What’s It Like To Live Without Illusions? Tough, And It Sucks

illusion

About 6 months ago, I decided to do a bit a self-experimentation. I tried to identify as many of my illusions as I could, and then see if I could lose them one by one. Readers of this blog – those who are still around – may have noticed one of the first: that this is an interesting blog. I stopped writing after decades of what often seemed like talking to a wall. After all, if few other people like what I do, then why should I? Wisdom of the crowds, and such. But that’s hardly the most important illusion I tried to get rid of. (“Tried”, since here I am, writing again…)

Over the last years, I read a lot about free will, blame and moral responsibility. My writing on human rights made me conscious of the harm we inflict on each other while trying to hold “wrongdoers” to account: capital punishment, mass incarceration, police brutality and so on are well-documented human rights violations, but the interesting thing about them is that they imply beliefs – in the minds of the perpetrators – about victim accountability and responsibility. The belief that people should be held accountable for their misdeeds – and should suffer for them – wraps around another belief: that people possess some form of free will.

The growing consensus in the fields of psychology and neurology (including evolutionary psychology, brain imaging and the study of systematic biases) is that free will is an illusion. “Illusion” is probably too strong a word in this case, but the literature has certainly convinced me to be more generous to “wrongdoers”. Not only should we avoid harsh punishment for consequentialist reasons – we do more harm while punishing people than the good that may come from often imaginary deterrent and protection effects – but also because punishment has become little more than an overly theatrical way of blaming people who seem decreasingly blameworthy.

finger_wag_hypnosis

So let’s say that in general I’ve tried to rid myself of the illusion of judgment. Negative judgment at least. I try to no longer blame people for their shortcomings. (Sorry for the split infinitive here, but let’s face it: grammatical rules are often used as a theatrical means of blaming people and of signalling our own superiority relative to the blameworthy. Communication is about understanding, and if rules can assist in understanding then they are good. If not, lose your illusion.)

Avoiding blame may seem dangerous: if we no longer blame people for their mistakes and misdeeds, then how will they learn and become better people? Is mutual improvement also an illusion that should be abandoned? I don’t think so. But there’s a large space between blame and indifference. You can tell people about their mistakes without judgment. It’s tricky, but doable.

What about positive judgments? Do I no longer appreciate beauty, music and art? To the extent that beauty is an illusion, that’s probably the hardest one to shed. A sensation of beauty just comes over you, unexpectedly. You can’t fight it or reason yourself away from it, as you can with free will. You can try to tell yourself that a beautiful body is just a bag of bones, meat and human waste made to look appealing because bodily attraction has helped humanity to survive during our difficult early evolution. However, you often can’t keep fooling yourself into believing this, at least not in the sense of immediate, intuitive belief.

What about music? As an adolescent I became enchanted by Wagner and I started to read a lot about him, including a lot of critical stuff arguing against his method: how silly it is to use leitmotivs, as if we can’t see that Wotan comes on stage and need to hear his tune as well; how Wagner did not respect “classical” rules of composition; how repetitive he was; how loud, bombastic and Teutonic; how the German language was unfit for opera, especially when littered with alliteration. And so on. All of this made me doubt, and I almost gave up being a Wagnerian because of it. But I couldn’t. The music is just magic, and it blows you away no matter how much you rationalise against it, at least if you’re open to being blown away. The beauty of it may be an illusion. In the narrow sense that you get tricked by a cunning and scamming composer. Or in the broader sense: beauty is no more than brain stimulations that have developed over the course of human evolution because individuals who are receptive to these kinds of stimulation are happier and therefore more likely to survive.

wagner quote

So far so good, you may say. Get rid of the noxious illusions, if you can, and keep the pleasant and harmless ones. Good work Spagnoli! But then why do you tell us that it sucks? Because illusions are like faces in things. Once you train yourself to see faces in things, you start to see them everywhere. Same for illusions. Friendship starts to look like an illusion. You try to ignore your friends to see whether they really care about you. Do they show you that they care by asking you why you ignore them? Nah. They just ignore you back because you’re being such a dick.

And then there’s LOVE: there’s a long history of love bashing. Do we really love the people we love? Why do we love that particular person and not another one? Seems a bit arbitrary to us all, at some points in our lives. Just admit it. It could just as well have been someone else. What is love really? Perhaps not a lot more than just another evolutionary adaptation inherited from early humans who were frail and needed to stick together in small family type groups that cared for each other and their offspring in a hostile prehistoric environment. Maybe. But if so, then love is no longer relevant since that kind of frailty has been largely overcome. Love is reduced to companionship and sex, both of which I’ve argued may be just as illusory (albeit in a pleasant way as long as you manage to avoid thinking below skin level.)

And now for the most dangerous illusion of all: are you actually alive? You’re losing your friends and loved ones. You’re counting the times that you were ignored during meetings at work; that the girls on the bus didn’t look back at you; that you had to repeat yourself; that your email went unanswered. You remember the accident you were in as a child, and start to wonder whether you’re Bruce Willis. At best you come under the impression of slowly fading away, quite literally. Needless to say that this is dangerously self-destructive. From a medical perspective, it looks like an illusion or delusion. But it may just as well be the product of fanatical and self-reinforcing opposition to illusion.

How to get out of this trap? I’m not sure you can, but an old analytic philosophy trick seems to help: define your terms, analyse the meaning of words. If you feel overwhelmed by the loss of illusions, start to define “illusion”. You’ll probably notice that the term is vague and overly inclusive. Which would account for the tendency to see illusions everywhere. A precise definition of the word can help you get out of the anti-illusory maelstrom. Perhaps.

The Ethics of Human Rights (91): Moral Realism vs Moral Subjectivism

Proponents of human rights are often cast as moral realists, and opponents as moral subjectivists. Let’s start with the latter. Opponents of universal human rights tend to be cultural relativists who believe that moral standards and values derive from – “are relative to” – different cultures. When those standards and values are incompatible with human rights, then human rights should give way. Giving priority to human rights would mean imposing the standards and values developed in and by one particular culture onto another. And that would be cultural imperialism and disrespect for human diversity.

My use of the word “developed” is intentional: it indicates that most relativists are also constructivists who argue that moral values are constructed and transmitted, rather than discovered. Not necessarily consciously constructed – more often unconsciously and without planning or intent. Relativists/constructivists argue that cultures refine throughout the ages what is best for them. It’s probably best to call this meta-ethical view a form of subjectivism in the sense that moral standards and values are

  1. rules of conduct specific to a particular subject – a culture in this case – rather than universal and objective, and
  2. subjective in the cognitive sense, meaning created by human subjects rather than a fact that can be discovered in the world.

I personally conform to the standard representation of a human rights proponent since I have my quarrels with cultural relativism as a form of moral subjectivism. I believe in universal rights that should override certain cultural norms. Human sacrifice for instance is wrong. Culturally sanctioned gender discrimination is wrong. And so on. However, this doesn’t mean that I have to reject moral subjectivism tout court and adopt moral realism. I don’t want to claim that statements such as “human sacrifice is wrong” are true in an objective sense, even though I have strong beliefs about such statements. Most moral realists do make that claim. Let’s have a closer look at moral realism and then try to loosen the link between moral realism and human rights theory.

