Today, as this video shows, the mayor of San Diego, made a stunning announcement. The Republican, Jerry Sanders, announced that he would not veto and would sign a council resolution calling for the City to file a brief in support of Gay Marriage. Sanders may have flung his career away with this gesture, his career has taken him from a senior position in the police, a directorship to the mayor-ship and now he may have thrown it all away. Its interesting to consider for a moment, why he has taken this momentous step and also how such momentous steps are taken.
Mayor Sanders has taken this step because he didn't feel he could look gay constituents, gay workers for his administration or his gay daughter in the eye after rejecting gay marriage. He used to support civil unions- and no argument based on logic or the subtle reasoning of philosophers persuaded him but the vision of his daughter growing up without the kind of support that he himself had from his relationship with her mother. Ultimately that vision of his lonely daughter, deprived of the legal security of marriage, was stronger than any theoretical case on either side. Emotion trumped reason and a tearful Jerry Sanders seems tonight to have cast his career upon this one moment of empathy.
In doing so, Sanders is not alone. Most of us to be honest make our political decisions based on emotional pulls not rational arguments. We justify our politics upon the basis of rational argument, we may even change our minds on the basis of those arguments, but they are fortified and directed by emotion. Most moral theory is based upon kinds of empathetical understanding- justice requires the recognition of another to whom goods can be distributed which we hold ourselves. We may reason ourselves to the reasonable conclusion that that which is admirable is to be loved: but until we see it or more accurately feel it that conclusion is as barren as stone and dust. The pulse of emotion is what makes us act.
That isn't necessarily a good, but sometimes emotion works to advance the cause of human kind. More often than not that advancement is through the working of what we might term generous emotion. This is a case in point. The mayor, Sanders, obviously feels deeply that his daughter and his workers deserve the same rights as he held when he married his wife. Extension of rights, whether in the past to Blacks, Women, Homosexuals or other groups has always worked through that same emotion, why shouldn't this person have the rights that I have. Sanders stands in a long line stretching right back to the first master who manumitted a slave based on the slave's fundamental humanity.
There will be plenty who argue that Sanders today has stepped away from his conservative instincts- and they will be wrong. Ultimately there is nothing more conservative than the opening up of institutions to new members. One might compare this action to Disreali's creation of a new voting franchise- Disreali brought in new voters and they fortified the political establishment- Sanders wants to bring in new men and women to fortify marriage. Those new men and women won't marry the opposite sex but the same sex, all apart from that remains the same- and the fundamental argument rests on the greatest doctrine that an American ever uttered: that all men are created equal and given therefore equal rights over the earth to create and pursue their own happiness.
Its quite likely that this empathetic argument will be the one which sweeps aside attacks on gay marriage. Dick Cheney's reluctance to be questioned by Wolf Blitzer about his daughter during the last election was of a piece with this trend. Cheney rightly felt uncomfortable, the contradiction between his sense of where his daughter was in her private life and his public position as a loyal servant of the current evangelical President were such that questioning would explode them. Cheney like Sanders faced the strife between empathy and public policy- and as Vice President the administration policy won through. Sanders though has been braver, actually uttering his empathy and allowing it to erode his policy position. Changing your mind and realising that your attitude ultimately was unfair and unempathetic is difficult and to do so reveals a strength that is, dare I say it, statesmanlike. Mr Sanders deserves praise tonight.
One wonders whether this is the way that America and indeed the wider world will gradually come to accept homosexual equality- including marriage- through the working of empathy and kindness.