Je Vous Dis, Merde! 37: On the Moral Limits of Free Speech
Free speech is the liberty of unfettered expression in opinion, thought, and lifestyle, hence the liberty to engage in what John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty, called “experiments of living,” aka experiments in living, and above all the liberty to express edgy, challenging beliefs and ideas by means of talk, writing, or any other communicative medium.
Free speech has many important values, including scientific truth, aesthetic beauty, profound artistic or philosophical insight, and authentic self-realization — and their pursuit.
But what, ultimately, rationally justifies free speech?
In On Liberty, chapter II, Mill famously attempts to provide a rational justification of free speech on strictly Utilitarian grounds.
Here is Mill’s conception of “utility” or “the greatest happiness principle,” as formulated in Utilitarianism:
The creed which accepts as the foundations of morals “utility” or the “greatest happiness principle” holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness [i.e., utility] is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness [i.e., disutility], pain and the privation of pleasure…. [P]leasure and freedom from pain are the only things desirable as ends; and … all desirable things … are desirable either for pleasure inherent in themselves or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain.
In other words, morally speaking, we ought to do all and only those things that produce the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people — where “happiness” is cashed out in terms of increasing the number and intensity of pleasurable experiences, or reducing painful experiences, relative to that historical context and relative to what we are capable of doing by way of action in that context.
But Mill’s attempt to justify the value of free speech on strictly Utilitarian grounds fails, since it is always possible that the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people — where “happiness” is cashed out in terms of increasing the number and intensity of pleasurable experiences or reducing painful experiences, relative to that historical context and relative to what we are capable of doing by way of action in that context — will consist, precisely, in our collectively restricting and suppressing free speech, e.g., if that speech intensely offends a great many of us for any reason whatsoever, thereby causing a great many painful, unhappy experiences in us.
In my view, by contrast, the highest value of free speech is manifest when we exercise the liberty to engage in peaceful criticism of, protests against, and resistance to, any and all violations of respect for human dignity, which especially include individual and collective violations of human rights and other immoral uses of political power.
This morally and politically exemplary kind of free speech is not merely “speaking truth to power,” because, over and above truth as such, it is also ethically-driven by a wholehearted commitment to the highest intrinsic moral value of respect for human dignity and peacefully rebellious.
It is, therefore, emancipatory speech.
Emancipatory speech is the highest kind of free speech, precisely because it most fully manifests the highest intrinsic moral value of respect for human dignity.
Therefore, the value of all free speech consists in, and is precisely determined by, the extent to which it tends towards emancipatory speech.
It is also generally held that free speech has some limits.
Standard candidates for these limits are:
(i) direct harm to others (e.g., defamation of an individual’s character, or slander more generally),
(ii) violations of human rights (e.g., incitement to or triggering of violence, or coercion backed up by threats of violence or other significant non-violent harm — such as being fired from your job), and
(iii) offense to others (e.g., profane or scatalogical speech, erotic or otherwise sexual speech, shockingly religious or shockingly anti-religious speech, “politically incorrect” speech of any kind, politically subversive speech, and hate speech).
The issue of hate speech, in particular, is of course of great contemporary pitch-and-moment, in the media-circus aftermath of the Charlottesville white supremacist rally and anti-fascist/anti-racist protests two Saturdays ago.
Take, for instance, this follow-up opinion piece in The New York Times on 17 August, by K-Sue Park, “The A.C.L.U. Needs to Rethink Free Speech.”
That article concludes as follows:
The danger that communities face because of their speech isn’t equal. The A.C.L.U.’s decision to offer legal support to a right-wing cause, then a left-wing cause, won’t make it so. Rather, it perpetuates a misguided theory that all radical views are equal. And it fuels right-wing free-speech hypocrisy. Perhaps most painful, it also redistributes some of the substantial funds the organization has received to fight white supremacy toward defending that cause.
The A.C.L.U. needs a more contextual, creative advocacy when it comes to how it defends the freedom of speech. The group should imagine a holistic picture of how speech rights are under attack right now, not focus on only First Amendment case law. It must research how new threats to speech are connected to one another and to right-wing power. Acknowledging how criminal laws, voting laws, immigration laws, education laws and laws governing corporations can also curb expression would help it develop better policy positions.