Moral realism is a cognitivist and objectivist theory about morality: some ethical propositions are objectively true, independent of subjective opinion, like some propositions about the world are objectively true. And we can know and discover these objective moral truths. The implication is that true ethical propositions are true independently of culture. “Honesty is good” and “slavery is bad” are moral facts according to moral realists. If some – or all – cultures were to reject these facts and adopt contrary moral values, then that wouldn’t change the true nature of those moral facts. Morality is “out there”, but individuals or cultures can decide to ignore it. A moral realist who is also a rights proponent will say that human rights are true and that opponents of rights are simply mistaken about what is objectively right (or lying about what is right).

I don’t have a very strong conviction about the relative merits of different meta-ethical theories (it’s a tough problem), but I do have my suspicions. I tend to believe that moral realism is wrong. Maybe it’s not, in which case it would be perfectly OK to be both a proponent of human rights and a moral realist. Moral realism certainly isn’t incompatible with human rights. I want to argue against the conventional wisdom that it is necessary to be a moral realist in order to believe strongly in human rights. It’s not. And it’s good that it’s not because it may turn out that moral relativism is wrong, as I suspect.

I defend a position which we could call universalist intersubjectivism (and I’m terribly sorry for the ugly term; I’m sure it’s as catchy as everything else I write). Intersubjectivism means that morality is about opinions, but not about subjective opinions, unfounded opinions or opinions that evolve more or less unconsciously and automatically throughout the life of a culture or a nation. Moral opinions can be good or bad. They are good when they are tested in common deliberation and exchange of arguments between rational subjects – hence intersubjectivism. The goal is to come to some form of agreement – hence universalist intersubjectivism. Intersubjectivism is universal rather than relative, and it’s also a weak rather than a strong cognitivism: we can distinguish good from bad opinions because we have the test of the marketplace of ideas, but the good opinions will probably not ascend to the level of truths. Morality is not (only) the product of cultural development, traditions or evolutionary psychology, but also of reasoning and argumentation. Reasoning, however, that will – most likely – fall short of truth claims.

So I don’t believe in the realism of moral realism. There’s only intersubjective agreement about justified opinions, no objective moral truth. Moral claims such as human rights or the foundational values that require human rights for their realization (e.g. “peace is good”) are not objective moral truths or moral facts but justified opinions that have withstood the test of argumentation in the marketplace of ideas. For example, it doesn’t have to be true that individuals should be treated as moral agents with a right to think for themselves. All we need is that this view about individuals is reasonable, justified and able to survive deliberation and argumentation. It need not even be a very common view, since argumentation may not be close to what it can ideally be. The intersubjective agreement that we aim at is limited to what rational actors can decide to agree to in a setting that is favorable to argumentation. In many circumstances in real life, this setting is absent and actors are less than rational.

When that is the case, intersubjective agreement on the importance of human rights may be a minority point of view. I believe, however, that we can improve social argumentation and extend intersubjective agreement as long as we make the effort of designing and protecting the marketplace of ideas. And as long as we depart somewhat from the moral realist position. The moral realist who maintains that moral truths are “out there” waiting to be discovered, is unlikely to view argumentation as very important. Those, on the other hand, who claim that morality is about argued opinions that can withstand the test of controversy will be more favorable to fostering institutions for argumentation. Moral realists are also more likely to be dismissive of people with the “wrong” views, and dismissiveness has never convinced anyone.

More on the same topic here and here. More posts in this series are here.

Human Rights Promotion (22): What Hope is There For Persuasion?

The ability to persuade other people is important for human rights in at least two different ways:

  • How do we achieve respect for human rights? Since a lot of human rights violations are caused by ideas and opinions – for example by harmful moral judgments or political ideologies – respect for human rights depends at least in part on our ability to change minds, other people’s as well as our own.
  • Why do we need human rights? Certain human rights in particular, such as the right to free speech, are justified by our need to persuade others. We want to express ourselves and we express ourselves for different reasons: to communicate our identity, to signal what we think about something, but most importantly to persuade others of the goodness of our opinions, compared to their opinions. That’s a universal human need. Ideally, we also believe that expressing our opinions improves those opinions. We prepare our opinions in advance of expressing them, and – knowing that we will be criticized for those opinions by other agents freely expressing themselves – we try our best to prepare our opinions for this criticism. We consider possible counterarguments in advance and how to reply to them. This brings with it the possibility that we refine our opinions or even replace them with better ones, based on our inner reasoning in preparation of our expression. Free speech – our own free speech and that of our critics – helps us improve our opinions. Persuasion – both of others and of ourselves – is therefore an important reason why we need human rights. (This is the theory behind the notion of the marketplace of ideas).

The problem is that people don’t seem to be very good at persuading each other or themselves. The description of communication that I’ve given here is highly idealized. If we can’t dramatically improve our ability to persuade, then we’ll have a hard time fighting for rights because we’ll lose weapons as well as reasons necessary for this fight. There are other non-communicative means to increase the levels of respect for human rights (reciprocity, self-interest, the law etc.), and the need to improve our opinions and to persuade isn’t the only possible justification for human rights (other justification are offered here). But in such an important fight a restricted arsenal or rationale is a net negative. So it’s worth the effort to try and remove some of the things that make it hard to persuade.

So what are we up against? Apart from the obvious and uninteresting fact that some people are immune to persuasion – good luck talking to the Taliban – there are other and perhaps even more damaging causes of a lack of persuasion: confirmation bias, the importance of emotions rather than reasoning or argumentation as a basis of our beliefs, polarization, and a whole set of other psychological biases (e.g. the belief that beautiful people make better sounding arguments).

What to do about all this? We should avoid the obvious conclusion that humans are merely bias machines governed by unconscious reflexes, responses to stimuli, emotions and prejudices formed through ages of human evolution. Or that rational argument based on facts and sound reasoning never plays any role. Many but probably not all our opinions and decisions are biased by prejudice and emotive reactions created by a mind shaped by evolution. There’s certainly no hope of radically removing those parts of our minds that work that way, but we can hope to reduce their effect. If we are conscious of our confirmation bas, for instance, then we can try to counteract it by actively seeking out disconfirming information or by making an effort to read people from the opposing side. Rational persuasion can and does occur, and we can make it occur more often than it does today. For example, here and here are two examples of cognitive scientists pushing back against the current trend in their profession. They show how strong arguments can indeed persuade people and how group reasoning in particular is helpful.

More posts in this series are here.

Religion and Human Rights (33): Christianity and Human Rights

Nowadays, when religion is viewed through the lens of human rights, the subject of discussion is most often Islam and the rights violations it is supposed to produce. Other religions seem almost unproblematic in comparison. Some even claim that human rights are the heritage of the Christian West. That’s not entirely fair to Islam, and neither is it a correct description of Christianity or of the history of human rights. Both Islam and Christianity can be criticized from the perspective of human rights. It’s about time that Christianity receives some of the same scrutiny that is heaped on Islam on a daily basis.

