Miscellany: on free speech, objective love, and the metaphor of conscience as a “moral compass”

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On the suppression of misinformation versus freedom of speech:

One of the confusing elements in the debate between censorship and freedom of speech is that, while proponents of the former cannot address the obvious and severe drawbacks to such a heavy-handed approach without forfeiting the credibility of their position, the proponents of freedom of speech also tend towards a certain deleterious one-sidedness when they present their position. To wit, they do not, as a rule, address the responsibility that is correlative with any right. In respect to free speech, it is obvious that together with the right for individuals to express themselves free of censorship from government institutions is the responsibility for individuals to do their due diligence in respect to the diverse opinions that are surely to be promulgated. I can illustrate what I mean with the example of drinking turpentine to cure disease, which is a favourite straw-man of those, like YouTube, who are advocating for “the suppression of misinformation,” which is a euphemism for censorship. If freedom of speech is to be preserved—which I think it ought indeed to be—we have to foster the understanding that it is part and parcel with a sort of “Socratic” attitude towards a statement like “turpentine is a global panacea.” We should not, at once, assume it to be true, but rather seek to question it and to juxtapose it to countervailing views and prior knowledge that we possess. In these conditions, YouTube’s turpentine argument is not very convincing because any sensible person will be able to find information that disproves the premise. Clearly, a citizenry that is entitled to the right to free expression must also be capable of dealing with it. On the other hand, freedom of speech has no place in a citizenry that is incapable of bearing the responsibility that comes with it.  

These are very elementary principles but at the same time, it seems that contemporary public debate has reached such a frenzy that few people bother to think this through comprehensively. As a result, every argument is reduced to pro and contra and their correlative slogans. Anyway, it is obviously one of the defining issues of our time so I think it’s great that we have the opportunity to understand these questions rather than merely becoming activists for them.

Post-script: 

It is extraordinary—isn’t it?—the way the government in the USA and in Russia have reciprocally prohibited the dissemination of news from the other country and labelled it as “propaganda” and “misinformation.” Of course, one side of this is immediately perceptible to us while in order to see the other takes real effort.


On “L’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle” (“the love that moves the sun and other stars”):

I did my best to describe Aristotle’s concept of God as “the unmoved mover” in one of my online classes:

“There is a mover which, not being moved, moves, being eternal and reality and actuality. The desirable and the intelligible move without being moved. The primaries of these are the same … It moves as loved.” (Metaphysics, Λ.7, 1072a26–27, b3–4).

Of course, the statement is very enigmatic and my attempt to convey it was woefully stammering and inadequate. But then one of my student wrote (in the chat box):

The unmoved mover is the hidden purpose.”

I was left speechless and still marvel at how profound the statement is. We can think of “purpose” as that towards which we are drawn because we intimate (though only dimly, because it lies in the future) its goodness (i.e. we would never be drawn towards something we thought was bad). And, of course, it is our love for the good which draws in toward it. In this way, love can be seen as the fire and animates our every move, and the formal, final, and efficient cause of the universe.


On the subversiveness of actual critical thinking:

As a rule, critical thinking is always subversive in respect to illegitimate establishments. The legitimacy of an establishment tends to correlate to the degree of critical thinking it is inclined to tolerate. It can be seen almost as a form of self-preservation on behalf of those illegitimate establishments, and the people who have identified with them, to assassinate any critical thinker who departs from their orthodoxy. I still regard Plato’s “Parable of the Cave” as one of the most iconic descriptions of this phenomenon, viz., not only are the cave-dwellers disinclined to hear anything about the sun outside, but they are eager to put to death anyone who threatens to alert them of its existence. Of course, the fates of Socrates and Jesus—the two archetypal thinkers of this mould—testify to how the establishment is liable to react in the face of this sort of challenge to its legitimacy. Perhaps it is a small amount of consolation to someone who finds herself at odds with the enforced consensus that she is taking up the same sword that they both wielded in their day and that she is to be counted among the company of these illustrious fighters for spiritual freedom: “Do not think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.”

Frederick Douglass was adamant on this point:

No right was deemed by the fathers of the Government more sacred than the right of speech. It was in their eyes, as in the eyes of all thoughtful men, the great moral renovator of society and government. Daniel Webster called it a homebred right, a fireside privilege. Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist. That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants. It is the right which they first of all strike down. They know its power. Thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers, founded in injustice and wrong, are sure to tremble, if men are allowed to reason of righteousness, temperance, and of a judgment to come in their presence….


