Hazony’s views about the role of individuals and the nature of ethics mean that nations of any type are permitted to wage unjust war and impose sweeping domestic oppression. This nationalism should not guide our thinking today.
Nationalism is making a comeback. Buoyed by the rise of rightwing and authoritarian parties and movements across the globe, our political moment is full of appeals to this revived and increasingly popular creed. A prominent advocate is the Israeli political theorist Yoram Hazony, via his book The Virtue of Nationalism.
While understanding nationalism is vital for comprehending our era, Hazony’s work does not perform this task and instead adds further confusion. Ultimately, he defends propositions that, if taken to their conclusion, imply denying that individuals have any kind of meaningful autonomy, excusing state violence, and legitimizing gross violations of human rights. Hazony encourages us to lean more heavily into our tribal and authoritarian instincts—instincts which have served to fuel centuries of violent conflict and sustain oppressive social orders. Finally, he radically oversimplifies Jewish tradition, misrepresenting a complex faith with competing values of both universalism and particularism.
Hazony states that a nation is an extension of a tribe—an ethnically homogenous group which shares the same language, culture, and religion, and originates from the same area. Members may at different periods have joined together for common defense against external enemies. He contrasts nations with empires, which Hazony defines as being composed of many different tribes joined together through conquest by a dominant one. Hazony argues that we should favor nations and disfavor empires because the latter illegitimately impose themselves on the former.
Hazony claims that nations keep to themselves and to the territory by which they self‐define. Their statehood, which respects the sovereignty of other peoples, is part of their interest in self‐governance. In this regard, Hazony gives a defense of nationalism in quasi‐libertarian terms: nationalism is apparently nothing but self‐determination, free association, and independence. He argues that empires favor “universalism” over the coexistence of self‐governing nations. All must submit to the imperialists’ values. For Hazony, nationalism is about defending the plurality of world cultures, imperialism about imposing homogeneity. However, Hazony merely stipulates all this. He fails to demonstrate that this model is true. Rather, he gives us idiosyncratic definitions that serve to reclassify proffered counterexamples rather than engage challenges to his framework. Thus, for Hazony, Nazism was not nationalism, but imperialism, since the Nazis sought to impose themselves on other countries, even though Nazi ideology was precisely based on the ethnic conception of nationalism that Hazony defends.
Nationalism is in large part an ideological product of modernity, coupled with European states’ desire for conquest, which built stories of common belonging and national difference to make social control and wars of expansion more feasible. Hazony claims that such cases are in fact empires. However, ignored in this account is that all these cases are of states built on narratives about common origins, language, and culture—exactly the criteria which Hazony sets for nationhood. Thus, Hazony has it backwards: Nations do not create states. Rather, states frequently create nations by forcing groups together. 1
There are a few examples which do fit Hazony’s model. Some nations and states are “primordial,” or more directly linked to a single ethnicity or tribe. Hazony’s primary illustration of this is the Jews, specifically the version rendered in the biblical narrative. The Kurds, Basques, and Catalans present more instances of ethnically‐derived nations. Nevertheless, such examples are the exception, rather than the rule.
But these classification issues are ultimately secondary. Hazony’s view of moral obligations exacerbates the threat posed by nationalism. As I will discuss, his views about the role of individuals and the nature of ethics mean that nations of any type are permitted to wage unjust war and impose sweeping domestic oppression.
Hazony’s Mythical Collectivism
Hazony’s account is not merely factually inaccurate, but also morally problematic, as he sublimates individuals into collective monoliths. For Hazony, individuals are defined primarily by their belonging to a national group. Neglected in his account is that such group membership exists only as strongly as a given individual buys into it. Hazony does not consider that while I might be born in one place, family, and community, I may choose something else later in life. I can also be part of multiple groups and communities which perform different functions and command different loyalties. This ability is imperfect because group statuses (such as race) are often imposed from outside, but we nevertheless possess significant freedom to determine who we are.
In “Natural and Artifactual Man,” James M. Buchanan argued that our interests and preferences are not static, but emergent from our ongoing journey to define ourselves. Likewise, John Rawls and Robert Nozick each discussed how a core problem in doing political theory is adequately addressing the fact that each of us is a separate person with our own values and will. These key issues of individual autonomy and social diversity are wholly disregarded in Hazony’s discussion. In this regard, it is Hazony, not universalist liberals, who is running roughshod over pluralism.
Hazony has a point when he discusses how liberal thinkers have sometimes characterized individuals in a manner such that the people they talk about are so abstract as to seem somewhat unreal. All identities carry some roots, and this is not unimportant. Respect for others, as well as successful community building, often rests on appeals to individuals whose sense of self is connected to thickly‐entrenched group membership. I have discussed in depth the ways that recognition of identity is an ongoing paradox which can reflect healthy moral and social impulses, as well as dangerous intolerance and bigotry.
