The Portman Reversal: Why He Did It DOES Matter

reversalI 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.


18 thoughts on “The Portman Reversal: Why He Did It DOES Matter

  1. Not to defend Portman, but I think there’s an alternative reason to the one you cite, namely “he acted as if is only motivated by what is best for his family, or himself.”

    The alternative is maybe he acted only when he saw the face of the people he had characterized as “other.” I think many of us come to accept/tolerate/cherish the other only when they cease being other. Thus casual anti-Semites who have never known a Jew discover that Jews aren’t “other” after all. Similarly with gays, Muslims, Afrikaaners,even Democrats.

      • Back when Dick Cheney was SecDef the media “outed” Pete Williams, the assistant secretary for public affairs. Cheney’s response was that Pete was a terrific assistant secretary, and he wasn’t interested in his sexual orientation. I was impressed, then a little less so when I learned that Cheney had a lesbian daughter. Still, best to give the benefit of the doubt when there is one. There’ll always be plenty of reason to condemn.

    • That idea… that this was an inability to actually see the “other” as just as human as himself… isn’t particularly good.

      • I tend to agree. Reading Portman’s various statements about gays, it sure seems to me that he wasn’t really thinking at all—they were just abstractions to him. To me, it’s like the general who doesn’t blink at sending soldiers into combat, but who suddenly opposes all warfare once his child becomes draft eligible. “Would I still hold this position if it affected someone close to me?” is hardly an innovative or novel way to test one’s ethics and integrity. My belief is that a Senator whose positions can’t survive that test isn’t qualified to be a decsion-
        maker or leader.

  2. This is nothing new, I seem to recall a fair amount of feminists jumping on the bandwagon to support Bill Clinton about 14 years ago. Anyone else who behaved as he did would have felt their wrath as a “pig,” but since he was pro-abortion and ticked all the other feminist boxes, he got not just a pass, but active support. It’s always going to be about does it advance the cause or not.

      • No, it doesn’t have to be like that, but, it’s been my experience that a lot of people bend their ethics if the person in question is wearing their team’s jersey, just like way back in school you didn’t hesitate to tell the principal if someone you didn’t like misbehaved, but clammed up if your friend misbehaved, and if the most popular kid in class misbehaved, nobody saw nuttin’. As adults we’re supposed to get past that don’t-tattle-on-your-friends mentality, but in politics it really seems like a lot of people never do.

  3. I’d believe it was more an epiphany if it sounded like he was sincerely apologizing and saying firmly that his previous views were wrong. Generalizing what’s right for your kinship group isn’t extended to other groups too.

    How did ‘of the people… for the people’ shift so badly to ‘of my buddies… for me?’

  4. I agree it does matter. I believe that Senator Portman’s opposition was due to the fact that he was blind to the human cost of denying people the ability to marry the one that they love. I believe that he is similarly blind to the human cost of cutting early education, food stamps, and other “conservative” positions. He only realized the human cost of one of his policies when the human in question was his own flesh and blood. That makes him incredibly selfish and shallow, though he happens now to be correct on marriage. It is very unlikely that any of his children will join the underclass, so it is unlikely he will have to change any of his other unthinking positions.

  5. I agree that why he did does matter but that he did should be welcomed by everyone fighting for the equal rights of all the citizens of the republic.

  6. I agree that it matters why he, or anyone else, changes positions. I see something useful & related in your earlier discussion (regarding Diane Feinstein’s emotional approach to gun legislation) regarding the role of emotions in decision-making and legislating/governing. Is it not common, maybe human nature, to approach decision-making with a combination of logic/facts and emotions/personal experience? My work in the field of counseling and knowledge of the psychology of people would suggest that it is. In fact, I believe anyone lacking the ability to achieve a balance of both severely limits one’s competence. Thus, the key is in recognizing the forces of both and finding a balance.

    So Portman’s earlier position was most likely a result of the logic/facts anyone in his demographic, with his education, religious beliefs, and world experience would have acquired combined with his emotional response to same. Similarly, now that he’s acquired new facts and the accompanying new emotional response to said facts, he now has a new perspective. Healthy, open-minded evolution at work! It’s easy to say the emotional or personal pieces distort or blind a person when we take the opposing view. It’s just as possible that a person is merely limited by what they don’t know. Emotional intelligence is a rare thing, indeed! And it is certainly not a requirement to be a legislator, judge, president, or other leader.

    Back to your earlier discussion, then, about the role of emotion in legislative or judicial decision-making: I think it’s appropriate to recognize the importance of both emotions/personal experience and logic/facts. Perhaps to avoid being portrayed by opponents after the fact as biased, self-serving, manipulative, etc., our leaders would be wise to say up front what role their emotions & personal experiences play in their stance on issues. But then that would require that they actually know!

  7. Of course Senator Portman may change his personal beliefs as freely as he likes. But when he starts changing political positions, he would be wise to remember that his son did not elect him. A US Senator represents a constituency, one far broader than his own family,and if Portman happens to forget this fact, the people of Ohio will be only too happy to remind him of it in the next election.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.