A Philosopher's Blog

Portman & Same-Sex Marriage

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 18, 2013
English: Portrait of United States Senator Rob...

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Republican senator Rob Portman recently caught the attention of the media with his coming out in support of same-sex marriage. Given his conservative credentials, this has stirred up discussion of the matter.

While I am generally not in favor of marriage, my view has been that consenting adults should be able to engage in that legal contract. If arguments are wanting, see my For Better or Worse Reasoning. As such, I agree with Portman’s new view.

While Portman is well known as a conservative, his social conservatism seems to have been almost a matter of rote. That is, he consistently voted for or against laws in a way consistent with the stock social conservative positions but he was not particularly active in regards to expressing views. His main focus has been on fiscal conservatism rather than social conservatism.

As I have noted in earlier posts, the Republican party faces the challenge of having (crudely put) two main divisions: the social conservatives (which is exemplified by the religious right) and the fiscal/political conservatives. While politician in the party generally have had to appeal to both views, these views are clearly distinct. After all, it is one thing to hold to be opposed to same-sex marriage and quite another to be opposed to big government. In fact, there can be clear conflicts between the views of the political conservatives (most notably the libertarians) and the social conservatives. After all, someone who does not want big government acting as a nanny state should be against having the state intrude into marriage with a ban on same-sex marriage.

In regards to why Portman changed his views and came out in favor of same-sex marriage, his answer is that it is because one of his son’s is gay. Portman claims that he wants his son to have the same right as him in regards to marriage. Some who are more cynical  than I might point out that Portman learned his son was gay a few years ago and note that this change coincides with the need for the Republican party to gain a broader appeal. However, I will accept his claim, namely that he had to work through his view of the matter.

One of the most interesting aspects of the matter is that Portman seems to have been influenced by the family effect, an effect that struck Dick Cheney. The idea is that people sometimes change their views on same-sex marriage when they learn that someone they love (in Cheney’s case, his daughter) is gay. It is one thing to hold a stance on a matter when those it impacts are strangers. It is quite another when it impacts one’s own family. It is also one thing to hold a view about a group when the group is composed of people one does not know. So, for example, it is easier to attribute all sorts of moral defects to gay folks when one does not really know a gay person well. However, when a loving parent finds out that his son or daughter is gay, this makes it much harder to gay people as being morally defective simply because they happen to be gay. This is not to say that being gay makes a person good. Rather, being gay is just like being straight: it does not make a person morally good or bad.

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12 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on March 18, 2013 at 12:11 pm

    Mike, can one argue from the categorical imperative that if everyone were gay then the human race would become extinct, and therefore being gay is morally problematic?

    A similar argument can be made against celibacy.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 18, 2013 at 1:20 pm

      Not really. While some take Kant to mean “what if everyone did it?”, he seems to more likely mean “what if everyone who wanted to could do it?” After all, suppose the test was based on everyone doing X rather than everyone being able to do X. Using this standard, being a doctor would be wrong (after all, if everyone was doctor, there would be no one to do all the other things that doctors do not do).

      Now, if we take Kant as meaning the former (that everyone did it), then that would seem to be a reductio of his moral theory because it would lead to absurdity.

      • FRE said, on March 18, 2013 at 1:50 pm

        T. J., that argument can be applied much more widely. If everyone wanted to have your occupation, what would happen? If everyone wanted to be a philosopher, an auto mechanic, a lawyer, or any other occupation, we would be in serious trouble.

        The fact is that people are not all the same. Although we all do have things in common, we still have differing interests and inclinations which is fortunate.

        In Nigeria, some clergy and politicians assert that gay men and women endanger the existence of the country because if everyone were gay, Nigeria would cease to exist. They use that as an excuse for persecution, assuming that the vast majority of people would become gay if they were permitted to do so and influenced to do so. Probably they know better, but like many people with power and influence, they are acting to enhance and maintain their power and influence.

        Usually, arguments beginning with “What if everyone…” should be immediately rejected.

        Actually, I think that marriage should be treated as a religious matter and that the government should get out of the marriage business. Instead, the government could make civil unions available for those who desire them. A civil union would establish certain rights and responsibilities to enhance the security of those involved. Religious people would get a religious marriage and a civil union.

