Wednesday, December 06, 2006

can rights be wrong?

I'm sure many people have been following the debate going on at Singapore Angle between the KTM and several of his detractors, including whybegay, Me and RSE. I won't comment (anymore) about that thread (which is still ongoing, and interesting in its own right), but instead, something which was exchanged during that conversation caught my attention and started me thinking.

The following was taken from a comment by whybegay:

If people wish to discuss about policies, they are free to discuss in a constructive and informative manner but when they don't know much about the issues and people in Singapore and then start to whine and advocate nonsense like taxing the Rich more and kidnap and swindle their money by listing nonsensical math and economics terms to perform their frauds, they are no different from regressed criminals who are out to misinform people. No one nor the government would take such uncivilised people seriously.

In the reply to that, KTM responded by saying:

Whoa. It turns out that there is some semblance of democracy on the blogosphere and even if people have NO CLUE what they are talking about, it is THEIR RIGHT to say what they want in WHATEVER manner they wish to say it, including "whining and advocating nonsense" (and the KTM will glad defend their right to do so). Have you been appointed moral police of the blogosphere?

Two paragraphs down, the KTM also said:

Hate to say this, but name calling (think "lowly", "uncivilized" and "regressed criminals") is not particularly constructive to say the least. Chill. State the facts and build your arguments on them. THAT would be constructive.

whybegay later referred to the above two quotes by KTM, and said:

Does anyone beside me recognise a direct contradiction? What happened to the so-called "THEIR RIGHT to say what they want in WHATEVER manner they wish to say it"? And lowly, uncivilised and regressed criminals are not name-calling, it is simply stating the behavioural appearances of people and stating the facts is the first thing to being constructive unlike assuming that one knows everything when one doesn't and then sugar-coating opinions that others have clearly recognised to be fictitious.

The purpose of this post is neither to defend the views of either KTM or whybegay, nor to talk about the language used in this conversation (although spicy a discussion that may be). I would like to talk about something which appears to be a conundrum of sorts (note, I am not attributing either one of the following views to KTM, this is just a discussion):

[1] We have a right to hold on to any view, and articulate that view in anyway we want.

[2] To have civil and rational discourse, we should not articulate our views in a way which is insulting, uncivil, name calling, etc etc.

Is this a contradiction? This is important to figure out, since the plogosphere is currently talking about self-regulation (read Dharmendra Yadav, BL and Aaron). Does pushing for civil and rational discourse somehow compromises freedom of speech? To be honest, I personally believe that "freedom of speech" is overrated, and I was actually quite surprised to hear KTM say something in the vicinity of [1]. That said, I do believe in some freedom of expression, and think it necessary to figure out if there is indeed a conundrum of sorts involved here.

I attempt to do so by thinking about the concept of "rights". What do we mean when we say "I have a right to do this?" To say the truth, I'm not very sure. It seems like this term is more often used in the legal context and not in academic philosophy. Let me propose that it is an abstract objectification of collective moral statements. In other words, "I have a right to live" just means "It is not morally permissible [for a moral agent] to prevent my living", "It is not morally permissible [for a moral agent] to end my life" or a collection of similar statements.

Let us test this definition. A anti-euthanasia argument might go like this:

[A]: Euthanasia is wrong, because the patient has a right to live.

According to my definition of "right", that statement would translate to something like

[A']: Euthanasia is wrong because it is not morally permissible [for any moral agent] to end the patient's life.

Does [A] and [A'] mean the same thing? I'm not very sure, but I think so. If indeed they mean the same thing, then my definition of what is a "right" passes the test. So now, lets go back to take a look at freedom of speech, and civil discourse. Recall:

[1]: We have a right to hold on to any view, and to articulate that view in any way we want.

So transcribed, it becomes something like:

[1']: It is not morally permissible [for any moral agent] to prevent us from holding on to any view, or to articulate that view in anyway we want.

Now, contrast this with

To have civil and rational discourse, we should not articulate our views in a way which is insulting, uncivil, name calling, etc etc.

