In teaching ethics, I focus upon helping people live up to their own standards rather than trying to talk them into accepting mine.  None of our Ethics Unwrapped videos are aimed at foisting particular moral positions upon viewers.  However, I am going on the record here as applauding the Boy Scouts of America’s decision to accept gay boy scouts (and, naturally, condemning the BSA’s decision not to allow gay troop leaders).  Admitting that we often see what we want to see (as our “In It To Win” short video “Jack & the Self-Serving Bias” indicates), it appears to me that the tide of history is on the side of gay rights just as it was on the side of civil rights for blacks in the 1960s.  The support for gay rights among members of my teen-age daughters’ generation is overwhelming and a harbinger of the future.

I did not see this rapid change coming.  What accounts for it?  My lay psychological opinion traces the quick evolution of Americans’ views on gay rights at least partially to the in-group/out-group phenomenon that I have written about previously in this blog.

For most of recorded western history, gays have been condemned and shunned and so naturally stayed in the closet.  When they started to come out in large numbers (perhaps because the AIDS epidemic forced their hand), it became increasingly difficult for people to continue to treat gays as the hated “other.”  Earlier this year, Senator Rob Portman of Ohio announced that he had changed his views on gay marriage after his son came out of the closet.  This phenomenon has, I suspect, been played out millions of times in the last twenty years.  It is much harder to be prejudiced against a group when its members include people we know—friends, relatives, and co-workers.

We often do not realize how emotions and other psychological factors affect our moral judgments and actions.  We believe that our ethical values are constructed rationally, but, as David Messick has pointed out, literature on in-group favoritism, implicit discrimination, and conflicts of interest shows that psychological factors have a bigger impact than moral reasoning.

Empathy is probably the most influential of the morally-tinged emotions.  And the simple truth is that it is generally much easier and more natural for us to muster empathy for those we view as part of our in-group than for those we view as part of an out-group.  Lynn Stout has argued that universal moral rules exist and that they “generally have to do with helping, or at least not harming, other people in one’s in-group.”  Brain studies show that we even process judgments regarding the morality of others’ actions in different parts of our brains depending upon whether we consider the others as part of our in-group or of an out-group.

As gays came out of the closet, millions of Americans found gays in their in-group, and their views regarding the morality of homosexual conduct naturally changed just as Senator Portman’s did.  That doesn’t mean that it is impossible to condemn or even to injure people in our in-group.  These are tendencies rather than iron-clad rules of human conduct. Jesse Prinz points out that under certain conditions, the biological tendency to be kind to members of our in-group can be eroded.  Subjecting someone to sufficient religious indoctrination is apparently one of those conditions.  But the changes we have seen tip the scales and will make it more likely that those who discriminate against gays will feel guilty because they now know gays who are part of their in-group.  This guilt will likely give impetus to a continuing evolution toward public support for equal rights for gays.


For more on the role of emotion in the formation of moral beliefs and the in-group/out-group phenomenon, see:


  1. David M. Messick, What can Psychology Tell us About Business Ethics?, JOURNAL OF BUSINESS ETHICS, 89:73-80 (2009)
  3. Lynn A. Stout, Taking Conscience Seriously, in  Moral Markets 162 (Paul J. Zak, ed. 2008),