In Defense of Censorship

As a second case, let us consider public debates over morality.  Here the dynamic is quite different than in the case of the sciences.  Concern over the public consequences of accepting some ethical position is obviously legitimate, and therefore they should be heard.  On the other hand, moral debates have their own illegitimate temptations.  When I am trying to decide whether or not an act is morally licit, it can certainly affect my judgment if I have a strong desire (or a desire that can be made strong by enticement) to engage in that act.  This desire has no relevance to the act’s morality—its influence is illegitimate, but it is there nonetheless.  To take an extreme example, suppose an enlightened high school decides to host a debate on the morality of premarital sex, in order to help students “make up their own minds”.  First a Catholic priest admonishes the students to chastity, then a utilitarian bioethicist encourages them to satisfy all their carnal desires—just put on a condom first!  Is it really credible that the teenage boys will make a decision based entirely on the logical merits of each side?  In the same way, is it credible that utilitarianism/consequentialism holds the place it does in our public debates entirely because of its philosophical merits?  Is it really so demonstrably superior to teleological and deontological ethical systems?  Only in the sense that it makes the fewest inconvenient demands on its followers, it seems to me.  So it would seem that free debate on ethical matters does not lead to moral truth.  In fact, what it seems to lead to is a race to the bottom to whatever position is most permissive.  Hardly surprising, then, are the efforts by authorities in most times and places to suppress threats to “public morality”.  A moral consensus seems to be something that doesn’t take care of itself.

Another concern of censors has always been to safeguard what we may call “the sacred”, that is, whatever the community believes should be regarded with reverence.  Governments have therefore prohibited public displays of blasphemy, obscenity, the desecration of revered symbols, and the large-scale promotion of irreverence among the young.  Again, the intention is not to regulate private feelings—which would be impossible—but to safeguard the communal norm.  The question is whether the public will be dominated by those who revere the symbol or by those who ridicule it.  Whose sentiments will be the default, the taken-for-granted, position in the public sphere?  As in the case of moral debate, it would be foolish to think that the best positions on these matters would naturally win out in an unregulated debate.  The two sides do not fight from symmetric positions.  Reverence requires a profound spiritual concentration, whereas any fool can adopt an attitude of cynicism.  One snickering guest can destroy the atmosphere of solemnity at a wedding or a funeral.  The impious can always seize the public space away from a religion by ridicule.  Even if their jokes, slanders, and innuendos don’t add up to an actual argument against the religion’s claims, these stunts often succeed in fostering attitudes of suspicion and cynicism that are incompatible with faith.

8 Responses

  1. […] As with other free markets, the product that wins is not the best but the cheapest.  In my essay on censorship, I explain why this will always be the […]

  2. ‘The scientific community has rules—rigidly enforced—regarding what may and may not be said while engaging in scientific discourse. One may not fabricate or misrepresent data. One may not attack the character of a fellow researcher in order to discredit his theory. One may not accuse him of forging or plagiarizing data without strong evidence. One may not criticize a theory by asserting that negative social or political consequences would follow from its acceptance. One may not criticize a theory for its disagreement or agreement with a religious or political authority. One may not draw philosophical conclusions from empirical data, or vice versa. If a scientist violates any of these rules, his professional reputation, and usually his career, will be destroyed. ‘

    I’ve worked in several science labs. These rules are not on the radar. Science is a business. Businessmen don’t like scandal, but it’s all about surviving.

    Scientists do what they feel will promote their interests. Debates get politicized, reputations get smeared, philosophy is used or disregarded according to convenience – science is nothing like what you have described.

  3. ‘The impious can always seize the public space away from a religion by ridicule. Even if their jokes, slanders, and innuendos don’t add up to an actual argument against the religion’s claims, these stunts often succeed in fostering attitudes of suspicion and cynicism that are incompatible with faith.’

    You’ve got the right idea here. In the modern West, there are two major sacred cows – the State and Political Correctness. Blaspheme either and you’ll be clapped in irons, but you can throw plates of spaghetti at Christians and claim to be preaching for the Flying Spaghetti Monster all you like.

  4. Hello zhai2nan2,

    I did indeed mean science when it functions as it should, and there is still a large amount of science that has not been politicized. I work in theoretical astrophysics, and none of my colleagues would dream of breaking these rules (or at least, getting caught breaking them).

  5. Am doing the assignment for “Discuss the arguments for the need for censorship in society?”. My main idea is governance related n for the supporting ideas is acting in defense.n we have to give the details n the examples….pliz help me….

  6. This comment has been removed in accordance with the published commenting policy.

  7. Every time the Bible states “Thou shall not,” that is a form of censorship, albeit good censorship.

    The only bad censorship is censorship of the truth, and this is the kind of censorship that’s rampant today, the kind that comes with its own commandments. You know the ones: “Thou shall not question the holocaust.” “Thou shall not demonstrate white racial pride.” “Thou shall not discriminate against people of color,” and so on and so forth.

  8. In defense of censor-S***?! Are you ******* kidding me?

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