On Defending Free Speech – What is your true rejection?
TodBurt offers five reasons to care about free speech. I noticed that in the comments, people expressed a preference for one or more of the reasons. However, no one seemed to think that none of the reasons were adequate. Let me try to show this is indeed the case:
It is impossible to show that anything is inherently good
According to Tod:
A) Free speech is an inherent good. That seems the easiest thing to say — but it strikes me as the hardest thing to justify. Why something is inherently good is rarely obvious and requires constructing some rather abstract philosophical structures, which often enough fails because it’s really just verbose intuition. Intuition isn’t good enough. Further, advocates of free speech as an inherent value must address the seeming inevitability of cultural and intellectual erosion predicted by Chu and Brooks and seemingly playing out at fast-forward speed in the culture before us as we watch aghast because of course none of us are guilty of participating in that phenomenon ourselves.
(emphasis added by me)
Let me make a slightly stronger claim. In order to rationally assert that something is intrinsically good, you must be able to provide a general account of what intrinsic goodness is. And saying that it is something that is desirable for its own sake won’t do as that just passes the buck and we now have provide an account of what is desirable for its own sake. But even this is not any easier to settle. While our ordinary ascriptions of desirability just refer to things that everyone or almost everyone actually desires. But the sort of desirability that would make the analysis of goodness-as-desirability come out true is the one in which something is desirable when we have objective (goal independent) reasons to desire it. Hume’s dictum that you cannot derive an ought from an is applies here. The mere fact that something is desired by everyone does not give us any reason to think that it is in fact desirable. In order for that to be the case, one of two things would have to be true. Either a) People have this mental faculty that perhaps imperfectly tracks these intrinsically desirable properties, or b) Everyone actually believing something to be desirable makes it objectively desirable. The second option is incoherent, and the first option lacks empirical support. If you don’t believe me, just ask any of the good doctors/doctors-to-be on this site if anyone has discovered a part of the brain that tracks these properties. What makes answering yes nearly impossible is that in order to identify whether any part of the brain tracks intrinsic desirability, we need an analysis of intrinsic desirability in the first place. Or else we are just begging the question as to whether the thing being tracked is intrinsic desirability. We don’t have, as yet, any plausible conceptual analysis of intrinsic desirability.
Market failure in the free market of ideas
B) Free speech is the road to the truth. Thomas Jefferson wrote: “Truth will do well enough if left to shift for herself. She seldom has received much aid from the power of great men to whom she is rarely known & seldom welcome. She has no need of force to procure entrance into the minds of men. Error indeed has often prevailed by the assistance of power or force. Truth is the proper & sufficient antagonist to error.” and later in his life, “Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” Jefferson often ruminated on what we would call the “marketplace of ideas” particularly with respect to religion, while being cagey (and likely inconstant) in his own consideration of the divine.
This is just false. As I have mentioned before, free speech predictably leads to false beliefs in a number of areas. Since people who have false beliefs don’t actually believe that those beliefs are false, the mere possession of a false belief is not itself a cost unless possessing that false belief is causally linked to negative consequences. Similarly only if a true belief is causally linked to positive consequences is there a subjective benefit to having a true belief (as opposed to having a belief that we merely think is true). We can straightforwardly see that truth-conducive deliberation is more difficult than deliberation that would lead to false beliefs. Thus, if the benefits of true beliefs or the costs of false beliefs are not internalised by the reasoners themselves, a free marketplace of ideas would under produce truths and over produce lies. Of course, the mere existence of a market failure does not mean that the government will necessarily do better. However, unless you are a pretty hard core libertarian, you are unlikely to think that it is wise to not have any economic regulations just because government failure is possible. Most of you think that at least some economic regulations are an improvement over an unregulated market. It seems inconsistent for such non-hard core libertarians to believe that some regulations are better in the marketplace of consumption goods but not in the marketplace of ideas. If you are willing to consider that restrictions/regulations on speech can be justified on a case by case basis, that does not count as free speech, at least as we ordinarily conceive of it.
Emperor sake of popular government
C) Free speech is a necessary incident of self-government. (Which, of course, begs another question, of why self-government is so great, and some people don’t think it is.) James Madison: “A popular Government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” Without a robustly free arena for the circulation of opinions and ideas, democracy is not possible; we cannot select our leaders or voice our approval or disapproval of what our government does without a forum in which to do so. A narrow focus of this view would grant high levels of free speech to explicitly political subject matter but permit (though not necessarily encourage) restrictions on matters less directly political, while a more broad focus would suggest that cultural issues form the curtilage of political matters because they form normative values that necessarily will evolve over time.
