Two alt-right speakers from Canada, Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, have decided they will, after all, go ahead with their visit to New Zealand (temporarily cancelled) where they will espouse their views. The venue is, as I write, being kept secret. Previously, they wanted to speak in an Auckland venue called the Bruce Mason Centre, but were denied that opportunity at the instruction of Auckland Mayor Phil Goff. This has raised concerns about freedom of speech in New Zealand, and not just among those who agree with their position. Chris Trotter, New Zealands most respected Left blogger, has taken up the cause in several recent posts on his blog Bowalley Road.
Ive been drafting this post for two years now; the issue keeps coming up and going away again, and I have to change the bits where I relate it to current events. Its a bit bigger than I can really pin down in one post. Im going to skip out some things I originally planned to say about particular progressive concerns that some believe constitute assaults on free speech trigger warnings, safe spaces, cultural appropriation because they just make the whole thing too unwieldy. I may devote more blog posts to them in future. Today my topics are: What is the ethical basis of the right to free speech? What sort of policies do we need to build around it? And what are its limits?
Political discussions frequently open with assertions of rights that the disputants hold to be incontrovertibly inviolable endowed, in the famous words, by the Creator. But what makes a right a right? Why is it that some good things you might want are your right to enjoy, while others are merely privileges? What makes the difference? And what if one of your rights cant be granted without breaching someone elses rights? What do you do then? This sort of question is why I like to go back a bit further, behind the concept of rights to their basis in ethical philosophy.
In case youre a new reader, Ill just quickly run you through my basic moral philosophy. Morality isnt something objective, not if by that you mean its something out there in the universe, independent of our minds. You cant logically prove a should statement from an is statement without at least tacitly calling in another should statement, and if you try to prove that second should statement you just go around the circle again, and so on forever. And perhaps thats just as well, because if morality was something out there, then any intersection between moral facts and human well-being would be coincidental. Appeals to moral authority, even cosmic moral authority, dont help: You should obey the authority is just another should statement and another trip around the circle.
Hence, morality is subjective. But subjective is not the same as arbitrary. To call something subjective just means its an experience that people have rather than a thing in the universe its in here rather than out there. Sweetness is subjective, but no-one disagrees as to which is the sweeter of maple syrup and grapefruit juice. You can justify a should statement; you just have to back it with an I want statement. (I want to be healthy, therefore I should exercise more than I do.) As a social species, pretty much anything we want requires cooperation with other people, and cooperation requires trust, so we evolved moral instincts to allow us to trust each other. Therefore, in my view, trust is the basis of all morality.
To earn trust, your actions must fulfill three conditions. They must be benevolent; they must be consistent; and both of these facts must be clear to other observers. Benevolence alone is not quite enough. Pure benevolence, the greatest good for the greatest number, is the moral philosophy known as utilitarianism. The harmonics of cold calculating efficiency that cling around that word somewhat misrepresent the idea; utility in the philosophical sense includes beauty and joy as well as usefulness. However, the calculating part is bang-on. Utilitarian philosophers spend a lot of time balancing harms and benefits and fretting about whether theyve left something out. And I dont know about you, but that makes me nervous. I cant help worrying that they might end up putting the things I care about on the sacrifice for the greater good side of the equation.
When you factor in the consistency and the clarity, utilitarianism gives way to a couple of other moral schemas. One of them is virtue ethics if you practise being a good person until it becomes habit, your actions will be clearly and consistently benevolent. This isnt particularly relevant to todays topic, and I mention it only for completeness. The other one, however, is the answer to our question: the origin of rights. To be clearly and consistently benevolent is to commit to doing some good things all the time for everybody while refraining from doing some bad things ever to anybody. When a society makes such a commitment, whether in law or custom, it thereby grants its members the right to enjoy the good things and the right not to suffer the bad things. Thats where rights come from.
And that helps us answer our other question. When you have to choose one right over another, you should honour the one that best serves the principle of trust. Suppose youre a surgeon, and you have in your hospital five people urgently needing different organ transplants and also a healthy young person whos come in for a sports injury. A utilitarian calculus might prompt you to at least consider killing the young person to harvest their organs, sacrificing one life to save five. But of course if you did that, no patient could ever trust you again not to kill them for their organs. The trust principle would therefore accord with what (I sincerely hope) your moral instincts tell you and render such a course of action unthinkable.
Since the seventeenth century most of the questions vexing Western political theorists have been variations of What is the right balance between peace, justice, and freedom? When you find yourself facing a trade-off between the three, how do you choose which to preserve and which to sacrifice? (This is not quite the same as the question actually driving social progress, which is How many crumbs do we have to give these annoying poor people before theyll shut up and go away?) Whats often not noticed is that peace, justice, and freedom all have the same end-goal, i.e. not having to fear violence any more. Peace means you dont have to fear violence from strangers. Justice means you dont have to fear violence from your neighbours. Freedom means you dont have to fear violence from the state.
But you can never have complete freedom in any society, because freedoms are necessarily in tension with each other. If you are free to do some particular thing, that means I am not free to stop you from doing that particular thing, and vice versa. So, for instance, you are free to play irritating contemporary music and theres not much I can do about it, but I am not free to walk around in public wearing the amount of clothing I feel physically comfortable in. If I call the police and complain about your music Ill be ignored, unless its very loud; if you call the police and complain about my nudity Ill be arrested. Conversely, if I try and cut the power cord on your stereo Ill be the one in trouble, whereas if you threaten me with assault unless I put some clothes on the authorities will probably agree I had it coming. (As you see, legal freedoms tend to get skewed towards majority cultural groups and away from, in this case, those of us who have autistic sensory issues.)
Now we can narrow in from freedom generally to freedom of speech in particular.