Widening the Circle of Human Obligation: Morality, Hypocrisy, and Gay Marriage

Last week, Pennsylvania Congressman Glenn Thompson made headlines by opposing a bill to protect same-sex marriage and then attending his gay son’s wedding just three days later. He joined a long line of politicians who have embraced rights for their children after opposing them for others.

In 2013, Ohio Senator Rob Portman opposed same-sex marriage until his son came out of the closet to marry. And in 2014, attorney Chuck Cooper, who had argued before the California Supreme Court in support of Proposition 8 (which would have outlawed same-sex marriage in California), found himself planning his lesbian daughter’s wedding and pronounced that his views on the issue were “evolving.”

Humans have also evolved, largely while living in tribes. Therefore, an “us-versus-them” orientation is a natural part of our mindset. We survived by helping our tribe at the expense of rival tribes competing for resources. Our brains are wired for tribalism, and even today we judge the actions of people like us with different parts of our brain than we use to judge the actions of people we don’t perceive to be like us. This in-group/out-group bias is dangerous, especially when politics drives our identity. As David Brooks writes: “Once politics becomes your ethnic or moral identity, it becomes impossible to compromise, because compromise becomes dishonor.  Once politics becomes your identity, then every electoral contest is a struggle for existential survival, and everything is permitted.  Tribalism threatens to take the detached individual and turn him into a monster.” Glenn Thompson can see the love that his son has for his new husband. The toast he gave at the wedding was very touching. But Thompson’s political identity prevents him from recognizing that other LGBTQ people have those same emotions and also deserve the right to marry.

The Holocaust happened because Nazis viewed Jews as standing outside their circle of human obligation and responsibility. Much of the evil in today’s world stems from our hatred of those we label as “them.” Moral progress, to the extent humans have made it (and we have made some, as Peter Singer, Steven Pinker, Paul Bloom and others have noted), has been largely a matter of enlarging the circle of people we view as within our circle of human responsibility, increasing the number of people we are willing to treat with dignity, respect, and equality.

Many believe we need more religion today. They may be right, but numerous studies indicate that religious people tend to be much more prejudiced than atheists and agnostics.

What we may need is just a little moral imagination, an inclination to put ourselves in others’ shoes, or, perhaps, put others in our children’s shoes. If we were to follow Jesus’s words—“Love your neighbor as yourself” and “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you”—we might be willing to extend the same rights and privileges we wish for our own children to everyone else. As David Sloan Wilson notes, the entire world should be included in our moral circle.

We are moved to close with the words of the lesbian plaintiffs in the Proposition 8 case. When Kris Perry and Sandy Stier heard that the opposing attorney, Chuck Cooper, was planning his daughter Ashley’s same-sex wedding even as he fought in court to prevent the plaintiffs, from having that same right he embraced for his daughter, they said, generously: “Some may find this contrast between public and private jarring, but in our opinion, loving an LGBT child unequivocally is the single most important thing any parent can do. We are overjoyed for Ashley and her fiancée, and we wish them the very best.”

 

Sources:

Jo Becker, Forcing the Spring: Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality (2014).

Paul Bloom, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion (2018).

David Brooks, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life (2019).

Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (1993).

Patricia Churchland, Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality (2011).

Rob Crilly, “Pictured: Gay Son of Republican Rep. Glenn Thompson Tying the Knot Three Days After His Father Voted Against Federalizing Same-sex Marriage Because It Was a Democrat ‘Stunt,’” DailyMail.Com, Aug. 3, 2022, at https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-11077305/PICTURED-Son-Rep-Glenn-Thompson-tying-knot-father-opposed-gay-marriage-protections.html.

Eliana Dockterman, “Attorney Who Argued for Prop 8 in Supreme Court Plans Daughter’s Same-Sex Wedding,” Time, April 17, 2014, at https://time.com/67528/prop-8-lawyer-charles-cooper-gay-marriage-views/.

Jonathan Edwards, “GOP Lawmaker Opposed Same-Sex Marriage, Then Went to Gay Son’s Wedding,” Washington Post, July 26, 2022, at https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2022/07/26/glenn-thompson-gay-marriage/.

Joshua Greene, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and The Gap Between Us and Them (2013).

Mark Johnson, Moral Imagination: Implications of Cognitive Science for Ethics (1993).

Jeremy Peters, “G.O.P. Senator Says He Has a Gay Son, and Backs Gay Marriage,” New York Times, March 15, 2013, at https://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/16/us/politics/ohios-portman-says-he-supports-gay-marriage.html.

David Sloan Wilson, This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution (2019).

Phil Zuckerman, What It Means to Be Moral: Why Religion Is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life (2019).

 

Videos:

In-group/Out-group Bias:       https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/in-groupout-group.

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