Saturday, April 09, 2016

The Duty to Confront Objections

My previous post about civil disobedience sparked some comments about the practice of allowing only those people to speak at universities that everybody can feel comfortable and safe about.

A part of my response to this is that it is not a free speech issue.

The right to freedom of speech is a right to immunity from violence of threats of violence for one's words if communicative acts. It does not imply a right to be invited anywhere to give a speech. It is not a right to demand that others view one's you-tube video or tho demand that people turn their televisions on and watch as somebody give a speech.

In other words, a right to freedom of speech is not a right to an audience, and no right to freedom of speech is violated by denying or revoking permission.

If some individual were to decide that he never wanted to see, hear, or read any opinion authored by Alonzo Fyfe, he may choose to click past anything that shows my name, turn off and delete any podcast episode I may appear in, and refuse to attend any presentation where I am speaking. That is his right. My own right to freedom of speech is not violated.

The same is true of a television station that shows only westerns, or the owner of a bar who allows only music of a particular type. Both people gave standards that they use to determine who gets on the stage. Excluding somebody because they do not fit the standards is not a violation of any right to freedom of speech - because the right to freedom of speech is not a right to such an invitation.

However, the right to freedom of speech is not the only moral principle governing the morality of affairs. Simple theft does not violate the right to freedom of speech - but it is still wrong.

Distinct from the right to freedom of speech, there is a duty on the part of each individual to test her beliefs against those of people who disagree with them.

There is no virtue in plugging one's ears and shutting one's eye to everybody who might say, "You are wrong." In fact, epistemic virtue is only found in the person who goes out of his way to find objections to her beliefs, and to deal with those objections with integrity.

I used to be a libertarian. I thought its principles were obviously true and its reasoning to be solid. We can imagine that I had decided to identify with that belief, to take it as a part of my personal identity such that to attack libertarianism would be to attack me as a person. From this, we could declare it to be as immoral to attack those libertarian beliefs as it would be to attack me as a person. This is how the argument goes, is it not?

Being unable to understand how anybody could fail to see the truth of libertarianism, I asked a friend if he knew of anything that presented an objection to these ideas.

I went to one of my libertarian friends and asked if he knew of anything that directly confronted the libertarian philosophy. He gave me an article - I do not recall the name - where the author used Hume's "Is/Ought" distinction to claim that the libertarian philosophers begin with a set of "is" premises (e.g., man is a rational animal), end with a set of "ought" statements (man ought to act rationally), and never once explained how one derives an "ought" from an "is".

After reading the article I went back to the primary sources - libertarian writings by Ayn Rand and Murry Rothbard, for example - and found just the gap that this author was pointing to.

By the end of the day, I was non longer a libertarian.

This story is not proof of anything. Instead, it aims to illustrate the value and the need for people to confront objections to their cherished beliefs. It takes an extreme amount of arrogance for anybody to claim, "I have it right. With the world filled with people with a varied opinions, I not only got everything right but I am so incapable of error that it is an insult even to bring up a potential objection."

In fact, I think I can come up with an argument that it is immoral to identify with any belief to such an extent that an attack on the belief can become an attack on the person who holds that belief.

Anyway, this is not a free speech issue. The obligation to confront objections to one's belief - the obligation to face the fact that one could be wrong and the moral duty to find out if this is the case - exists. It is important and it can be defended. However, the principle is distinct and separate from the right to freedom of speech.


Doug S. said...

On freedom of speech:

There are a lot of ways to make someone's life miserable without using violence. A rather important one is firing someone. Should we worry about threats of that kind in addition to threats of violence?

Martin Freedman said...

Or is the issue the definition of violence?

Social media bullying, threats, doxing etc. employing legal apparatus to stifle dissent etc. Are these acts of (non-physical) violence?

Do we need to be clearer as to what "violence" means wrt free speech or what?

Martin Freedman said...

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