First, though, let’s list some arguments for the defense. Many aspects of Christianity are beneficial to human rights. For example, there’s a long tradition of pacifism in Christianity (in some Christian churches more than others, and in theory more than in practice). That’s based on the quote from the sermon on the mount about showing the other cheek. Poverty and charity as well are prominent in Christian teaching (for example in the parable of the good Samaritan). Also important from the perspective of human rights is the teaching of the equality of all human beings: we are all created in the image of God, we’re all sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. Hence differences between races, genders, nationalities etc. are contingent and morally irrelevant. And there’s of course the sacredness of human life. Finally, belief in hell – to the extent that this is still a part of present-day Christian faith – is associated with lower crime rates (I assume the fear of punishment in the afterlife limits deviance in this life).

However, it’s just as easy to cite arguments for the prosecution. First, the noble principles just cited were rarely respected. And secondly, there are a lot of other principles that are incompatible with human rights. Like all monotheistic religions, Christianity has universalist pretensions: the Christian God is the God of all, and non-believers are mistaken, even sinfully mistaken. They need to be brought within the right faith. Hence missionary work, colonialism, religious wars and other forms of aggressive proselytizing. All such activities can and often do violate human rights.

As a result of this universalism, freedom of religion is only grudgingly accepted if at all, as is the separation between church and state. Its universalist pretensions often justify coercive means, including the state, as a means to impose Christian teachings (the issue of gay marriage is only one example). It also seems that, theoretically at least, Christians can’t accept democratic decisions that go against the will of God, and are morally obliged to revolt against such decisions. Politics is the handmaiden of religion, and political rights are only contingently secure, i.e. they are secure as long as their results conform to the will of God and as long as Christians don’t believe that its practical and feasible to impose this will when rights deviate from it. Anti-abortion terrorism comes to mind.

Publicity and appearance are important parts of human rights. Different human rights protect the public appearance of a diversity of opinions, beliefs and identities, and their discursive interaction. That’s the idea of the marketplace of ideas. Christianity, however, doesn’t like publicity, for a variety of reasons. First, the relationship to God is more important than relationships between people, and the afterlife is more important than earthly life in community. There’s a strong sense of detachment from the affairs of this world, although this sense was more common in early Christianity. The hidden and the mysterious are valued more than the discursive, ostentatious life of public debate.

Appearance is not only of secondary importance, but also morally dubious. Christianity rejects seeing and being seen. To be good is the supreme value, but goodness must hide itself. When good works become public, they loose some of their goodness because they are no longer done simply for their goodness but for honor, appreciation etc. (as Arendt reminded us). In this respect, there are some similarities between the saint and the criminal.

To the extent that public debate is valued, it isn’t because of the importance of the marketplace of ideas, a major justification of human rights. Free speech doesn’t serve the exchange of arguments, public reasoning or the improvement of the quality of thinking. It only serves to proselytize, to distribute the truth, and this truth is given before public discourse even takes place. Belief is revealed and contemplated individually and in solitude, and is not the product of discussion or debate. Contemplation of God does not even require company, let alone debate. In the words of Tertullian : “nec ulla magis res aliena quam publica” (“nothing is more strange to us than public matters”).

This rejection of the public space in favor of the mysterious, of individual contemplation and of the afterlife, can result in political acquiescence. The powers-that-be are accepted, even if they are cruel and oppressive, since true salvation comes only after death. (That’s Marx’ famous criticism).

And there are other points of criticism: notwithstanding the equality of all human beings as children of God, women are responsible for the original sin, and the Jews for the murder of Christ. And even if everyone is an equal son or daughter of God, that means that everyone is fit for salvation. Which in turn means that you have to go to the far ends of the world to convert the heathens, for their own good.

A mixed record, to say the least.

Other posts in this series are here.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (39): Market Failure in the Marketplace of Ideas, Ctd.

We need rights such as free speech, assembly and association (as well as other rights that function as prerequisites for these rights, such as the right not to suffer poverty) for many reasons, but one of the most important reasons is the way in which these rights protect open, public, inclusive and widespread deliberation.

But why do we need this kind of deliberation? Deliberation, ideally at least, forces ideas through a process of criticism, counter-arguments and competition with other ideas. Ideas that can get themselves accepted in such a competitive market of ideas will tend to be of better quality than other ideas. Hence the metaphor of the marketplace of ideas. A crucial point is that participation in public deliberation should be as free and as massive as possible, since only mass participation will allow for the multiplication of possible arguments and alternative ideas.

The marketplace of ideas improves the quality of our ideas and our thinking, and that’s a good thing. The fact that some human rights – and perhaps even all human rights given the interdependence of human rights – are necessary for the functioning of this marketplace justifies human rights. (More here).

I used the word “ideally” a moment ago, because the actual functioning of the marketplace of ideas in the real world is often marred by “market failures”. I listed a few here, such as confirmation bias, polarization, political correctness and other biases or processes that inhibit the free and open discussion and exchange of possibly persuasive arguments.

Here are a few more:

  • There’s what we could call the “fanatic effect”: fanatics have few if any doubts about their ideas and hence are more likely to set up lobbying groups, think tanks, political parties etc. As a result, a fanatic will receive more media exposure than the thinking person constantly revising her often complicated opinions in the light of new evidence. This is the supply side factor favoring the appearance of extreme views. Now, these views may well be correct in some cases, but it’s hard to know if those views are the ones that receive most coverage; views or arguments that go against the extremes may come from less convinced sources and hence may not find their way into the debates. As a result, the marketplace does not function adequately. This type of market failure is obviously linked to polarization, but it’s not completely the same thing. Polarization can occur between 2 or more non-fanatical or non-extreme views.
  • There’s not only a supply side factor; the demand for extreme and fanatical positions also plays a role in undermining the marketplace of ideas. Extreme positions are better for pageviews and ratings. People want good TV and interesting websites, and extremists battling each other with soundbites are better than long nuanced arguments. Who doesn’t prefer a debate between a racist and a black radical to a polite discussion based on charts, numbers and philosophical references? The soundbites may come from fanatics, but they don’t have to. If very reasonable points of view are only marketed in the form of sound bites, and if nuanced or lengthy arguments are thought to scare away viewer or readers, then the market fails just as badly.

However, let’s not despair. There’s also a lot of evidence that people arguing in groups come to better decisions than people on their own. Here’s a sample of some of the evidence:

A group of players is told that they should choose a number between 0 and 100, and the winner of the game will be the person who chooses a number that is (say) 1/2 of the average of the other choices. In this game, the rational player will reason as follows: “OK, let’s say that the other players choose randomly, so the average will be 50, and I should choose 25 to win. But if other players have this first level of insight, they will all choose 25 to win, and I should instead choose 12. But if other players have this second level of insight, then they will choose 12, and I should choose 6. Hmmm. If the other players are rational and self-interested, the equilibrium choice will end up being zero.”

The players … can be either individuals or groups. It turns out that groups choose lower numbers: that is, as a result of interacting in the group, they tend to be one step ahead.

