One of the nice things about attending a conference is that you get to visit with all sorts of people. The Albuquerque Hyatt, for example, is just lousy with smart Canadians living on both sides of the border. (There are of course smart Americans too.)
I had an interesting conversation, I can’t now remember with whom (though alcohol consumption had nothing to do with it), that prompted the following reflections growing out of a suggestion made by Jonah Goldberg in his review of the D’Souza book.
Goldberg noted D’Souza’s rhetorical play on the fairly predictable liberal query: why do they hate us? The normal answer is that we’re so crass, so vulgar, so militaristic, so imperialistic, so, so American. D’Souza of course says they hate us because we’re so decadent, so libertine, so, so European.
We have all of course noted that everyone is selective in their consultation of "global public opinion." John Kerry, for example, wanted us to consider what his friends in Davos thought about our foreign policy, but not what our friends in the Vatican thought about some of our domestic social policies (with the possible exception of the death penalty, where there’s less of a gap between Davos and the Vatican). We’re often urged to consider how folks in the Arab world thought about our support of Israel, but, until D’Souza came along, I don’t think that anyone considered urging us to think about Arab opinion about our "lifestyles." And of course very few American mainline Protestants argue that we should derive lessons about social policy from their brethren, say, in Africa.
None of this is, or ought to be, surprising. We are, for the most part, partial and strategic in putting our views to the so-called global test. When citing those views serves our purpose, we do. Otherwise, we can gaze at our collective navels with the best of them.
I want, however, to defend the practice of global testing, properly understood. It has a long and philosophically distinguished heritage, expressed in terms of the consensus gentium, which is supposed to offer us a clue to the content of the natural law. If what we’re trying to do, in other words, is engage in the process of natural law-informed discernment, consulting the consensus gentium is, shall we say, reasonable. By itself, global public opinion is, of course, not definitive; it has to show the way to a coherent and defensible argument. And we have to be able to untangle that argument from the partialities and the passions with which it is always connected on both sides of the border. The fact that people somewhere disapprove of, or even hate, us for something doesn’t mean, by itself, that we’re doing anything wrong. One or the other (or both) of us could be blinded by passions or interests. But it is, as we Southwestern (for about another 24 hours or so) Social Scientists say, a data point.
But beyond using the global test to gain insight into the consensus gentium and hence into the natural law, there’s also this: in the prudential pursuit of our policies, especially those that involve and affect others and might require their cooperation and/or acquiesence, it makes darn good sense at least to consider what they think, even if they’re (in our considered moral and prudential judgment) wrong.
In other words, the global test is not something either to be slavishly followed or to be callously dismissed. In pursuit both of the moral truth and the national interest (informed by that truth), it makes sense to have our finger on the pulse of our neighbors, near and far. But the bottom line is that what comes first is the principle, with national interest aligned with it so far as is possible, given our fallen, finite, and fallible status in a broken world.
I could say more, but this sermon’s already gone a little long, and it’s not even Sunday.