Moral Imagination

I have come to believe that if two people are prepared to make a lifetime commitment to love and care for each other in good times and in bad, the government shouldn’t deny them the opportunity to get married.

That isn’t how I’ve always felt. As a congressman, and more recently as a senator, I opposed marriage for same-sex couples. Then something happened that led me to think through my position in a much deeper way

So began Senator Rob Portman’s commentary yesterday in The Columbus Dispatch.

What was the “something that happened” that led to his change of mind? It wasn’t well-reasoned arguments from the other side; nor years of in-your-face tactics from such groups as ACT UP; nor (primarily) a re-examination of the Bible. Rather, it was the fact that his own son had some out as gay.

A beloved human face on the issue totally transformed it. That’s great, right?

Well, yes, in one way it is great, but there was a very incisive exchange about this on the Public Radio call-in show, On Point. The first caller said:

If we have to wait for every legislator of every party to have a personal experience with an issue … — [and] this will sound harsh but — have a loved one get raped; have them get AIDS; have them come out of the closet; get shot in a theater or school — then what is it about us as a human family that we cannot understand that just because it doesn’t happen to us, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen to someone?

I mean, maybe Rob Portman should know someone who’s poor, or who doesn’t have a job, and maybe that would change him [as a conservative Republican]. (Time 6:20 in the audio at the top of this page.)

Tom Ashbrook (the host) summed it up:

Does it have to be personal before we can see the issue?

Guest Jack Beatty agreed:

What a comment on moral imagination!

This failure of our moral imagination – this inability to put a real face on moral decisions unless a face we know is thrust in front of us – has certainly been my own failure many times. It seems to be one of humans’ built-in cognitive biases. We weigh the opinions and stories of those we know and love much more heavily than the circumstances of strangers.

How can we do better?

One way is to spend time with people who are unlike us. One of my daughters happened to meet many lesbians at her college. Overt homosexuals hadn’t really been part of her world up to that point, but once she got to know some, she became much more sympathetic to their concerns.

Another is to imagine those we love in the situation in question. Are you against publicly funded healthcare? Then imagine your father out of a job, unable to afford insurance, and diagnosed with a break-the-bank illness like cancer. Your family can’t afford to pay out-of-pocket. Should society let him die?

What do you think? How can we strengthen our moral imagination and become more empathetic?

5 responses to “Moral Imagination

  1. Since it’s true that we develop empathy through personal experience, I agree with your suggestion of what to do. The best way is to associate with others who have problems unlike our own, and try to help them either professionally or through voluntary service.

  2. Often times it takes an experience to change a person’s perspective on something and, from my perspective, for good reason. Until a person has an experience they cannot possibly know what it is like; that is the nature of our human makeup. As mentioned above, it is simply an imagination. Imagination in and of itself is neutral; it can be a good thing but can also be a bad thing. Experience in and of itself is neutral; it can be a good thing but can also be a bad thing. The two must work together to form reason. Legislators have a particularly hard job because they must find that ground. Over empathying with people’s experience results in chaos because different people experience the same things differently and the majority isn’t always right. Over clinging to imagination will result in faulty ideologies. Experience, like imagination, goes both ways. The moral imagination of the senator above embraced the perspective that homosexuality was wrong. Then, because he had an experience with it, he changed his moral imagination in favor of homosexuality. Which moral imagination is correct? Neither; it’s simply a matter of perspective and opinion. As perspectives and opinions change, so will morals. In my perspective, the State doesn’t have the right to forbid or condone two people getting married; it’s their personal choice. That problem is that the State is using it’s weight on such matters and that’s what needs to be corrected.

    • >> The moral imagination of the senator above embraced the perspective that homosexuality was wrong. Then, because he had an experience with it, he changed his moral imagination in favor of homosexuality. Which moral imagination is correct? Neither; it’s simply a matter of perspective and opinion.

      I think it’s possible that one is correct and one is incorrect. The tragedy is that our moral imagination is so limited that a personal experience must take place before we can fully consider both sides.

      >> In my perspective, the State doesn’t have the right to forbid or condone two people getting married; it’s their personal choice.

      I absolutely agree. I heard that senator Rand Paul is now saying the same thing: civil unions for everyone.

  3. Pingback: No Rest for the Wicked? | Path of the Beagle

  4. Pingback: On Moral Vision | Path of the Beagle

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