Posts Tagged ‘John Stuart Mill’

First Amendment Symposium, Part V: Why The First Amendment is STILL Overrated

Exhibit A for why there should be abridgements on some speech: To prevent people like Josh from quoting himself in his own epigraph.

As for the substance of Josh’s arguments, there seem to be three core premises that form the basis of his attack: 1) Government suppression of speech is uniquely coercive and widespread; 2) as a result of its unique ability to coerce, government suppression of speech is categorically bad; 3) certain words in the text of the First Amendment, like “speech” and “abridging,” have no consensus definition, granting certain leeway when it comes to dealing with many issues surrounding the First Amendment.

Let’s start with #1: The effects of government suppression of speech are uniquely coercive and widespread. Josh defends this premise by contrasting government suppression with much more benign forms of “suppression”: “Social norms and reputation matter a lot in affecting what people say and don’t say; the government is just one factor that affects speech, but the difference with the government is that its restrictions’ effects are more widespread.” The other factors that Josh names—social norms and reputations—are hardly elements of “suppression” at all; they basically amount to peer pressure. Of course government regulation is going to appear more coercive and significant than these opponents—it usually is more coercive and significant. Continue reading

First Amendment Symposium, Part II: In Defense of Rights

This is the first part of a two-part reply to John’s critique of the First Amendment. The second part will run tomorrow.

John has two main arguments to support his proposition that the First Amendment is vastly overrated. First, he argues that the concept of a “right” is meaningless, and insofar as the First Amendment protects rights, it too lacks meaning. Second, John groups a bunch of arguments specific to the First Amendment together under the general proposition that the First Amendment is only about government neutrality towards speech, which can be deleterious. I will respond to these two arguments in two separate posts, addressing the rights argument in this first one.

John claims that the concept of a right is “an outdated modality,” “an autocratic fiat,” and “tremendously unhelpful” among other things.* John doesn’t formally define what a right is up front, and the closest he comes is when he calls rights “protections which you are entitled no matter what the consequences are.” This may be one effect of one having a right, but it is not a definition.  A more precise definition would be helpful to prevent us from speaking past each other. Wesley Hohfeld, somewhat like John, was bothered by meaningless invocations of “rights” and sought to clarify exactly what a right actually was; he argued that rights and duties were correlative. If X has a right to do something, he is legally protected from interference by Y.** In other words Y has a correlative duty not to interfere with X’s right. So, if X has a right to speak freely, then Y has a correlative duty not to interfere with X’s speaking freely.

*If I were a right, I would be very offended. I would likely cry.

**Y being any other individual or the government.

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First Amendment Symposium Part I: Why The First Amendment Is Drastically Overrated

Now that Josh has concluded his eight month-long analysis of the Bill of Rights,* it’s time for we at NPI to finally face facts: The Bill of Rights as a whole is incredibly overrated. The Ninth and Tenth Amendments are glorified addenda, the Seventh is, as Josh said, dull, the Third has been pretty useless, and the Second is essentially gibberish. The entire document is in desperate need of a proofreader (seriously, the grammar in that thing is offensively ambiguous).

*And in depressingly anticlimactic fashion, I might add: Oh, the First Amendment is first and the Second is last? How original! Is he also going to write something about how rainbows are pretty and chocolate tastes good?

And yet the Bill of Rights remains incredibly popular. Demagogic political figures appeal to it for justification of any principle they want to espouse; citizens regard it with a scriptural sanctity even though polls show that most of them don’t know what it says. In other words, the Bill of Rights is basically the secular version of the Bible. And not much of that has to do with its proscription on troop-quartering.

You don’t have to be a constitutional scholar to know that the Bill of Rights’ reputation with the public is largely the result of the First Amendment, specifically the freedoms of speech and the press. And yet it is this part of the Bill of Rights that is the most overrated. Continue reading

Ranking the Bill of Rights, Number 1: The First Amendment

It’s been nearly eight months since we started our journey by placing the Second Amendment in its rightful place: last. The problems that plagued the Second Amendment—lack of clarity and dubious public policy justifications—are perhaps the greatest strengths of our first-place finisher,* the Fightin’ First! I present to you the First Amendment:

*Of course, its clarity and phenomenal public policy justifications are its strengths.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The First Amendment is wide-reaching: It protects freedom of speech and of the press, freedom of assembly, and the right to petition. It also has the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses, which manage the relationship between religion and state. All these components have contributed to the First’s first-place finish, but what propels the First Amendment to the top of these rankings is its first and deservedly foremost freedoms of speech and press.

Freedom of speech and the press

The U.S. is unique among most countries in its seemingly unqualified* protection of freedom of speech and the press.** The European Convention on Human Rights provides for Freedom of Speech except when restrictions are necessary “for the protection of health or morals,” “for the protection of the reputation and rights of others,” and for other concerns like national security. In France, free speech may be limited “[if it is necessary] to respond to the abuse of this liberty, in the cases determined by the law.” Accordingly, in France, publicly denying the Holocaust and inciting racial hatred are not protected by free speech. In Germany, free speech may be limited “to protect personal honor” or “young persons.” England abides by the European Convention but has additional limitations, including the criminalization of the incitement of racial and religious hatred and ridiculously strict defamation laws. In India, freedom of speech may be limited “to protect the integrity of India” and for “decency and morality.” Some countries, like China, claim to protect freedom of speech but ignore their constitutions so blatantly that the words have little meaning.

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In Defense of Atheism

Last week Josh offered a pretty sound criticism of agnosticism, but neglected to mention the elephant in the room: atheism. Part of the reason agnosticism is such a popular position, as Josh says, is that “atheism” is still a dirty word: Atheists are dogmatic, unreasonable, and extreme. These perceptions, however, are based on several popular myths about atheism. Atheism properly understood is not only reasonable, but, in fact, the only reasonable religious position.          

Myth #1: Atheists believe there is no god. This myth is largely the result of syntactical sloppiness. I, too, used to get tricked up by the difference between, “I don’t believe in any god” and, “I believe there is no god.” I thought that atheism meant the latter, which I was unwilling to support.

But this is an unfair standard. Atheism is not a belief, but the absence of a belief. Just look at the etymology: Theism means, “belief in a god” and the prefix a means without. If you are “without belief,” then you are an atheist. Continue reading

Introducing….The Symposium!

We here at NPI are proud to introduce a new feature to the blog. It’s called the “Symposium.” Basically, it will be a series of posts in which some of us debate a given topic and go back and forth on it. You see, brilliance is often amplified when great minds come together and disagree. As John Stuart Mill once said, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” Also, discord is fun. A lot of these debates will probably involve one of us defending an absurd premise, but we will always have a point. Because you never really know you’re right unless you’re confident someone else is wrong.

Our first symposium, coming shortly, will feature Josh and John debating the concept of anchoring. Brace yourselves…