Confusing Privileges with Rights…So Many Fallacies, So Little Time

By Hugh Harris

First appeared Hugh’s blog  The Rational Razor


Following the US Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v Hodges its worth reflecting on some of the more hair raising departures from rational thought in our own recent debate on a Bill of Rights and Marriage Equality.

Tim Wilson echoed Coalition concerns about Gillian Triggs by suggesting her comments on a charter of rights indicate activism and that she should run for parliament (Activists Should be Politicians, The Australian, 21 June, 2015).

But since Abbott appointee Tim Wilson is a well-known opponent of a charter of rights and has made his comments on Gillian Trigg public, thus politicizing the issue, his argument is self-defeating. Why does his opinion have a special exemption? And, isn’t a charter of human rights an appropriate topic for a human rights commissioner?

In the responses to the rational argument presented by Greg Barnes and George Newhouse, Same-sex marriage: politicians shouldn’t get to choose who gets equal rights (ABC: The Drum, 29 June 2015), tribal vigour overwhelms clear thinking.

…So many fallacies, so little time.

A) Same sex marriage is not a slippery slope to polygamy. Nowhere in the world has the former led to the latter; nor does it logically lead to the marriage of consenting adults to children, beasts, imaginary friends or inanimate objects. “Equality” is measured by same-sex individuals enjoying the same right to “marriage” as heterosexual individuals. Anything more, such as polygamy, is expanding the rights of BOTH parties – therefore there is no inequality requiring remedy, and no slippery slope.

Moreover, the counterfactual slippery slope appeals to an imaginary political system, not a real one. The driver in our political system is public opinion. Not some invisible dark giant we awoke by changing The Marriage Act., which will hereunto devote itself to punishing our evil deed, dragging us down, down, down into depravity and ruin.

And, why does the slippery slope go down and not up? Why is gravity placed at the behest of Henny-Penny? Because it relies on a negative value judgement in the first place; the argument has no force because one must accept its conclusion before accepting its main premise. If the change is seen as a positive the slippery slope goes away.

B) A Bill of Rights interpreted by Judges does not mean unelected officials determine our rights. It means rational, trained legal experts interpret the Bill of Rights which has been produced by our society through democratic means.

C) Marriage equality means more than just the meaning of the word “marriage.” Its opponents pretend the de facto provisions in the law already cater fully and equally to same sex partners, whereas there are a raft of inconsistent laws in all states and parental rights are limited.

D) Rights are not privileges. These two exist on opposite sides of the spectrum. Membership of a club is a privilege, but equality before the law is a right. Privileges apply to the few but rights apply to all.

E) Non-sequitur: Changing the meaning of English words is somehow the precursor to ripping apart the fabric of social cohesion.

Rowan Dean, Gay Marriage: a legally sanctioned lie, (The Courier Mail, 01 June 2015), insists That’s the trouble with words. Once you start fiddling with their meaning, who knows where you will end up?”

Phooey. Updaters of dictionaries know that words are transient and ever-changing. “Gay” used to mean joyful. “Spinster” used to mean a lady who span weaves. “Bachelor” was a young knight prior to denoting the lowest rank in Universities. They all equate to “Unmarried” these days (until we change The Marriage Act. or provide a Bill of Rights).

Some may prefer the world to stop rotating and for time to be frozen in a happy moment. Alas, the world turns. Our words change, our institutions change, our values change, our customs change, our societies change.

A future debate on human rights would have substantial benefits in diluting the oppressive tribalism in current affairs. Short term expediency and vested interests would be replaced with a philosophical discussion over what human rights should be enshrined in law.

To preserve fundamental human rights should be an attractive proposition to Conservatives. Not only does it provide a check on government power, but it also provides an impediment to radical change.

Similarly a discussion on what values inform a Bill of Rights should excite Conservative and Progressive instincts alike. Values are like glue, representing the beliefs which hold us together and marking out the limits of our tolerance.

No doubt the motivations of those who would oppose a Bill of Rights are more influenced by maintaining “privileges” than protecting “rights.”