Speech Does or Does Not Constitute Speech?

J. K. Rowling, whose work I've never read but who was apparently extremely popular with children and young adults, has transgressed. Rowling's offense was to defend someone else who had transgressed, a woman who holds views that the British courts this week declared to be "not worthy of respect in a democratic society."

Well. I don't know what she said, but I don't have to know to know that the courts are wrong here. Human dignity is not opposed to freedom of speech, but rather, freedom of speech is essential to human dignity.
Why are human beings due a basic dignity at all? ... [One answer according to] Immanuel Kant, is that human beings have dignity because they are free. Kant did not mean politically free. He meant that, unlike a stick or a stone, you can reason for yourself and decide how you will behave. Your ability to think for yourself and come to your own decisions thus sets you above sticks, or stones, or most other objects in the universe. It is why you have dignity.

What does it mean to have dignity? It means that you are due a certain respect that is not due to sticks or stones. For example, a person is due the respect of not being harmed without good reason. Not everything has that dignity. Anyone can pick a stick up off the ground and break it without it being thought to violate the stick’s dignity. No one may similarly grab another person and break their arm without having committed an affront.

If your dignity arises from your capability of thinking for yourself, respecting your dignity requires respecting your thoughts. “Respecting your thoughts” does not mean “agreeing with your thoughts,” for requiring agreement would itself be disrespectful of everyone else’s ability to have their own thoughts. It does, however, mean respecting your right to think things through for yourself. Your free thoughts cannot be prohibited without violating your dignity as a human being – indeed, if Kant is right, such a prohibition is a violation of the most basic source of your dignity as a human being.

If I may not prohibit your thoughts, though, might I prohibit your words? Speech is only thinking out loud.
Likewise, the right to defend your beliefs in public is an essential feature of democratic society.
To tell someone that they cannot speak in public about what they take their interests to be is to tell them that they cannot organize politically in defense of those interests. This is another basic affront to the dignity of an individual. It is incompatible with any form of government by the people.

Yet you might think that some ideas are so bad that anyone who adopts them is themselves a bad person. In that case, it might seem as if preventing them from political organizing is a desirable end. After all, if bad people can organize politically they are likely to gain political power. As political philosophers since Plato have argued, it is dangerous for political power to fall into the hands of people who lack the proper virtues. For people who have instead adopted a wicked character, it is surely even worse. Thus it might seem as if speech prohibitions were a good thing.

The most pragmatic counter-argument against this practice is that allowing those in power to impose speech controls during times when good people are in office will also allow bad people to impose speech controls should they gain office. Sometimes surprising situations can cause even disorganized campaigns to win a victory. Any power that one would not trust to one’s opponents is not wisely invested in a government that the opponents will sometimes control.

But it is also the case that self-government is itself a way of building virtue. To whatever degree people are excluded from self-government, they will not develop the qualities they need to do it well. This is because virtue is a matter of practice, as Aristotle argues. The way you gain the virtue of courage is to do things that are dangerous and frightening. Soldiers in training practice climbing across ropes stretched high over water. Then they may rappel from tall towers. Some may then go on to learn to jump from airplanes. Even if their military service never needs them to do any of these things in combat, the practice of learning to do things in spite of being scared makes them brave. In time, when they need to take actions in the face of fear, they are able to do so.

All virtues work this way. John Stuart Mill argued that the whole reason for representative government was that it encouraged people to become virtuous. Just as Aristotle spoke of the best life as the one that most completely develops the capacity to act virtuously,[1] and Kant derived a universal (if imperfect) duty to develop one’s capacities,[2] Mill also has an argument that attaining one’s capacities roots the human good. This is found in his Considerations on Representative Government, in which he offers an account of why he believes republican government is the best possible form. An early argument he fields is against what he calls a common opinion – it dates at least to Aristotle’s Politics – that a benign despot is the best possible form of government. “What sort of human beings can be formed under such a regimen?” he asks. “What developments can either their thinking or their active faculties attain under it?… Wherever the sphere of action of human beings is artificially circumscribed, their sentiments are narrowed and dwarfed in the same proportion.”[3]

The concern that people are not good enough for self-government is not then a reason to deny them the ability to speak their minds. If they are to become better people, they need to be allowed to speak their minds.
The court cannot be right, no matter what she said or what she believes. This holds for the worst ideas anyone has or could in principle have.


Texan99 said...

Powerline quotes a tweet that's something like this: A woman is cancelled because she supports another woman's right to make a statement about women that meets the disapproval of men dressed like women. Are there any liberals out there who have a problem with this?

Dad29 said...

Do you really think that BoJo can save that country?

I don't.

Texan99 said...

As my husband says, put the patriarchy in a dress, and it's good to go!

Elise said...

Are there any liberals out there who have a problem with this?

Never mind liberals - why isn't every single feminist screaming bloody murder about this?

(This may be the tweet you saw - if not, it's very similar:

J Melcher said...

Grim's main post reads like dialog from TV's "The Good Place"

I mean that in the best possible way...

Grim said...

I haven’t seen it, but a Logician friend of mine spoke well of the show.

Korora said...


E Hines said...

Are there any liberals out there who have a problem with this?

Never mind liberals - why isn't every single feminist screaming bloody murder about this?

You are. Sadly, you're one of the last of the feminists. Those parading themselves today under the label are just virtue signalers...identifying their true natures.

Eric Hines

Ymar Sakar said...

I thought this was about her booka being dismissed as catholic clergy found real witch craft spells in them.

Oops. The greater casters would agree that even novices at quantum manifestation need guidance.

Ymar Sakar said...

Human dignity is not worth much to the gods. It is complicated. Humanity is not better than rocks and pets. Anymore than a 1yo is worse than a 70 yo. Humanity tends to assign value based on might makes right. A billionare citizen has power and right, but the newborn that survived first abortion but not second post birth abortion... has rights? You humans made it otherwise. This is not the fault of dark or light gods. It is the human concept and concept that creation and creator are separate.

Elise said...

Thanks, Eric, although I hope (believe) you're wrong - we're not quite extinct.