Here’s another example … [P]layers get the following question: … “Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations. Which is more probable: (a) Linda is a bank teller. (b) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.” Notice that Linda is a bank teller in both choices, but only active in the feminist movement in the second choice: that is, the second choice is a subset of the first choice. For that reason, it is impossible for choice b to be more likely than choice a. However, early research on this question found that 85% of individuals answered b. But when the game is played with groups of 2, and with groups of 3, the error rate drops. (source)

So the marketplace of ideas could justify human rights after all. More posts in this series are here.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (38): Different Justifications for Different Types of Free Speech

There are different types of speech, and therefore also different types of free speech. The point I want to make here is that different types of free speech require different justifications. It’s a common error to reject some kinds of free speech because they seem unacceptable from the point of view of justificatory theories that are useful only for other types of free speech.

What does that mean, different types of speech? We can have different goals when we speak: we can try to persuade, to signal our allegiance or identity, to harm, to ostracize, to insult, to express emotions, to promise or to enter into a contract, to state facts, to name something, to order someone, etc.

Each purpose of speech requires a separate justification of free speech, and some purposes may be very hard to justify at all, in which case a limit on freedom of speech may be necessary. However, much talk about limits springs from a logical error. It’s important not to try to use a justification for one type of free speech in order to examine the justification of another type. This may result in the unwarranted conclusion that some type of free speech is not justifiable and that it can therefore be limited, whereas in reality we just use the wrong justification.

Take one type of speech: persuasion. Free persuasion is usually justified on the basis of the marketplace of ideas. In a nutshell: people should be allowed to try to persuade each other freely, because this process of free persuasion will improve the quality of opinions.

Now take another type of speech, namely emotive speech. Examples of emotive speech are “fuck you” (expressing rejection or disgust), “fuck” (expressing disappointment), “shit”, “motherfucker” etc. Such expletives, and emotive speech in general, are often viewed as completely lacking in merit and therefore unworthy of protection. US First Amendment jurisprudence is a case in point. The Supreme Court labels a lot of emotive speech as no-value or low-value speech and has no problem with restrictions of it. (See also here). Speech lacks value, according to the Supreme Court, if it’s no essential part of the exposition of ideas and doesn’t bring us closer to the truth. Any slight benefit it may have is outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.

However, this means focussing on persuasion and the truth seeking purpose of speech, and using the justification of this type of speech in order to reject another type of speech. If, on the other hand, you believe that speech also has an emotional purpose, you would regard expletives as more valuable and more worthy of free speech protection.

The distinction between low or no-value speech on the one hand and high value speech on the other hand, whatever its merits (and those are not obvious), points us towards a further remark regarding the distinction between types of speech and between types of justifications. Those distinctions aren’t clear-cut: even people who express themselves merely because of signaling needs can be justified to do so because of the value of the marketplace of ideas. Although they don’t want to persuade, the fact that they merely express an opinion without arguing for it is valuable in the marketplace of ideas because it can convince others of the lack of real value of their opinions. Likewise, an order may indicate that persuasion has failed, and this in turn may indicate the relative weakness of an opinion.

More posts in this series are here.

What Are Human Rights? (46): Equal Rights, Ctd.

The idea that human rights are equal rights is trivial at first sight. However, it becomes problematic after some reflection, and only regains its persuasiveness after even further reflection. When you think about it, equal rights for everyone is a strange idea. Why should all people have the same rights? Why should a preacher of violence and hate have the same right to speak freely as the world’s best poet? Why should a religion that oppresses women have the same right to exist as a religion that loves peace and equality? Why should people who haven’t finished primary school have the same right to vote as experts in government matters?

Agreed, they are all human beings and human rights are the rights of human beings, but that’s a tautology, not an argument. A somewhat more promising foundation for the notion of equal rights goes like this: one can argue that people need human rights in order to realize certain of their most fundamental and commonly shared values. If that is true, then rights should be equal rights.

Most people value the ability to express themselves, to belong to groups, to share a common identity (e.g. a religious one), to govern their own affairs, to enjoy peace and prosperity etc. And we know that they need human rights to realize these (and other) values. Agreed, some of us may not want any of this, but then they can waive their rights. And only THEY can. People should decide for themselves whether they need rights and need them equally; others shouldn’t decide for them. That is probably the only morally sound way to treat people.

We can also justify equality of rights on the following grounds: we don’t want rights just for ourselves and for the things we value for ourselves; we also want other people to have rights and to have them equally – or at least we should want this if we are to reason coherently. This is not a requirement of morality or altruism – although it can be, obviously – but simply one of logic and coherence. The right to express myself, to belong, to live in peace and prosperity, to vote etc. makes no sense if I’m the only one to have those rights. Even if others use their expression or their votes or whatever in a stupid way, they should have the right to do so – as long as this use doesn’t imply rights violations of course. Hence, equality of rights is a logical requirement in the system of rights.

More posts in this series are here.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (32): Market Failure in the Marketplace of Ideas

First, a brief reminder of how I understand the marketplace of ideas and how it justifies freedom of speech. I normally don’t do this, but I can save us all a lot of time by quoting myself:

The point is this: ideas that can get themselves accepted in a competitive market of ideas will tend to be of better quality than other ideas. The marketplace of ideas therefore improves the quality of our ideas and our thinking. If different ideas are presented in an “ideas-market”, and if that market is populated by a maximum number of free agents expressing themselves freely, then those competing ideas will be exposed to a maximum number of supporting and dissenting arguments, and the balance of arguments in favor of or against an idea will be compared to the same balance for counter-ideas. The idea with the best balance will “survive”, because alternative ideas will be seen as comparatively defective, given the fact that the arguments in favor of them are weaker or the arguments against them are stronger.

It’s crucial that there is mass participation in the argumentation and deliberation going on in this market, since only mass participation will allow for the multiplication of possible arguments and alternative ideas. Hence, it’s also crucial that there’s a right to free speech and that everyone (or at least a large number of people) has and effectively exercises this right. This mass participation of free and expressive agents will improve the quality of ideas and of their supportive arguments even before the ideas reach the market: people who know that their ideas will meet probing and massive criticism will prepare themselves for this criticism, and this preparation means that they will preemptively develop supportive arguments and undermine opposing arguments. Hence, these ideas may even change and improve before they reach the market.

If this metaphor of the market is convincing then it can provide a powerful reason for adopting and protecting the right to free speech. There’s hardly a more valuable good than quality in thinking and if free speech can help to deliver that good it’s difficult to argue against this right.

Personally, I do think that the metaphor of the free market can help us to understand the logic and benefits of free and widespread public discussion and of the free exchange of and competition between ideas, and that this understanding can provide a good justification for freedom of speech. Much of what goes on in the marketplace of ideas is similar to what goes on in a market of goods or services. The important similarity is the free exchange of and competition between ideas, the lack of restrictions on exchange and competition, and the freedom of all to join in the exchange and competition on a equal footing. And although I would advise not to push the metaphor too far (a perpetual and fatal temptation of all economic metaphors), there’s probably one more similarity that can be useful, namely the concept of market failure.

