Benjamin Franklin was against smallpox vaccination — until his own unvaccinated son died of smallpox, whereupon Franklin changed sides and began urging other parents to vaccinate their children.
This has always struck me as a bit of a black mark against Franklin’s rationality. He’d always known that smallpox kills; he’d always known that vaccinations (at least in the early 18th century) could also kill. As a parent, he’d weighed one risk against the other and used his best judgment about where to place his bets. In a world where smallpox deaths were commonplace, his own son’s death was just one more virtually insignificant data point. Could inoculation have been an unacceptable risk against a disease that killed 100,000 people a year, but a prudent precaution against a disease that killed 100,001?
That’s how I feel, too, about Senator Rob Portman’s turnabout on the issue of gay marriage after learning that his son is gay. Portman is being widely pilloried for acting in the interest of his own gay child without ever having shown much concern for anyone else’s gay children. But that, I think, is not quite right. I’m willing to give Portman credit for having struggled with this issue, for recognizing all along that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) imposes costs on gay Americans, and for recognizing all along that those costs are to be regretted. It’s just that he thought the costs were outweighed by various benefits.
I happen to think Portman was wrong about most of those benefits, but I’m not here to argue about that. The pros and cons of legalized gay marriage have been so widely discussed that I doubt there’s anything new or surprising to say about them, which means they’re not good fodder for The Big Questions. What I am here to argue is that even if we grant that Portman is trying hard to do the right thing on an issue he finds more vexing than I do, it makes absolutely no sense for him to reverse course on the basis of a single virtually insignificant data point. He knew all along that DOMA is bad for, say, two million of gay people, but thought that the bad was outweighed by some offsetting good. Was one additional gay person enough to flip that inequality?