Rights and Disagreement

Charles Krauthammer has an interesting op-ed in the Washington Post discussing President Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage, and accusing him of taking an intellectually incoherent approach to this matter. Mr. Obama has said that marriage – including of the same-sex variety – is a right; he has also said that the issue of allowing same-sex marriage (or not) should be for each state to decide. Mr. Krauthammer charges that this is contradictory: rights are rights are rights, and if something is a right, then it’s a right everywhere, and not state by state. It is the same argument that Dahlia Lithwick and Sonja West made in an op-ed on Slate (which I criticized here on other grounds). Mr. Krauthammer’s colleague Ruth Marcus also raised this issue a few days ago. It seems like a compelling argument, but it is wrong.

It is fine to say, in the abstract, that if something is a right it is a right everywhere and is not negotiable. (Actually, that too is a very controversial position, but let’s assume it.) The problem, as Jeremy Waldron likes to remind us, is that we don’t have any agreed upon means of verifying, to the satisfaction of everyone, the claim that something is a right, the way we have agreed upon ways of verifying the veracity of a claim made by a scientific theory. Thus even assuming that there exists a truth of the matter regarding rights, we can never be sure that we are, at any given moment, in possession of the truth about a claim of right. We think, of course, that our opinions about rights are correct; but if we are honest with ourselves, we cannot trivialize the possibility that we are mistaken.

We must recognize, therefore, that disagreements about right are can be reasonable. And that means recognizing – a possibility for which Mr. Krauthammer does not allow –  that someone who does not share our views about a certain claim of rights is not, for that reason, a bigot. I suspect that, if we think of the international realm, we mostly share that view. We do not think that every country that does not share our views about rights is bigoted. We might think them wrong, but not immoral. And we do not think that we ought to impose our views on them. We recognize that these are matters over which good faith disagreement is possible, and it is not wrong for each polity to resolve this disagreement as it thinks best – because it just might that they, rather than us, will get at the right answer.

Mr. Obama’s position might simply the application of this line of thinking inside the United States. He thinks that same-sex marriage is a right. But he acknowledges the possibility of good-faith disagreement on the matter (after all he, supposedly, until recently had doubts ), and thinks that this disagreement is best resolved in each state separately. This is not contradictory or incoherent.

There might be one more problem with that position. Where rights are codified in an authoritative document, like the U.S. Constitution, it seems strange to accept that it might mean different things to different people. But we know it does; people disagree about what the Constitution means just like they disagree about the underlying issues of rights. Unless one accepts the Dworkinian “one right answer” view, it need not be particularly troubling that the same document is interpreted differently by different people.

For once, left, right, and centre are united at criticizing Mr. Obama. And the irony is that this criticism is quite unfair.

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