On the metaphor of conscience as a “moral compass”:

Conscience as a “moral compass” is a very illuminating metaphor. In order to explain the function of a compass, it would be necessary to invoke the context of the entire earth, and any investigation that limited itself to the interior of the device would be as futile as the “experts” in the bottom of Plato’s Cave, who have devised all manner of complicated theories and extrapolative models to predict the motion of shadows. By extension, the conscience, as a “moral compass,” rather than aligning itself out of itself, must be attuning itself towards the objective Good just as the needle of a compass attunes itself to the planet’s magnetic field. To extend the conceit, the “magnetic field” that is responsible to order the needle of conscience toward the “magnetic pole” of the moral universe is love for this objective Good, which remains what it is even if we behold it “through a glass darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12) and thus appear to turn our backs to it by chasing arbitrary desires, in the same way that, by approaching a reflection in a mirror, I depart from the being who is casting that reflection.


Investigations of freedom and constraint:

It is a sort of truism that another person’s exercise of freedom may constrain one’s own exercise of the same thing. At the same time, however, even if a corollary were amended to the definition of freedom such that it read something like “being able to do whatever I want provided that it does not interfere with someone else’s exercise of that same capacity,” the definition would still be inadequate. This is because freedom without understanding is incoherent. A definition of freedom that fails to differentiate it from arbitrary spontaneous exercise of power is not an adequate one. Freedom often entails constraining, and not increasing, one’s choices for the same reason that one does not become less, but more free to express oneself in writing by submitting to the laws of grammar and syntax. Freeing oneself from the rules of grammar and syntax is the same thing as freeing oneself from the ability to use language altogether because we express our freedom in language through those laws rather than in spite of them. Ethics, in these terms, could be thought of “a grammar or action,” or “conjugation of the will,” and could then be understood as the practice and discipline of freedom. 

***

Every person has the freedom in them to do what they please at any time they want, but that does not mean they have the same freedom from the consequences of those actions. That we are inclined to observe the first of these and disregard the second indicates to me that we ordinarily think of freedom in the wrong way. In fact, it might even be that we think of freedom in a nonsensical way in a manner that would be analogous to wishing to speak without grammar or vocabulary. People often think of freedom as pure licence to do whatever they please, and they experience the consequences from doing what they please as obstacles to their freedom. But that is tantamount to wishing to “speak without language,” as it were. The more comprehensive concept is more akin to being able to “conjugate” (a) the values and wishes we have with (b) the concrete circumstances that confront us. I am making use of linguistic terminology as an extended conceit to point to how inadequate concepts of freedom might lead us on a wild-goose chase of sorts and threaten to distract us away from an entry-point into the actual freedom that we have. Freedom might actually refer to the creative spiritual activity that we make use of as we attempt to realise the ideals that we possess in the specific context in which we find ourselves. Whether that context be in a prison cell or on the summit of a mountain makes no difference in principle. 

In conclusion, freedom actually entails the acceptance of contextual constraints rather than the total absence of them. Above I used the metaphor of grammar and vocabulary to show how constraints are actually the medium through which we express our freedom rather than obstructions to this expression. Taking this further, it will be seen how knowledge of such constraints actually fosters our ability for the creative expression of freedom. It also has the effect of limiting our choices rather than increasing them. This result will be as paradoxical to someone with a naïve concept of freedom as it will be self-evident to someone who has attained to a more sophisticated one. To illustrate why knowledge and acceptance of constraints are conditions for the exercise of freedom, consider a blindfolded truck driver: sure, he can do whatever he wants, but he cannot really be called “free” unless he possesses the knowledge that would allow him to respond to the constraints of the context and environment in which he finds himself, like the road, for example. It can be seen in this case that the perfection of freedom actually entails the elimination of choice and not the maximisation of it, since it is not an expression of freedom but of ignorance to make an incorrect decision. In summary, freedom actually consists in being able to will the Good, but we are not at once able to discriminate the good from what merely seems good and hence we also need knowledge and wisdom. Philosophy, of course, as Plato and Augustine defined it, integrates this entire chain. Again, I know this is not a common conception of freedom, but there are many topics in respect to which consensus or popular opinion is not a suitable judge. 


On putting the cart before the horse in cries for censorship of “misinformation”:

Many people are understandably exasperated with the current state of affairs. That being said, I’m not sure that the solution they have proposed will actually have the result that they profess to be seeking. That’s because any virtue in censorship presupposes that “the facts” have already been discriminated from “misinformation.” But that’s not how the world is. Instead, the wheat and the tares grow together, and remain together until Judgement Day. If we wish to discern the facts before then, we cannot expect them simply to fall into our laps. Instead, we are confronted with the task of making this discernment just like everyone else, including the “blue-checks,” the “experts,” and the “fact-checkers.” And, pace the proponents of censorship, to stifle free speech (i.e. unfettered discussion and debate) is to deprive ourselves of one of the most effective methods of doing this and hence, ipso facto, to encourage ignorance rather than insight.