Depending on how you define democracy, this is either false or trivially true. If you define democracy purely in terms of the existence of universal suffrage and a voting mechanism to select either directly or indirectly the political leaders (especially the heads of state and/or government) in a given jurisdiction, the above is false. Lots of countries in Europe have laws that criminalise Holocaust denial. Singapore punishes certain forms of racist speech. Malaysia has laws that punish blasphemy against Islam. Moreover all these places have multiple political parties. If free speech was necessary for the existence of elections and other democratic forms, how would you explain what is happening in such countries? Maybe the mere presence of an election is insufficient. The election must be sufficiently free and this in turn requires free speech. Or perhaps there is some other way in which you can define democracy more robustly such that a country counts as a democracy only if it has free speech. Now, free speech is necessary for democracy, but this is trivially so. It is easy to say that Singapore and Malaysia are just authoritarian dictatorships with a veneer of democracy. But, according to any such definition even Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Poland, Czech Republic among others will not count as true democracies. Alternatively, we could go back to our purely procedural notion of democracy but instead argue that in all these places, speech is largely free. Now, we have another problem. Why would one particular speech restriction (for example a restriction on cartoons about Mohammad) undermine freedom of speech in a country when laws against holocaust denial do not?
We’re all doomed
D) Divergence of opinion is inevitable and must be accommodated. People are going to dissent and circulate unorthodox points of view even in the presence of seemingly overwhelming censorship — on pretty much all matters imaginable. Society might expend massive resources squelching this sort of thing, but the accumulated history of humanity demonstrates that even the most thought-repressive society inevitably would still fail to prevent the circulation of ideas that those in power would squelch. So it’s better to have an environment where substantially all speech and ideas are tolerated, because it frees up resources that can be devoted elsewhere, and thus serves as a bulwark of the Establishment rather than as a sapper beneath it.
Out of the five reasons that Tod provided, this may very well be the best one. However, resignation about the inevitability of free speech does not amount to endorsement of the principle that people ought to be able to say whatever they want without political retaliation. Moreover, it is not altogether clear that speech restrictions don’t work. It really depends on what the purpose of a speech restriction is. Laws restricting expression may themselves have a primarily expressive function. For instance, laws against racist speech are intended to signal that the society collectively regards such speech as beyond the pale, as not fit for decent society. People who grow up in such societies would mostly regard such speech as shameful. If the purpose of a speech restriction is pedagogical in this way, then such laws are successful. Moreover, even if the goal is to eliminate such speech, the mere failure to completely eliminate that type of speech should not count as a reason to not have such laws. Would we say that we should eliminate laws against murder just because murder is inevitable?
E) Free speech promotes peace. Jon Stewart: “…[F]or the most part, the legislators and journalists and institutions that we jab and ridicule are not, in any way, the enemy. For however frustrating or outraged the back and forth can become, it’s still back and forth conversation amongst those on, let’s call it, Team Civilization.” (Emphasis added.) When we have freedom of speech, we don’t need to resort to guns and swords and violence to resolve our differences of opinion. Instead, we get to argue, we get to debate, we get to persuade.
I wonder how anyone can seriously offer this in the aftermath of a violent attack that was committed because people were allowed to mock Islamists. Clearly free speech sometimes incites violence! The terrorists still resorted to violence even though they could have debated or tried to persuade.
What is your true rejection?
Does any of this mean that we shouldn’t have free speech? All I have provided are defeaters for reasons in favour of free speech. If any of the above reasons contributed to your belief in free speech, their defeat must lower your confidence so long as you do not have any undefeated reasons. If you have no reason for or against a belief then rationality requires suspension of judgment.
Perhaps you believe in free speech for some other reasons which I haven’t addressed here. What are those reasons? What would it take for you to believe that speech can sometimes be restricted? If nothing would shift your belief, then isn’t it the case that you’re just accepting freedom of speech as an article of faith? That you don’t really have epistemic justification for your belief?
Update: How could I have thought that it was Tod and not Burt? Sorry guys. No excuses.