The Speech Privilege

May 5, 2009 § 10 Comments

Morally, speech is a privilege. That is, speech is not morally neutral, and since there is no moral right to commit evil there is no moral right to free speech. Materially evil speech has no privileges. (Note that this is a moral point, not a political point).

A person who refuses to unequivocally concede that cutting a living four-month fetus to pieces in a woman’s womb is an immoral act of murder has no standing to speak on the subject of abortion. He may engage in all sorts of casuistry about ectopic pregnancies and difficult scenarios for pregnant women; he may be genuinely conflicted in his own subjective interior intellection; he may, indeed, be in need of apologetical help in order to see the error of his ways. But his speech on the subject is the banging of a gong, emptiness poured into the void.

Same with the subject of torture, for someone unwilling to concede that waterboarding KSM was unequivocally immoral torture. [Note: I have retracted “and a war crime,” which was in the original post].



§ 10 Responses to The Speech Privilege

  • William Luse says:

    No, as with pornography, we can’t just look at waterboarding and conclude, “That’s dirty.” It can’t be that when the Pope said “torture”, this was the kind of thing he had in mind, because scripture once countenanced stoning as a form of execution, and whipping a wicked slave bloody as punishment. Maybe he was a really really wicked slave.

    I’d have appreciated more the sincerity of those who claim to be “unsettled” on the matter if they had tonguelashed those who quite clearly supported it. But that never happened.

    Waterboarding is not the equivalent of a photo of a nude woman which might in some arouse concupiscence and cause debate as to the appropriateness of showing it in public. It’s “Deep Throat.”

  • Bob says:

    This is an interesting post. I’m not a free speech absolutist, and I’ve held the position that error has no rights. I would like to see philosophers and theologians who teach error axed from their positions in Catholic universities and colleges.

    I agree that speech is a human act, and therefore it has moral effect. That is, it can take a person toward or away from True Happiness or the Good. And it does mean that people should be careful about what they say or write.

    But as a practical matter, on a tactical level, is it wise to equate this to “shut up”? I think we’re on the same side on the torture issue and on the abortion issue, but in all honesty, the charge of rigorism against you appears to have a grain of truth. If that’s the case, you might be in error as well, and therefore the “shut up” may apply to you.

    It seems to me — especially with the torture and abortion issues — there is a fundamental truth at work, which is obvious. We’re talking about the fundamental dignity of the human person. So when you say, this is obvious, you’re right. And so, the train of thought should be, I’ve got right on my side, and the mere weight of that rightness should make my job of teaching easier.

    Of course, there may be all sorts of reasons why a person may be led astray, and that patience and humility is always required. It seems to me, that the proper tactic is not shut up, but rather an undertaking to understand where your correspondent is right, and where he is in error. It’s a chance for dialog, and an opportunity for both teacher and student to learn.

  • Trohn says:

    <> A person who refuses to unequivocally concede that cutting a living four-month fetus to pieces in a woman’s womb is an immoral act of murder has no standing to speak on the subject of abortion. <>

    A doctor writing an essay on how to deal with one particular biochemical aspect of ectopic pregnancies need not “unequivocally concede” anything about abortion, because that is not the point of his essay.

    A philosopher writing about one aspect of how one treats prisoners need not ever speak about Abu Graib or waterboarding if that is not the point of his essay.

    You can’t make silence about one specific act anything other than that – silence – if the point lies elsewhere.

    If I discuss waterboarding and I don’t discuss any portion of its moral issues, then yes, you have a point. I have not seen fit to discuss waterboarding itself as a specific topic at all. So I have not had a reason to condemn it or try to justify it. I don’t think that I would like to try to justify it in any case. But the fact that I have not tried to justify it does not imply that I have tacitly condemned it, does it?

    Your intolerance of silence brings to my mind Pope Urban the VIII, (I think, though I might have the wrong one) who commanded the silence of the Dominicans and Jesuits on the topic of free will and predestination. They had many of them felt quite insistent that they not only had the truth of the matter but an sure obligation to ram it down others’ throats. The pope disabused them of this fallacy.

    It also reminds me of certain instances (in former times when judges could be humble) of the Supreme Court refusing to take on a case, not because one or more of the judges did not think they were capable of discerning the just resolution, but because they felt that the facts of the cases did not lend themselves for the public at large to discern that the resolution was good and just. Instead they were waiting for a better fact pattern to make the case.

