Suppose you were trying to persuade people not to discriminate against homosexuals. You might make arguments based on our common humanity and on the equality of all human beings. But you might also be tempted to make a more parochial argument: that there is something un-American about discriminating against gays and lesbians, because America, more than any other country, stands for tolerance and diversity. Martha Nussbaum acknowledges that the latter form of argument will sometimes be more effective. But her compelling essay urges that such patriotic arguments are “morally dangerous” because they narrow our vision and in the end subvert even patriotic ideals.
I am not sure that Nussbaum is right about the bad consequences of making patriotic arguments of this kind. Perhaps patriotic appeals do not tend to degenerate into tribalism; historically the best way of overcoming tribalism has, I suspect, often been not to appeal to common humanity but to transfer loyalties to a bigger tribe. And the best way to get Americans to pay attention to people elsewhere is probably to make the more parochial argument: that the United States is a nation of refugees with a tradition of helping the wretched of the earth. In any event, so far as consequences are concerned, there is no way to stop jingoists and scoundrels from making patriotic arguments, and it may do more harm than good to cede the terrain to them.
But one powerful current in Nussbaum’s essay is that quite apart from good or bad consequences, it is cynical and manipulative to make arguments of this kind. When we make patriotic arguments, Nussbaum says, we “depriv[e] ourselves of any principled way of arguing to citizens that they should in fact join hands across” boundaries of race, gender, religion, class, and nationality. It is disrespectful to our fellow citizens to play on patriotic sentiments when our real reasons for holding the positions we advocate are grounded in a more cosmopolitan morality.
This concern, important and plausible as it is, seems to me in the end unwarranted, for reasons that shed light on the nature of political discussion in liberal societies. Suppose a citizen has arrived at her views about welfare policy, or abortion, or capital punishment, or intervention abroad, on the basis of her religious beliefs. But then when she wants to persuade her fellow citizens, she uses a secular moral argument that is consistent with her religious views, and that she also believes to be correct — but that is different from the religious beliefs that actually moved her to hold her views. This does not seem to be a cynical or manipulative way for a citizen to act; to the contrary, it may be a duty of good citizenship to be prepared to defend one’s positions in terms of the common ground among citizens, rather than simply asserting religious or other sectarian reasons.
By the same token, it is not necessarily cynical or manipulative to appeal to shared national traditions or institutions in trying to persuade one’s fellow citizens to adopt views that one has come to hold, oneself, for moral reasons. Without being dishonest, we can believe, and say, that intolerance of homosexuals is not just a moral wrong but a violation of distinctive American traditions of openness and respect for liberty. Ideally, perhaps, as in Nussbaum’s vision, such an appeal to historical traditions should not be necessary. Ideally there should be enough agreement on moral principles that we need not resort to national customs and traditions. And on certain relatively abstract principles — the legitimacy of democratic government, the general regime of toleration and racial nondiscrimination — that basic moral agreement may exist in our society, and in other well-functioning societies.
But on many issues, like the ones I’ve mentioned, the moral dissensus is too great. To put the point in the language of John Rawls’s Political Liberalism, while there may be an overlapping consensus on liberalism as the conception that is to govern the basic structure of society, there is no comparable overlapping consensus on many of the issues of day to day politics. If we are to find common ground with our fellow citizens on those issues, we may need to look to distinctively American practices and institutions, and arguments drawn from them, rather than exclusively to moral principles that appeal to all reasonable people.
Since we are seeking bases of agreement that will support a just political order, there is nothing wrong with emphasizing those elements of our national traditions that promote justice and respect for humanity, and casting out ugly traditions as unworthy of us. This was the tactic of generations of English polemicists, including the common lawyers from whom our legal system is descended and the radical Whigs who inspired the American Revolutionaries: they were determinedly parochial, but they were often effective at defending some important human liberties. They did this by identifying the liberties as peculiarly English. Appeals of the kind I am describing may have a chance for success only in societies with liberal traditions. But since we have such traditions, why not take advantage of them, and try to identify values of respect, compassion, and mutual acceptance with the American self-conception?