What if Proposition X was on the ballot? It would take volunteers from the overcrowded prisons to work on the San Andreas fault. The evidence shows that it would greatly benefit California. It would turnaround the economy, lower crime, reduce prison overcrowding and best of all, reduce the frequency of minor earthquakes which were costly to our infrastructure. On first glance, the naïve voter would surely vote Yes on X. But the opponents of X come out and show that with all the good, it will cost the lives of 1000 Californian inmates, many of whom were imprisoned for non-violent crimes and some of whom that may be wrongly imprisoned.
How would we make this decision? Even if we agree on the facts of the situation, what is the moral thing to do? What is the good thing to do? Is there a difference?
My position is that this, like almost all political matters, is an amoral issue. The “Yes on X” and “No on X” are both supporting their side for good moral reason: for California and for inmates. Their intents are good. There’s nothing immoral with allowing people to voluntarily work a dangerous job. There’s nothing immoral with not doing a public works project. Moreover, the foundations for our moral beliefs are difficult to discuss, particularly in public. What is accessible and much easier to discuss is the amoral (that is, not regarding morality) facts of the situation.
Benefits: Good commerce, better infrastructure, less prison overcrowding
Costs: 1000 deaths
We’d need to discuss which of two possible societies is better. We’d need to weight the lives of 1000 volunteer inmates against the good that will come from the work project. We can be Society A, which allows a few people to choose dangerous jobs for the benefit of all of us or Society B, which values the lives of its citizens so highly that it does not permit them to take such jobs, even though it is costly to all. I hold that we are almost always choosing between two amoral ends and trying to determine which makes for the best society. Certainly there are exceptions. There are no two ways about the Holocaust. Slavery is not an amoral issue (though even Lincoln saw it that way at times). But most everything else in politics falls into a moral gray area in my own worldview. When we make laws, we ought to talk about what we agree on (Society A vs. Society B) and not taking our own position to be the moral one and condemning those who disagree. At least this is how I think we’ll get things done. We can judge each other in the privacy of our own homes.
It is from that framework I’d like to reconsider Prop 8. I guess this is a little late to be directly relevant, but I had a very stimulating conversation gay marriage about an hour ago and felt inspired to write. The central question in my mind was “What is good for society?” In considering Prop 8, the conservative thinking (not Libertarian, which I tend to be…I’ll pretend to be a conservative for the purposes of this paper) supporting Prop 8 goes something like this:
Benefits: Stronger families.
Costs: Perception (though not reality) of disenfranchisement against gays.
My friend saw the world this way:
Costs: Weaker families; true and terrible disenfranchisement/discrimination; assault on the gay identity and worldview; massive increase in suicide and depression.
So who’s right? I think both sides exaggerate, but I think both sides are partly right. It made me reconsider the cost. I didn’t think the costs were high, myself not being deep within a social network that the proposition would affect. My accounting of the cost was much closer to the conservative position.
But what if I miscalculated the cost? Even assuming I’m right about the benefits, what if the costs were closer to my friend’s estimation? What if the cost of “stronger families” was 1000 additional suicides by people who felt disenfranchised? It would change the equation even if we assumed these deaths were collateral (that is, non-malicious; an unintended consequence). Clearly if we were considering “executing 1000 gays” for the sake of “stronger families,” then this would be one of the few clear-cut moral issues in politics. But as it is an unintended consequence (if this remained an amoral issue), the deaths (assuming they were real; I haven’t seen the data) would still need to be considered in the “Cost” section of the analysis.
Another miscalculation I made was in failing to properly put myself in the position of another. I naïvely thought, “How would I feel if I were in their shoes?” I thought about it like this: for many gays, their core identity is their sexual orientation; my core identity is a Christian. What if people told me, a Christian, I could not have legal marriage status and could not practice my religion in public. Would I care deeply? Would it affect my identity? No, not at all. I don’t know if I’d be like the disciples in Acts 5:41 who were “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name,” but I wouldn’t be all that sad. My identity is based on God, not on the opinions of men. The important part of my religious practice is in private alone and in small groups anyways. I’d still illegally “get married” in private and know my wife (in the Biblical sense :)) in my bedroom. It’d be tough, but as a Christian, that’s what I signed up for (and what we get blessings for enduring). (And as an aside: I did sign up for Christianity when I was about 12; a personal decision independent of parents or tradition is a key element of Protestantism, especially today).
And that is where I made my mistake. I imputed my disregard for legal status upon others for whom legal status (or more likely, “social acceptance,” legal status being symbolic of acceptance) is supremely important. I projected my indifference (or mild desire for) persecution upon others who do not see it the same way.
So with these two adjustments, my analysis becomes this:
Benefits: Stronger families
Costs: Terrible feelings of disenfranchisement, increased gay suicide rate
My friend said, “You would not hold the beliefs that you do if you had more gay friends.” I said he may be right. I now know why: talking to those who would be most affected would help me better estimate the cost of such a bill. My perception suffers from not having many friends out of the closet.
I don’t know the final answer or the ultimate benefit of Prop 8, but I do know that I make a mistake in calculating the cost. If only this argument were made to me rationally instead of calling me an immoral bigot from an arbitrary moral framework, I might have changed my vote.