However, Hazony’s answer is to affirm identity so robustly as to metaphysically imprison people into one group: the nation. Such a move imposes an identity regardless of whether people embrace it. The complex nuances of communal affiliation are thus discarded for a quasi‐reimagining of the medieval Great Chain of Being. For Hazony, individuals are bound to their national roots in the manner of serfs to feudal estates; a person’s identity doesn’t really exist apart from the tribe. Hazony’s social anthropology mirrors that of Rousseau, for whom identities and value commitments are only meaningful within the context of a holistic body politic. The leaders of the nation‐state serve as mythic avatars for the “general will” of all.
Hazony concedes that nations, like states, are abstractions which bear little if any authority to command allegiance. Most people in my nation are strangers, and I have no reason to see them as automatically constituting part of my identity or community. In this regard, it is impossible to aggregate all interests into a consensus. However, he claims that this gap is bridged by assumptions of mutual loyalty and commitment, such as one finds in families, qualities which he says are replicated in the national context.
Conceiving of the nation as a family is a fallacy discussed extensively by F.A Hayek in The Fatal Conceit . For Hayek, seeing nations and states as familial is a product of our minds’ insufficient adaptation to the size, complexity, and diversity of the modern world. We are still using instincts which evolved during humanity’s struggle to survive in prehistory. In that setting, group co‐dependence was essential, and we knew only fellow members of our tribe or band. This is no longer the case. Continuing to rely on such instincts dangerously misapplies the logic of the “intimate order”—the family and the tribe—to the “extended order”—modern states and global market systems. It threatens the social cooperation and prosperity we have gained in the transition to modernity.
Why Nationalism Always Comes with a Sword
Hazony rejects moral universalism, as well as any account of human rights. He provides a version of an argument familiar to readers of Edmund Burke and other conservatives and communitarians, as well as the tradition of empiricism associated with David Hume. This says that moral relationships and duties are established through the communities of which we are a part, through the people with whom we interact and hold ongoing relationships. Universal claims are intellectual fictions and morality is only grounded in the norms of specific communities. This means that since each society has its own way of doing things, and that communities differ, we should give space for plurality. By contrast, a universal morality, such as that proposed by Locke, Kant, Mill, Rawls, and other liberal philosophers, is a motivation for imperialism, because universal norms and duties require universal enforcement.
There is some merit to this claim. Jacob Levy argues that liberalism carries tensions between what he calls “rationalism” and “pluralism.” For Levy, “rationalism” describes the tradition which sees liberalism as founded in abstract moral theories which view freedom and equality as best secured by a nonpartisan central authority. By contrast, “pluralism” is the tradition which locates freedom in diverse community associations that push back against state coercion. This tension is especially significant when communal practices may violate liberal notions of individual autonomy and human rights. Liberal debates about humanitarian interventions and foreign policy reflect ongoing wrestling over this question.
However, Hazony fails to recognize that liberalism is not uniform. He fails to distinguish between the liberalism which is skeptical of state power and the wisdom of using violent institutions to impose one’s will on others, and that which sees state power as nothing but a means for liberal ends. He also does not clearly distinguish between cooperative multilateral agreements, such as international courts and legal systems, which are voluntarily entered into by states, and actual global government. Furthermore, Hazony does not engage with the point that liberalism’s commitment to both universal rights and lifestyle diversity usually counsels against interfering with the lives of others and the plurality of communities.
By contrast, under Hazony’s framework there is no ethical constraint on whether and how we may impose ourselves on others. For Hazony, rights do not exist but by permission of the collective. This is an essential problem at the heart of his case. Nationalism functions as a justification for state oppression and violence, because it lacks any principle which could say harms to declared outgroups are unjust. The highest good is that of “The People.” Since most nations and states are not ethnically homogenous, but heterogeneous composites, defining “People”-hood often involves xenophobia. The quest to define who is part of the national body becomes an impetus for exclusion and prejudice.
Furthermore, because Hazony restricts nations to only being tribal and ethnic, rather than civic and ideational, bigotry becomes an inherent danger. On Hazony’s account, the only reason we have moral obligations towards anybody is because we relate to them as fellow group‐members: “The People” constitute a category of moral value higher than any other. Entirely ignored are other meaningful moral intuitions we have—intuitions which recognize moral worth in others for their humanity and their sentience. Hazony’s theory does not require states to create legitimacy through respect for individual rights, since they function only as embodiments of a tribal destiny. It is therefore sadly unsurprising that the conservative pundit Candace Owens appropriated Hazony to make the absurd and horrifying claim that Nazism was only a problem because of its ambitions to conquer other countries.
This is a point supported by the true history of nationalism, woefully missing in Hazony’s book. As Alex Nowrasteh writes (summarizing Douglas Porch) imperialism is the highest stage of nationalism. It is perhaps telling that Hazony’s model centers on an incomplete recitation of the biblical account of Jewish history wherein he wholly omits the ancient Israelite conquest and murder of the peoples of Canaan, in pursuit of what they saw as their birthright, and episodes like Saul’s genocide of the Amalekites.
There is no reason to believe, despite Hazony’s assurances, that nationalism means restraint from interference with other cultures. What is more probable is that a sense of national pride and entitlement makes it extremely difficult to cooperate with outgroups. Nationalism relies on a sense of pride in being a member of a certain group, as opposed to that of any other. Not because of the contributions that my group may make to humanity, but simply because I happen to be a member. Thus, nationalism encourages enmity between societies, almost by definition. Moreover, this sense of pride is fundamentally chauvinistic and anti‐egalitarian, centering on a form of hierarchical pride, or the instinct that Francis Fukuyama terms “megalothymia.” This kind of recognition is not about giving “to each his due,” but about declaring one form of identity to be superior to the alternatives.
