What is Freedom of Speech?

by Luke Muehlhauser on November 17, 2009 in Ethics,Guest Post

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The ethical theory I currently defend is desirism. But I mostly write about moral theory, so I rarely discuss the implications of desirism for everyday moral questions about global warming, free speech, politics, and so on. Today’s guest post applies desirism to one such everyday moral question. It is written by desirism’s first defender, Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)


There are certain parts of our public lives where a person should be able to do that which is absolutely evil – that which no good person (person with good desires) would do – without risk of punishment.

I am writing about an agent doing real and, in some cases, significant harm to others, but doing it in situations where moral people may not respond by inflicting or even threatening to inflict any sort of real punishment of those individuals.

This situation exists in a realm that is most properly known as “moral rights”. To have a “moral right” to do something in this sense is not to say that the thing one has a right to do is morally permissible. It may be entirely evil. However, the “right” to do this evil act means that in spite of its immorality nobody is morally permitted to use violence or threaten violence against that individual.

This prohibition on violence and threats of violence applies not only to individuals, but to governments as well. In fact, the prohibition on government or state violence is usually the focus of discussion in this realm of morality. The claim government may pass no law abridging these rights is a claim that state violence must not be used even against those who do evil within these special realms.

Thus, we have a right to freedom of speech.

A right to freedom of speech means that, even if we say things that no decent, moral person would ever say, even if we say things that betray a vile and despicable nature, we may not be threatened with punishment for what we say. Our evil actions may only be answered with words of condemnation and with whatever private actions people may freely choose to perform.

We have a right to vote. When we step into the ballot booth we may give our approval to the most heinous and evil laws, or for the most villainous political leaders. I could vote for Hitler’s ideological twin, and no good person may morally, permissibly use my vote as a reason to have me arrested, imprisoned, fined, or subject to any sort of violence. If violence is a legitimate response to my vote, it would be a lie to say that I had a right to vote.

This does not imply that it is wrong to condemn the person who says things that no good person would say, or votes in favor of legislation that no good person would support. He is free to change his private behavior so that he refuses to support that which gives the evil person power, and supports instead those who give power to others who are virtuous.

In fact, the moral person not only may condemn the person who makes immoral claims or supports immoral laws – he would feel a strong desire to do so (or an aversion to being the type of person who does not stand up to evil). There may be limits to what he may do in the face of an oppressive regime or a culture that does not respect such rights. However, those other concerns provide counter-weights to the good person’s desire to do something in the face of such evil – sometimes sufficiently strong counter-weights.

Why is this?

In the realm of ideas, there are many good reason to rule out violence or threats of violence and to demand that people use peaceful means to change their neighbor’s minds on such issues.

If we allow people to use violence against others we have no way to ensure that the people with the best ideas are the people with the most violent power at their disposal. It is quite seldom the case that truth has such a close, personal relationship with power. The people with the guns – and the people who will use them if not for cultural prohibitions against such things, will likely use those guns to promote their own welfare independent of the truth.

So, we rule out the use of guns as a form of persuasion. We permit people only to use words and private actions. The idea here is that, if you can convince somebody to adopt a particular position then there is a better (though still less then perfect) chance that the thing that the person was convinced of actually had some merit.

This is hardly guaranteed. People have shown themselves to be susceptible to all sorts of rhetoric and demagoguery. Professional manipulators flood the marketplace of ideas with lies and deception aiming at promoting this or that client. However, in no sense is it the case that things will be better if we allow the use of guns in place of lies and demagoguery.

I often wish that the moral prohibition on manipulative deception would become as strong as the moral prohibition on guns as a form of persuasion. In a society where people have the power to either directly effect legislation or to choose those who make legislative decisions, it seems reasonable to demand that decision-makers accept their moral responsibility to understand the issues they are deciding and condemn any who try to cloud the issues with lies and propaganda. Unfortunately, we have no such prohibition. Culturally, America falls far short of this ideal.

One option available to us is to adopt a rule against the use of violence in response to immoral words and immoral votes. The problem with a rule rests with the question, “How  are we going to motivate people to follow the rule?”

If people adopt a rule as a pragmatic method of achieving some goal, then they have a motivating reason to follow the rule only insofar as they are motivated to reach that goal – and to break the rule if it does not support the goal. On this method, people are free to violate rights the instant that following the right gets in their way. A rule not to take the property of others becomes the victim of a motivating desire to have the property.