It looks like there is definitely some contradiction here. If we were to take [1] seriously, then [2] seems to be a not morally permissible stand. There are two quick ways out of this. The first way is to redefine [1] into a weaker version, such as

[1R]: We have a right to hold on to any view, and to articulate that view in any way we want, so long as it is articulated responsibly.

I believe most people take a stand like this when talking about the tension between freedom of speech and civil and rational discourse. However, "responsibly" is going to be something incredibly subjective to define. How would we know where to draw the line on responsible behaviour or not? I believe this to be a problem (food for thought for future blog self-regulators?).

The second way out is to deny that [2] is making an ethical statement, but merely a normative one. Consider the statement "You should not leave milk out in the open overnight". This statement is normative, meaning it suggests that you should do something, yet, it is not a moral or ethical statement. There is no implication that you are morally obliged to not leave the milk, nor are you morally guilty if you do indeed leave the milk out. Is [2] really a statement which is only normative, but not moral? I personally think not. We seem to think (or at least I do) that there is at least some context of moral failure, when we talk about being insulting, uncivil, name calling, etc. The word "civil" seems to imply moral obligation, just as being called "uncivilised" seems to be a moral accusation.

Let me suggest a third way out. To do so we need to understand the difference between a deontological and a consequentialist theory of ethics. (I also wrote a previous post on this). Consequentialism is the theory that the morally right action is the action which produces the best consequences, whereas Deontology generally purports that the ends do not justify the means; the morally right action is the the action which most fits a certain type of action (as contrasted to consequences).

It appears to me that freedom of speech is primarily a doctrine based on deontological values. We do not think suppressing freedom of speech is immoral because of the consequences of such suppression. We think it is immoral because the supression itself is the type of action which is immoral. The moral obligation for civil dialogue however, is a doctrine primarily based on consequentialist values. The main reason why we think we ought to be civil and polite to each other (or so it appears to me) is because, if we don't, we will have very nasty consequences, such as flaming wars and conflicts which could have been easily avoided.

So how does that solve the contradiction between [1] and [2]? This is actually the simplest way to resolve the contradiction. You reject one of them. In order words, if you are a consequentialist, you ought to reject freedom of speech (and end up like a paternalistic government), but if you are a deontologist, you reject the moral obligation for civil dialogue (and end up like some activists), which I suspect many bloggers have already rejected.

Please note that I am not insisting that we must all pick one of the two sides, or that even my formulation of the "conundrum" is indeed accurate. I just wanted to show how it is possible to reject the doctrine of freedom of speech (i.e. the right to free speech is wrong) in a coherent and defensible way, since it appears to me that arguing about "rights" is often very confusing.

[Addendum: Do read the comments of this post, especially those by Huichieh, on counter-arguments and important clarifications to this post. Also, Elia Diodati has submitted an article on self-regulation on Singapore Angle.]


kwayteowman said...

There is only an apparent contradiction if you assume that [1] and [2] must both be true.

There are folks who are simply NOT INTERESTED in civil and rational discourse and are out to rant. Does it therefore imply that they should be banned from the blogosphere and not allowed to go around insulting other people? :-)

The KTM's view: there is enough space on the blogosphere for everyone. Let people say what they want. If people want to get seditious, then let the law take its course.

Honestly, if people WANT to get thrown into jail for sedition, that's their right (!) also. Recent events has shown that sometimes people DO WANT to get thrown into jail so that they can complain about the food and mistreatment, so it's not a completely crazy or irrational idea.

What people want to write on their own blogs is seriously none of our business. It becomes our business only when people start posting comments on our blogs ('cos the owner of the blog, who has administrative authority to delete the comments, is legally liable for those comments).

If people post stuff that you think is seditious, you should simply delete them to save yourself from unnecessary hassle.

On the other hand, if people post stuff that's kind of annoying or nasty, what do you do? You have several choices:

(1) Delete it;

(2) Ignore it;

(3) Give a robust reply (learn from Garmen one)

(4) Give a charitable reply (learn from you one)

At this moment, the KTM deletes only spam. There are some online trolls that the KTM simply ignores, while the nature of the response (robust or charitable) to the rest depends mainly on how irritated the KTM is with the nasty comment. :-)

Seriously, it's not always easy being charitable when you have a bull charging at you. :-P

Fearfully Opinionated said...


