The Wrong Question

Let us return to Vice President Cheney’s surprisingly supportive comments on gay marriage for a moment, as they have highlighted a common source of ethical confusion. [See Ethics Hero August 2004] A same-sex marriage advocacy organization quickly placed an ad on television that features Cheney’s statements, and ends with the rhetorical question, “President Bush: What if it were your child?”

To an ethicist, this is an insidious question, because it implies that important ethical decisions should be controlled by non-ethical considerations, and that decisions dictated by conflicts of interest are somehow more legitimate than those that are made based on values alone. It is certainly likely that the fact that Cheney’s daughter is gay has played some part in forming his attitudes on the topic of gay marriage. It is human nature, but his familial relationships are irrelevant to the question of whether gay marriage is right or wrong. The mothers of sadistic serial killers tend not to support capital punishment, but they are hardly unbiased analysts. The mothers of prostitutes are more likely to argue that the activity should be legalized, and the mothers of drunk drivers often think the laws on that topic are too strict. Indeed, the “What if..?” question can be read as undermining Cheney’s credibility and persuasiveness on the issue, prompting a response of “Well, of course he supports gay marriage…his daughter is gay!”

Cheney would no doubt claim that his opinion is based on principle, not the welfare of his daughter. The problem is that because his daughter is gay, there’s no way for anyone, even him, to tell whether or how much his opinion has been influenced. That is the central problem with all conflicts of interest, real and perceived. To cite two that also involve the Vice President: Justice Scalia steadfastly maintains that his social contacts with Cheney didn’t influence his deliberations on the Energy Task Force case, and Cheney insists that his former connections to Halliburton haven’t caused him to give his old employers special government favors. Do we believe them? Reasonable people can disagree on that, but they should all agree on this: Scalia’s Supreme Court opinions and Cheney’s influence over government contracts (if he actually has any) should be evaluated on the merits, and not distorted by friendships and old business ties. And the correct status of gay marriage in American society should likewise be decided on a careful analysis of the values and consequences involved, not according to who has gay family members.

“What if it were your child?” is closely related to the offensive and intellectually dishonest arguments made by, among others, New York Congressman Charlie Rangel and (fill in own description here) Michael Moore that Congressional decisions on war and peace would be somehow made fairer and more legitimate if the sons and daughters of Representatives and Senators were all in the armed services. The argument is offensive because it assumes that national leaders are unfeeling monsters who are incapable of appreciating the heavy responsibility involved in sending young soldiers into combat. It is intellectually dishonest because we know that a personal stake in a momentous and difficult decision is an impediment, not an aid, to clear thinking and effective analysis.

Yes: the ideal courageous and principled decision-maker would make the same wartime decision whether or not it would place a loved one at risk, but it is nonsense to say that such risk will always lead to a better decision. On July 2, 1863, the second day in the battle of Gettysburg, the Confederacy was about to break through the Union line before re-enforcements could arrive. General Winfield Hancock realized that the Union Army’s only chance was for him to order the small First Minnesota regiment to attack at the weak point, though the smaller force was almost certain to be wiped out. They were: 80% of the regiment perished. But it bought the crucial minutes necessary for the reinforcements to arrive, saving the battle, the Union, and quite possibly the future of the United States. What if Hancock’s son had been in the Minnesota regiment? Would the General have hesitated, or sought another solution that may have failed? Nobody knows…but why would we want to inject such a confounding factor into his decision-making process?

Having the happiness, health and welfare of our children at stake when any of us make difficult decisions is neither a recipe for moral clarity or careful analysis. “What if it were your child?” is a lazy and emotion-based rhetorical device for those who cannot, or will not, mount a well-reasoned argument.

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