However, if we take the rule and fix some sort of motivational force to it, then people will follow the rule even in the face of conflicting desires. If you give somebody a sufficiently strong aversion to taking the property of others, then he will leave the property even though he wants what he can use the money for. Taking the money simply is not the act that fulfills the most and strongest of his desires.

The moral prohibition on the use of violence against others for what they say or how they vote works the same way. If this is merely a rule, the agent is free to use violence the instant it serves his interests to do so – there is no ‘motivational force’ behind the rule. However, if we make it an aversion, then the agent has reason to follow the rule even when doing so is against his other interests. Following the rule becomes an interest itself and, in a good person, a sufficiently strong interest to stand in the way of any violation of the right to free speech or the right to vote.

It gives us realms in which a person is free to do great evil – to say what no decent person would say and to vote how no decent person would vote – while secure in a cultural prohibition on violent acts as a response to words and votes.

- Alonzo Fyfe

Theo van Gogh murdered by a Dutch Muslim for speaking critically of Islam.

Theo van Gogh, murdered by a Muslim for speaking critically of Islam.

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

John Quincy Public November 17, 2009 at 7:50 am

This entire analysis is banktupt. It is not using Desirism to inspect Rights; it is post hoc rationalization of Rights under the framework of Desirism.

This is immediately obvious in lofting the “best ideas” over the “fulfilling the most desires.” The only manner in which Fyfe can try to shoehorn the concept of Natural Rights into Desirism is by ditching Desirism in toto. As always fulfilling the most desires is simply a majoritarian hedonism. Any deviation from this in the practical application of Desirism thus refutes Desirism. This is more plainly true than ever in the repeated descriptions of encouraging an “aversion” to violating the rules; those rules established by the majoritarian Desire in question.

Further he both supports and denies the use of state violence to ensure compliance. That state violence, incarceration, may be used to cure some immorality but not others. In supporting the compliance to rules he lauds the threat of state violence as good for encouraging compliance to the rules. In rationalizing in favor of free speech he utterly disavows it in the same breath.

If the threat of state violence is sufficient to sway people from evil, then it is likewise sufficient to sway people from evil speech. Thus allowing the fulfillment of the most Desires; which are plainly evidenced in that the rule exists in the first place should it be a democratic society.

And state violence is a mandatory condition: If state violence were not present then “evil” people would have no aversion to using violence to fulfill their own desires. Indeed, even with the current threat of state violence many “evil” people still use violence or “evil” means to fulfill their “evil” desires.

If incarceration is a suitable aversion for “evil” actions then Rights, so said, have no place in Desirism. If incarceration is not a suitable aversion for “evil” actions then government has no place in Desirism. No government means no society. In which case we ought just head back to Ayn Rand.


Reginald Selkirk November 17, 2009 at 3:18 pm

I hope that on the day I die, I’m not wearing a dorky pair of suspenders.


Alex November 17, 2009 at 3:37 pm

JQP: the fact that desirism can’t supply capital-R Rights (universally applicable, unchanging, unchangeable) only says so much – that a naturalistic moral theory can’t meet demands that are gerrymandered to be met by some supernatural theory. So what?


John Quincy Public November 17, 2009 at 7:33 pm

Alex: that a naturalistic moral theory can’t meet demands that are gerrymandered to be met by some supernatural theory.

You’ll forgive me for not understanding what this has to do with it. It makes a certain amount of sense to me if you’re under the assumption that I’m Christian, Muslim, etc.

But that still has nothing to do with my objections to Fyfe’s analysis. Especially since shoehorning capital-R Rights into Desirism is precisely what he attempted here.

It would be helpful if you cared to clarify.


Alex November 18, 2009 at 8:36 am

Sure. I don’t think Fyfe was trying to justify capital-R Rights under desirism, since that kind of moral absolutism is *obviously* impossible to justify under a theory that is based on desires. What I read in your comment seemed like the assumption that capital-R Rights are the only kind of rights worth having. But your idea of capital-R Rights is gerrymandered to be met only by some supernatural theory (much like the kind of crude ideas about the implications of determinism made by proponents of libertarian free will, i.e. the assumption that magical freedom is the only kind of freedom worth having).

So I would agree with you if Fyfe were trying to justify capital-R Rights under desirism (that would be absurd), but I don’t see anything obviously inadequate in his account of the right to free speech.


John Quincy Public November 18, 2009 at 10:09 pm

Alex: but I don’t see anything obviously inadequate in his account of the right to free speech.

