A Decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind
Peter Meilaender

It is something of a truism that travel teaches one as much about one’s own country as it does about foreign lands. This was driven home to me when I spent the first several months of this year teaching in London, followed by a few weeks visiting relatives in Germany. I left the United States with my family in early January, and our students followed shortly thereafter, arriving in the U.K. on Friday, January 20—as it happened, the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration.

It did not take long for us to discover that Trump’s election was of as much interest abroad as at home. On Saturday, their first full day in the country, a colleague and I planned to take the students on a walk through central London, helping them orient themselves and see something of the city where they would spend the next semester. But lo and behold, it turned out that a protest march was scheduled to take place—the “Women’s March on London,” expressing opposition to Trump’s presidency—with almost 100,000 people converging on Trafalgar Square at precisely the time we intended to finish up there with our students. We modified the time and route of our walk to avoid the protesters. But it was a surprising beginning to our stay in Britain.

I soon learned, however, not to be surprised, because wherever I went, Trump was on people’s minds. The students told me that when they went through immigration control at Heathrow, the officer jokingly asked them, “So, are you fleeing the country?” As soon as anyone discovered I was an American, the first question was always about Trump. At the small grocer just down the street, a pair of friendly Syrian refugees wondered, only half in jest, whether we would want to return home. The other store where we often shopped was also run by immigrants, but the owner—from Uganda by way of India—was more inclined to withhold judgment. Trump might turn out to be okay, he told me; you never knew, perhaps he would turn out to be a good leader.

londonA few days after we arrived in Germany, I was invited, along with my teenage son, to join my father-in-law and half a dozen friends for dinner. Mostly retired, these men had all been professionally successful, and many of them were politically active. To be invited to their monthly dinner was an honor I had never before received; clearly, the opportunity to talk with an American political scientist in the wake of Trump’s election was a temptation too strong for them to resist. For about forty-five minutes they interrogated me in rapid-fire fashion. I answered one question after another about how Trump had been elected, whether he could be successful, what his foreign policy would be, whether he might be impeached. The conversation was friendly but also serious and intense. Their skepticism was palpable. At one point, the fellow who seemed most hostile to Trump, and who had appeared to be biting his tongue during much of the conversation, finally cut loose with his true opinion: “The man is just so utterly primitive!” he exclaimed.

Some of this, I must admit, I found merely annoying or self-righteous (or both). The march on London, for example, struck me as rather silly. When we arrived there, after all, the United Kingdom was itself coming to grips with the consequences of the Brexit vote to leave the European Union. Traffic in London is impossible. The British newspapers seemed to carry daily stories about the horrors of the country’s health care system. As if Londoners had so few problems of their own that they needed to protest Americans’ choice of a president!

Nevertheless, I found myself thinking while I traveled, and also in the months since returning home, that a dismissive reaction of this sort is too hasty. The march may have been foolish, but surely the opinions of other people, in particular when the opinions are widely shared, ought to carry some weight in our thinking? When they sought independence from Great Britain, the American Founders famously asserted the importance of international opinion: “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” To be sure, the authors of that sentence were seeking support for a revolution, and they therefore had ample motive to explain themselves to others. Still, they chose words claiming that humankind is divided into distinct peoples, all of whom by nature possess equal status. Just as citizens possess equal standing before the law, peoples possess equal standing before the court of international public opinion. Respect of some sort is presumably due to them and their deeply held convictions. In the wake of Trump’s election and the reactions I encountered to it in other countries, therefore, I have been wondering just what it means to pay “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.”

At a minimum, I suppose, it means that we should take those opinions seriously. By taking them seriously, I mean that these opinions are a factor to be considered as we form our own judgments. They should carry some weight in our own deliberations. This is not to say merely that prudence dictates that we pay attention to others’ opinions. It is true, of course, that strategic considerations might often induce us to show respect for others’ views, to assure them that we value their opinions, and to avoid even the rhetorical appearance of condescension or disdain. But we can go beyond this strategic perspective. That numerous other people—especially when they are intelligent, or like-minded, or sympathetic—hold a certain belief supplies at least a prima facie reason why we might adopt that belief ourselves. Their opinions are among the evidence we must consider in forming our own.

That we recognize the truth of this is evident in our behavior. People routinely seek out friends, family members, clergy, mentors, confidantes of all sorts, in making important and difficult decisions. This is not simply a prudential or strategic move to assure those people that we respect their opinions. Rather, we think that others who know us well, share our important beliefs or values, and have our interests at heart may see things that we miss and thus help us make wiser decisions.