Market failure in economics refers to those cases in which a free market, left to itself, fails to allocate goods and services efficiently. In other words, there is at least one market participant who may have been better off without anyone else being worse off had other systems operated instead of the free market. Examples of market failure are

  • information asymmetries, which occur when one party in a transaction has more or better information than the other (classic examples are the used-car salesman selling a defective car to someone who has no knowledge of cars, and the terminally ill person buying a life insurance)
  • externalities, which occur when a transaction has a cost that is not transmitted through prices and that is incurred by a party who did not agree to the action causing the cost (the classic example is industrial pollution imposing costs on the whole society, costs that are not included in the transaction price of the polluting goods).

Market failures can also occur in the marketplace of ideas. It’s important to check whether these market failures are enough of a problem to render the concept of a marketplace of ideas unworkable. If the marketplace of ideas can’t work properly most of the time, then it can’t function as a justification of freedom of speech. However, if market failures are due to insufficient free speech, then free speech can still be justified by the concept of the marketplace of ideas. The problem is that market failures in the marketplace of ideas often go beyond insufficient free speech. Let’s list some of those market failures:

  • Political correctness: political correctness is a form of silencing and therefore introduces market failure; if some arguments or some positions can’t be expressed and heard, then they can’t enter into the calculus of arguments and can’t improve our thinking. This is true even if those arguments or positions are manifestly unsound, because silencing them means that we lose a way of stressing the soundness of other arguments and positions (saying what’s wrong about something is often an indirect way of saying what’s right about something else).
  • Silencing more generally: political correctness isn’t the only form of silencing; pornography may silence women and hate speech may silence minorities; silencing means the absence of arguments and positions, and such an absence always harms the operation of the marketplace of ideas.
  • Polarization: polarization occurs when groups in society do not argue, convince or engage in public thinking but instead simply express claims motivated, not by the willingness to persuade, but by the need to show their identity or belonging; no one is convinced, people stay in their respective camps and these camps drift further apart because absent an exchange of reasons for beliefs, people start to see other groups as increasingly strange, alien and incomprehensible.
  • Biased media attention: a lot of the argumentation in the marketplace isn’t direct but gets channeled through media; if these media don’t take the ideal of the marketplace seriously and don’t function as stages for debate but instead play the game of polarization and present ongoing debates in a biased way, then there’s less debate.
  • Lack of education: the argumentation in the marketplace of ideas obviously requires a relatively high level of education; absent this education for the large majority, the marketplace can’t function since it depends on massive participation.
  • Psychological biases: even if general education levels are high, certain psychological biases can hinder the operation of the market; one example is confirmation bias, the tendency of people to seek out evidence that is favorable to their original beliefs, and neglect evidence that is unfavorable; it’s obvious that this harms the operation of the marketplace.
  • Privacy issues: some people may be discouraged from entering the marketplace of ideas because they can’t handle exposure or the possible intrusions into their private lives that may follow from participation in the marketplace.
  • Etc.

Now, many of these market failures do look pretty serious and may discredit the whole notion of a marketplace of ideas, at least in the foreseeable future. However, most can be addressed in some ways. Media can be forced to present different viewpoints, hate speech can be curtailed etc. So there may be ways of rescuing the ideal of the marketplace of ideas both as an ideal in itself and as a justification of free speech. Much like the economic market in goods and services isn’t necessarily discredited by economic market failure and can be rescued by targeted government intervention.

More posts in this series are here.

What Are Human Rights? (30): Three Views on Human Rights

1.

The standard view of human rights is that they are intended as regulators of conflicting norms and practices. And, indeed, they seem quite useless and out of place in settings in which people agree, hold the same religious convictions and aren’t intent on attacking each others’ lives and possessions.

“Regulators” in this sense doesn’t mean that rights solve conflicts between norms and practices. They can’t do that because then they would have to change those norms and practices, and they don’t. What they do is pacify and civilize conflicts: they force conflicting parties to extend some measure of respect to the opposing norm or practice, and to refrain from physical or legal attacks, violence and suppression. For example, when different forms of speech come into conflict with each other, neither side in the conflict has a right to suppress the speech of the other side or to violently attack the other speakers.

2.

A somewhat less simplistic view of human rights, but also a less common one, is that these rights don’t just regulate conflict but actively promote it. By taking the sting out of conflict, one obviously encourages conflict. Usually, when an activity becomes less risky, it becomes more common.

Why would there be a need to encourage conflict? One reason has to do with the notion of the marketplace of ideas: only an idea that has survived the onslaught of a large number of opposing arguments can be a good idea.

3.

And then there’s another, even more sophisticated – some say perverted – view of human rights, one that sees beyond the conflicts that these rights are supposed to regulate and/or promote, and that focuses on the role of rights in providing the prerequisites for the appearance and development of conflicting norms and practices. Without this understanding of rights it’s difficult to make sense of rights such as the right to healthcare, the right to a certain standard of living and the right to education. Those are all rights that don’t regulate conflict but instead allow people to acquire and develop norms and practices.

What is Democracy? (53): Secret Ballot, or Public Vote?

The secret ballot has become so common in modern democracies that it’s hardly ever questioned. And yet, there are good reasons why a democratic vote should be public. So, let’s go over the pros and cons of the secret ballot, and see where that gets us.

Advantages of the secret ballot

  • The desire to avoid voter intimidation or bribery is the obvious and most commonly cited justification of the secrecy of the ballot. If people in power know how an individual votes, then this individual may be pressured to vote in a certain way. And “people in power” should be understood in a broad sense, including employers, dominant husbands etc. This justification is based on certain key features of a democracy, namely equal influence, one-man-one-vote etc. The risk of coercion is present even in societies where the general level of coercion is low and democratic values are widely shared. And it’s often the least advantaged who will be coerced, because they have most to gain from changing their vote to please someone else, and most to lose from not doing so.
  • The risk of pressure can also be present in other, more subtle forms. For example, it has been shown that people are afraid to publicly oppose authority figures. Tests have shown that when an authority figure speaks first, there’s less dissent afterwards. An open ballot can lead to forced conformity.

