Friday, December 17, 2004

Expanding the circle

WEH Lecky, the 19th century philosopher who wrote the classic History of European Morals, once coined a phrase that fits in beautifully with our evolution as a moral species: “The Expanding Circle”. Imagine a circle that surrounds you, consisting of all the people you feel inclined to treat morally. We began, in prehistoric times, with perhaps just our family, and from there, this circle has steadily expanded, from the clan to the tribe to the nation to the race and so on, as categories of people who would earlier not have been the subject of our consideration have come into our moral circle. This is not a trivial expansion – a century ago women and African Americans were at the periphery of this circle, waiting for that centripetal force that would draw them in and make them equal members of society.

And now, spiralling inwards, are gay people. Michael Kinsley charts the rise of the movement for gay marriage, from 1989 when it first began as a provocative article in the magazine he then edited, the New Republic, to now, when it is on the verge of being legalised in Canada. Kinsley writes:

Such a development is not just amazing. It is inspiring. American society hasn't used up its capacity to recognize that it harbors injustice, and it remains supple enough to change as a result. In fact, the process is speeding up. It took black civil rights a century, and feminism half a century, to travel the distance gay rights have moved in a decade and a half.

This is also scary, of course, because there is no reason to think that gay rights are the end of the line. And it's even scarier because these are all revolutions of perception as well as politics. That means that all of us who consider ourselves good-hearted, well-meaning, empathetic Americans - but don't claim to be great visionaries - are probably staring right now at an injustice that will soon seem obvious, and we just don't see it. Somewhere in this country a gay black woman, grateful beneficiary of past and present perceptual transformations, has said something today in all innocence that will strike her just a few years from now as unbelievably callous, cruel and wrong.

Peter Singer, who invoked The Expanding Circle by writing a book with that title arguing that the circle was expanding to include animals, would no doubt believe that the gay black woman beheaded a chicken. But how that circle expands is hardly the issue. What is important is that it does expand, inexorably and irreversibly. Why does it do so? I have no idea. But isn't it a good thing?

Kinsley link via Daniel Drezner.

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