Free Speech and Cut-Flower Ethics

Understanding common arguments against free speech, and how to deal with them.

Thomas St Thomas
Feb 13 · 9 min read

“The attempt made in recent decades by secularist thinkers to disengage the moral principles of western civilization from their scripturally based religious context, in the assurance that they could live a life of their own as “humanistic” ethics, has resulted in our “cut-flower culture.” Cut flowers retain their original beauty and fragrance, but only so long as they retain the vitality that they have drawn from their now-severed roots; after that is exhausted, they wither and die. So with freedom, brotherhood, justice, and personal dignity — the values that form the moral foundation of our civilization. Without the life-giving power of the faith out of which they have sprung, they possess neither meaning nor vitality.” — Will Herberg

We are now at risk of this happening with the ethics of free speech. Without understanding the “why” behind the ethics of free speech, we are holding a beautiful bouquet of vocal liberty that is at risk of withering away. And few of us know how to fight for it, much less why we should.

What I aim to do here is to describe liberal speech and why it’s the best option. Then I’ll point out two of the most common arguments against free speech and why they are harmful to progress. The framework I’ll be using is taken from Kindly Inquisitors, a book on free speech and thought by Jonathon Rauch.

People reflexively say something to the effect of, “They are a private company that can allow whomever they want on their platform, so this is not a violation of free speech.” It’s as if people think the Constitution created our rights to speech as opposed to simply protecting a right that comes with the dignity of humanity, which has important implications to progress when stifled.

There is a moral basis for free speech that developed long before any written law that protects it. The First Amendment in the United States does not create a right to free speech; it protects it from government restrictions. We have a much deeper moral duty to first understand that human right, and then understand why it exists, why it’s beneficial, and how to protect it from those who would diminish it.

Private companies, of course, can and should be allowed to kick people off of their communication platforms or fire them from their companies. They can also shut their factories down and move to foreign countries where they can pay dirt-cheap wages to impoverished people in poor working conditions until they jump out of windows from the stress. It’s all legal. But that does not necessarily mean it’s ethical. We can, and should, be able to talk about the morality and cultural effects of the action, not just its legality.

While there are many popular arguments used against an individual’s right to free speech today, there are a couple specific ones that are most common. In Kindly Inquisitors, Jonathan Rauch describes several of those arguments against what he refers to as the Liberal Principle.

  • The Liberal Principle — Checking of each by each through public criticism is the only legitimate way to decide who is right.
  • The Fundamentalist Principle — Those who know the truth should decide who is right, and that underlying truth is so obvious and self-evident as to be beyond question.
  • The Humanitarian Principle — In regard to any speech, the first priority should be to cause no harm.

The Liberal Principle

Described by Bertrand Russell as “order without authority,” the liberal principle aims at creating as much diversity of input as possible by decentralizing the process by which input is created. Much like the ecology of evolution, the liberal process has no center, it is self regulating, and it remains a permanently open-ended competitive process of ideas. Similar as well to the open market, it allows for all individuals to freely provide their input into the system that responds with direct feedback in relation to the quality of that input. The freedom of speech that the U.S. Constitution protects is necessary in order to maintain the ability of the system to receive as many inputs as possible. Any oppression of those inputs retards the process and creates distorted outputs not reflective of the combined reality of its members.

The spirit of the liberal principle puts everyone on a level playing field, making them accountable to nothing but the basic rules. Those rules are simply that nobody gets the last word, and nobody gets to speak solely from authority. Now that can be confusing, as we all know the level of knowledge among people from subject to subject is vastly different. But that rule not only keeps us humble, it protects us from authoritarian rule over ideas that restrict progress. Those who are in power and have authority often do not like new ideas that threaten that authority. No matter your education or background, if your idea does not stand up to public critique, it does not get included in the body of common knowledge. It can be a high bar to jump, but that only strengthens the quality of what we call knowledge, and even then, it is always subject to refinement.

The Fundamentalist Principle

Fundamentalism is a concept usually reserved for persuasions of a religious nature. But, it can apply to any belief system that, at its roots, has a foundation built on something the believer holds to be beyond criticism. The believer will have something that they may not identify as faith, but they accept it as a matter of faith. You can be a Christian, Islamic, or Jewish fundamentalist, as well as a feminist fundamentalist, a free-market fundamentalist, or even an anti-racist fundamentalist. All it takes is an underlying principle at the root of the belief system that is taken on faith and is impervious to any evidence to the contrary.

