November 06, 2009

Response: Freedom of Expression Part 2

In response to the comments on last week's blog, I CERTAINLY did not mean to suggest that the less educated should be denied freedom of expression; I simply meant that denying people education can sometimes - clearly not always - make it more difficult for them to make full use of e.g access to parliament and the media i.e genuine freedom may involve not merely being permitted to do something, but also being able to develop the tools to do it effectively.  In what sense am I 'free' to buy food if I have no money?

This week we're going to look briefly at four of the arguments which have been put forward in favour of freedom of expression.

1)  Pursuit of truth (see J.S.Mill On Liberty 1859; Milton Areopagitica 1644).

The idea here is that truth is better served by a free and open exchange and discussion of ideas and information.  This process also needs to be ongoing: Mill, for instance, argues that even a true belief is liable to become dead dogma, rather than a genuine and understood conviction, if it is not challenged. 

- It follows from this that freedom of expression is only valuable if truth can be shown to be valuable.  Furthermore, if it is argued that truth, even if valuable, is not always the overriding value in every circumstance, then there could be then be arguments for limiting freedom of expression if it e.g. compromised public security or private peace of mind.  (More of this next week)

-  Is it really the case that freedom of expression always leads to truth and understanding?  Clearly not, but it could be argued that open debate is more likely to be conducive to truth than censorship.

- What of those forms of expression that are not even aimed at truth - that are intended to create beauty alone, for example?

2) Fundamental to democracy

In this case the idea might be that each person subject to democratic decisions should be entitled to have a voice in the making of those decisions.

- The above might hold, in different ways, in both participatory and representative democracies.  It could be argued that in representative democracies freedom of expression is important in order that the political representatives know what the people they are representing think and feel.

- Freedom of expression might be thought vital for effective opposition in a democracy, and for checks on power.

- BUT, if the case for freedom of expression rests on democratic ideals, then will there not be situations in which the voices of the majority effectively silence the voices of the minority/minorities?

- ALSO a democratic majority might actually legislate to limit freedom of expression, or at any rate certain forms of it.  The thinking here might be that it is O.K to have limits on freedom of expression within a democracy, providing those limits are democratically authorized.  But one might also think that there is a perhaps inevitable tension here, if freedom of expression is thought to be crucial for the running of a genuine democracy, as suggested above.

- If one is defending freedom of expression on democratic ideals, then does this mean that the only kind of expression which can be defended is that which is needed for participation in the democratic process?

- If one is defending freedom of expression on democratic principles, does this mean that it is not important in a non-democratic framework? 

3) A fundamental right?

See, for example, Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and the First Amendment of the U.S Constitution.

- This, of course, will depend in turn on whether you think the notion of 'rights' makes any sense.

4) Fundamental to psychological well-being?

- There might be a deep need for (instead of/as well as a right to) freedom of expression, as a vital ingredient of a deep need for liberty in general.

- Hearing the views of others is a key part of treating them with respect and according them dignity (a point which can also be made in terms of a defence based on rights). 

- 3) and 4) raise the issue of whether freedom of expression is to be defended on the grounds of its rightness, or its goodness, or both.  

That's enough for this week!  Next time we'll look at possible limits on freedom of expression.

Have a great weekend.


- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Graham Hiscock

    One of the problems about JS MIlls’ argument is that it assumes that freedom of expression generally has positive consequences – it’s therefore an empirical statement. Freedom of expression might serve ‘truth’ (whatever that means) but it might have seriously negative effects. The consequences if a freely expressed argument may be negative – slander, lies, racism, hatred – ‘truth’ seems to me incidental to the argument. And it raises issues about what is true anyawy, and how do we know?

    09 Nov 2009, 14:45


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