Just a Rationalization? Free Speech, Absolutism, and Motivated Reasoning

Russell Blackford

On a few occasions in recent years, I’ve found my best attempts to analyze the complexities of a difficult topic met by the snarky insistence that I am merely rationalizing my own preferences. Honesty, it’s suggested, requires a simple, absolutist stance.

The most recent occasion followed my publication, on the Cogito multi­author philosophy blog, of a post in which I expressed my disgust at Gawker’s latest yellow journalism. Gawker, the popular gossip blog, had just revealed a gay or bisexual man’s alleged attempts to hire a gay prostitute on a planned interstate trip. Though the person concerned was a senior finance executive, he was in no sense a public figure or someone who could plausibly be condemned for hypocrisy. Even if there might be some circumstances in which such cruel, prurient invasions of privacy are justifiable, this situation was remote from them.

My Cogito musings of July 17, 2015, were a small part of a far more widespread outcry, and (too little, too late!) Gawker ended up removing the offending post. That, however, is a separate story with its own ramifications and lessons.

An issue that arose for me was how free-speech advocates ought to regard highly invasive, and very likely defamatory, “news” stories. Should we take the absolutist stance that such material, however harmful—and however cynical, callous, or malicious—should not give rise to any legal redress but only to social condemnation? That thought, in turn, led me to larger, perennial issues about the purpose and nature of free speech. Is the concept of free speech only about government censorship, or does it have some role and importance in respect to merely social, or informal, attempts to suppress certain kinds of speech? If it is seen partly or wholly as a freedom from government censorship, should freedom of speech protect all kinds of speech? Or, as assumed by legislatures and courts, are there legitimate limits and exceptions?
These are not simple questions. At the end of the day, however, I maintain that we can condemn the Gawkerpost without losing our credibility as free-speech advocates. We can even argue that its victim—and others like him—should have some form of legal redress. A certain kind of absolutist will disagree.

 

In recent years, I’ve come to believe that freedom of speech is not just about government censorship. Or perhaps it is better—more precise and correct—to say that some of the considerations weighing against government censorship also weigh against private attempts to suppress disliked speech. Classical arguments, such as those developed by John Stuart Mill, for a broad “liberty of thought and discussion” have implications that go beyond questions about the proper powers of governments. These classical arguments can provide us with good reasons to refrain from at least some nongovernment efforts to punish disliked opinions, such as campaigns to have individuals fired from their employment.

At the same time, there’s an elephant in the room: much speech contains little of any value that falls under “liberty of thought and discussion.” Indeed, it seems that Mill himself would not have argued against all restrictions on speech that defames individuals or that intrudes seriously on their privacy. It is most unlikely, for example, that his arguments for the importance of allowing all opinions could be deployed successfully to oppose a law forbidding revenge porn. Revenge porn undoubtedly conveys attitudes toward the individual on whom revenge is being inflicted, but it’s an unlikely source for any opinions and arguments on matters of larger public interest.

Much speech lacks the particular kind of social and personal value that Mill describes in On Liberty. Yet worthless speech can ruin people’s lives. At least in the worst cases, I believe that legal redress should be available, as it already is in many jurisdictions, for humiliating invasions of privacy. Any laws restricting personal expression must, however, be carefully and narrowly drafted. That is partly because of more general considerations relating to individual liberty, and it’s partly because of the draconian, often unforeseen, consequences of poorly drafted laws.

Despite all that, I remain a free-speech advocate. In any particular situation where it is relevant, I am most likely to be found arguing for less government censorship. I’m especially eager to protect expressions of opinion, including the expression of opinions that I disagree with strongly. Very often, I will argue against even private initiatives to suppress or punish certain kinds of speech. I don’t generally suggest that those initiatives be made unlawful, but there can be exceptions: an uncontroversial exception would be if Person A employed violence, or threats of it, to punish Person B for his or her disliked opinion. Such exceptions notwithstanding, my general approach is not to seek legal prohibitions but to ask people to choose voluntarily not to punish each other merely for disliked opinions and arguments.

I’d need to say much more to meet objections to my views or to deal with gray areas, but I hope it’s clear that those views are at least careful and principled and that they build on classical arguments such as those of Mill.

It surprises me, then, to be interpreted—by at least one person who engaged me—as merely contriving an argument to ban speech that I happen to dislike and to permit speech that I happen to like. On the contrary, there might be some speech that I’d personally “like” or enjoy even while thinking there was a principled case for it to be restricted (for example, speech defaming individuals whom I regard as enemies). More important, there is a vast range of speech that I strongly dislike but which should not, on my view of things, be restricted by the state. Some viewpoints may be ugly, dangerous, and/or plainly and grossly wrong. In most cases, however, they should not be opposed even by such unofficial sanctions as firings, boycotts, and online shaming. Particularly where opinions on general issues are concerned, bad speech should be met with nothing worse than forthright, rational, intellectually honest criticism.

