Duties to nations


This handout is a draft.

According to a view referred to as statism, there are duties of justice that we have to fellow citizens of our state that we do not have to people in general. Someone who holds this view might think (a) there are only duties of justice within the state, or (b) there are some duties of justice globally but there are extra duties of justice within the state.


David Miller accepts statism and tries to explain why we have such extra duties by appealing to shared national identity.


Special duties

Miller distinguishes between special duties and general duties.

I am not entirely sure what is the best way to define Ďspecial dutiesí.

But here is the one which I shall work with:

Special duties = duties that you have to some person or group but not to everyone.


Special duties and nations

According to Miller, if you are involved in a relationship to a person or a group, because of an attachment to them, you have a special duty to do X if and only if the following conditions are met:

(i)              The relationship is intrinsically valuable.

(ii)             Duty X is essential to the relationship.

(iii)            The relationship is not inherently unjust. (Injustice is not essential to the relationship.)


Miller thinks that if a person is part of a national community, and has an attachment to this community, then these conditions are met for some duties. The person has duties to support other members and duties to ensure the continuation of the community, for these duties are essential to this kind of relationship. And this, he thinks, can explain why we have duties of justice within the state which we do not have to do globally.


Intrinsic value

X is intrinsically valuable either if X has value but no value as a means to an end; or else, even if X has value as a means to an end, X has some other value as well.

In other words, there is some value which goes beyond any instrumental value.


Miller says that national groups are intrinsically valuable. Why does he say this?


He appears to commit himself to the following principle or one very much like it:

If a person experiences something as intrinsically valuable, there is justification for thinking that it is intrinsically valuable (unless a compelling argument can be given to show that the experience is misleading).


On the basis of this principle, he says that given that members experience national groups as intrinsically valuable, so there is justification for saying that it is intrinsically valuable. The experience detects the intrinsic value.


(The principle above allows for a lot of intrinsic value claims to be justified. Although Miller does not say so, one might think that the only alternative to this principle is the extreme position taken up by Hume: that there is no intrinsic value; that we just project value onto the world. This would mean that nothing is intrinsically valuable, not even persons. It is unclear whether there is any plausible position in between this extreme and Millerís principle.)


An objection to Millerís account

An objection to Millerís account of why we have extra duties within states is what about people within the state who do not identify with any national group. One cannot expect them to do duties that arise from attachment to a national group because they do not have the attachment to begin with, yet they will be expected to do various duties just as much as other citizens (see Child 2011).



Child, R. 2011. Statism, Nationalism and the Associative Theory of Special Obligations. Theoria 58: 1-18.

Miller, D. 2005. Reasonable Partiality Towards Compatriots. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 8: 63-81.