The point is not that majorities, merely because they are numerous, are always right. This is obviously not the case. In the field of education, for example, I am confident that much of what these days passes for received wisdom—that children require extensive exposure to computers at an ever younger age, that humanistic learning is increasingly irrelevant in the global economy, that quantitative “assessment” of teaching improves student learning—is mistaken. The value of others’ opinions for us derives less from the number of people holding those opinions than from other characteristics I smuggled into the preceding paragraphs. When those whose opinions we confront are not only numerous but also intelligent, like-minded, and sympathetic, when they know us well, share our values, and have our interests at heart, then their disagreement with us becomes a matter of consequence. Then “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” means not merely rhetorical expressions of esteem, or prudential regard for the sensitivities of those whose support we seek, but a willingness to ask whether their disagreement with us might itself supply a good reason for changing our own mind.

If we ask why we should grant this weight to the opinions of others, the answer, I think, is that doing so acts as a kind of guard against hubris, a check on excessive confidence in our own judgment. Many of us, for example, thinking back to our high school days, will remember a friend who fell hard for a particular romantic interest despite all the warnings of friends and family that this other person was “not right.” Love is of course blind, but the same hubris takes many forms. At the college where I teach, the question occasionally arises of whether or to what extent we should be concerned with “excellence.” A surprising (to me) number of colleagues are leery of such a concern, claiming that it requires us to become preoccupied with our reputation. Christians, they say, should not seek reputation, but rather should aim simply to do their work faithfully and well. The latter is surely true, but if we are to do our work well, one might suppose that we should even try to do it excellently! And how are we to know that we are doing it excellently if we pay no heed to our reputation—that is to say, to others’ opinion of our performance? Here we see hubris, an unwillingness to submit our work to the judgment of others who know the craft, posing as humility. “A decent respect for the opinions of mankind” would counsel instead showing concern for their opinions of us and our work.

Edmund Burke, in a passage near the end of his Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, expressed very nicely this idea that we should take others’ opinions seriously—intelligent and informed opinions, at any rate. “All the great critics,” he says, have taught us “one essential rule.”

It is this, That if ever we should find ourselves disposed not to admire those writers or artists, Livy and Virgil for instance, Raphael or Michael Angelo, whom all the learned had admired, not to follow our own fancies, but to study them until we know how and what we ought to admire; and if we cannot arrive at this combination of admiration with knowledge, rather to believe that we are dull, than that the rest of the world has been imposed on.

It is a sentence I like to read to my students.

This explains, I think, why we ought to pay a decent respect to the opinions of mankind, and what it might mean to do so. Nevertheless, we must also recognize the limits to this argument. For while we should give real weight to the opinions of others, so that they influence the judgments we reach, those opinions do not necessarily—Burke’s counsel “rather to believe that we are dull” notwithstanding—provide sufficient reason to change our mind about specific actions or policies when (a) we are convinced of their rightness after careful consideration, or (b) when those who disagree with us lack some of the important relevant qualities, such as like-mindedness, sympathy, or a concern for our well-being. This latter point in particular is helpful in understanding the sharp differences of perspective over President Trump. For many Trump supporters believe precisely that European countries have lost the qualities that would merit respect—that they are no longer truly committed to freedom but instead have succumbed to a creeping statism, that they are unwilling to defend themselves against threats such as Islamic terrorism, that their demographic collapse reflects a loss of cultural and religious confidence. To paraphrase a character from Jane Austen’s Persuasion, the Trumpist is likely to feel that the praise of Europeans is censure, while their censure is praise. Despite the undeniable kernel of truth in these accusations against Europe, they do not, in my view, negate the potential value for us of European public opinion. It remains the case, after all, that Europe shares with the United States the heritage of Western civilization, the cultural amalgamation of Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem. The bonds that unite us remain deep and wide, and it is unclear how we could even imagine “the West” without Europe. Still, acknowledging this critique of Europe, whatever its limitations, helps us see why some disagreements about Trump are likely to remain stubbornly persistent. Our judgment of those holding an opinion inevitably will, and should, affect the weight we are willing to grant it.

Similarly, we cannot and should not deny the force of point (a) above: if we have thought about an issue carefully, giving due weight to the differing views of others, and have reached a decision on a specific course of action, then presumably we ought to follow our best judgment, rather than abdicate responsibility for our choices by shifting the burden of decision onto others. If a president, for example—to remain close to the case at hand—decides, after appropriate deliberation, that a treaty will not achieve its goals and is harmful to American interests, and that the matter is too important to sacrifice those interests merely in order to assuage the concerns of allies, then he presumably ought to withdraw from the treaty. Whether this describes President Trump’s thought process in deciding to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, I have no idea. But the point stands. Just as we cannot avoid our own judgments about those who disagree with us and the value of their opinions, we also cannot avoid ultimate responsibility for our choices, especially when the lives, liberties, or sacred honor of others may be at stake. We should indeed seek to admire what all the learned have admired, but in the realm of political action there is ultimately no avoiding the need for individual judgment.

Which may be a good reason to end by remembering the exhortation of 1 Timothy 2: “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”


Peter Meilaender is professor of political science at Houghton College.

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