 

At the outset, I mentioned that there have been a number of occasions—not only during the Gawker outcry—when I’ve been accused by absolutists of contriving arguments to fit my personal preferences or tastes. The topics concerned have usually had something to do with freedom of speech, though sometimes only peripherally. Twice that I can recall, claims about merely rationalizing my own tastes came up when I expressed a less-than-absolutist view about the issue of disinviting speakers or guests of honor. I lean strongly against those kinds of disinvitations, and I often express my opposition to them, but some of them are clearly more defensible than others. There is no simple, absolute rule that I know of.
It does not matter whether I happen to like or dislike a particular speaker or his or her opinions. Plausible reasons for or against disinvitations are likely to be more complicated than anything to do with my personal tastes. My general policy is that I will not support disinvitation campaigns in any but the most exceptional and extreme circumstances, although I would have taken a weaker position than this only a few years ago. That was before disinvitations became such a problem (and such an embarrassment to universities in particular) as they now seem to constitute. While my own policy has become a bit more absolutist, I still acknowledge complications.

For example, I might consider it reasonable to disinvite a person who was chosen to receive an honorary doctorate if it turned out that he or she was a vocal enemy of science and scholarship. A prominent individual who receives an honorary doctorate is not merely being given (yet another) platform for his or her views but is held out by the conferring institution as a person of intellectual accomplishment and as a friend of academic learning. Universities should not present pseudoscientists and obvious propagandists as worthy of such academic kudos. Even so, I’d be reluctant in current circumstances to muddy the waters by campaigning for such a person’s disinvitation. And even if that sort of disinvitation can still be justified in a particular case, it might not be justified to disinvite the same person from giving a public lecture or taking part in an on-campus debate. Situations really do vary in important ways.

Twenty-first-century moral, cultural, and political controversies usually involve sufficient gray areas and conflicting considerations to permit contrived and dishonest reasoning. That may provoke, or excuse, some suspicion of complex theorizing. Whenever I’ve been accused of merely rationalizing my personal likes and dislikes, I’ve been (I confess) annoyed. Yet these accusations do have a role to play. However simpleminded, irresponsible, or unfair they sometimes appear, they can provoke reflection. All of us can succumb, on occasions, to various kinds of motivated reasoning. We can reach conclusions based on tribalism, dogma, emotion, or idiosyncratic memory associations. I might, for example, dislike someone and by extension his or her views—merely because the individual looks like a person who was once unkind to me.

My current views on freedom of speech win me few friends, and they go, if anything, somewhat against my temperamental grain: I am more inclined emotionally than I can justify philosophically to be a free-speech absolutist. Still, it is easy to fool ourselves that we are being rational and reasonable when we are merely rationalizing. There is no definitive checklist to alert us when we’re veering into contrived, dishonest forms of reasoning. Here, however, are a few questions to keep in mind.

Do the conclusions that you reach on a wide range of hot-button issues “just happen” to match those favored within your moral and political tribe? Or do you often find yourself going against the tribe’s values because of what strike you as intellectually compelling counterarguments? In explaining and scrutinizing opponents’ positions, do you try to formulate them in ways that your opponents would recognize as fair and accurate? Or do you search for wordings that make opponents’ ideas and arguments appear self-evidently foolish? Do you employ short, mocking paraphrases of those ideas and arguments, and do you “explain” them with far-fetched, inflammatory analogies?

What about the certainty and tenacity with which you hold to your opinions? Many controversies are highly complex, with respectable arguments (and people) to be found on more than one side, gaps in the available evidence, and a polarization of opinion that renders some approaches unfashionable and excludes them from fair consideration. Accordingly, it is often most reasonable to suspend judgment. Short of that, it is reasonable to hold some opinions only provisionally, and in an “on balance” way, rather than with much confidence and fervor. If you hold to a controversial view passionately—zealously denigrating its opponents and conspicuously signaling your view to your own tribe—your intellectual honesty may need a road check.

There will be times when we reasonably suspect others of providing mere rationalizations of emotional preferences. As I’ve conceded, the complexity of opposed considerations may offer opportunities for this sort of rationalization, but it can also be tempting to deny genuine complications and take shelter in a simple, absolutist position (particularly if it has numerous passionate supporters). In many cases, the most honest views may be heavily qualified ones that foreground the difficulties and complications, allow for exceptions and shades of gray, and leave room for further development. Evidence of opponents’ intellectual dishonesty is likely to come less from the complexity of their views and more from indicators of dogmatism, lack of charity, tribal loyalties, or the sort of patently unrealistic claims that emerge from group polarization.

We can always scrutinize the behavior of our opponents, especially if it seems unfair and harsh. More importantly, perhaps, we should interrogate our own thinking for signs of intellectual dishonesty and closure to the evidence. Many charges of dishonesty are unjustifiable, and they understandably rankle—but for all that, we each have our blind spots. Self-scrutiny can be uncomfortable, but it’s essential to intellectual progress.

Russell Blackford

Russell Blackford is a conjoint senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Newcastle (Australia) and a regular columnist for Free Inquiry. His latest book, The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism (2019), is published by Bloomsbury Academic.


The commitment to free speech may admit of exceptions. But a more important principle may be to be vigilant for dishonesty and disingenuity, not only in our opponents’ positions but in our own.

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