The limits of free speech & democracy

As the world gets more connected and as cultures and ideologies increasingly find each other overlapping, friction emerges and new types of issues arise. One of the more pressing ones relates to limits of free speech and of democratic privileges.

These are 3 key moral questions I have been thinking about a lot lately:

1. Should those who want to dismantle or abandon democracy expect to be able to enjoy the privileges of democracy?

2. Should those who preach intolerance expect tolerance from those they are intolerant against?

3. Should those who fight against free speech every time they don’t like the speech expect a right to free speech?

For day-to-day matters, the answers to these questions can be found in a country’s law and constitution. But there is also a moral dimension that guides each and everyone’s personal stance. Eventually, as part of the political participation process, this stance ends up influencing the legal handling of these issues.

If you hear Turkey’s president Erdogan verbally attacking Germany because German authorities prevent Turkish politicians from promoting their concept of an autocratic state on German soil, then these are primarily moral arguments being voiced.

I am currently trying to come up with a personal framework for how to position myself in these matters. It’s useful to have a basic guiding principle. This is work in progress and there is always the chance (and sometimes the need) for a revision at a later point. But right now, I tend to answer “no” to the 3 questions from above, provided that one can clearly see a systematic effort. So based on my current personal moral compass, if a person, group or country systematically strives to limit free speech, to dismantle democracy and to institutionalize intolerance, this person, group or country should not be able to expect the privileges of free speech, democracy and tolerance by others.

This is essentially a slightly modified version of the law of reciprocity (aka “Golden Rule”), meaning the principle of treating others as one would wish to be treated. Don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you, and don’t demand others to offer you rights and privileges that you are not willing to offer to others.

If you have recommendations for philosophical works, articles or books that investigate this very question, I’d be happy if you share those with me, as I am eager to learn more about how one can look at this field.

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