Making Virtuous Sense of Public Opinion

I have been hearing a lot in the last week or so about the importance (or unimportance) of public opinion in political matters.

  • On Wednesday, September 3, Sarah Palin gave her speech at the convention accepting her nomination as John McCain’s running-mate. One of her themes was public opinion: “Here’s a little news flash for all those reporters and commentators: I’m not going to Washington to win their good opinion.” She’s in good company among her running mate who is known as a contrarian, often irreverent straight-talker who doesn’t care what you or anybody else thinks so long as he is getting the job done.
  • President Bush is unpopular. We hear about it all the time. Throngs of Obama supporters shout “We want change,” every time the good senator tries to make a speech, and McCain has become increasingly emphatic that he too is a change candidate. Nobody wants to be associated with the guy who is obviously in the wrong. But according to an op-ed in the Boston Globe on Thursday, while Bush’s approval ratings may only be 30%, the Democratic-controlled Congress has a 9% approval rating.
  • On Thursday, September 4, I read a fascinating op-ed in the Boston Globe entitled “Bush’s enduring legacy in Africa.” The article was providing a counterpoint to those who bemoan the wide-spread animosity towards the United States President Bush has fostered abroad. The article claims that polling data from the Pew Foundation indicate this fear and loathing of the US is not as widespread as we may think: “Approval ratings for the United States exceed 80 percent in many African countries, some with large Muslim populations. In Darfur, many families name their newborn sons George Bush.” The article goes on to say that Bush’s humanitarian and economic initiatives—such as quadrupling foreign aid to more than $5 billion, providing peacemaking assistance in Sudan, and providing HIV-riddled countries with anti-retrovirals—are responsible for Bush’s popularity in Africa. The article concludes, “While Bush’s critics have given him little credit for his African initiatives, they will be among his most enduring legacies in a region of the world neglected by policymakers from both parties for too long. Africans will long remember what Bush’ critics have ignored.”
  • Last week, I watched Obama’s DNC speech with two Obama supporters, neither of which is particularly enthusiastic about voting for him, but think that he is better than the alternative. When I pressed them on what precisely made him better, one of the things they emphasized was that Obama would be more successful in making the United States more popular abroad. Public opinion matters, they argued, and Obama is more likeable than McCain to our European friends.

How important is public opinion, especially from a moral perspective? John Locke, in his “Essay on Human Understanding,” seems to have a strong view of the relationship between morality and public opinion:

For though men, uniting into politic societies, have resigned up to the public the disposing of all their force, so that they cannot employ it against any fellow-citizen any further than the law of the country directs, yet they retain still the power of thinking well or ill, approving or disapproving of the actions of those whom they live amongst and converse wit and by this approbation and dislike they establish amongst themselves what they will call virtue and vice. . . No man escapes the punishment of their censure and dislike who offends against the fashion and opinion of the company he keeps and would recommend himself to. Nor is there one of ten thousand who is stiff and insensible enough to bear up under the constant dislike and condemnation of his own club. He must be of a strange and unusual constitution who can content himself to live in constant disgrace and disrepute with his own particular society. Solitude many men have sought and been reconciled to but nobody that has the least thought or sense of a man about him can live in society under the constant dislike and ill opinion of his familiars and those he converses with.

The point here, and I think it is one that experience confirms, is that we have a tendency to judge whether we are right or wrong in light of what people think of us, both as individuals and a nation. Want to point out just how bad Bush is? Just look at his approval ratings. Want to prove that the Roman Catholic position on birth control is wrong? Just look at polls showing that the vast majority of Roman Catholics disagree. The problem with this is two-fold. First, public opinion is notoriously unreliable for figuring out what is right and wrong. Second, what people think of you depends on who you ask.

Regarding the first point, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a book in 1932 called Moral Man, Immoral Society that argued that human beings might, by themselves, be very moral people, strongly committed to certain principles like non-violence or social justice, but when put in a society, these principles ceased to hold the same importance for dictating behavior. As a result, you may have ordinarily very good people do ruthless, oppressive, and violent actions when part of a larger group. Niebuhr insisted that people in their social, racial, religious, or political groups could simply not escape supporting and doing immoral things, a view which was validated by the events of the Holocaust and the violence associated both with the civil rights movement and the violence associated with the Cold War in the following decades. For Niebuhr, the highest form of morality was challenging the group and opposing its morality, in the way of Socrates and Jesus. If we go with Niebuhr, we may ask quite simply: if people are less moral in groups, why should we trust public opinion to dictate what is right?

Regarding the second point, experience confirms that we are going to get the answer we want based on who we talk to. If you want to find out if you are drinking too much, best not to ask a frat boy. If you want to point at how unpopular Bush is, best to poll Europeans and not Africans. Regarding politics, our anti-aristocratic tendencies in this country may resist the basic platitude that the opinion of the wise is more valuable than the opinion of the many.