On a discussion regarding James Clear’s “Why Facts Don’t Change Minds”:

If I have understood your argument correctly, the pressure of conformity from a tribe will often dictate a person’s beliefs—but not always. You used the example of technological progress to show that innovators are willing to depart from the conventions of their tribes. If belief was entirely a function of conformity, innovation would be impossible. Hence, social utility may encourage belief formation and transformation, but it is not necessary for it. In other words, like latter may occur irrespective of the social utility that it promises. You also used the example of early Christians, which is a very moving one. After all, the Evangelists did not gain any social credit by insisting that the story of Christ be proclaimed in the face of Jewish and Roman persecution. Indeed, every last one of the apostles was martyred, with the exception of John. 

In your example about the racial slurs, you seemed to equate a racial majority with a racist one and suggest that pressure external to the tribe in the form of rules or institutional disciplinary action is unlikely to change the beliefs of individuals within that tribe. If the tribe’s belief could change, however, or if specific individuals within that tribe’s beliefs could change, then other individuals’ beliefs would be liable to follow. Is this right? I remain somewhat uncertain about the usefulness of this example. The equation of race with racism is a somewhat questionable generalisation but I’m not sure it matters that much and after all, you are inventing the example so you can say whatever you want. But I wonder whether it goes beyond begging the question to say that an individual’s beliefs may change if those of another person in his tribe do first. After all, the same question would have to be posed about how the second person was able to depart from the social consensus to begin with. And even if the consensus of the entire tribe were to change, it remains that the beliefs of a tribe consist in the beliefs of the individuals that make it up. Hence, we are back where we began. It will be necessary to ask what accounts for the change in an individual’s belief and “the tribe” cannot be the ultimate answer. 

***

In your example about opposition to the vaccination campaign, I think you are right to say that anyone who holds this view is unlikely to be swayed from it by the insistence of Dr Fauci because they see him as a member of an “enemy tribe.” At the same time, if someone from their own tribe were to confront them with an alternative view, they would probably be more receptive. But I’m not sure how significant this is to the question at hand. After all, I can’t see that it is self-evident that the only reason a person would oppose the vaccination campaign is because of the hypothetical social credit that maintaining this opinion would confer. I think it is just as likely that a person formed his opposition to these vaccines because he thought it was right and then established his tribe through a recognition of others that shared this belief than the converse. It seems just as likely that such a person would see Fauci as a member of the enemy tribe because Fauci was advancing policies that this person regarded as contradictory and unethical rather than seeing these policies as contradictory and unethical because Fauci was advocating them. 

***

One of the annoying things to me about Clear’s article was how little he addressed himself to people who go out of their way to preëmpt just these sort of subconscious perverse incentives in belief formation that Clear actually seems to be contributing to normalize. We must resurrect and defend the semantic distinction between what is normal, on the one hand, and what is average or common. You did a much better job recognising the exceptions to the maxim that “people believe things for social utility and not for truth” than Clear did. Clear, instead, after identifying it, seemed merely to rationalise these sources of perversion of our sense-making process. I wish he would have challenged us to overcome this condition rather than to embrace it, and strive to align our beliefs with our knowledge rather than the predicated pay-offs that maintaining one or another belief would seem to promise. If it seems trivial, I invite you to imagine a situation in which belief was totally uncoupled from truth and instead wielded for a purely instrumental and utilitarian function. In this case, belief would be totally indistinguishable from mere outbursts of emotion and it would make no sense to trust anything anyone said except as an expression of his or her personal whims. That would be Kant’s worst nightmare and, in this case, I think it should be ours as well.

My one final question is: do you think it is possible to overcome the apparent antitheses in respect to the function of belief? I will be a little bit more specific with my proposition since I don’t presume you can read my mind. On the one hand, our belief aligns itself with our knowledge while on the other hand it aligns itself according to the perceived social credit that holding a given belief promises. But is there a way to reconcile these two poles? What if the fact that departure from consensus entails the risk of being ostracised is not an essential feature of community but rather an indication of the decadence of many of our “tribes?” Can we instead foster communities under the banner of shared orientation towards the truth? In this case, the antitheses will have been overcome in a higher unity because a person who seeks the truth will actually receive a social reward. On those rare occasions that science approximates in actual function its Platonic ideal, this is exactly what we see and it has always been the rule rather than the exception among prophets and authentic philosophers. I have seen situations in which disagreement over a certain issue actually kindled respect and love between individuals and intensified the communion between them rather than threatening to dissolve it. Each was able to exalt the free and striving spirit in the other irrespective of whether it challenged or confirmed his prior views. What do you think of this?

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