    And again, it reminds me of Mary who was pregnant out of wedlock and did not try to explain to Joseph why she was – even to ease him mind and heart about so grave an issue. Even to prevent him from declaring her a sinner and getting up a stoning party.

    There is more than one reason to be silent. You simply cannot judge that a person’s reason for choosing not to declare himself on an issue is due to faulty sympathy for a morally defective rationale.

  • zippy says:

    Trohn, two things:

    First, perhaps I was not explicit enough that I am discussion speech about the <>morality<> of the subjects in question. The terms “casuistry”, “abortion”, etc were supposed to scope the subject to speech about the moral dimensions of these things, though I was probably not explciit enough. So I agree that it wouldn’t apply when a doctor presents a paper on some biochemistry subject, etc.

    Second, I’m not criticizing non-speech. I’m criticizing public speech about the moral dimensions of interrogation in the context of the GWOT when that speech is absent certain characteristics, such as a willingness to say that the waterboarding of KSM was immoral torture. That is a prudential judgment, of course, but “prudential judgment” is not code for “there is no right answer”.

    Well, a commenter on W4 equated it to “shut up”, and I just went with that because there is some truth to it. It probably isn’t possible to acknowledge and discuss the moral dimension of speech acts without implying “shut up” or “speak out”. I mean, it is inherent to talking about the moral dimension of any kind of act that it involves particular imperatives.

    I absolutely agree that the “shut up” could apply to some of my speech also, and even this post itself (< HREF="" REL="nofollow">see here<>), though obviously I don’t think so or I wouldn’t have posted it.

  • Trohn says:

    What if your feeling is that it is already so obvious that the act is immoral that it doesn’t need your two cents to say it yet again. That your “admitting” it to be immoral is a mere waste of time, space, and energy for something so obvious. You have more worthwhile topics to discuss.

  • zippy says:

    My thought is that that doesn’t apply to torture or abortion in a pertinent sense, in the context of today, here, and now. If everyone agreed that abortion is always immoral murder, and that waterboarding prisoners for information was always torture, there would be no need to make sure that one’s public position on it was clear and unequivocal before speaking. This is similar to <>Evangelium Vitae’s<> requirement imposed on a legislator when considering a law which restricts some abortion but not all:

    <>In a case like the one just mentioned, when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, <>whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known<>, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality.<>(Emphasis mine)

  • JohnMcG says:


    And I don’t think that beginning one’s long post musing about the acceptablility of waterboarding in the ticking time bomb hypothetical, including links to other blogs that mock the anti-torture position, with a sentence along the line of, “I’m against torture and all, but..” is sufficient to establish one’s anti-torture bona fides.

  • Lab Rat says:

    Hmm. Very interesting post. my problem here is that your defining things by your terms. You have decided what is moral and what isn’t and that those who havec immoral views should not be allowed to speak about them. For example:

    “A person who refuses to unequivocally concede that cutting a living four-month fetus to pieces in a woman’s womb is an immoral act of murder has no standing to speak on the subject of abortion.”

    You have decided that the Truth (as it were) is that murder is happening. Someone could equally say: “A person who does not believe a nine year old girl should have a chance to abort a fetus given to her by rape that would kill her if she gave birth to it has no standing to speak on the subject of abortion”. In my mind, forcing a girl to give birth to a child that will give her horrific psychological and physical trauma is a far worse sin than aborting a fetus.

    Should I not be allowed to say that? I mean that seriously, I’m not being snarky. Should I not be allowed to speak about this at all because i think that killing a four-month fetus is a lesser crime than destroying a young girls life.

    Sorry if that came out angrier than I meant. I do believe it is important to hear everyones point of view, and then decide on the appropriate course of action. I’m a moral relativist though, and i don’t think that point of view fits in with some views of christianity.

  • Lab Rat says:

    Also…what you are saying is that you have taken one moral stand, and everyone who disgrees with that moral stand is not allowed to speak.

    It’s a good arguement if you want to win, but not a very useful one for any practical purposes.

  • zippy says:

    <>You have decided what is moral and what isn’t and that those who have immoral views should not be allowed to speak about them.<><><>Not that they shouldn’t be <>allowed<> to speak on that subject, which would be a political view; rather that they <>ought not<> speak on that subject, which is a moral view.

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