Disadvantages of the secret ballot

  • Implicit in the doctrine of the secret ballot is the assumption that the electoral process is no more than the aggregation of individual preferences which have been fixed previously and independently of the electoral process. However, the voting process is, ideally, also formative of preferences, and not merely an arithmetic process based on fixed preferences. That means that people deliberate and discuss about the best way to vote, about the best candidates and policies. But that also means that people have to present their positions and preferences in public. Maybe the ultimate vote can still be secret, but the initial voting intention can’t be if we want democracy to be a lively debate. But if the voting intention can be public, why not the actual vote?
  • An open ballot allows representatives to know exactly whom they are representing. One of the advantages of this knowledge is that it allows for some efficiency gains. Representatives know who has to be convinced. Those efficiency gains should improve the electoral process.
  • When you vote in an election for representatives or in a referendum, this vote has real consequences. Taken together with the votes of your fellow citizens, your vote is likely to change the lives of a number of people, and sometimes change these lives dramatically. Moreover, those people are likely to be minorities, and hence relatively powerless. It’s therefore important that voters are accountable to their fellow citizens and that they explain and justify the reasons they have for voting in a certain way. This horizontal accountability is incompatible with the secret ballot.
  • Why should we have secret ballots for voters and at the same time open votes in parliament, as is usually the case? After all, the justifications for a secret ballot for voters also apply to representatives. They also may be subject to pressure when it’s known how they vote. Maybe to a lesser extent than some parts of the electorate, since they tend to be wealthy and generally powerful, but still. Representatives are less numerous, and hence it’s easier and more effective to use pressure in order to manipulate a vote. Also, the public nature of representatives’ positions makes them vulnerable to specific kinds of pressure that can’t be applied to ordinary citizens (e.g. they may be blackmailed for indecent private behavior and thereby pressured to vote in a certain way). Of course, representative bodies are different from electorates, and therefore not entirely comparable. For example, it’s hard to see how a representative body can be accountable to the electorate when it votes in secret. Voters have to know what the individual representatives have accomplished, or not, so that they can “throw the bums out” at the next election if necessary. Also, this threat of non-reelection can pressure the representatives to act in ways desired by the electorate. So, pressure – at least some kind of pressure – is part and parcel of the representative process, whereas it’s incompatible with a popular vote. However, even if a vote by representatives isn’t entirely comparable to a vote by the people, it still is somewhat comparable, and people arguing for a secret ballot in a general election will have to explain why their arguments don’t also apply to votes in parliament.
  • Open ballots, both in representative bodies and in general, force people to restrict themselves to preferences and arguments that they can justify to others. If you vote in a certain way, and are seen to be voting in a certain way, people will ask you why. And if you’re pressured to answer this question and to justify your vote (or voting intention), it’s a lot more difficult to be motivated, or to be seen to be motivated by self-interest only. Hence, the open ballot will make voters more sensitive to the general interest, which is a good thing. Also, this public justification tends to improve the quality of preferences, since people have to think about them, argue about them with others etc. That’s the logic of the marketplace of ideas.
  • And, finally, open ballots make electoral fraud a lot more difficult, if not impossible.

Obviously, not all of these advantages and disadvantages have the same importance, and they don’t make it instantly clear whether a secret or an open ballot should be preferred in principle. Much depends on the specific circumstances. For example, in a country with a lot of economic inequality and gender inequality, the case for a secret ballot for voters is relatively strong. In general, a mixed system is probably best. However, we don’t have such a mixed system at the moment. Most modern democracies strongly favor secret ballots, and seem to ignore the real problems resulting from such a system. I believe some more attention should be given to these problems and to possible solutions, which obviously doesn’t mean that we should go to the other extreme and deny people’s right to keep their opinions to themselves if they so wish. There can’t be a duty of free speech.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (24): What is the Marketplace of Ideas?

I’ve often invoked the metaphor of the marketplace of ideas to justify the right to free speech. (See these older posts). I think it’s useful to spell out in some more detail what the metaphor means, how far it goes and how it can bolster the right to free speech.

The point is this: ideas that can get themselves accepted in a competitive market of ideas will tend to be of better quality than other ideas. The marketplace of ideas therefore improves the quality of our ideas and our thinking. If different ideas are presented in an “ideas-market”, and if that market is populated by a maximum number of free agents expressing themselves freely, then those competing ideas will be exposed to a maximum number of supporting and dissenting arguments, and the balance of arguments in favor of or against an idea will be compared to the same balance for counter-ideas. The idea with the best balance will “survive”, because alternative ideas will be seen as comparatively defective, given the fact that the arguments in favor of them are weaker or the arguments against them are stronger.

It’s crucial that there is mass participation in the argumentation and deliberation going on in this market, since only mass participation will allow for the multiplication of possible arguments and alternative ideas. Hence, it’s also crucial that there’s a right to free speech and that everyone (or at least a large number of people) has and effectively exercises this right. This mass participation of free and expressive agents will improve the quality of ideas and of their supportive arguments even before the ideas reach the market: people who know that their ideas will meet probing and massive criticism will prepare themselves for this criticism, and this preparation means that they will preemptively develop supportive arguments and undermine opposing arguments. Hence, these ideas may even change and improve before they reach the market.

Exposing ideas to the test of the market doesn’t mean telling only your friends or your countrymen about them. Ideally, the market includes the whole of humanity; people who are close to you may share your biases and hence may not see the weakness of certain arguments or may not come up with the killer counter-argument. Another metaphor that can make this point somewhat clearer is the metaphor of perspectives: if you only look at a square from one side (or from one perspective) because no one told you that there’s another side or because in your group or culture it’s not common to suppose that there’s another side, you may not come to see that the square is actually a cube.

Without this massive and global participation of free speakers, many valuable points of view or perspectives will not be made public, and many valuable objections and counter-arguments will not be known to someone defending a certain thought or idea. This can diminish the quality of the thought or idea in question.

This ultimately global nature of the marketplace of ideas gives us not only a justification of the equal right to free speech, but also a justification of the universal right to free speech.

So, the marketplace of ideas shouldn’t be understood in purely economic or literal terms, as a place where ideas are “traded” or “sold”, or “produced” and “consumed”; that wouldn’t make any sense. Of course, the result of the marketplace of ideas is that some people “trade” their old ideas for other ideas because the marketplace has proven that some ideas are hard to defend. In some sense of the word, ideas – and alternative ideas – are “exchanged”, as are arguments for and against ideas, but they aren’t exchanged in an economic sense. Also, one can argue that ideas have a cost: it may have been very hard and therefore costly to establish the set of arguments in favor of a winning idea (the marketplace of ideas is a tough place); or it may be costly in terms of status to hold on to an idea that has been thoroughly debunked in the marketplace. In the end, however, it’s never advisable to take metaphors too far or to use economic thinking where it doesn’t belong.

One important caveat: none of this should lead to the conclusion that massive support for an idea automatically turns this idea into a good one. It’s not because many people have decided that an idea is strongly supported by the best arguments and that other ideas have failed, that they are right. Maybe the marketplace of ideas hasn’t worked properly, because some of the prerequisites aren’t there (massive participation, strong speech rights, an educated citizenry etc.). Maybe the popular assessment of the balance of arguments rests on nothing more than prejudice. If you insist you can call this a “market failure”.

Here’s a quote that nicely illustrates my point – it’s about scientific discourse but it applies generally:

Science works very well as a social process, when we can come together and find flaws in each other’s reasoning. We can’t find the problems in our own reasoning very well. But, that’s what other people are for, is to criticize us. And together, we hope the truth comes out. … [W]hen people reason on their own, they’re unable to arrive at a good solution, at a good belief, or to make a good decision because they will only confirm their initial intuition.

On the other hand, when people are able to discuss their ideas with other people who disagree with them, then the confirmation biases of the different participants will balance each other out, and the group will be able to focus on the best solution. Thus, reasoning works much better in groups. When people reason on their own, it’s very likely that they are going to go down a wrong path. But when they’re actually able to reason together, they are much more likely to reach a correct solution. (source)

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (26): Are False Beliefs Useful For Human Rights?