Sometimes standing on the wrong side of history in defense of a cause you think is right is still just standing on the wrong side of history.
OK. In other words, Park is arguing:
(i) that for general reasons of history and social power-relations, some hate speech is more equal than others,
(ii) that for general reasons of history and social power-relations, some hate speech is less equal than others, and
(ii) that for specific reasons of history and social power-relations in the USA up to 2017 and beyond, white supremacist hate speech is less equal than other kinds of hate speech, therefore
(iii) the ACLU should not condemn restrictions on, or the suppression of, white supremacist hate speech.
But it seems self-evident that Park’s argument depends entirely on Mill’s assumption that the value of free speech is rationally justified on strictly Utilitarian grounds.
According to Park’s argument, the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people — where “happiness” is cashed out in terms of increasing the number and intensity of pleasurable experiences or reducing painful experiences, relative to our particular historical context and relative to what we are capable of doing by way of action in this context — will consist, precisely, in our collectively restricting and suppressing the hate speech of white supremacists, because of our particular context of history and social-power relations in the USA up to 2017 and beyond, and because this speech so intensely offends us, thereby causing a great many painful, unhappy experiences in us.
Nevertheless, if I am correct about the nature of the value of all free speech, then Mill and Park are both mistaken, and it also follows that the only moral limits of free speech are violations of the very thing that gives free speech its highest value when it is realized as emancipatory speech, namely, the highest intrinsic moral value of respect for human dignity.
In other words, the only moral limits of free speech are violations of respect for human dignity.
Correspondingly, this entails that the only moral limits of free speech are:
(i) direct harm to others (e.g., defamation of an individual’s character, or slander of individuals more generally), and
(ii) violations of human rights (e.g., incitement to or triggering of violence, or coercion backed up by threats of violence or other significant non-violent harm — such as being fired from your job ).
This in turn means that our merely being offended by someone’s speech, no matter what the special context of history and social-power relations is, and no matter how numerous or intense our unhappy, painful experiences of being offended are, is not a moral limit on that person’s freedom of speech.
Therefore, profane or scatalogical speech, erotic or otherwise sexual speech, shockingly religious or shockingly anti-religious speech, “politically incorrect” speech of any kind, politically subversive speech, and hate speech of all kinds, including white supremacist hate speech, are all morally permissible — provided that this speech does not include defamation of an individual’s character or slander of individuals more generally, incitement to or triggering of violence, or coercion backed up by threats of violence or other significant non-violent harm — such as being fired from your job.
And, as always, to anyone who seriously disputes the soundness of this argument,
Je vous dis, merde!
 J.S. Mill, On Liberty (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1978), ch. III, p. 54.
 J.S. Mill, Utilitarianism (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1979), ch. II, p. 7.
“Je vous dis, merde!” (literally, “I say to you: shit!” or more loosely, “You’re so full of shit!”) is a morally and politically defiant slogan invented and first published by an early 20th-century Catalan anarchist who used the nom de guerre “Miguel Almereyda.” Almereyda, who was murdered in a French prison in 1917, was also the father of the famous French film director Jean Vigo, who immortalized the same slogan in his breakthrough 1933 film, Zéro de conduite, aka Zero for Conduct.
1. Universal Respect for Human Dignity (URHD):
· Human dignity is the absolute non-denumerable moral value of every member of humanity, and everyone ought to try wholeheartedly to treat everyone else in a way that is sufficient to meet the demands of respect for human dignity, especially including (i) alleviating or ending human oppression, and (ii) actively engaging in mutual aid and mutual kindness.
2. Universal Basic Income (UBI):
· Anyone 21 years of age or over and living permanently in the USA, who has a personal yearly income of $50,000.00 USD or less, and who is capable of requesting their UBI, would receive $25,000.00 USD per year, with no strings attached.
3. A 15-Hour Workweek for Understaffed Non-Bullshit Jobs (FHW-for-UNBJs):
· Anyone 18 years of age or older who is living permanently in the USA, who has completed a high school education, and is mentally and physically capable of doing a job, would be offered an eco-job, paying a yearly wage of $25,000.00 USD, for fifteen hours of work (three 5-hour days) per week.
Thus anyone 21 years of age or older with a high-school degree and who is also mentally and physically capable of working, would have a guaranteed yearly income of at least $50,000.00 USD if they chose to do an eco-job.
