UPDATE: Paul Krugman makes the point that Matt Yglesias and I make.

Personal Experience and Principle

Various friends on Facebook this morning were celebrating the fact that Republican Senator Robert Portman has come out (no pun intended) in favor of allowing gay marriage. The animating factor behind this is that his son is gay. I celebrate Portman’s shift too, but my celebration is more muted. I was trying to think of how to say it and then Matt Yglesias beat me to it. In a piece titled “Rob Portman and the Politics of Narcissism,” Yglesias writes:

But if Portman can turn around on one issue once he realizes how it touches his family personally, shouldn’t he take some time to think about he might feel about other issues that don’t happen to touch him personally? Obviously the answers to complicated public policy questions don’t just directly fall out of the emotion of compassion. But what Portman is telling us here is that on this one issue, his previous position was driven by a lack of compassion and empathy. Once he looked at the issue through his son’s eyes, he realized he was wrong. Shouldn’t that lead to some broader soul-searching? Is it just a coincidence that his son is gay, and also gay rights is the one issue on which a lack of empathy was leading him astray? That, it seems to me, would be a pretty remarkable coincidence. The great challenge for a Senator isn’t to go to Washington and represent the problems of his own family. It’s to try to obtain the intellectual and moral perspective necessary to represent the problems of the people who don’t have direct access to the corridors of power.

I agree. I think we should have compassion for all peaceful people. Yglesias and I would express our compassion in pretty different ways: he would have a powerful government use force to grab people’s wealth and give it to others and I wouldn’t. But where we agree is that you shouldn’t have to wait until the state interferes with your peaceful son before you start advocating that the state not interfere with other people. So, for example, maybe Portman’s son doesn’t smoke marijuana or snort cocaine. But if he did, it would be admirable for Portman to come out in favor of legalizing marijuana and cocaine. It would be even more admirable if he came out in favor of legalizing them absent any evidence that his son uses them.

Unfortunately, this is not how most people are wired. They seem to have to have some personal experience to get them to favor a change. They can get from that personal experience to favoring a change that affects not just them but others, but it seems hard for most people to say, “Gee, here’s how I thought about this issue. How would I feel if this other thing happened to my son or if my son was involved in some other activity? Would that change my views? If so, and if I’m justified in the conclusion I draw, I should change them now.”

It’s also not how most people think other people think. In November, I was sitting in the San Diego Airport waiting for a flight and I had my laptop open. On the back is a big sticker that says, “Free Bradley [Manning].” A man across from me asked, “Is Bradley Manning your son?” “No,” I said. He then lit into Bradley Manning. Why did he ask that? I think it’s because he had trouble imagining that someone my age who was not Bradley Manning’s father would want Manning freed.

I accepted these facts about people long ago. And my acceptance is a big part of why, when I give speeches, I try to get the audiences to put themselves in other people’s shoes. So I’m glad that Portman came to this conclusion. But I’m not ecstatic.