      • T.J. Babson said, on March 18, 2013 at 2:11 pm

        “Using this standard, being a doctor would be wrong (after all, if everyone was doctor, there would be no one to do all the other things that doctors do not do).”

        So what if everyone becomes a doctor? Are you arguing that division of labor should be elevated to a moral principle? Doctors can have a vegetable garden, sew clothes, etc.

        • FRE said, on March 18, 2013 at 2:21 pm

          Moral principle? These things generally work out without any conscious attempt to apply external influence or pressure. As long as people are responsible and not creating problems for others, their actions should not be regulated.

          • WTP said, on March 18, 2013 at 2:33 pm

            As long as people are responsible and not creating problems for others, their actions should not be regulated.

            A libertarian/free market idea. Though the devil is in what you mean by “responsible and not creating problems for others”. Some people create problems for themselves and vote the politicians to hold others responsible for creating problems, and thus demand that they be regulated.

            • FRE said, on March 18, 2013 at 2:55 pm

              That doesn’t mean that markets should be entirely free. It has been amply demonstrated that laissez faire doesn’t work. Our near economic collapse was the result of irresponsible actions taken by large financial institutions and it created serious problems for millions of people.

              Often there are legitimate differences in opinion as to how much regulation is necessary or desirable and sometimes regulation creates more problems than it solves. We can err in either direction and we will from time to time. The only way to avoid making mistakes is to do nothing, but that also is a mistake.

              But this thread is more about INDIVIDUAL rights, freedoms, and responsibilities. I know a number of same-sex couples who are living very responsible and constructive lives. For both emotional and practical reasons, they would like to marry and cannot. They should have the same rights and responsibilities as other responsible couples; there should be no discrimination.

              It is hard enough to find a suitable life partner and maintain a relationship without having the government and social attitudes adding more problems.

            • WTP said, on March 18, 2013 at 10:17 pm

              What has been amply demonstrated in country after country is that government control, as opposed to neutral regulation, doesn’t work. Our near economic collapse, which for all its problems was nowhere as near as the media and hype make what has happened out to be, was the result of government encouraging, and at times mandating, irresponsible lending practices. Government “guaranteeing” loans that bankers would not normally make. Take away the banker’s risk, tell them they MUST lend to certain demographics and/or locations, and you have serious problems.

              I agree that doing nothing is often a mistake. But let those who have done things and made mistakes pay for them themselves. Give them the freedom to take risk AND responsibility, but don’t socialize that risk amongst people and organizations that have no skin in the game and no sense of personal responsibility nor the financial risk amongst those of us who did not agree with these policies. And it’s all INDIVIDUAL responsibility. I agree that It is hard enough to find a suitable life partner and maintain a relationship without having the government and social attitudes adding more problems but this is also true in financial matters and business in general.

          • biomass2 said, on March 18, 2013 at 2:46 pm

            Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that anyone could get through life without “creating problems” for someone. Even Jesus created problems for someone. There’s always someone who will want to regulate the actions of others. After all, “they” are “others”.

            • FRE said, on March 18, 2013 at 2:56 pm

              Probably I should have written “undo problems.” Obviously there will not be total agreement on what is “undo”, but the principle remains.

            • biomass2 said, on March 18, 2013 at 6:04 pm

              FRE: Apologies. I didn’t intend to sound nit-picky. Still, sometimes circumstances that seemingly should not create problems render people like Fred Phelps and his followers bitter and dangerous. Their (viewed by some as wacky, insane, unjustifiable) responses cause others to call for regulations that would infringe on their free market of religious belief.

            • FRE said, on March 18, 2013 at 8:54 pm


              I don’t see Fred Phelps and his “church” as dangerous; they are very useful. By their horrible behavior, they create support for whatever they oppose. You might find it interesting to read about the life of the ireverend Phelps and how he raised his children. He seems to be certifiably insane and really messed up some of his children with his extreme abuse. Fortunately, some recovered and want nothing to do with him.

              I’m not sure whether this post will end up in the right sequence; we’ll see.

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