Free Speech, In Principle

Wherein I defend free speech as a principled ideal, but counsel practical wisdom in achieving it:

In the context of practical ethics, a principle is a rule that you apply to the choices you make, and a standard of judgment you apply to your actions, in all possible situations in life. “Taking a life is wrong” is, for example, a well known principle. It proscribes choices that would cause a death, and would brand me an unjust man, if I were to act in a way that caused someone to die.

But, as may already be obvious to some readers, there is a well known problem with this (and most other) examples of principle. Namely, the fact that perfection is not possible in the lived world. The ideal struggles to come into contact with the real world. Parmenides completely humiliated Socrates on this point, and Plato struggled with it for the rest of his life. Sometimes, causing the death of someone may be justified on the basis of some other more important principle. In a just war, for example. Or, in defense of another life (including your own). Or (debatably) in some extreme cases of euthanasia or abortion.

But what, then, of the principle? Moral principles are often said to be characterized by the fact that, unlike mere preference, they apply in all times, places, and circumstances. If I cannot meet the ideal at its very edges, does this mean I should abandon principle altogether because it’s not “real”, and just rely on preference? Most philosophers have decided this is untenable. We want to live in a sane, stable, predictable, and productive society, because we recognize that this is the minimum necessary condition for maximizing the good life. So, we have to draw lines; lines beyond which we all agree we will not cross, for the sake of a stable society, and our own happiness.

So, too, with speech.

“Free Speech” is an ideal that encapsulates an implied principle. That principle is, in simple terms, “expressing thoughts, as words is not a moral evil, regardless of the content”, or in the converse moral rule style: “Suppressing the expression of thoughts is wrong”.

This too, should be obviously untenable at its edges. We all have thoughts, constantly, that we suppress all the time. Many of them, to good effect. But, perhaps the rule only applies to the externally coerced form of suppression? Well, would it be wrong for me to loudly recite the 95 theses during a Catholic mass? I would say so. How about randomly singing the Don Alfonso parts of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte during a sprint planning session at work? Though not “harmful”, that would be wrong, too. In numerous social settings, people around me would actively work to suppress my utterances, if I were of a mind to speak whatever words were in my head at any given time — to the point of ostracism and/or reporting to the police for disturbing the peace, even.

These examples are silly, but they make the point. The suppression of speech is sometimes warranted. In various social contexts where only certain speech is appropriate, or on the extremes where physical danger is a reality. JS Mill outlined this last distinction nicely, in On Liberty: it’s one thing to call corn dealers scallywags in the local newspaper, and even to demand that they be subject to some sort of punishment. It’s quite another to stand outside the corn dealer’s home, accuse him of heinous crimes, and demand that the angry crowd you’re with set his home on fire.

We draw the distinctions a little differently in the modern world, but the point is still the same: we have to draw a line, for sanity’s sake, which can be justifiably enforced either internally or externally. In the US, there is a robust intellectual tradition of freedom of expression that has its roots both in JS Mill and in John Milton, and a well-documented and well-argued legal tradition defending that standard through first amendment case law. It’s not perfect, of course. But that’s what the political process is for: to allow for further negotiation, and further refinement, of our moral principles. It is coherent and consistent enough that any reasonable “public forum” could adopt it as functional a business practice.

Absolutism vs Extremism

I label myself a “free speech absolutist”. Given what I’ve written so far, this may raise an eyebrow. What do I mean by “absolutist”? The common conception of absolutism, is the eradication of a principle’s practical boundaries, in order to achieve its ideal. Taking absolutism in this sense, is to conflate it with extremism. In the case of, say, a principle of non-violence, this would lead one to extreme forms of pacifism, for example. This is not what I mean. As I explained, the ideal of a principle is ideal precisely because it cannot merge with the practical. There is an intractable logical as well as material boundary between our conceptual ideals, and our practical reality.

The ideal still remains central to my conception, however. With regard to speech, what is it we want? For people to be as free as is practicably possible. What does it mean for them to be free? To be as capable, and as responsible, as possible. Capability enables action, responsibility enables the moral wisdom to make good choices, and act well. Thus, when I say I am a free speech absolutist, what I mean is that I want people to be capable of the best possible expression, and wise enough to know when and how to deploy it.

How is this done? By advocating for two practical political circumstances: First, is not the elimination of barriers to speech (aka boundaries), but rather, making the negotiation of boundaries as voluntary as possible. Second, is by advocating and promoting the individual’s ability to reason and use language, with an aim toward truth.

In the first case, people seem to think that the remedy to the forcible imposition of barriers to speech is the forcible destruction of barriers, wherever found. But as I explained before, sometimes barriers to speech are a good thing. Our goal in a free society, should be to build people up to be able to negotiate the terms of those boundaries in good faith, and with confidence, rather than having them imposed by authorities.

In the second case, free expression is orders of magnitude more satisfying, when you’re able to convey an idea with subtlety and precision, and your interlocutors are able to engage with it productively. Negotiations require people capable of negotiating, and that requires sound reasoning skills. Our goal in a free society should be to promote reason, as a means of enabling that individual confidence, and capacity to convey truth.

Free speech absolutism, according to Greg, then, is an ideal of Enlightenment philosophy. It is not naive, but it is also not cynical. It expects every human being to be striving for some degree of virtue and truth, to have the tools available to him to strive successfully, and to be capable of self-correction when not. But it also recognizes that not everyone will be at the same place, at the same time, and that some people will fail the test.

The world is not perfect. But, it is a mistake to adopt the nihilistic attitude that it is therefore not worth striving for perfection. Where we can enable the free exchange of ideas, as a voluntary negotiation between capable and responsible men, we should do that. In the meantime, we settle for functional standards like first amendment case law.

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