In Defense of Censorship

The false ideal of neutrality

Here we come to the crucial issue—the liberal ideal of neutrality.  Recall that the central tenet of liberalism is that the state should be neutral between competing comprehensive theories of the good.  Each of us has our own conception of the good life, but, it is said, we can step outside of our own beliefs to adopt an “original position” above them all, and from this position make decisions which favor each view equally.  It is not surprising that liberals should embrace the ideal of free exchange of ideas; it bears a great similarity to their political ideal.  On any given issue, the liberal would recommend that we initially adopt a neutral and unprejudiced view, listen attentively to all of the arguments that anyone can think of, and then make an informed and rational decision.  The conservative, however, realizes that there is no such neutral position above every idea of the good (or, if there is such a position, it would not be possible to draw any normative conclusions within it).  He asserts that the neutral position advocated by liberals is really just utilitarianism/consequentialism/individualism in disguise.  The calls for open debate based on “public reason” are really attempts to preempt the debate by excluding all non-liberal points of view.

Something similar is the case for debates over morality and the sacred.  The liberal demands that we, or at least the public as a collective, adopt a neutral position between the two sides.  We must be skeptical of all claims, they say, and not prejudice the issue by allowing authority to weigh in on one side.  But this “neutral position” turns out to be identical to one of the sides of the dispute.  Consider moral debates.  To neutrally judge between two competing moral systems, one would have to disregard each system’s claim that adherence to it is intrinsically good—otherwise, one would be judging from the “inside” and not from a neutral position at all.  But if a morality can’t be an end, it must be a means to an amoral end (e.g. maximum or equal preference satisfaction).  However, to look at morality this way is already to embrace consequentialsim.  It is not surprising, then, that free debate on moral issues always results in a race to the bottom, i.e. to utilitarianism.  It would do so even in the absence of self-interest.  The case is even clearer for sacred matters.  No one would suggest that, in order for me to be a rational person, I should be neutral between the options of trusting or mistrusting my wife until a careful investigation proves her honesty and faithfulness.  Even to undertake such an investigation means choosing not to trust her, and this means ruining my relationship with her (even if she doesn’t know it).  Surely it is more reasonable to trust those with whom we have valued relationships until we have good reasons to doubt them.  So it is also with religion and tradition, which are our relationships with God and with our ancestors.  There is no neutral ground between trust and suspicion, between faith and doubt.  To demand investigation on these terms is to prejudge the issue.

Free speech and accountability

There is one final argument against censorship—that it is a necessary check on the abuse of power by the government.  Allow magistrates to suppress reports of their misdeeds, and they will be completely unaccountable.  This is a strong argument, but it only applies to a minority of censorship cases.  It is a fundamental rule of justice that no one should be the judge of his own case.  Thus it does seem that government officials should not be allowed to censor criticism of their policies or allegations of abuse of office.  However, their inability to defend themselves doesn’t mean they can’t discourage attacks on other authorities, such as parents or the established church.  Nor does it mean that they should tolerate attacks on articles of natural law, which are not matters of personal policy.  People should be allowed to criticize a change in the tax or interest rate, but calls for easy divorce are a short road to the moral sewer.

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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