I would say yes, but only some. For example, if we go around and successfully propagate the theory that wrongdoers will burn in hell, then this may have a beneficial effect because fear may inculcate morality (as all deterrence theories about crime have to assume). Similarly, false beliefs about the efficacy of law enforcement and the honesty of law enforcement officials also help.

Many false beliefs about high levels of risk can produce risk-averse behavior which in fact lowers the risk and makes it more likely that human rights are protected. For example, if people wrongly believe that their privacy is threatened in certain circumstances, they will take action to secure their privacy and make their privacy more secure than it already was. (More about human rights and risk here).

Human equality – “all men are created equal” – is obviously a false belief when taken as a fact, and in the quote it is taken as such. People are born with different abilities, talents, endowments, advantages etc. And yet we act as if the phrase is more than just a moral imperative. It seems like it’s easier to convince people to treat each other as equals when we say that they are equals.

Certain forms of self-deception also seem to be beneficial from the point of view of human rights:

Self-deception … may be psychologically or biologically programmed. The psychological evidence indicates that self-deceived individuals are happier than individuals who are not self-deceived. … Lack of self-deception, in fact, is a strong sign of depression. (The depressed are typically not self-deceived, except about their likelihood of escaping depression, which they underestimate.) Individuals who feel good about themselves, whether or not the facts merit this feeling, also tend to achieve more. They have more self-confidence, are more willing to take risks, and have an easier time commanding the loyalty of others. Self-deception also may protect against a tendency towards distraction. If individuals are geared towards a few major goals (such as food, status, and sex), self-deception may be an evolved defense mechanism against worries and distractions that might cause a loss of focus. Tyler Cowen (source)

We can claim that, to some extent, happiness, self-confidence, achievement and risk taking are indicators of and/or conditions for the use of human rights. Happy and confident people who are willing to take risks are more likely to engage in public discourse, to vote, to associate and to exercise their human rights in other ways. If that’s true, and if there’s a link between happiness, confidence and self-deception, then self-deception is another example of a falsehood that is beneficial to human rights.

I could go on, and I also could, very easily, list several counter-examples of falsehoods that are detrimental to human rights (take the 72 virgins for instance, or communism). The point I want to make is another one: should we actively promote certain false beliefs because of their beneficial outcomes?

Most of us believe that there is something like a benevolent lie and that lying is the right thing to do in certain circumstances. A strict rule-based morality is hard to find these days. Few would go along with Kant who said that we shouldn’t lie when a murderer asks us about the whereabouts of his intended victim (“fiat justitia et pereat mundus“). People tend to think that the expected consequences of actions should to some extent influence actions and determine, again to some extent, the morality of actions (“to some extent” because another common moral intuition tells us that good consequences don’t excuse all types of actions; most of us wouldn’t accept the horrible torture of a terrorist’s baby in order to find the location of his bomb).

On the other hand, we should ask ourselves if such an enterprise, even if we deem it morally sound, is practically stable. Some false beliefs have proven to be vulnerable to scientific inquiry and public reasoning (hell could be one example). It’s not a good idea to build the system of human rights on such a weak and uncertain basis. But perhaps we should do whatever we can to promote respect for human rights, even if it’s not certain that our tactic is sustainable.

And yet, actively promoting falsehoods is in direct opposition to one of the main justifications of human rights, namely epistemological advances (I stated here what I mean by that). We would therefore be introducing a dangerous inconsistency in the system of human rights. We can’t at the same time promote the use of falsehoods and argue that we need human rights to improve thinking and knowledge. So we are then forced to promote the use of falsehoods in secret – which is necessary anyway because people will not believe falsehoods if we tell them that they are falsehoods – but thereby we introduce another inconsistency: human rights are, after all, about publicity and openness.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (21): Selfish Reasons for Respecting the Rights of Others

People usually have no problem acknowledging their own rights and demanding that others respect those rights. (I say “usually” because it’s not unheard of that people waive their rights. For example, some don’t want to live in a democracy). It’s the rights of others that are often a problem. One can try to foster benevolence, tolerance, mutual respect and humanitarianism as means to increase the level of respect for the rights of others, but perhaps that’s utopian, depending on your assessment of human nature. It’s true that the concept of human rights arose precisely because of deficiencies in human nature and an overall insufficiency of benevolence, tolerance etc.

So perhaps it’s better to try to find selfish reasons that may convince people to respect the rights of others. There’s a couple of those here:

  • To the extent that social stability and peaceful coexistence depend on some level of respect for certain human rights, and break down below that level, everyone has an interest in maintaining that level of respect. Massive and ongoing violations of certain human rights for a large enough subgroup of a population can cause social unrest that may ultimately affect the prosperity and security of all members of that population, including the violators.
  • I argued before (see here and here) that the optimal process for thinking and knowledge acquisition requires the free and public appearance of a maximum number of arguments for and against a theory or idea. Only those theories and ideas that survive this process will be of high quality. The multiplication of perspectives can, to some extent, be the result of solitary reflection (“imagination”) but is enhanced by the actual participation of others in the thinking process. It’s like you can’t know that a square shape is actually part of a cube rather than simply a square if you don’t look at it from all possible perspectives and if you don’t shine a “light” on all possible sides. Hence, if we assume that everyone has an interest in the quality of his or her own thinking and knowledge, then we can also safely assume that everyone has an interest in at least certain freedom rights being granted to a maximum number of other people (even people in other countries or cultures, since the marketplace of ideas should be extended as wide as possible in order to avoid national or cultural prejudice and to allow the appearance of unusual perspectives and arguments).
  • And then there’s reciprocity. If people cherish their own rights, it may be wise of them to cherish the rights of others, because they can reasonably hope for reciprocity: others will to some extent return the favor. Respecting the rights of others can encourage them to respect your own rights. Conversely, if you claim the right to deny the rights of others, that sets the precedent that someone might deny your rights. This reciprocity operates on several levels: it’s probably a basic social instinct to answer respect with respect; and you may hope for reciprocity because your own practice of respect for the rights of others has contributed to a general culture of human rights.
  • Aging populations in developed countries will need more immigrants to keep their economies going. Hence their economic self-interest will convince them to be more positive about the freedom of movement and association of potential immigrants, something which will also be beneficial for those immigrants’ right to a certain standard of living.
  • Some other selfish reasons to respect the rights of others may seem a bit far-fetched but not completely unlikely. For example, people have an interest in art and want to consume art. Hence, they must grant artists freedom of expression.

The big question here is obviously the weight of these selfish reasons to respect the rights of others. There are, after all, numerous selfish reasons for violating the rights of others (for example, discrimination, like dishonesty, is an important producer of profit for the discriminators). And those reasons can easily be considered more important than the reasons to act benevolently. We wouldn’t need to discuss human rights if things were any different because the “invisible hand” would have eradicated all rights violations. Still, I believe it’s useful to emphasize some of the selfish reasons to respect the rights of others because those are clearly not understood well enough most of the time. A proper understanding could at least make things better at the margin, and in some cases.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (20): Does Polarization Invalidate Freedom of Speech?

