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Free Speech, on Principle
Last April I wrote an article at City Journal about a specific kind of argument I thought wasn’t very good. I called arguments of this kind “line-drawing” arguments about free speech. A few responses to that piece, including two here at Arc Digital, made me a bit grumpy. I was said to “reject the value of line-drawing entirely” and to “dismiss line-drawing as arbitrary,” presenting it as “an intrinsically bad faith form of argumentation” while myself failing to “deal directly with the matter at hand.” I had mostly gotten over my frustration, but recently some similar issues regarding the neutral application of principles came up in a discussion about people’s inconsistencies around certain kinds of protests. Perhaps I really wasn’t clear the first time around. So I’ll try to rectify the matter here, and in so doing shed a little light on some patterns of thought that, for better or for worse, one picks up in professional academic philosophy.
The first issue has to do with what is meant by an argument. In at least some places, replies to my piece took “line-drawing argument” to mean “the argument whose conclusion is that we must draw lines somewhere between free and restricted speech.” Maybe I named it poorly. But an argument is not just a claim; it’s a structured set of claims, which are meant to lead to a conclusion. For instance, the following is a valid argument – its conclusion follows logically from its premises:
(1) All cats are fluffy.
(2) This creature is a cat.
Therefore, this creature is fluffy.
Not all cats are fluffy, so this isn’t a very good argument when it comes to its content. But its form is impeccable.
What I meant by “line-drawing argument” was not “the argument whose conclusion is that we must draw lines somewhere between free and restricted speech” but “the argument whose premise is that we must draw lines somewhere between free and restricted speech.” And this is a premise which I explicitly accepted in my piece. There are probably some free speech absolutists out there who believe that false advertising, copyright infringement, threats of violence, and other things like that should be completely legal. But I’m not one of them, and I said as much.
So okay: I’m targeting an argument in which the necessity of drawing lines is a premise, not a conclusion. So what’s the argument? Well, in a way that was exactly my question in the article. From the quotes I opened with, the intended conclusion seems to be something like: “Most free speech debates aren’t about free speech,” or “The people who think speech should be restricted in a certain way share the principle of free speech with the people who don’t support those restrictions.” So now we have an argument that looks something like:
PREMISE: We all agree that we must draw lines between free and unfree speech.
CONCLUSION: Those who advocate for greater restrictions on speech still share the principle of free speech with those who advocate for reduced restrictions on speech.
But there’s a problem here. A good argument doesn’t move from just one premise to a conclusion. A good argument needs at least a second premise that explains the connection between the first premise and the conclusion. For instance, if you were to say, “The host is providing food, so many people will attend the party,” we would assume something like: food is attractive to potential party guests. Of course, this seems pretty plausible, so it’s reasonable to let the argument pass without much objection. But what about in the case of the line-drawing argument? What premise could connect the necessity of drawing lines with what free speech debates are about, or with what principles are shared?
The goal of my piece was to show that nothing really general could be said that would connect that premise with that conclusion. I did this using a few different techniques: showing that the argument could be parodied by switching out some speech restrictions with other speech restrictions, showing that the argument could be parodied by switching out free speech with some other principle or value, showing that accepting this kind of argument would lead to the absurd conclusion that moral debates are virtually never “about” anything at all, and showing that it is harder to establish that two people share a moral principle than it might seem. All of these ways of responding to the argument are possible precisely because any potential claim that would fill in that missing premise would be implausibly broad. I had hoped that any responses that came my way would engage this point and give an example of a plausible way to fill in the gap in the argument, but none did.
However, I would like to take a little bit more time and talk about what I think lies behind the various ways that I tried to show that these line-drawing arguments don’t work.
Many philosophers have a picture of reasoning on which it looks a lot like a diagram you might have seen in a high school physics course. When we’re trying to figure out what to believe (what’s called theoretical rationality) or what to do (what’s called practical rationality), our reasons can push us in different directions. Just as gravity might be pulling down a ball that’s been thrown skyward, we might, for example, be pushed toward saying something by the fact that it seems true to us but pulled away from saying that thing by the fact that it could hurt somebody’s feelings.
