Suppressing Political Speech is an Affront to Human Dignity

Brad Patty

19 days ago

September 06, 2018

Basic Principles of Free Speech part 2

In addition to the way in which free speech is intimately linked with the dignity of the individual discussed in the previous parts of this series, free speech has political components that make it indispensable. As argued in the first part of this series, the capacity to think for one’s self is the source of one’s dignity. Politically, it is also the case that this dignity entitles you to pursue your own interests. Just as your right to speak your thoughts is very closely linked to your capacity to think for yourself, your capacity to act on your decisions about what is best for you should be respected as far as possible. Everyone else has the same right, and in many cases we can’t all get what we want. But you should certainly have the right to articulate what you want and organize for it, to see if you can convince others to go along with you.

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. They need the challenge that comes from being engaged and made to practice how they think. In that way, they become more suited to self-government and less likely to cause problems if power just happens to fall into their hands.

What the argument above assumes, of course, is that there is a clear case of right and wrong. In many cases we disagree about what is right and wrong, and reasoning together is necessary in order to figure out a way forward. Freedom of speech is exactly how we do that.

Of course, those who are convinced that they are more educated and wiser are likely to disdain the suggestion that they might be wrong, and their opponents possibly right, about some basic issue of morality. Yet in trying to take the decision out of the hands of the ordinary person, the wise and educated are demonstrably wrong. In stripping the individual of a right to argue according to their lights, the allegedly wise are damaging that individual’s ability to practice their virtues. Since practice is how one becomes better, the imposition of speech prohibitions prevents people from realizing their better nature.

Mill too was speaking of a good of individuals, one achieved by having the right kind of government. The only government that allows people to flourish most fully is one in which the individual sphere of action is not circumscribed but full, and in which individuals are engaged in thinking and acting.  Such a community is therefore itself a good for individuals, and the circumscribing of the community is therefore a harm to all the individuals who might otherwise have been engaged in it.  Since making decisions about the mode of life that is most noble necessarily also entails making decisions about modes of life that are less noble – even shameful – to strip this function from the community is to harm the members in a specific and verifiable way. 

That is not to say that bad ideas should go unchallenged. A robust debate about the good entails further practice in expressing one’s thoughts, and in revising or altering them if those thoughts prove indefensible. The ideas get refined, and so do the individuals. Even the wise benefit from practice. Free speech makes better individuals and as societies. Protecting it protects us all, and helps us grow.

[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1099a12-1099b7

[2] Kant, Groundwork, 4:423; Kant, Metaphysics, 6:391-3.

[3] John Stuart Mill, “Considerations On Representative Government,” in On Liberty and Other Essays, ed. John Gray (Oxford World Classics, 2008), 239-240.

About the Author

Brad Patty

Dr. Patty advised US Army units in Iraq on information operations as part of more than a decade's involvements in America's wars. His work has received formal commendations from the 30th Heavy Brigade, the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, the 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st Cavalry Division. Dr. Patty holds his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Georgia.