A religious fundamentalist has items that they take on faith, but the difference with religious fundamentalists is that they accept the fact their beliefs are based on some type of faith. Instead of cowering from that, it is often a source of strength and pride. Fundamentalists of the secular persuasion also have underlying principles that they take on faith, but they believe those ideas to simply be basic knowledge of how the world is. “Western civilization is an oppressive patriarchy built by men and for men with no purpose outside of the oppression of women.” “Anything beyond absolute free markets is immoral and leads to the ruin of any economic system.” “Racism is the fundamental structuring force of Western civilization, and anyone who is not actively fighting that system is participating in white supremacy.”

“Fundamentalism — the intellectual style, not the religious movement — is the strong disinclination to take seriously the notion that you might be wrong.” — Jonathon Rauch

Convincing someone who is a fundamentalist of anything outside of that basic framework is nearly impossible and a fool’s errand. It’s tantamount to convincing a religious believer that their central texts may have been not just written by men but inspired by them as well, regardless of their utility. And not only will no evidence convince them otherwise, lack of evidence in itself has even been used as evidence.

An old version of that argument is that the lack of evidence for pornography causing violence against women is proof of the power of the patriarchy to hide the violence. Karl Marx started with the presumption that the relationship between employee and employer is fundamentally one of exploitation and never once offered any evidence for that presumption. Anti-Semitic fundamentalists will say that the only reason there is never any hard evidence of Jewish control of the world is that they are so cunning, and hiding the evidence is all part of the plan. Today we hear that institutional racism and white supremacy are so pervasive that it’s the “water in which we swim,” leaving no evidence of its existence because we are socialized to see it as normal.

You don’t need evidence when you have faith.

To be fair, everyone works from a framework of underlying beliefs about the world. The danger is that the fundamentalist shows no interest in checking for the validity of their underlying premises, and everyone who stands outside of that belief system is now a threat. When that belief system is institutionalized, it then has the power to punish dissent.

The Humanitarian Principle

The humanitarian principle can be very attractive, especially to highly empathetic people, because it aims first and foremost to cause no harm. But the liberal principle can be hurtful. Any opinion that is espoused in public is held to criticism and only accepted as knowledge after it has withstood the test of public critique. That process can be stressful and difficult, especially for ideas to which we are sympathetic. But the process is put in place to identify ideas that we add to the public treasure chest of knowledge, not in order to make people feel good.

The humanitarian principle, in attempting to protect people from painful ideas, identifies and suppresses those hurtful ideas. Those who utilize this basis for judging speech often feel a sense of moral virtue when doing so, as it can feel good to protect people from being hurt. Especially if those they are protecting belong to a group they view as oppressed. This process has the danger of turning into personal attacks on individuals who are seen to be hurting those the empathetic seek to protect. Possessors of those bad ideas, who dare to espouse those “hurtful words,” are treated much like religious heretics. As certain ideas are labeled “problematic,” which is akin to blasphemy, it’s not necessarily the state that is the party guilty of persecution.

“The heretic was an unpopular person in the Middle Ages. There are, in fact, instances [. . .] of heretics being lynched by an infuriated mob, who regarded the clergy as too lenient.” — Arthur Stanley Turberville, from “The Spanish Inquisition,” 1932

Conflict is an inescapable feature of humanity, especially when following the liberal principle. No new idea is going to be kind to all people. By nature, there is no way to progress without allowing for conflict. The only way to reduce conflict is to squash freedom. And when we squash freedom of speech, we quickly reduce the inputs into our marketplace of ideas, necessarily reducing the opportunities for progress.

A much better formulation for the humanitarian principle, as Jonathon Rauch put it, would be to “cause no pain solely in order to hurt.”

“As iron sharpens iron,
so one person sharpens another.” — Proverbs 27:17

In an environment that promotes diversity and inclusion, there is little, if anything, more important than assuring the survival of our liberal principle of speech. It allows the maximum number of voices to contribute to the body of public knowledge and absolutely provides more opportunities for ideas. Allowing for public criticism of those ideas will create conflict and hurt feelings.

We cannot assess the success of our process solely by the pain it causes, as if there is any way for it to proceed without causing pain. There is not. We will have conflict. We will have hurt feelings. But as we go through the fire of verbal conflict, thus avoiding physical conflict, we will emerge emotionally beat up and scarred but sharper than we would have been otherwise. And the ethical bouquet of free speech will continue to bloom and provide us with with the nutrients necessary to maintain the roots of our morality.

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