Saturday, 16 March 2013

On Portman, Conservatives and Empathy

As we all now know, Rob Portman has changed his view on gay marriage after learning that his son is gay. Similarly, Dick Cheney parts way with the GOP on this matter because, presumably, he has a  daughter who is a lesbian. And speaking of conservatives changing positions, Rick Scott, Florida governor, recently changed his views on accepting Obamacare in large part, apparently, because his mother had recently died.

Portman is to be commended for being willing to reconsider and change his position and do right by his son. The key mark of a decent person, to my mind, is the willingness to acknowledge and try to rectify mistakes.  Another key decency marker is loyalty and protection of one's children, so bully for Portman on both counts. But it does make me wonder. Who comes to a position on these matters without having first performed exactly the thought experiment that Portman has now participated in IRL? Before taking a position on gay marriage doesn't one at least pause and think, "What would my position on this be if I were gay or if one of my children were gay?" Did Portman really make such important legislative decisions without having given that possibility serious thought? Similarly, regarding health care legislation,  are people actually taking positions on these matters, let alone legislating on them, without trying to consider what sort of state of affairs they'd want actualized were they or their parents ever in a position to require substantial health care and lacking the means to pay for it?

It leads me to wonder if perhaps the key difference between liberals and conservatives is not so much that one values freedom more and/or trusts government less or that they have fundamentally different views on the importance of tradition values. Rather, the fundamental difference may be that conservatives simply lack, whether because of cognitive differences or laziness, the ability or inclination to empathize when making decisions. Perhaps liberals aren't more predisposed to trusting governments, distrusting markets, and don't value individual freedom any less than conservatives do. Perhaps it's simply the case that the biggest difference in the decision making process is that left-leaners are more likely, for whatever reasons, to involve a good faith effort to put oneself in the place of those most likely to be affected by the legislation. Arguably it's what Kant was prescribing when he counseled us to "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law"