Free Expression And Evolving Standards

The letter in Harper’s magazine has generated a great deal of discussion around free speech, and whether we are in an era of diminished capacity to speak one’s mind. I am quite interested in maintaining a culture of free expression, and have written on the subject in the past, and hope to write more in the future. I think it’s worth noting a few things that may help us think more carefully about our current debate.

1. Free expression is probably at an all-time high right now, at least in the West. There is a huge variety of different venues for your writing, there’s a whole new world podcasts for speeches, and an ever-increasing supply of video outlets. The availability of these platforms and publishers doesn’t guarantee you an audience, but that’s not what free expression means.
2. Related to that, some of the technologies that have enabled easy speech have made counter-speech extraordinarily easy as well.
3. There are a lot more people who are not you than there are people who are you, and so easy counter-speech means that it’s entirely possible to get inundated with unpleasantness.
4. Because of (2 and 3), people are often careful about what they say, and may feel burdened by this.
5. It is hard to get (1) without (2). The ability to broadcast to others means that they can broadcast back.
6. (4) may hit socially well-positioned people, but it hits vulnerable people far more.

Finally, we’re in a period of shifting cultural attitudes, and (hopefully) increasing equality of persons, and everyone is attempting to police different boundaries of what they take is appropriate. There have always been boundaries, there will always be boundaries, and it is a reasonable thing to argue about. Especially as new voices and new arguments come to the fore, some established views and voices may come to look less appealing. What was once ok might now be seen as out of bounds. But that may well be because what was once out of bounds is now acceptable. Likewise, newer voices may be ones that had a harder time being heard before. That there is a shift in the boundaries does not mean that they have necessarily shrunk. They may have just changed. That may well influence whose voices are more easily heard.

I predict that this debate will flare up with some frequency, in part because it is now so easy to pile on, and it’s easy to find examples of social punishments getting excessive. It would be good if we could figure out some better way of dealing with proportionality, but in a decentralized system of speech that is going to be very difficult.

Violent Protest and Lesser evil

Recently I argued that the deliberate destruction of the property of innocent persons by otherwise justified protesters is condemned by the Doctrine of Double Effect (DDE), which requires that such collateral harm be merely foreseen, and not directly intended.

But someone may reply that the DDE is wrong and that whether intent is direct or oblique doesn’t really matter. She may propose instead the Doctrine of the Lesser Evil (DLE). According to DLE, we are sometimes justified in harming persons directly in order to achieve a worthier cause. A classical example is a person starving at a mountain. He is permitted to trespass into someone else’s cabin, eat their food, and so on, in order to survive. Surely everyone accepts this. Similarly, protesters who burn the neighbors’ buildings as a way to end racial injustice are justified, given the disparity of values at stake.

But the case of violent protest is disanalogous to the case of the starving person at the mountain. In the latter, breaking into the cabin and eating the food is surviving. There is no causal relationship between the harmful act and the worthy end. They are identical. In contrast, in the case of violent protest the causal relationship between the harmful act (burning buildings) and the worthy goal (end racial injustice) is (to put it mildly) tenuous. It is improbable that burning buildings will end racial injustice.

The upshot is that in order to dispense with the intent requirement of the DDE, the agent’s probability of success must be high. The DDE, perhaps, condemns some actions that the DLE allows. But even under the DLE it is unlikely that this intentional harm to third parties can be justified.

(Many thanks to Alejandro Chehtman of Di Tella University, Buenos Aires, for flagging the issue.)