Conservatives are false friends of free speech

True friends of free speech support the first amendment even when they’re deeply offended.

Desert Botanical Gardens, Phoenix, Arizona. Arizona. © Dave DuBay

I’ve been an ardent supporter of free speech since high school when I first became interested in politics.

In the 1980s free speech was considered a liberal issue. Conservatives—especially the Christian Right—frequently tried to ban books. Even Judy Blume novels.

The left wing free speech movement, however, which was born at the University of California Berkeley in the 1960s, died at Berkeley in 2017.

Free speech becomes a conservative issue

Today it’s not uncommon for people to think I’m a conservative because I support free speech. I’m neither conservative nor liberal/progressive.

With progressives disinviting not only conservative speakers but even centrist or left of center freethinkers—and others shouting down anyone they disagree with rather than engaging in thoughtful dialogue—conservatives have been vocal about the importance of free speech.

Meanwhile, progressives have increasingly argued against free speech. It’s popular to claim that hate speech is not free speech. But that only shows progressives’ ignorance of the first amendment.

Free speech is a guarantee that you will be offended. So expect it. Deal with it. You’re an adult.

And remember, defending free speech doesn’t mean you agree with what’s being said. You can’t agree with everyone, but you can defend everyone’s right to free speech.

Yelling fire in a crowded theatre

People also like to repeat the cliche that you can’t yell fire in a crowded theatre. This comes from Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ 1919 opinion in Schenk v. United States.

But Justice Holmes was wrong. Schenk was a challenge to the Sedition Act of 1918 which made protesting US involvement in World War I illegal. Many socialists, including Eugene Debs, were thrown in prison for anti-war protests.

The first amendment does indeed protect public opposition to war and criticism of the government in general.

Besides, being anti-war is in no way comparable to yelling fire in a crowded theatre. And if you did yell fire then your crime isn’t what you yelled but rather the bodily harm you caused to people who subsequently panicked.

You hurt my feelings

Progressives today, however, defend the “yelling fire” argument by claiming that free speech hurts their feelings, and therefore speech (and even open dialogue) is violence even when no bodily harm occurs.

These are the same people who wonder why they can’t win elections.

More to the point, you’re contradicting yourself if you support the “yelling fire” argument while also supporting Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem. Kaepernick has hurt many people’s feelings, and that’s the same as violence according to progressives and their predecessor, Justice Holmes.

But progressives only oppose speech they disagree with. They quickly abandon their alleged principles when someone says something they agree with.

And so conservatives hold themselves up as paragons of American liberty.

Not so fast

As it turns out, conservatives also support free speech only when they agree with what’s being said and abandon their principles when someone says something they disagree with.

It’s as wrong to say Ann Coulter should be deplatformed as it is to say NFL players who kneel during the national anthem should be fired.

Are you offended when football players kneel? Get over it. Free speech means you will be offended from time to time.

But it gets worse. Republicans control all three branches of government. The first amendment doesn’t apply to private universities or companies like Google even if ethically they have a responsibility to uphold American values like free speech.

After all, free speech is the cornerstone of human rights. Without it all other human rights are at risk.

Government officials and agencies, however, are legally bound by the first amendment. Yet President Trump called for the FCC to revoke NBC’s license because he doesn’t like what the media says. To its credit the FCC rebuked the president. Revoking NBC’s license would be unconstitutional and unAmerican.

That the most powerful conservative in the world—Donald Trump—is so disdainful of free speech, American liberty, and the United States Constitution—and that so few conservative proponents of free speech chose to denounce Trump—shows that conservatives are false friends of free speech.

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Morality without deities

Everyone believes they have rights. But individual rights crumble without universal human rights.

Near Phoenix, Arizona. © Dave DuBay

The universe, or nature if you prefer, seems indifferent to me.

Species evolve then die out. And things go on.

An animal eats another animal alive, at great suffering to one and benefit to the other.

Millions of human beings have lived and died but today are completely forgotten as if they never lived.

Yet, human beings evolved a set of behaviors that enhance the survival of individuals who depend in part on the group to survive.

Those who did not play well with others in the evolutionary environment found themselves ostracized — and perhaps unable to survive without the group. And the group killed some for being a threat to other people’s survival.

Our innate moral sensibilities, in order of importance, are:

  1. You shouldn’t do that to me.
  2. You shouldn’t do that to people I care about.
  3. I shouldn’t do that to you if others will hold me accountable.

We’re first and foremost concerned about what happens to us, and how we treat others is often an afterthought — especially if we think there won’t be any consequences.

This sounds cynical and selfish. But everyone is self-interested. Those who deny this are the most dangerous of all because they fail to see their selfishness until it’s too late.

But just because selfishness is part of our evolutionary inheritance does not mean things ought to be this way. The fact that we can do better challenges excuses for acting selfishly.

Further, morality isn’t just a matter of personal preference. It’s true that no man is an island — even a hermit needs other people to survive.

An important aspect of morality, then, consists of standards generally accepted by a group for continued membership in that group.

And the recognition that we are incorrigibly egotistical is necessary to see the larger group picture.