I have also been convinced in recent days that there are people who are just not interested in civil and rational dialogue lah. To me, that fact alone should throw up a lot of questions about how or why we ought to set up a self-regulating body within the blogosphere, and much of these questions are indeed raised by BL.

I know its not easy being charitable lah. I also say liao, if people really write that kind of stuff against me, I also don't know if I can show restraint and maintain an attitude of charity.

Of course, that said, doesn't that just throw up even more questions about why ANY of us ought to bother with civil and rational dialogue in the blogosphere in the first place?

Huichieh said...

[1] We have a right to hold on to any view, and articulate that view in anyway we want.

[2] To have civil and rational discourse, we should not articulate our views in a way which is insulting, uncivil, name calling, etc etc.

There isn't a contradiction. Assuming that both [1] and [2] are true, all that follows is:

[3] We have a right not to engage in civil and rational discourse.

In any case, there wasn't a contradiction in what KTM said (the bits you quoted WBG quoting). From:

[4] You have a right to be wrong, etc.

It doesn't follow that:

[5] I don't have a right to say that you are wrong, etc.

* * * * *

But back to [1] and [2]--I believe that both are true (within limits since the right stated in [1] has to be balanced against other rights. But let's set aside the complications on that front for now). One reason why they don't contradict is simply that they are talking about rather different things: rights vs. conditions for good outcomes. But more importantly, [2] is at best a necessary but insufficient condition for civil and rational discourse--it takes care of the civil part but cannot guarantee the rational part. Another possible condition is that people are not penalized for putting forward unpopular views. If that is so, then there may well be a connection between [1] and [2] in this sense: one of the background conditions for the flourishing of rational discourse is that people enjoy the right to say whatever they want, etc.

Fearfully Opinionated said...

Hi Huichieh,

I was actually waiting for you (or someone as sharp as you) to come and tear apart my argument. You are right, and I am also aware that there is no real LOGICAL contradiction between [1] and [2](nor was KTM contradicting himself). That was why I kept saying it was an APPARENT conundrum. =P

What I was trying to do was to flesh out the intuition that there is something fishy going on. Such as [3]. I'm sorry that I did quite a sloppy job doing so though. I'm not thinking as clearly as I'd hoped and I'm not particularly familiar with rights-based ethical theories.

What you said about people not being penalized for unpopular views is interesting and probably true. But don't we face a similar "conundrum", if penalizing people is also part of our freedom of speech?

Lastly, I agree with you about balancing against other rights. I just don't like explaining things using the concept of rights, partly because we usually have little difficulty seeing and exercising our own rights, but have much difficulty seeing the rights of others.

Thanks for dropping by and correcting my sloppiness. =)

Huichieh said...

You are being too kind--what you wrote wasn't sloppy. Just that there may be a simpler way of explaining the apparent 'contradiction'.

Yes, rights talk can be extremely troublesome (though I have to say that consequence-talk can also be troublesome, if for different reasons).

Indeed, [3] is fishy. But it does seem to be something that we have to grant if we are going to be serious about [1]. At least something in its ballpark. The trick is to spell out [3] without allowing it to say too much (or too little).

For starters, we need a restricted definition of what sort of "penalties" we are talking about--and on that score, something like "being accused of saying the untruth, of lying, of making illogical statements or fallacious arguments, or of being a twit, etc." will make [3] say too much and put us on the path to a contradiction with [1].

On the other hand, [3] must at least mean that the state should not be using its apparatus of coercion against people who speak/publish/etc. unpopular views (subject to limitation that the utterance does not pose some clear and present danger--e.g., shouting fire in a crowded cinema).

Assuming that something at that end can be delineated (which is not an obvious thing), there will still be the entire range of possible things in between being called names on the internet, to being thrown into jail by the authorities. The question is where does the "penalties" relevant to [3] begins.

I don't have a ready answer.

Huichieh said...

Just recalled a couple of additional points:

1. J.S. Mill, in his On Liberty, attempted to defend freedom of speech but he also explicitly said that his defense is not based upon rights but upon social utility. I've not made up my mind about what to think of that, but I suppose it might be useful to revisit the essay.