Of course, the realist might point out that the wise are few and far between, and thus, majority opinion is the next best thing. James Madison, in his Federalist Papers #49, is such a realist:

The reason of man, like man himself, is timid and cautious, when left alone, and acquires firmness and confidence, in proportion to the number with which it is associated. . . A reverence for the laws, would be sufficiently inculcated by the voice of an enlightened reason. But a nation of philosophers is as little to be expected as the philosophical race of kings wished for by Plato. And in every other nation, the most rational government will not find it a superfluous advantage to have the prejudices of the community on its side.

The point here is that the foundation of government in contemporary politics, which includes judgment of what is right or wrong, must depend on the opinion of both the wise and the foolish.

Despite all this, public opinion does play a somewhat important role in virtue theory. One way is in the matter of counsel. Aquinas says that a “choice is a judgment of the reason about what is to be done,” but in uncertain cases, reason does not provide a clear judgment without some sort of consultation, and this consultation is called counsel (I-II, Q.14, art. 1) Counsel is specifically about the means, not the end of an action. What this means is that if the end of action is to vote virtuously, counsel may be required to determine how one might go about accomplishing this end, but the end itself (that is, casting a virtuous vote) is dictated by reason. However, prudence dictates that counsel should only be sought from the wise. Aquinas says “It may happen that things which are most certainly good in the opinion of wise and spiritual men are not certainly good in the opinion of many, or at least of carnal-minded men. In such things counsel may be given” (I-II, Q. 14, art.1, ad. 3). The way I take this, Aquinas clearly thinks that majority opinion should be taken less seriously than the opinion of the wise and virtuous. The problem is, how is one to figure out who is wise and virtuous?

One way that Aquinas answers the question is theologically, specifically by identifying counsel as an infused gift of the Holy Spirit. In the Secundae Secundae under the topic of the gift of counsel, Aquinas says that “in the research of counsel, man requires to be directed by God who comprehends all things: and this is done through the gift of counsel whereby man is directed as though counseled by God, just as, in human affairs, those who are unable to take counsel for themselves, seek counsel from those who are wiser” (II.II., 52.1). Quite simply, the Holy Spirit helps the person determine whose opinion should matter about things to be done.

For the less theologically-minded, Aquinas answers the question of counsel from a more classically-oriented virtue theory perspective. In the treatise on prudence considered in itself, Aquinas says that counsel should be sought from those who seek the common good, and these people can be known by the fact that they seek their own good in a virtuous way:

He that seeks the good of the many, seeks in consequence his own good, for two reasons. First, because the individual good is impossible without the common good of the family, state, or kingdom. Hence Valerius Maximus says of the ancient Romans that ‘they would rather be poor in a rich empire than rich in a poor empire.’ Secondly, because since man is a part of the home and state, he must needs consider what is good for him by being prudent about the good of the many. For the good disposition of parts depends on their relation to the whole; thus Augustine says that ‘any part which does not harmonize with its whole, is offensive’ (II-II, 47.10, ad. 2).

On a similar note under the subject of the virtue of magnanimity, Aquinas says that “he that makes good use of great things is much more able to make good use of little things” (II-II, 129.2, ad. 3).

Quite simply, Aquinas is saying that the person most likely to know what is virtuous for the many (like the nation in our contemporary political system) is the one who knows what is virtuous for his own person and family. Plato does something similar to what Aquinas is doing here in the Republic where he says that justice is harmony of parts in a similar way that health is the harmony of parts in a body. A person, or a group of people, that are themselves ordered towards the good (that is, virtuous) and have harmony in their own person and family and community are the people most likely to have opinions useful for the larger common good. Thus, we should seek counsel from them.

How are we to apply this practically, especially in light of some of the examples I gave at the beginning of this rather long blog post? Let’s take presidential and vice-presidential candidates, for example. They may say that they are not going to Washington to win anybody’s good opinion, but they are going to Washington because they think that their opinions matter and that we, the American people, have reason to listen to them. In deciding if their opinion should count for anything, one clue would be to look at their personal lives and see the level of order reflected therein. An alcoholic, an adulterer, or a spendthrift are probably not the sort of people best-suited for figuring out what should be done for the sake of the common good. The level of virtue reflected in the personal lives of our candidates simply does matter for the sort of role they are looking to take on.

As far as nation-wide public opinion polls, I think (and I think Aquinas would agree) that they don’t count for much. In the fifties, public opinion was overwhelmingly in support of pro-segregation legislation. In the months following September 11, public opinion was overwhelmingly in support of Bush. The opinion of the masses does little in helping us discern whether an action or a person is moral. Bush’s 30% approval rating, and the congressional dismal 9% approval rating tell us that people are discontent, but these figures do little to help us determine whether Bush or congress are doing what is right. What we need in the upcoming months, as we prepare for our presidential elections, is less reflection on what people think and more reflection on what is right and virtuous and ordered toward the common good. Only when people think first of what is right and good will it ever matter what they think.


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