(Perhaps it’s best to read this post together with a previous one dealing with a similar topic).

One of the justifications of the right to free speech is an epistemological one: free, equal and massive participation in public discourse produces better decisions and opinions because it allows for

  • the appearance of a large number of arguments and perspective and
  • widespread criticism and examination of possible decisions and opinions.

Looking at possible decisions and opinions from a variety of perspectives and listening to a maximum number of critical arguments for and against, improves the quality of decisions and opinions. Freedom of speech is not, in theory, necessary for this improvement, since a single talented individual can, in isolation, imagine perspectives and counter-arguments. However, better than to trust the imagination and the limitless neutrality of an individual, it is better to use the resources of the crowd, and there is no better way to do that than to protect freedom of speech as an equal right for all. This idea has been called the marketplace of ideas.

An added advantage of involving the crowd in public discourse is that individuals will anticipate criticism and will therefore make better use of their imagination and improve their arguments even before entering the quality enhancing public discourse. (I’ve made a somewhat more profound version of this argument here).

Intuitively, one would expect that this marketplace of ideas, protected by freedom of speech, should result in some convergence: bad arguments and weakly argued opinions and decisions would lose support in public discourse, because they are publicly shown to be bad or weakly supported. The majority of people should then gravitate towards the better opinions. However, we often see the opposite, namely polarization, i.e. increasingly sharp divisions in society with groups having extreme opinions that are strongly held and that aren’t thoroughly examined. Often, the strength at which those opinions are held bears no relation to the strength of the arguments in favor of them. That’s the marketplace of ideas equivalent of harmful but popular products.

We then have to ask ourselves which of these two statements is true:

  • Polarization is the result of an insufficient or inefficient functioning of freedom of speech and public discourse. In which case we can hold on to our epistemological justification of that right.
  • Or polarization happens notwithstanding freedom of speech. In which case we seem to lose a possible justification for freedom of speech.

“Both” is probably the best answer. Freedom of speech facilitates public discourse and improves the quality of it, but only if it is used. If people decide not to use freedom of speech, and decide not to listen to opposing views or to argue with opponents, then this freedom can’t improve public discourse. Yet the absence of a proper use of this freedom does not invalidate the freedom itself. It does make it harder to justify this freedom as something beneficial. If many people don’t use freedom of speech to improve public discourse it becomes more difficult to argue that we should protect freedom of speech because it improves public discourse. And yet, this doesn’t undermine the theoretical or philosophical argument that freedom of speech can – in theory – improve public discourse. So the inherent desirability of free speech remains, even if the practical desirability is weak. (Note that there are other possible justifications for freedom of speech, some of which have nothing to do with the topic we’re discussing here).

Also, we often see that polarization is the result of an insufficient or inefficient functioning of freedom of speech and public discourse. Cass Sunstein, for example, wrote about the “law of group polarization” and showed that polarization is to some extent the result of exclusively intra-group deliberation (climate change deniers who discuss their views only with fellow-deniers tend to come out of these discussions with an even stronger version of their initial opinions).

And finally, we should be careful in our estimates of polarization. Some high profile cases of polarization can give the impression that polarization is rampant. But people disagree about the extent of polarization. It all depends what topic you’re dealing with, and things differ from country to country as well. Also, the political class can make polarization look more common than it is among the general population. If polarization isn’t as widespread as we think it is, then its impact on freedom of speech is also smaller.

More on polarization here.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (14): Does Confirmation Bias Invalidate Freedom of Speech?

Confirmation bias is the tendency of people to seek out evidence that is favorable to their original beliefs, and neglect evidence that is unfavorable. It’s a form of self-deception that we all suffer from, to a different extent, and that leads us to stick with our original beliefs rather than review them, even if a whole lot of contrary evidence is available. We just seem to be very good at ignoring it and focus on other, confirming evidence, even if the quality of this other evidence is dubious. The “stickiness” of beliefs resulting from confirmation bias is in turn an important cause of polarization of beliefs, the “dialogue of the deaf” style of political discourse, and “gladiator politics“.

Now, why is there confirmation bias? We all value consistency in our identity and self-image, and are afraid to acknowledge mistakes, especially regarding values or facts that are and have been for decades the foundation of our identity. We want to feel good about our “original” and fundamental views and affiliations. If our views are intertwined with our group affiliations, then the elements of group pride and loyalty also promote confirmation bias and our disregard of evidence that contradicts our views. It’s then not only our views that are at stake, but also our sense of belonging and the future of our group. Suppose evidence is found that Jesus Christ could never have lived. If we, as Christians, disregard this evidence, taint it or reinterpret it, then we are able to keep feeling good about ourselves and our previous thinking – we feel like consistent human beings with reasonable thinking powers and without a strong propensity to error – but we are also able to support the continued existence of our group, and that’s important for the wellbeing not only of ourselves but of millions of people. Our pride in our belonging, our identity and reasoning powers, as well as our loyalty to the other members of our group are powerful forces that produce confirmation bias. Patriotism and nationalism can also be seen in this light.

How does this relate to freedom of speech? This human right is often justified by and grounded in the argument that the public and equal appearance of a maximum number of viewpoints and arguments for and against something enhances the quality of thinking, much like the observance of a physical object from different angles yields a better understanding and knowledge of that object. It’s the famous concept of the “marketplace of ideas” where opinions have to enter the struggle of competition, review and criticism. These opinions are then either rejected or they come out better at the other end. The same idea justifies democracy because democracies – ideally – use freedom of speech to find and test the best policies and laws. Equal participation of a maximum number of citizens should then guarantee the same market processes. (More on that here, here and here).

That, of course, is an ideal. In reality, we see that even in free societies public discourse is often – but not always – far removed from the search for truth and improved thinking that should characterize it. Confirmation bias is one of the causes of the distance between reality and ideal because it inhibits the public examination of viewpoints and arguments. Propaganda, dysfunctional media, inept institutions, group pressure, vote buying, disregard of expert views, irrational behavior, deliberate polarization etc. are other causes. But here I’ll focus on confirmation bias.

At first glance, confirmation bias seems to undermine the whole “epistemological justification” – if I may call it that – of free speech and democracy. The more information there is (thanks to free speech), the more likely that people can just pick those pieces of information that confirm their biases, and I understand the word “information” in a broad sense, not just including facts but theories and arguments as well, however “wild” they are. So freedom of speech seems to be more like a bad thing, when viewed in this light.

However, in order to know if something is really bad you have to imagine what would happen if it went away. Without freedom of speech, the appearance of new and conflicting evidence is much less likely, and hence it’s more likely that people stick to their biased and pre-existing beliefs. Freedom of speech doesn’t promote confirmation bias, but doesn’t eliminate it either. People have to do that for themselves. However, freedom of speech gives people the tools to combat confirmation bias, if they are so inclined. And therefore freedom of speech is neither invalidated nor validated by confirmation bias.