2. Since you are not fully comfortable with a purely rights-based account and seems more inclined towards a consequence-based account, could a rule-consequentialism that defends freedom of speech on the basis that enforcing this 'right' is a rule that conduces to better consequences overall than not be a possibility for you?

3. "I have a right to live" just means "It is not morally permissible [for a moral agent] to prevent my living", "It is not morally permissible [for a moral agent] to end my life" or a collection of similar statements.

I'm quite sure this is too abridged to some people--though I am not unsympathetic. I once asked a political philosopher talking about encouraging rights-talk in China, etc. the following question: suppose rights-talk can be resolved into talk in terms of right and wrong, morally permissible and impermissible, why bother with this concept (of "rights"), a concept that wears it's non-Chineseness on its sleeves? He insisted that there is something irreducible in rights talk that is not fully captured in such reductions...

Anyway, the SEP entry on the topic is quite extensive.

YCK said...

Thanks for the clear exposition. I learnt some new things again. :)

On your point:
"if you are a consequentialist, you ought to reject freedom of speech (and end up like a paternalistic government), but if you are a deontologist, you reject the moral obligation for civil dialogue (and end up like some activists), which I suspect many bloggers have already rejected."

Though the two categories are useful for contrasting the different positions, I wonder if a straight-laced deontologist is merely unwilling to weigh consequences. I wonder if it is to shirk the responsibility of being moral agents?

And to reject the freedom of speech so easily may be a sign of a sloppy consequentialist. Prior to reaching such a paternalistic opinion, many assumptions must be confirmed and considered, probably leading to its rejection. But I may not know better, as I have never had the weight of the country on my shoulders.

My sympathy lies with the consequntialists are they may the ones with the scruples, remembering the saying, "Hell is paved with good intentions."

Fearfully Opinionated said...


Thanks for the kind words. But I would like to put for the record that I don't really want my readers to consider this blog, or my arguments, to be any authoritative source (or any soure at all) of REAL (academic) philosophy.

Alot of the stuff I'm doing is anyhow humtum one, and for example, when I was blogging this post, I had a lot of uncertainties in the way I was approaching the question. Blogging (and feedback from really smart people like Huichieh) is more like a process where I am still trying to formulate my own views over certain issues.

I believe you are right to say that the average man on the street endorses a morality which is neither strictly deontologist nor consequentialist. I feel that one mustn't be too excited with the terminology that philosophers come up with. They are concepts which Philosophers construct to help them make sense of things, and although definitely useful, it would be dangerous to think that they accurately reflect reality.

And also, I was not making the point that any "paternalistic" governement (in Singapore or otherwise) is paternalistic BECAUSE they have rejected freedom of speech based on the argument that I've presented. I believe politics and domestic policy is a much more complicated thing than that. Although I do believe our government employs a generally consequentialist framework (pragmatism).

Anonymous said...

OK, we talked about the rights of bloggers. We talked what to do write and what not to write. We have the great minds here debating the definitions of rights. So, why do you want to blog:

1) to be someone
2) to increase web traffic
3) to read the content yourself
4) to test your minds
5) to test your keyboards
6) to share your own opinions
7) to help others to understand
8) to mug around
9) to do nothing
10) to practise our rights

Do you want to help the rest to understand the complexity of policies, with you being knowledgeable in the higher concepts of things around us? I find that the content is academically "nice". So, are we going to have a space for the higher minds to converse, a different space for the normal minds, and some small space for those rant.

This is Singapore, we have problems. We need ways to make all to know that there are problems. People are different, they will have different views/emotions and people are trying their best to express their problems.

I hope that they still have the rights to rant about the feelings (of course, within the proper limits). We have the choice to accept or not. We can re-write our blog content, but some of us cannot delete our sufferings from our minds.

How about our rights "to be free"?

At the end of the day, why do you want to blog?

YCK said...

Don't worry about needing to be authoratative at all. What I think is important is the open discussions with people that helps one to formulate ideas and refine them.

For those who know little, like me, it is good that your blog and people who comment on it, like Huichieh and kwayteowman, give us food for thought. There are just so many things to find out. I should darw up a reading list one day.