When Senator Rob Portman of Ohio announced that he has a gay son and, as such, could no longer justify his opposition to same-sex marriage, reactions were mostly predictable.
Tea partiers were outraged.
Proponents of marriage equality were thrilled.
Well, most of them.
The blogosphere served up a small contingent of motive police who support the right of gays to marry, but didn’t think Portman’s epiphany was pure enough.
Kenneth Walsh wrote a piece titled Sen. Rob Portman Makes 'Brave' Decision -- Once It Directly Affects His Family, in which Walsh validates his superior empathy for people he doesn’t know by invalidating Portman’s change of heart brought about by mere personal experience.
Writer Matthew Yglesias took a similar stance in Rob Portman and the Politics of Narcissism when he wrote “I'm glad that Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio has reconsidered his view on gay marriage upon realization that his son is gay, but I also find this particular window into moderation… to be the most annoying form.”
Dan Treadway wrote in Don't Give Rob Portman a Free Pass, “Rob Portman is a good father for changing his view on this issue so that he may support the rights of his son.”
Okay. But as you will see, Treadway should have quit while he was ahead.
He continued, “But the fact that he was only able to feel empathy for the plight of gay people in this country -- a plight that he for decades actively contributed to based on his voting record -- only after the issue directly affected him, is definitive proof that he is an unfit politician.”
Treadway has it backwards, because Portman’s change of heart is precisely the sort of thing one should hope to find in a politician.
If one has, like me, dismissed Portman as a "little statesman" in the past, his change of heart makes him a little less little.
Another attack on Portman's motive is The Portman Reversal: Why He Did It DOES Matter at Ethicsalarms.com. The article skewered Portman because his motives were shaped by personal experience rather than the greater good.
Michel Martin was considerably more thoughtful and nuanced. The host of NPR’s “Tell Me More” noted in her March 21 commentary When Should Politicians' Life Experience Determine Policy? that “Life experience really does matter… I read once that former President Lyndon Johnson was influenced in matters of civil rights at least as much by one of his housekeepers and the indignities she had to suffer on her trips south to open up his Texas ranch for the summer, as he was by the entreaties of the civil rights leadership.”
Whatever the reason for Portman’s change, it is more proof that like the former convict who speaks to young people at risk or the recovering alcoholic who sponsors someone trying to quit drinking, personal experience can and should be a part of such changes in one's perspective and subsequent actions.
Still, even Martin’s more reflective, less scornful consideration sidesteps a bigger question.
Should motive matter at all when it comes to doing the right thing?
Consider the concept of being charitable.
Several years ago, author Dennis Prager offered up a hypothetical case which I presented to countless teenage students over the years:
Suppose two people who have the exact same earnings and expenses are approached by a poor man in desperate need for food and money for his family.
The first person, after listening to the man’s horrible experiences, cries and then out of the goodness of his heart, gives him five dollars.
The second person, although concerned, is not moved to tears, and in fact, has to rush away, which he does. But because his religion commands him to give 10 percent of his income to charity, he gives the poor person a hundred dollars.
Who did the better thing? The person who gave the five dollars from his heart, or the one who gave a hundred dollars because his religion commanded it?
The vast majority insisted that the person who gave five dollars from his heart did the better deed.
Then I asked them who they would think had done the better deed if each of them was the one in need, they began to question the importance of motive.
Most of them realized that the quality of a deed cannot be measured on how it makes the good deed doer feel but, rather, on how much good it does.
Consider a billionaire, who for reasons solely relating to tax benefits, the public adulation and his name on a bronze plaque that will outlive him, finances a new state of the art cancer wing at a big children’s hospital. If your child is treated and cured of cancer at this facility, do you give a damn about the billionaire’s motives?
Does it matter that a driver was wearing the seat belt that saved his life in a terrible accident NOT because it made safety sense or because he didn't want to get a ticket for driving without it?
If you had a gay son or daughter, does it matter that Rob Portman’s eyes were opened by his child rather than yours?
There might be some place in the universe in which each being's motives for doing the right thing are purely altruistic. But this planet isn't it.
Martin noted “That his opinion about gays and lesbians - and who they are, and what they should be able to do - was formed by a certain world view. And it made sense to him, until he had to reconcile that world view with another truth: the truth of his son's life, and the truth that he is the same boy Portman has loved and respected his whole life, and for whom he wants the best.”
She's right. Furthermore, Portman's love for his own child is sure to expand to concern for all children in a similar plight. If any readers see a downside to this, please email me.
Until then, the reason for Portman's change of heart will remain irrelevant to me.
* The title of this article, also the title of a 1968 album by Blood Sweat and Tears, is from the poem My Heart Leaps When I Behold by William Wordsworth:
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.