I feel it necessary to return to the topic of Senator Rob Portman’s reversal of his long-held and much-publicized opposition to same sex marriage and homosexuality in general in the wake of his son’s disclosure that he is gay.
Anyone who required further evidence that current events analysis, not to mention public consciousness, is almost untouched by an understanding of ethics, need look no further than the near universal pronouncements in the editorial pages and the Sunday talk shows that “it doesn’t matter” why Portman suddenly decided that he was in favor of gay marriage once the issue affected someone he cared about.
It is not yet 11:00 AM in Virginia, and I have already read and heard this reaction so many times that the flashing red light on my head that signals an imminent explosion is flashing bright. It doesn’t matter? It doesn’t matter that Senator Portman firmly, strongly, extensively and consistently declared in public forums, to interviewers and in op-ed pieces that the sanctity of the institution of marriage as well as the moral fiber of the nation depended on withholding the right to marry from millions of law-abiding American citizens, but that the minute one such citizen, someone he actually gave a damn about, risked being adversely affected by his supposedly heart-felt and principled position, he changed his “principles” like he was changing his socks? That doesn’t matter?
I suppose it only matters if we care whether our highest officials use ethics in their policy-making and have any integrity whatsoever. It only matters to someone who believes that we should all be capable of taking actions that are right and good even when we personally do not benefit from them, and perhaps even suffer because of them. Ethics is the discipline of deciding what is right, and ethical conduct is doing what is right after you have performed your ethical due diligence to figure it out. To hear the various pundits talk about Portman’s decision, whoever, ethics is when someone does what they want him to do, and as long as they think it’s right, how or why he came to do it doesn’t matter a bit. He was bribed? So what? He had always thought the issue of gay marriage was just theoretical? Fine! He always believed gay marriage was dandy, but was lying to get votes all these years? Who cares? All that matters is that he ended up on our side!
I have observed a cynical, toxic and corrupting attitude among our leaders and commentators for quite a while now, and the response to Portman illustrates it. Not only is everyone in the United States increasingly expected to decide their positions on complex social and political issues according to what benefits them and those closest to them, this is seen as the natural, reasonable and respectable way to live. It may be common, but it is not respectable, and it is a philosophy that omits ethics entirely. Self-interest is not ethics. Self-interest may, and often does, lead to conduct and positions that happen to be the most ethical, as I believe it did in Portman’s case, but in ethics, the way conduct is decided upon matters tremendously. What I heard and read today was a full-throated embrace of consequentialism: as long as the end results are good, that’s all that matters—with “good” being defined as “what I believe.”
The objective in an ethical society should be to encourage everyone to do what is right even when it does not convey personal benefits or even when it results in outright hardship. Sometimes that means examining issues from the perspective proposed by philosopher John Rawls, as if we had to decide without knowing on which side of the issue our own interests reside. Sometimes it means accepting the fact that the ethical position, or having the courage to endorse it, will sacrifices from ourselves and those we care about. Ethics means understanding the importance of placing the well-being of others and society as a whole above your needs and those your family.
An ethical American may say, “I don’t want my friends deported, prosecuted or punished, but they broke the law knowingly and we cannot encourage or permit that as a society.” The discourse I heard today suggests that if you are of Hispanic descent, you should be expected to want lax immigration enforcement, whatever the costs to your nation and the rule of law. An ethical American may conclude, “We need more stringent gun laws that may outlaw my own gun, even though I once used it to protect my family from harm.” The discourse I heard today suggests that if you own a gun or have been the victim of a crime that might have been prevented by a gun, you surely will be against gun laws, because you are incapable of seeing the issue from anything but your own narrow perspective. It is bad enough that bias and rationalizations drive so many of our choices: why is it so hard to see that we shouldn’t be accepting, endorsing, and even encouraging that selfish, essentially unethical approach to life and living with others?
What Sen. Portman did matters because he acted as if is only motivated by what is best for his family, or himself. That is not conduct that our culture should applaud. That kind of conduct is why the United States government is dysfunctional.