Argue reason, not rights, Bedi says
By Hank Nelson, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, April 24, 2009
Citing the continuing national debates over same-sex marriage and abortion, Dartmouth government professor Sonu Bedi argued that framing the debates in terms of conflicting rights hurts the quality of the discussion in his Thursday lecture, "Rejecting Rights: Reframing the Debate."
Bedi, who wrote a book on this issue, titled "Rejecting Rights," said that although rights represent the traditional way of ensuring democracy and liberty, they are not necessarily the best way to "limit the reach of the state."
"The focus ought to be on reasons, not rights," Bedi said.
Focusing on the reasons behind same-sex marriage prohibition, rather than the rights of homosexual couples, is a better way to ensure individual liberty, Bedi said.
One issue is that the push for rights for gay couples allows detractors to claim that the group is "getting special treatment," Bedi said. It also limits debate by forcing the issue to revolve around sexual orientation, not preference, Bedi said.
"The pathology of rights needlessly fuels the nature-nurture debate," Bedi said.
Sexual orientation need not be "central to [a person's] identity" in order for them to have the liberties they deserve, Bedi said, adding that having the debate over same-sex marriage framed in terms of rights "constrains individuality, rather than empowering it."
Because gay people have to prove their rights, the burden of proof unfairly falls on them, Bedi said.
"This [policy] requires gays to be on the offensive," he said. "This already places them in a subordinate position."
Gay rights do not even need to be considered if the polity looks into the laws restricting same-sex marriage, Bedi said.
"There's simply no good reason for limiting marriage to heterosexual couples," he said. "The rationales for restricting marriage in this way are circular, religious or made in bad faith."
If people simply consider the reasons why gay marriage is illegal, they would see that many of these reasons are "arbitrary," Bedi argued. The "mere appeal of tradition" should not count as a legitimate reason for a law, he added.
This way of re-framing the debate should serve to improve discourse, Bedi said.
"No longer is this simply a gay issue," Bedi said. "There is no worry of the specter of group rights."
Bedi also discussed abortion, arguing again that focusing on the reasoned justification for abortion legislation, rather than rights, allows for a more democratic discourse.
According to Bedi, "rights are conversation stoppers" that limit debate, as both sides have fundamentally different ideas that are absolute.
By relying on the language of rights to frame the issue of abortion, people paradoxically give up their voices in the debate by "[passing] the buck" to the courts, Bedi said.
Bedi compared the argument over abortion to Good Samaritan laws, which hold citizens accountable if they do not help a person in direct danger. While a woman is liable for the death of her unborn child if she chooses to have an abortion, "failing to save a drowning child is not a crime in most places," he said.
Even in states like Vermont that do have Good Samaritan policies, the laws do not require people to act if such action could put them in danger, he said. Bedi contrasted these laws with calls to ban abortion, which could put the mother in danger in order to protect her child.
For Bedi, that "pro-life" organizations do not call for these Good Samaritan laws demonstrates that these groups are not consistent in their calls to save innocent lives.
Bedi also argued that, if women are not allowed to have abortions, they should be given some sort of compensation so that the burden of the pregnancy does not fall solely upon them.
Viewing these issues in terms of reasoned justifications rather than rights makes them "less prone to manipulation," Bedi said. He noted that the use of rights to frame the issues goes back to the rise of democracies, and came about in part to protect people from autocratic governments.
"The concept of rights assumes a non-democratic government," Bedi said. "With a democratic government, we have no reason for the language of rights."
Bedi's lecture was part of the continuing Martin Luther King celebration events and Dartmouth Centers Forum theme "Conflict and Reconciliation."