Proposition 8’s Moral Dilemma

rainbow flag.jpgMost readers are likely familiar with California’s Proposition 8 — a ballot initiative to eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry by amending California’s state constitution (and thus overriding the California Supreme Court’s In re Marriage Cases decision this spring that found a right to same-sex marriage under the California constitution). In short, a “yes” vote on Proposition 8 ends gay marriage in California; a “no” vote protects the right to gay marriage.

Imagine that you are participating in a phone bank placing calls to encourage Californians to vote against Proposition 8 (in other words, you favor gay marriage). You place a call, and the voter on the other end tells you that she is opposed to same sex marriage and that’s why she’s voting no on Proposition 8. Your response? Do you say “Thanks for your time — make sure you get to the polls!” or do you correct her error, and explain that a no vote on Proposition 8 is actually a vote in favor of gay marriage?

After a friend recounted this real-life scenario this weekend, we presented the question to several (opposite sex) couples, and found that a fault line ran straight down the middle of each pair — most frequently (but not always), the women thought that there was no need to correct this voter’s error. There were two arguments made on this front; first, that there’s no obligation on the caller’s part to remedy the voter’s misperception, which was not, after all, created by the caller. Second, getting into the means-ends debate, the greater moral good of allowing gay marriage justifies the perhaps less moral stance of allowing this confused individual to vote against her true preferences. On the other side, most (but not all!) of the men argued that the ends don’t justify the means, and that the caller had a moral obligation to correct the voter’s misconception of Proposition 8. Their argument went something like this — you’re out canvassing for Obama on election day and someone you stop on the street says, “I’m not interested because I’m heading into that voting booth right now to vote for McCain!” If this voter is actually walking into the wrong polling place (assume, for argument’s sake, that you know where they should be voting) and will not be allowed to vote, are you justified in failing to correct their error? I omit the obvious and interesting counter-arguments here, but am intrigued to hear how readers in the caller’s shoes would have responded.

Moreover, although our “poll” was blatantly unscientific, I was interested in the gender dimension of the moral response. While one could perhaps argue that women prioritized the same-sex relationship over more abstract moral principles, I don’t think our results map precisely onto Carol Gilligan’s analysis of the ways in which men and women reason differently when it comes to morals. But I am curious whether this gender divide would persist in a more scientific study, and if so, why that difference might exist.

You may also like...

7 Responses

  1. anon says:

    One reason might be that even straight women – for whatever reason – feel like they have a greater stake in the gay marriage issue that makes the moral balancing weight more strongly towards not correcting. (I mean, if someone told you they were going to someone’s house to murder them but were walking in the wrong direction, you wouldn’t correct them before calling the police, right?)

    I don’t know why straight women would feel more strongly about this issue though. My guesses: women are likely to identify the struggle for gay rights with the struggle for women’s rights and even open-minded straight men are more likely to have residual hang-ups based on the high degree of stigma attached to “unmasculine” men which stops them from identifying with gay couples to the same extent as women are willing to do.

  2. Frank says:

    I think there may be an interesting court case on this in Massachusetts–there was a challenge to the initiative banning rent control on the grounds that many people were confused by its wording. The Mass SJC blocked the challenge, with some interesting reflections on just how confused voters can be.

  3. Tom says:

    I don’t think the ends justify the means… you must correct the person because intential misdirection is the same as lying (in my opinion). The whole “white-lies” argument is just an excuse for selfish behavior. I believe you must always do the right thing regardless of the consequences… it’s a slippery-slope otherwise.

    On a seperate note, I always find this debate interesting… especially how people words their arguments. 2 statements above stood out to me:

    1: “a ‘no’ vote protects the right to gay marriage”

    You assume there is (1) some right to gay marriage and (2) that there is nothing wrong with it. I respect your right to think that… I just find the phrasing interesting (like “pro-life” vs “pro-choice”).

    2: From the comments: “open-minded straight men”

    This one always irritates me, because it’s a blatant strawman falacy: not supporting gay marriage doesn’t mean someone is closed-minded (which is bad)… just that they disagree (which is good: free-speech and tolerance).

    Anyways, just some random thoughts that came to mind.

  4. anon says:

    not supporting gay marriage doesn’t mean someone is closed-minded

    You can define it as good or bad as you please, but as a general rule, believing one group of people should have something that another group of people shouldn’t based on an inborn trait (or hell, a chosen trait) of that group because of what your personal morality dictates is the very definition of close-minded.

    just that they disagree (which is good: free-speech and tolerance).

    The principles of free speech and tolerance protect the right to offer a contrary opinion; they don’t protect people holding your opinion up as somehow equally “open minded” or whatnot.

    Anyway, it’s a side point. You can read that as “even straight men who generally support gay marriage” and “a no vote protects the right to gay marriage as it has been laid out by the State Supreme Court” and the sentences have exactly the same meaning.

  5. Miriam Cherry says:

    I am a supporter of LGBT rights (and a California voter). I would, however, correct the error. Rights don’t mean anything if arrived at through trickery or misinformation or ignorance. Ignorance is why so many people oppose LGBT rights to begin with, I think.

    What if we changed this to some elderly jewish Florida voters who were mistakenly about to vote for Pat Buchanan?

    OTOH, I may be an outlier. I’ve always believed that Heinz should steal the drug to save his wife. I’ve always been puzzled by Gilligan’s discussion because it just didn’t map to my own experiences.

  6. Tom says:


    “…believing one group of people should have something that another group of people shouldn’t based on an inborn trait (or hell, a chosen trait) of that group because of what your personal morality dictates is the very definition of close-minded.”

    For the record, I never mentioned “hell” nor do I believe I have any right to make that kind of judgement.

    Regarding your other comments, I couldn’t disagree more. I am “open” to your arguements and willing to discuss it rationally… I am even willing to play “devils advocate” and question my beliefs, but I may still disagree with you in the end. Calling someone close-minded just because they disagree with you shuts down any dialog between the two sides.

    On another note, I think using an “inborn trait” as a basis for a moral decision is also a slippery slope. For example, a friend of our family was born with an enlarged adrenal gland, which causes him to have temporary fits of high agression. He has gotten into several fights while in this state and is now on medication. His “inborn trait” does not make it okay for him to hurt people or himself. The analogy isn’t perfect, but it touches on some key assumptions in the debate.

    The sticking point in discussions like this is the radically different worldviews that both sides have… that’s why I know I can’t convince you of my opinion and vise-versa. I only desire for both sides to have rational discussions instead of writing each other off. I think there is equal bigotry and intolerance on both sides of the issue.

  7. Aaron Williams says:

    “[B]elieving one group of people should have something that another group of people shouldn’t based on an inborn trait…of that group because of what your personal morality dictates is the very definition of close-minded.”


    Really, I thought “close-minded” meant somthing like “stubbornly unreceptive to new ideas.”

    Further, aren’t there many things which we, as a society, grant some people over others, based on “inborn traits.” Age restictions on voting, driving, drinking, smoking; familial restrictions on marriage and/or polygamy; residency requirements; affirmative action. Hell, you can’t even be President unless you’re a natural born citizen.

    Does that mean that all these policy choices are wrongful and based purely on “closed-mindedness”?