Furthermore, nothing prevents nations from engaging in imperial conquest when it is in the interest of the governing class and/or a desire on the part of the public. It is precisely these popular instincts which are exploited by elites to maintain their grip on power. Hazony ultimately commits us to a form of nationally‐justified moral relativism, in which there are no values except what nations define as right and wrong. Thus, it is easy to see why the history of nationalism is the history of imperial conquest. It is also why nationalist empires have rarely sought to be agents of pluralism as Hazony claims, but have been exploitative and oppressive, gathering tribute and subjugating populations to the rule of elites. It is only after thousands of years that the idea of constraining the state became a prominent aspect of politics, the result of the liberalism Hazony rejects.
Why Moral Obligations Need Not Be Tribal
Furthermore, as Kian Hudson points out, Hazony omits those aspects of the Hebrew Bible (and, I would say, the Jewish tradition broadly) that complicate his story. The idea that human beings are created in God’s image, what Jews call “tzelem elohim” (for Christians the “imago dei”) and that therefore our moral obligations extend to everyone, is the missing half of a core religious dialectic: It is important that the Hebrew Bible talks not only about Jews as God’s chosen people, but also of the Jewish obligation to welcome strangers and outsiders. While Judaism does not proselytize, Jews are also obligated to be an “or l’goyim”—a “light unto the nations.” Later texts—including the Talmud and the works of philosophers such as Maimonides—spend extensive time debating the appropriate range and degree of universalism vs. particularism. No accurate account of the Bible or of Judaism can be had without including both elements.
Hazony also fails to show why moral obligations must depend on their establishment in and by groups. He argues that “rationalist” moral theory is too dependent on abstract ideas without real world grounding—for Hazony, morality only exists in contexts. However, Hazony does not account for what is a significant is‐ought problem. The fact that we first learn morality in specific places does not show we ought to see moral duties as only grounded by those environments.
Just because morality is learnt in a local setting does not mean the values of which it consists cannot be more broadly applied. As Adam Smith pointed out in The Theory of Moral Sentiments , our ability to extend our sympathy and empathize with one another is a central part of human moral psychology and serves as grounding for a wide range of obligations. We can and should recognize others for who they are, not simply for what group they originate from. Our moral intuitions are complex and capable of great sophistication in their application. Hazony erases this, encouraging us to restrict our moral vocabulary to an impoverished state.
It is precisely our ability to reason and apply principles in complex and abstract forms that allows moral ideas to be relevant considerations extending beyond tribal borders. Whether that takes the form of deontology, consequentialism, or some other theory is secondary. What is significant is that human intelligence and sentience allow us not only to have moral intuitions, but to reason about them, to deliberate about our values and consider areas of concern which we do not directly experience. I do not need to live beside people from another part of the world to recognize the kinds of interests they have, the problems they face, and the common humanity we share. I can apply my reason to my moral sense and extend the range of my ethical concern. In this way, I can abstract from my context and ground my understanding of what I owe to others. Indeed, the Bible itself makes this point, when God tells the Israelites in Exodus 23:9 (my emphasis): “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, as you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Once you start offering reasons for ignoring the interests of others, however, reasoning itself will usually draw you into a kind of universality. A reason is an offer of a ground for thinking or feeling or doing something. And it isn’t a ground for me, unless it’s a ground for you. If someone really thinks that some group of people genuinely doesn’t matter at all, he will suppose they are outside the circle of those to whom justifications are due.
Nationalism is a powerful force in the modern world, one which requires a serious reckoning. Work providing explanation and understanding of nationalism is thus sorely needed. Unfortunately, The Virtue of Nationalism is not that book. It is certainly true that humans are group‐oriented, and that tribalism is part of our evolved normative language. However, insofar as these instincts constrain our ability to have widespread empathy, this is a reason to see nationalism in solely pragmatic terms, and to encourage a civic national identity, not an ethnic or tribal one. At their best, nations and the states which represent them are a way to expand our circle of inclusion and to supply a limited set of public goods. At worst, they are grave threats to peace, prosperity, and social cooperation. Nationalism is a vice, a dangerous instinct of our primordial cave‐dwelling past, not a guide for our present.
1. Importantly, nationalism is both a “bottom up” as well as a “top‐down” phenomenon. As Benedict Anderson notes, national “imagined communities” emerged culturally as part of a common consciousness created by modern technologies and industrial society, which broke down geographical and social distance through printing presses, regional newspapers, synchronized clocks and calendars, railroads, etc. However, as Anderson and scholars such as James C. Scott discuss in Seeing Like A State and The Art of Not Being Governed , modern states also imposed national identities by compelling individuals and groups to take on corporate identifiers such as last names, imposing military conscription, creating and requiring attendance in public schools, requiring use of the state legal system, mandating the adoption of a single common language, and more.