Public opinion and moral certainty

The tension between morality and freedom pits tradition, history, and community on one side of the equation, and private appetites, striving, and happiness on the other.  Tradition anchors morality:  good and evil, not truth, are the children of time.

Public opinion in turn upholds tradition.  Nothing else will do, even in societies that claim divine sanction for their way of life.  The Old Testament, I would suggest, tells the story of a titanic struggle for public opinion in Israel and Judea.  God tells Ezekiel:  “Though they have eyes they will not see, though they have ears they will not hear, because they are a rebellious people.”

Public opinion is said to be fickle and easily deceived.  For this reason, philosophers get even grumpier than prophets when considering its influence over morality.  To base the good life on opinion, they insist, is to build on sand.

Instead, they put forward an absolute universal “first principle,” each according to his sect:  reason, nature, utility, etc.  Such principles appeal to theoretical thinkers, but have little effect on ordinary people leading everyday lives.  No society in history, and precious few philosophers, sought to organize life according to reason or nature.

Present-day postmodernists have done much to confirm the philosophers’ worst fears.  Since morality is only opinion, they argue, and since no person’s opinion can be “privileged” in a democratic society, then it follows that each person is entitled to his own morality.  This formula has proved even less practicable than those of the universalists.  None would be more horrified than postmodernist parents, if their kid evinced an interest in praising God from atop a pillar — an alternative lifesyle once much admired.

The only alternative to opinion is brute force, and that only for the short term.  Every regime, to endure, must have some degree of buy-in from the people.

Opinion is identified with the flux of subjectivity.  Moral judgments, we feel, should emanate from a fixed place:  otherwise they run the risk of becoming arbitrary, self-interested, unjust.

But moral opinion is anchored to tradition, and tradition provides as much objectivity and predictability as our species is capable of when judging behavior. Mathematical precision is not in the cards.  To most Americans, the ideal of marriage is a lifelong partnership between a man and a woman.  Reality often falls short, but that is true with every ideal.  The standard holds.  We measure the worth of our lives against it — and it is no more arbitrary or subjective than the dollar.

The men of the eighteenth century, who built our world, understood this perfectly well, and seemed unafraid of the consequences.  For David Hume, causation was dissolved into a kind of custom.  The Founding Fathers, having rebelled against the mightiest power of the day, felt obliged to explain their reasons out of a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.”  Supposed revolutionaries fought for a restoration of their traditional rights, and charged George III with “altering fundamentally the Forms of our Government.”

Deference for “the opinions of mankind” did not outlast the revolutionary generation, and is scarcely heard of today.  Particularly in morals, opinion gets conflated with conventionalism, hypocrisy, suburban status-seeking, and outright prejudice.

Among Anglo-Saxons of Dissenter stock, moral worth is earned by a principled unwillingness to conform.  Thus J. S. Mill anticipated the postmodernists by urging “different experiments of living.”  Emerson, lecturing to thousands of his compatriots, affected a disdain for their shared ideals:  “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. . .  It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.”  “Whoso would be a man,” Emerson pronounced, “must be a nonconformist.”

The glorification of nonconformism, I suspect, leads directly to romanticizing outlaws, quirks, and thugs.  Yet most manifestations of this attitude are ritualized and deeply rooted in a particular tradition:  given a Protestant historical context, idealizing nonconformism becomes inevitable.  Thoreau in his Irishman’s shack marks the limits of this sort of break with public opinion.

Progressives like Walter Lippmann elaborated yet another critique of opinion.  Lippmann had no time for tradition:  even the Founders, he judged, were out of date.  As for the people, the vast majority of events on which they formed opinions took place beyond the small circle of their experience.  The people depended on media reports, and the media, Lippmann knew, reported not truth but stereotypes.  On most great issues of the day, therefore, public opinion rested on second-hand perceptions of a bogus reality.

The electorate resembled the inmates of  Plato’s cave, who confused dancing shadows for the world:  what hope was there for democracy?  Like Plato, Lippmann proposed an elite corps of government technicians, to interpret the world for the rest of us.

This argument resonates today on both sides of the political spectrum.  Conservatives decry media bias; liberals feel exasperated by the stupidity of the electorate.  Without wading into this political tarpit, a few observations can be made about Lippmann’s claims.  First, he is very likely right in his main thesis:  the media distorts the public’s perception of events beyond their immediate experience.  Second, despite superior knowledge, experts rarely do better, and often do much worse, than the general public in predicting and analyzing such events.  Conversely, large aggregates of untutored opinion, like the stock market, have amazing predictive capabilities.

The progressive assumption that democracy requires every citizen to be knowledgeable on every issue confuses technical expertise with moral insight, and is, on the evidence, almost certainly false.

The Founders, so breezily dismissed by Lippmann, perceived the moral foundation of democracy with much greater clarity than he did.  My ignorance of events in Iraq does not nullify my knowledge of our moral traditions, which I use to judge myself, my fellow citizens, and my political representatives.  Public opinion, when anchored to these traditions, provides a “wisdom of the crowds” beyond the reach of technical expertise.

Yet the Founders knew that public opinion often goes astray, and can inflict particular damage in democracies.  “If a majority be united by a common interest,” Madison noted, “the rights of the minority will be insecure.”  The division of powers and fragmentation of interests minimized this threat, but ultimately the problem remained moral rather than technical in nature.  Madison, again:  “To suppose that any form of government will secure happiness or liberty without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.”

What happens when virtue fails, and public opinion becomes an instrument of tyranny?

We have no need to speculate.  We have examples, of which the most egregious was the Jim Crow South.  A self-interested majority made a deal with the devil, and became entangled in an evil way of life.  The white population used its criminal element to brutalize blacks, and brutalized themselves in the bargain.

In the end, Southern whites surrendered much of their own freedom of action for the doubtful privilege of repressing all of the blacks’.  When my family came to Virginia many years ago, the land of Jefferson and Madison wasn’t even a one-party state — it was the private fiefdom of a feudal lord.  Harry Byrd made just one promise:  to keep the races in their places.  For that mess of potage were traded away the freedoms Virginians had fought to spread to the rest of the country.

A more localized corruption of opinion occurs with greater frequency, as can be seen from the recent hounding of Larry Summers from the presidency at Harvard.  There, the self-interest of the faculty was ideological, and the tyranny of the majority was the more remarkable in that it acted without formal authority.  The incident demonstrates the raw power of opinion, and the misery it can inflict when unmoored from our moral traditions.  Had Summers espoused the cause of equal rights in Harry Byrd’s Virginia, he could not have been more thoroughly defeated and disgraced.

The demoralization of public opinion presents the harshest test of personal character and integrity.  Because opinion rules the mind, people crave to go along.  Good people — surely most Southern whites were good human beings, as were most Germans under Nazi rule — become accomplices to crimes.  Consequently, when opinion is corrupted the stench of deception and self-deception hangs heavy in the air.  In Harry Byrd’s time, a great many subjects could not be discussed.  Larry Summers to his sorrow discovered the existence of sex taboos at Harvard.

What is to be done in such cases?  The redeeming virtues are honesty and courage.  They can be found in ordinary persons like Rosa Parks, and in towering figures like Lincoln and Martin Luther King.  The appeal is to the moral tradition violated by corrupt opinion.  In the South, as both Lincoln and King understood, that tradition flowed out of he words of a great Virginian:  that all men are created equal.

A tradition belongs to everyone in the moral community.  It lives or dies on publicly confirmed behavior, not on weasel words or dissimulations.  Higher truths and abstract principles, on the other hand, may drive an individual to great exertions and achievements, but will rarely persuade his neighbor.


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