The Ethics Of… Freedom of Speech

Hands down one of my favourite pieces, and one my first published by the St James Ethics Centre back in May 2012. Controversial, innovative and massively irritating for both sides of the debate. Good times.


I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” – Evelyn Beatrice Hall (pinched by Voltaire)

Everyone loves freedom. Who doesn’t love freedom? What are you, some sort of Nazi? If it weren’t for the freedom you hate so much then people like you would get locked up for dissenting! How can you disagree with freedom of speech when it’s the only reason you are actually able to disagree in the first place? See, everyone loves freedom even when they don’t realise it.

If only we could agree on what freedom actually means, we’d be home free.

The struggle between freedom and control lies at the very core of politics and has profoundly influenced the development of human civilisation. Should there be law? Should it seek to punish vice or encourage virtue? Should others be able to tell us what to do, or even what we should do, in our private lives? From tribal groups, collectives and monarchies, to today’s liberal democracies, the question of how much control society should have over the individual is a critical one and usually involves a lot of compromise; we will accept some control, but not too much.

But freedom of speech is a slightly different can of worms. Speech and the ability to express you opinion are more than just a single part of our lives – they give us the ability to influence all the other parts of it as well, including our ability to participate in the debate of how much control society should have over us as individuals. As numerous tyrants have discovered throughout history, take away freedom of speech and it becomes extremely easy to take anything else you might want as well.

As such, attempts to regulate what a person can say, write or express are met with fierce opposition, branded as censorship and hounded mercilessly out of existence. It is ground even the most hard-line commentators fear to tread, and as Andrew Bolt has so graphically refused to stop demonstrating after being found guilty of racial vilification, freedom of speech is just as important to them as to their rivals.

So if free speech is that important, then what’s the problem?

The problems with free speech stem from the same reason it is so fiercely defended; speech is powerful. Speech can sway opinions. Speech can lead to practical changes in our lives and the systems that we base our lives on.

And there is absolutely no guarantee that any of this will be an improvement.

Consider a recent announcement by Professor Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that he had created an ‘Armageddon’ super virus, complete with a recipe for how this was done – and could be done again. The US Government immediately removed the publication, citing the obvious risk that this information could pose in the wrong hands. There is no denying that this is against the principle of free speech, but does the risk justify the censorship? Most would agree that it does.

But this is a very practical example with a credible physical threat. A more passive example, more in line with the spirit of free speech is the philosophy of Libertarianism.

Broadly speaking, Libertarians believe in individual responsibility. Every individual is entirely responsible for their own actions and the intervention of governments only serves to punish those who have earned their success in order to prop up those who have been too lazy, too foolish or too weak to succeed. This philosophy has become enormously popular in the USA especially and support the ideas of neo-liberal economics, encouraging lower taxes, decreased welfare, minimal laws with heavy punishments, and deregulation of the market to encourage trade.

While this idea has been extremely popular and influential, as can be seen the in ideas behind the recent Republican nomination campaigns and the Tea Party movement, Libertarianism relies completely on the idea that individuals are entirely responsible for their own actions, free of any external influence. And this is clearly not the case. Modern psychology, sociology, genetics, education, biology and virtually every other science focusses on identifying exactly these sort of influences, and the philosophy of consequentialism even goes so far as to claim free will provably does not exist – a claim which libertarians have so far been unable to disprove.

In the face of this evidence, libertarianism can only be described as brutal; a system that blames and punishes the most disadvantaged for their own situations while glorying in the successes and excesses of the wealthy, while ignoring any and all causes of both. And yet despite these serious criticism, libertarianism continues to enjoy pride of place in political theory.

Given the sheer volume of suffering inflicted by this idea over time through homelessness, systematic disadvantage and economic exploitation, surely it is as worthy of censorship as the ‘Apocalypse’ virus devised by Professor Kawaoka? Bare in mind that this virus is yet to actually kill or even hurt anyone. Yet any such suggestion would be met with outrage, even from non libertarians, even in the face of the evidence.

So we seem to find ourselves at an impasse, with freedom of expression on one side, and evidence on the other.

Free speech facilitates the spreading of false information, which can lead to suffering.

But free speech also allows proven information to be heard, even when it is unpopular or challenges the powerful.

How to decide?

Perhaps what is needed is not a decision between more or less free speech at all. Perhaps what is needed is accountability of speech, whereby people can say whatever they wish, but where their claims are challenged and proven to be untrue, they must retracted their ideas.

Such a system places evidence as more important than free speech, yet does not restrict speech in the process until sufficient evidence has been provided. It allows ideas to be revisited when new information comes to hand. And most importantly, it avoids centralising the power to determine what can and cannot be said in the hands of an authority or censor. Such centralised power too often precedes corruption and is the source of much of the fear that regulation of free speech evokes.

Accountability of speech favours neither the Right nor the Left, neither the status-quo nor the revolution, neither the powerful nor the weak. Such a system favours the truth, according to what can be proven. And where free speech can all too often be bought by way of media, public relations and marketing, accountability makes information, research and science its currency.

So are we brave enough to hold ourselves accountable?

6 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Freedom of Speech

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