This sort of picture implicitly accepts line-drawing premises regarding pretty much any value. It’s really important not to kill, but you might kill to save a sufficient number of other lives. It’s pretty important to keep your promises, but you might break a promise if the effect of keeping it would be sufficiently bad for the world. So virtually any philosopher who accepts this picture – and I guess I’m one of them, at least so far – is going to accept that we draw all sorts of lines around all sorts of principles. The picture lends itself very naturally to anti-absolutism.
Once we have this picture in hand, along with its natural connection to anti-absolutism, are we done? Are we ready to say that nobody is opposed to anyone else on the level of principle, as the proponents of line-drawing arguments want to say about the free speech advocates and the would-be censors? No way. To say that about any two people, we’d need to show that they do in fact have the same principles. But let’s just allow that in this case: Let’s say the would-be censors do in fact believe that there is a cost to any act of censorship, that free speech is a principle that should push our decisions in some or another direction.
This is not true of everyone, of course. On Twitter recently I saw a progressive commentator and a conservative commentator respond in exactly the same way to accusations of inconsistency about protests. They each said, pretty much word for word, “I support the good protests and I oppose the bad protests. Simple.” But as stated, this is ambiguous. It could mean: “The right to protest isn’t itself a principle of mine, so I support the protests which are good on other grounds and I oppose the protests which are bad on other grounds.” Or it could mean: “The right to protest is a principle of mine, but there are competing principles, and so I support the protests which are good when you take into account those competing principles and I oppose the protests which are bad when you take into account those competing principles.” If someone were to assert the latter, you might just believe them, or you might get suspicious: Does the right to protest itself ever tip the scales for them? Or is it just something to which they pay lip service?
However, this sort of suspicion was not central to my original article. Instead, my point was and remains that merely including some kind of consideration in your calculations is not enough to say you share it as a value with someone else, because two people can care about the same thing, but to vastly different degrees. Imagine a person who would keep a promise if it cost them nine dollars, but break it if it cost them ten, and compare that with a person who would keep a promise if it cost them nine thousand dollars, but break it if it cost them ten thousand. Promise-keeping isn’t an absolute principle for either of them, and it does carry some weight with both of them. Still, it’s obvious that the first person either values promise-keeping significantly less than the second person does or values money significantly more than the second person does.
If you value something significantly less than another person does, it can become natural to say that you don’t really have the same principle. People who think discrimination is wrong but don’t think private companies should be banned from discriminating generally do not get to call themselves anti-racist. A contract killer might think life is valuable, but not valuable enough to turn away the sums of money they’re offered for committing murder; we would not say that this person has the same principles about life that we do. And similarly, someone who thinks free speech is just kind of important, the sort of thing that’s worth a little bit of political inconvenience but not a lot, might be thought not to really share the principle of free speech with those for whom it’s a central political value. And this can be the case even though the value is not absolute for either of them.
That, then, is my analysis of these line-drawing arguments. At best they are missing a premise, and far as I can tell, with my own limited imagination and capacity, any premise that could fill the logical gap would be implausible. But maybe I’ve missed some possibilities. Anecdotally, I remember a specific kind of line-drawing argument from the Bush era. People sometimes liked to argue that, since many people who considered themselves anti-torture would consider employing it in a “ticking time bomb” scenario, there wasn’t really any difference in principle between the pro-torture and the anti-torture people. This kind of reasoning didn’t make sense then and it doesn’t make sense now. The person who considers a course of action they find distasteful as a last resort does not, in common parlance, share the principles of the person who hardly finds that course of action distasteful at all. Being only weakly in favor of free speech isn’t the worst thing in the world, anyway. Ultimately it will be up to those of us who think that free speech is very, very important to make our case to skeptical interlocutors and a generally disinterested public.