Just on this statement alone then: What happens when more desires are fulfilled by banning speech, or a specific kind of speech?

Desirism’s full name is Desire Utilitarianism for a reason.


Alex November 19, 2009 at 7:17 am

If you have really good reason to believe that banning some specific kind of speech would be better for everyone, then you ban it, carefully and reluctantly (knowing the possible consequences of your being wrong in your judgment). That’s what we do with disturbing the peace, “fire”-shouting, instigation, death threats, etc. These, like all other speech, are vocalizations that can have consequences. If a Right to free speech existed, wouldn’t those prohibitions be terribly wrong? I think that in this case desirism (or any form of rule utilitarianism) is a lot more plausible than Magical Freedom theories.

That’s my view, at least. Fyfe’s argument seems to be that in our circumstances, it’s always wrong to prohibit speech. I don’t know how broad he thinks those circumstances are, i.e. how many things you have to change to get to a case where banning speech is not wrong.


lukeprog November 19, 2009 at 8:03 am

JQP, I think you may be confusing desire utilitarianism for act utilitarianism, which is the very reason I prefer the name ‘desirism.’


Alonzo Fyfe November 20, 2009 at 3:15 pm

Alex’s comments are correct.

To the question, “Just on this statement alone then: What happens when more desires are fulfilled by banning speech, or a specific kind of speech?”

Well, we do ban speech – a great deal of speech. We prohibit people from giving out military secrets and punish them for giving away business secrets. Violations of privacy, libel, slander, incitements to violence, are all banned.

Trying to fit these into a theory of big-R “Rights” is ad-hoc at best. The “Rights” theorist simply puts up unjustified ad-hoc boundaries and say that the right does not go beyond this point. There is no justification, no explanation, nothing but the declaration that “the right stops here.”

Desirism, on the other hand, speaks to the aversion to using violence as a response to words. However, like all aversions, it has a strength that must be weighed against other desires. Where the scale tilts tilts, where the good person fulfills the most and strongest of his desires by banning speech than by permitting it, that is were we find the boundary to the right to freedom of speech.

Desirism does not say “ban speech when it will fulfill the most desires to do so”. It says, “ban speech when a person with good desires would do so.” That there are cases where the first formulation would improperly ban speech does not imply that the latter formulation has the same problem. A person with an aversion to using violence against mere words will be averse to using violence even when doing so will maximize desire fulfillment generally. His desire is not to “maximize desire fulfillment generally”. His desire is to “refrain from using violence in response to mere words.”

These are not the same thing.


SteveK November 20, 2009 at 3:56 pm

Does Desirism have a so-called ‘problem of evil’ of it’s own? I don’t know enough about it to know the answer. If it does, how would you define the problem?


lukeprog November 20, 2009 at 7:28 pm


The problem of evil is internal to theism, so desirism has little to say.


SteveK November 21, 2009 at 11:22 am


lukeprog: SteveK,The problem of evil is internal to theism, so desirism has little to say.  

At the very least it must not fall prey it’s own version of the logical problem of evil – if there is one. That is what I had in mind when I asked the question. Have you or others thought about that, or has anyone challenged desirism with this?



lukeprog November 21, 2009 at 12:17 pm

How would desirism be subject to a problem of evil? There is no all-good all-powerful god in desirism.


SteveK November 21, 2009 at 8:46 pm

lukeprog: How would desirism be subject to a problem of evil? There is no all-good all-powerful god in desirism.  

God wouldn’t be a part of it, obviously. I did say it would be different (it’s own version, I recall saying). No worries though, I just thought to ask. I’ll give it some thought myself.


Christopher Wright November 11, 2011 at 6:26 am

I find the concept of moral rights to be either an approximation for low risk situations, or outright wrong.

Take the example of a referendum to create and use a device that will cause the sun to go nova. If I had reason to believe this referendum could pass, I would find myself morally obligated to stuff the ballots, prevent people from voting, whatever it took to stop this device from being used, thus preventing everyone on earth from being destroyed.

On a smaller scale, if a political candidate is showing a strong risk of genocidal behavior, I would be morally obligated to oppose that candidate by whatever means necessary.

Illegal? Sure. Morally wrong under ordinary circumstances? You bet. The ends justify the means? I wouldn’t say that; the ends include all the effects of the means, so you just need to tally those up. The means are just a choice of which ends you get.


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