world is to imagine that all immigration/emigration restrictions were removed from all countries.

    Where would people choose to go?

    People willing to emigrate are not representative of world opinion. And money also games the system, as well as people’s impressions of countries (for ex, to take the US, people are generally very keen to emigrate to it, disagree moderately with its values, and dislike it as a country; France gets some immigration, better agreement on values, and a moderate dislike as a country, etc…)

    A better question would be: if a country, other than your own or a close ally, were to conquer the world, which one would you want it to be?

    And to see if your patriotism trumps your universalism: did you have trouble answering the previous question, because you can’t bear the idea of your conuntry under another, even if the other’s values are equally good?

  • http://areasonableman.com/ Gil

    Stuart, how does money “game” the system? And, why is it better to rely on what people say than on what they do?

    Your question, by eliminating the choice of a close ally, makes it hard to imagine the other country having values that are equally good.

  • Jeff Lonsdale

    This stance is highly contingent on who you define as a US Patriot. If you look at debate on a domestic political level, most mainstream party members would choose to label themselves as patriots. You might think certain people aren’t really patriots, but your decision to alter their self-described label may be biased by the fact that you agree with their world policy view and see yourself as disagreeing with patriots. It is hard to make sure that you live up to that position.

    If you look at the debate from a worldwide perspective, why take the stance of an EU patriot over a USA patriot? Are self described non-patriots generally more or less likely to be on one side of the political spectrum or on an extreme side in general? Extreme patriotism is unhealthy, but does that mean that its complete absence is preferable?

  • Bill

    A better question would be: if a country, other than your own or a close ally, were to conquer the world, which one would you want it to be?

    This is an easy one: Switzerland.

    This stance is highly contingent on who you define as a US Patriot.

    Exactly. I consider myself a US patriot because I distrust my government, and I consider those that do trust the government unpatriotic.

    This is my first visit to this site. I plan on visiting it often. Great comments! (They’re much better than mine.)

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Stuart, how does money “game” the system?

    Because Saudi Arabia attracts masses of immigrants, to choose just one example. But money isn’t the only thing “gaming” the system – culture and language (why do Pakistanis move to England so often?) and even the wheather (why do nordic countries attract so few immigrants?). There’s also repulsion factors to consider – some countries (the USA is a good example) are extremely attractive to some people, and very repulsive to others, while others are blander. Migrations wouldn’t capture that repulsion, just note it as a non-migration. Some people would love to work in a country, but would never raise a family there.

    Your question, by eliminating the choice of a close ally, makes it hard to imagine the other country having values that are equally good.

    Well, to refine the question a little bit:
    A political party you disagree with has come to power in your country. You are offered a choice (ignore the practicalities here) of living under that political party, or picking another country, and a political party of your choice in that country, and having them take over your own land. What would you go for?

    I’m British, and rather than living under a certain major party (I’ll let you guess which one 🙂 I’d prefer to have Britain taken over by the “good guys” from: the USA, Canada, most of Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India (recent addition to my list), South Korea, Chile (not entirely certain there).

    If the party in power in my own country was an extremist one, then I’d extend my list to include: Turkey, Israel, Lebannon, Argentina, Brazil, and Japan (I’m sure I’ve missed a lot of countries I’m less familiar with).

    There’s a definite bias in my list, but I hope nationalism isn’t it.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Extreme patriotism is unhealthy, but does that mean that its complete absence is preferable?

    If we’re trying to avoid bias, then the only justification for patriotism is ignorance – my country’s good, I don’t know enough about other countries to decide, so I’ll go with my country generally. This a real case for patriotism – checking out other countries’ values is time-consumming and may not be worth it.

    But I also have to admit that currently, patriotism is more often found on what we could term “the right” in many countries. So defending/crticising it could be a proxy for other political values. But this changes throughout history (in revolutionary France, patriotism was proclaimed by the jacobin left versus the internationalist aristocracy, and Stalin’s Russia hardly lacked patriotism). But if we avoid these proxy debates, and focus on the real issues, then I feel that bias is the only thing that patriotism contributes to a debate.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Stuart, if you don’t know much about other countries, I don’t see how you know that your country is good, so I don’t see how ignorance justifies patriotism.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Stuart, if you don’t know much about other countries, I don’t see how you know that your country is good, so I don’t see how ignorance justifies patriotism.

    Good point. I was thinking along the lines of “you know enough about other countries to know they aren’t fabulous compared to yours, but no more”. Or, more formaly, if you have a Bayesian estimate of the “goodness” of the other country, then the piece of the estimate that exceeds the value for your country isn’t interesting enough for you to want to refine the estimate.

    The “interest” depends on a lot of things, such as the actual distribution, your estimate of how much effort would be required to refine it, and how much that knowledge would make a practical difference to you (would you move to that copuntry? Start emulating its values? Defer to its interests somehow?).

  • Paul

    Tolstoy’s theorem rests on one assumption: countries are at odds because the world is a zero sum game. Trade of goods is a win/win, or nonzero sum game. The fact that countries (and individuals) trade means that improvement of both countries can happen without detriment to either.

    As for patriotism, I wouldn’t turn over the well being of America over to world desires any more than I would turn my individual well being over to my neighbor. He doesn’t know what’s good for me better than I do. Why would any country or group of countries know better for than the country itself?

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Why would any country or group of countries know better than the country itself?

    Then why bother having the country in the first place? Why not restrict to the state, or the county, or the city? If there’s an argument for turning over the well being of your city to your country, then there’s an argument for doing the same with your country to the world (or at least some of the world). If you object to that, then you need a different argument to base your objection on.

  • Paul

    If the country has power over the state, it’s because of contractual obligations. In America, this is called the constitution. I’m aware of no contract that America has signed with the rest of the world that would obligate it to some global action, any more than any other country has done the same. Yes, there’s an argument for turning your well being over to another: through a contract agreed by both sides.

    As for restrictions on the state, etc., no state would agree to turn its welfare over to the nation, except where it already has done so (military, higher courts, etc.). Where the state has not agreed but the nation requires, these actions are done at the point of a gun. When the state fights the nation on such matters, de facto the state believes it should be in control of its own well being or why else fight? When the nation forces otherwise, it’s tyranny. When countries force America for example to do their bidding, it’s also tyranny.