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The Utility of Free Speech

by | 24 July, 2018 | Article


By James Penfold

Have you ever been enjoying yourself, probably at a party or a family dinner, or maybe just scrolling through your Facebook newsfeed, when someone ‘gets political’? Maybe it’s your crazy uncle (or even your reasonable uncle after a few glasses of red), or that school friend who unaccountably enjoys brawling on social media. You hope that no one will take the bait, and the unerringly controversial statement (on veganism, refugees, abortion, etc. -ascending by number of standard drinks) will go ignored and fall flat. You make a silent prayer that the challenge will go unanswered…but someone always seems to reply in kind, and suddenly you’re off to the Crazytown Races.

I doubt that this experience is limited to myself; in fact, I’m guessing that a few people reading may have been the instigator on occasion (as indeed, have I). Incidents like this highlight the difficulty and discomfort that is intrinsic to political discussion, and how challenging it can be to argue in a way that remains civil and sensible.

The reason I am laying this groundwork is to address the concept of free speech, and most importantly, the increasingly common claim that it is under attack by nefarious elements (the ‘latte-swilling intelligentsia’, the Patriarchy, Facebook, etc). This has additional relevance for me, as I have been entrusted to be editor for these UQ PPE Society Articles, and the scope of what I can/should publish is a very obvious and present concern.

The most common ethical system that is used in the realm of political speech seems to be rights-based ethics; e.g. ‘Alex has a right to free speech’. This is understandable, considering that much of this discussion is USA-centric, and thereby hinges on their First Amendment. However, in my view, it is entirely the wrong way to think about ethical political discourse.

I won’t bore the reader with a longer tirade on the weaknesses of rights-based ethical systems; suffice to say, it’s my view that the whole schema really requires belief in God, and several stiff drinks, to work at all. In my view, a Utilitarian perspective provides a philosophically superior foundation, and a clearer picture of free speech, its costs, and its limits.

As the students of philosophy will know, Utilitarianism dictates that the most ethical action is one that maximises ‘utility’, i.e. happiness. My basic assertion is that, in a liberal democracy like Australia, the political system works best (and by extension, people are happiest) when there are lots of diverse ideas circulating through public discussion, and lots of people are engaged and thinking about these ideas. Essentially, democracy is better if you participate.

Naturally, in order to get lots of ideas fomenting, people with diverse political opinions need to share them. As such, not only is it my view that individuals with a political stance ought to be permitted to speak, they actually have an ethical obligation to speak. And inversely, staying silent can be a sin of omission.

I’m certain that many of my readers are, at this point, brimming with very reasonable objections regarding hate speech, populism, and the like. Before I address these issues (and I promise, I will), I’d like to momentarily leave the speaker, and instead contemplate the ethical situation of the audience.

The audience is the person or people to whom the speaker is communicating their arguments. At least from my own experience, it seems that this role is frequently overlooked in discussions about free speech, as though the speaker was just unloading their arguments into oblivion. As we saw above, democracies are more effective, and their citizens are happier, when there is active participation in the public forum. Also, I asserted that this is only possible if people share their ideas and views. However, all the free speech in the world would be pointless if no one else were listening. Public discourse is not a monologue, but a dialogue, and just as it is our ethical duty to share political ideas, I contend we also have a duty to listen to, and engage with, the ideas of others.

Now that we have a better sense of the audience and their ethical position, let us return to the role of speaker. Now that we know our colleagues have an ethical obligation to listen to us, it follows that we have additional ethical responsibilities to help them do that. Inversely, if we speak in a way that inhibits or prevents the audience from engaging with our arguments, or the arguments of others, we are encouraging our audience to behave immorally, and we are complicit. In short, I’m proposing that the audience has a duty to engage in a speaker’s argument, and the speaker has a duty to share their views, but in a way that enables the audience to engage.

I realise that many of my readers are probably starting to look for the exits, so I’ll conclude with some examples. Let’s imagine that Beryl has written a ‘letter to the editor’ for her local paper. Within, she argues that public money should be redirected from indigenous language programs, and instead focus on maths and science, to better prepare indigenous youth for the future. While her core argument might have merits, her letter also includes labels and adjectives that are offensive. I would argue that the offensiveness of the letter deters her audience from engaging, is thereby immoral, and likely outweighs her civic duty to share her argument. In this case, I would argue that the paper has a moral justification for censoring Beryl’s letter.

As a second example, let us imagine that Charlie, a local businessman, is lobbying for a government initiative that will make him wealthy, but isn’t in the public interest. Charlie proceeds to knowingly make fallacious arguments in favour of the initiative, hoping to sway politicians and the public. I would argue that Charlie is acting immorally; quite apart from his selfishness and dishonesty, he isn’t sharing a cogent or useful political argument, and is actually crowding out legitimate ideas, and thereby inhibiting democratic participation.

To conclude, Utilitarianism supports the creation of a diverse and lively public conversation. Although this can’t occur without boldness and candour, neither can it happen without some level of restraint and clarity. To return to the case of our uncle at the dinner party, what makes us uneasy when he pours himself that fourth glass is not so much what he is going to say, but how he’s going to say it. We are entering the era of twitter storms and ‘deplatforming’, but as we grapple with these new problems, I firmly believe that the fundamental solutions are old; civility and respect.



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