In my recent conversation with Jonathan Haidt on the culture wars, he made the (to me, striking) point that people change their minds on moral and political issues primarily through interactions with other people. That is, we humans do not typically change our minds on such issues due to conscious reasoning (“thinking it thr0ugh,” weighing the pros and cons, etc.) but instead due to the effects of personal relationships.
I think we see the truth of this point clearly on display this week, in Senator Portman’s announcement that he now supports gay marriage, mainly because of … his relationship with his gay son. Portman has taken some criticism for putting it this way — after all, some of his pro-gay critics say, not every man in public life is going to have a gay son, and so if the movement for gay equality is to succeed the grounds for being pro-equality have to be broader and more general — but I think his critics are to some degree missing the point. In my own case, it certainly seems true to me that I changed my mind on gay marriage primarily due to personal relationships, not through debating the issues and not through abstract conscious reasoning.
In this regard, I was also struck by Rick Santorum’s comments yesterday at the CPAC convention. Asked to respond to Portman’s announcement, Santorum delivered a short talk on the issue of homosexuality. The gist of his commentary concerned what he called “setting the bar.” We all “fall short of the bar” in various ways, he said; and when we do, society faces a choice. Do we as a nation “lower the bar,” saying in effect that anything goes? Or do “we keep the bar where it should be?” On the issue of homosexual conduct, Santorum favors ”keeping the bar where it should be.”
Now, Santorum is a smart man and a man of integrity (I’ve met him a few times), and what he told the reporter at the CPAC gathering is believed by many good people and is also the clear teaching of his church. So, while I disagree with him, I have no desire to attack him on this point. I just want, for now, to highlight the abstract, almost formal nature of his argument. In his remarks on “setting the bar,” I don’t think he even used the word “homosexual” or “gay” or “lesbian.” It was just a piece of philosophizing — and one that is of course utterly removed from how almost all openly gay and lesbian people concieve of their lives and would speak to others about who they are.
But there’s more. If you follow politics, you probably know that Santorum speaks movingly and personally and with deep conviction about children with special needs. The issue at times brings tears to his eyes. When he was in the Senate he fought for legislation to help such children, and today he works tirelessly on their behalf, as a public advocate. I admire him for it, and so do many Americans. Why does he do it? I can’t say for sure, but I do know for sure that Santorum is the father of a child with special needs. So maybe there is a connection.
Here is a thought experiment. What is Portman were the father of a child with special needs, and Santorum were the father of a gay son? Which one them would likely be speaking out with conviction and in concrete detail about children with special needs? And which one would likely be delivering lectures about keeping the bar where it ought to be?