The rationale behind the three-year gap between (i) being offered an eco-job at 18 and (ii) beginning to receive their UBI at 21, is that every young adult who has finished high school will have the option of pursuing three years of part-time or full-time free higher education without credentialing, i.e., for its own sake, after high school, before making longer-term decisions about what I call job-work and life-work.
Here are a few more details about UBI and eco-jobs.
(i) The UBI is to be paid by a monthly stipend check.
(ii) Eco-job income is not taxed.
(iii) For all individual yearly incomes of $50,000.00 USD or under, no tax will be levied; hence for someone receiving their UBI and also doing an eco-job, no income tax will be levied.
(iv) For all individual non-eco-job incomes, for every $1.00 USD earned above the standard UBI of $25,000.00 USD, the monthly UBI stipend is reduced by 50 cents, until the recipient’s UBI is reduced to zero; hence for those individuals with yearly non-eco-job incomes equal to or under $50,000.00 USD, the maximum UBI + non-eco-job income sum is always $50,000.00 USD.
(v) For all individual yearly incomes over $50,000.00 USD, for every $10,000.00 USD earned, that surplus income is taxed at the rate of 1%, with the highest surplus income tax rate being 50%; hence the maximum surplus 50% tax rate starts at individual yearly incomes of $550,000.00 USD, and applies to all higher surplus incomes.
4. Universal Free Higher Education Without Credentialing (HEWC):
· Everyone would be offered, beyond their high-school education, a free, three-year minimum, optional (but also open-ended beyond those three years, as a further option), part-time or full-time universal public education program in the so-called “liberal arts,” and also in some of the so-called “STEM” fields, including the humanities, the fine arts, the social sciences, mathematics, and the natural sciences.
· For many or even most people, their HEWC would fall between (i) the end of their high school education at age 18 and the corresponding availability of eco-jobs, and (ii) the beginning of their UBI at age 21.
· But HEWC would be open to anyone with a high school degree, no matter how old they are, provided they are mentally and physically capable of doing the program.
5. Universal Free Healthcare (UFH):
· Every human person living permanently in the USA will receive free lifelong healthcare.
6. 2-Phase Universal Open Borders (2P-UOB):
· Phase 1: Starting in 2021, there will be universal open borders with Canada and Mexico, and everyone who moves across those borders and then claims residence in the USA, will receive temporary or permanent residence in the USA and also full membership in the system of UBI, FHW-for-UNBJs/eco-jobs, and UFH in the USA, with the precise number of new temporary or permanent residents to depend on the current availability of (i) adequate funding for UBI, eco-jobs, and UFH , and (ii) adequate living accommodation, in the USA, provided that all new residents also fully respect the human dignity of everyone else in the USA and elsewhere in the world.
· Phase 2: Also starting in 2021, the USA, Canada, and Mexico will collectively form a Global Refugee Consortium (GRC), with three-way open borders to any political refugee, economic refugee, or asylum seeker from anywhere in the world (aka “global refugees”), who will receive temporary or permanent residence in the USA, Canada, or Mexico, and also full membership in the system of UBI, FHW-for-UNBJs/eco-jobs, and UFH in the three GRC countries, with the precise number of new temporary or permanent residents, and the precise distribution of new residents among the three members of the GRC, to depend on the current availability of (i) funding for UBI, eco-jobs, and UFH , and (ii) adequate living accommodation, in the three GRC countries, provided that all new residents also fully respect the human dignity of everyone else in the GRC and elsewhere in the world.
7. Universal No-Guns (UNG):
· No one in the USA, including police, internal security forces of all kinds, armies, and intelligence forces of all kinds, has the moral right to possess or use guns of any kind, for any purpose whatsoever, because the primary function of guns is coercion, and coercion is immoral.
· UNG would be implemented by repealing the Second Amendment to the US Constitution in 2021 and then universally banning the possession or use of guns thereafter.
I’m also assuming that Universal Public Education (UPE) — universal free access for all human persons of any age to good public education up to the end of high school — already exists in most countries, and needs no further justification.
Where UPE does not already exist, it would automatically become a necessary part of the seven-part WTFU Party package, thereby making it a eight-part package.
Mr Nemo, Nowhere, NA, 25 August 2017