That’s why various iterations of the Golden Rule — from the Far East to the West — tell us to treat others the way we want to be treated.

It’s a moral ideal precisely because it runs counter to our impulses.

The problem, however, is that a group might oppress a minority or an out-group without negative consequences. Tribalism is also an evolved feature of human behavior, and it has serious consequences for our treatment of foreigners, minorities, and so on.

On what basis can say this is wrong?

If our primary moral sensibility is that “you shouldn’t do this to me” then the rights of the individual are the basis for all human rights.

To put it selfishly, if you don’t support human rights for others then you have no reason to expect others to support your human rights.

Moreso, culture is the mechanism for promoting ideals such as universal human rights.

If limiting ourselves to our biological inheritance were sufficient then we’d still be living in caves. But we are capable of creating technology that improves our lives and reduces the capricious effects of nature.

Likewise for culture extending moral ideals beyond our selfish impulses.

Still, we cannot completely eliminate tribalism. But we know we’re failing when we point a finger at others.

Abortion & the limits of personhood

Personhood is an abstract concept. Most people’s concerns are mundane.

© Dave DuBay

The National Review ran a thought provoking article about abortion and the limits of the personhood argument.

In a nutshell, pro-choice advocates typically say a fetus is not a person while pro-life advocates say a fetus is a person.

The assumption is that personhood equals rights, and this is central for the right to choose or the right to life.

Philosophy professor Berny Belvedere summarizes the arguments of Judith Jarvis Thomson and Don Marquis, siding with the latter. Thomson argues that abortion is morally permissible even if a fetus is a person while Marquis argues abortion is immoral even if a fetus is not a person.

Thomson seems to view a fetus as a foreign imposition on a woman’s body, so even if a fetus is a person abortion still could be justified as a type of self-defense.

Marquis argues that killing in general is wrong because it robs someone of their future. This future is actual, not potential, because the future will unfurl unless someone intervenes. Fetuses, even if they’re not persons, also have futures. Therefore, abortion is no different from murder.

Belvedere addresses some objections to Marquis’ argument. Is killing a bug wrong? No, because qualitatively a bug doesn’t have a future in the same sense as a human being. Is euthanasia wrong? Belvedere concedes it is not (within this framework, at least) because the dying person has no future.

This is rather abstract, and I think it helps to bring it down to concrete cases:

  • What about rape or incest? Thomson’s view that a fetus is a foreign imposition seems strong here. Marquis’ position is less tenable. An abortion robs the fetus of its future. But disallowing an abortion robs the rape victim of her future (even though she’s still alive).
  • What about the mother’s life being in danger? Avoiding the truncation of someone’s future is impossible here, so who decides if the fetus’s future takes precedence—the woman or the government
  • What if the mother isn’t financially or emotionally ready for motherhood? The argument that she’ll still have a future—but it will be greatly altered—applies here too (though it’s weaker).
  • What if there are no extenuating circumstances, the mother is entirely capable of motherhood, but just doesn’t feel like having a baby? The fetus as a foreign imposition could still be used, though it may sound callous or selfish. And because an abortion would clearly diminish the fetus’s future more than the woman’s future, Marquis’ argument seems to be stronger.

But the personhood debate is unlikely to settle the abortion debate. What is personhood? How do we define it? Can we achieve consensus on this definition? What about those who fail to meet that definition or lose personhood status?

I’m pro-choice because ultimately I think our most intimate choices belong to us and not to the government.

Rights are things that belong to us—our opinions, speech, religion (or lack thereof), our bodies, our property, etc.—and government serves two primary roles regarding this.

First, our rights limit government. Our rights tell government what it can’t do. For example, the Bill of Rights says things like, “Congress shall make no law…”

Second, government must protect our rights against those who refuse to recognize other people’s equal rights. That’s why the government can lock you up for stealing other people’s stuff.

But what do we do when alleged rights conflict?

Obamacare mandates that insurance cover birth control for women (but not men), and that employers buy insurance for their employees.

Religious business owners, however, say forcing them to provide birth control coverage violates their religious rights.

Many women, on the other hand, say they have a right to birth control.

Women’s right to use birth control is not being attacked, however. The question is who pays for it. But there’s no right to have someone buy something for you.

But if your religion prohibits you from getting mixed up with birth control then you have the right not to be forced into an action you disagree with.

While conservatives will likely agree with me on problems of the birth control mandate—and progressives will likely become irate—the same framework leads me to conclude that abortion is a woman’s choice because the government cannot compel her to act in a way that is not of her choosing.

A final aside. What if scientists invent an artificial womb and can extract a fetus in a manner no more invasive that an abortion? Safe haven laws already allow women (but not men) to walk away from parenthood with no legal or financial repercussions.

In such a case, could a woman end her pregnancy but have no legal right to say whether the fetus will be destroyed or implanted in an artificial womb? My answer is that the woman would have no more right than the doctor to decide the fetus’s fate.

Nietzsche vs Stoicism

Stoics talk a lot about living according to nature. But what exactly does that mean?

In Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche calls the Stoic phrase “according to nature” a fraud of words.

He writes that living according to nature and living according to life are the same thing. And he rhetorically asks, “how could you do differently?”

It’s a good question. Human beings are products of nature. Evolution produced the human brain, which is the basis for human behavior. So human behavior follows the laws of nature just as rocks follow gravity.

Saying human behavior is natural doesn’t mean it’s good or bad. Bad things are a product of nature just as much as good things are.

When someone says something isn’t natural—take cannibalism for example—they really mean that’s it’s morally wrong.

But that’s the naturalistic fallacy—incorrectly assuming that whatever is natural must be good. Nietzsche claims Stoicism falls into the naturalistic fallacy.

Further, he says Stoics wish to dictate their morals and ideals to nature. That is, Stoics are creating the world in their own image, which is not only arrogant but self-tyranny.

This self-tyranny is found in the Stoic call to regard anything that neither contributes to nor detracts from virtue as a preferred or dispreferred indifferent.

Nietzsche writes that to live is to resist indifference. Living is “valuing, preferring, being unjust, being limited, endeavouring to be different.” He says Stoics imagine that indifference is power, but he doubts anyone can truly live in accordance with indifference.

I’ve described my philosophy as having many features of Stoicism—particularly acknowledging that I have no control over (but sometimes can influence) external events.

But referencing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I disagree that being a good person is sufficient for human flourishing. Needs such as food, water, shelter, and safety are also essential for happiness.

That is, I find Stoic talk about preferred and dispreferred indifferents to be unrealistic for most people (myself included).

A lost receipt, and loss of perspective

Sedona, Arizona

There was a missing receipt at work, and administration was frantically looking for it. At first I insisted I didn’t have it. But it turns out I had misplaced it. The receipt was on my desk—in the wrong pile—the whole time. Once I found it I turned it in and apologized.

But I felt embarrassed and feared that my coworkers would think I’m untrustworthy. Really this is a fear of social rejection. And the thought of rejection causes muscle tension and a faster heart beat.

At its worst, contemplating thoughts of social rejection can spiral to overgrown scenarios of conflict with others and an unmet need for approval.

Staying outwardly calm is the stereotypical stoic response. But it’s not a philosophically Stoic response—just like painting a rotting piece of wood covers the problem but doesn’t repair it.

How could I have handled this better? First there’s the acknowledgement that I have no control over the past. I can’t un-misplace the receipt, and I can’t un-speak my denial that I had it. Turning the receipt in did mean possible judgment from my coworkers (though this didn’t happen), but I have no control over their judgments.

Knowing I did the right thing by turning it in and apologizing should be sufficient for my peace of mind. The only things left are making a plan to keep better track of my receipts in the future, and reflecting on my spiraling thought process as the source of my distress.

Dreaming of handguns

The other night I dreamt I was in an office. There was a locked glass door, and if someone buzzed to get in I could push a button that would open the door.

I heard it buzz, but no one was at the door. Instead a cart that looked something like a rectangular skateboard was rolling toward the door. The cart had a box on it. This seemed odd to me.

I thought maybe I shouldn’t open the door. But whoever set the cart in motion wanted the cart in the office, and I didn’t want to disappoint that person.

So I opened the door. I took the lid off the box that was on the cart. Inside was a handgun. I knew that in the office there was another box that had several guns in it, so I picked up the handgun and put it with the other guns.

I decided it was no big deal. But then the police arrived looking for a man who just killed someone. I realized that the gun must be the murder weapon, and now my prints were on it because I touched it.

Book review: How to Be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci

Sedona, Arizona

If you’re interested in the philosophy of Stoicism, Massimo Pigliucci’s How to Be a Stoic is the place to start. Don’t let the fact that it’s philosophy stop you – Pigliucci’s conversational, straightforward writing style makes Stoicism easily accessible.

Donald Robertson’s Stoicism and the Art of Happiness is also a good introduction. But while Robertson is more detailed on the the finer points of Stoicism, Pigliucci focuses on general concepts.

If you like what you read from Pigliucci then read Robertson next. The reason I put William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy third is that Irvine modifies Stoicism somewhat – and being a philosophy rather than a religion you can do that. But to understand Irvine’s perspective it helps first to have a good understanding of Stoicism.

And if you’re still with us after these books then it’s time to delve directly into Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and other classical writers.

But back to Pigliucci. He describes Stoicism as a philosophy that

is not about suppressing or hiding emotions – rather, it is about acknowledging our emotions, reflecting on what causes them, and redirecting them for our own good. It is about keeping in mind what is and what is not under our control, focusing our efforts on the former and not wasting them on the latter. It is about practicing virtue and excellence and navigating the world to the best of our abilities, while being mindful of the moral dimension of all our actions.

Throughout the book Pigliucci uses anecdotes to illustrate Stoic ideas. He lucidly explains Epictetus’s Enchiridion and Discourses, often framing it as a conversation between Epictetus and himself. But Pigliucci never overdoes it. The effect makes Stoicism feel more like a way of life than abstract musings.

For example, at one point Pigliucci paraphrases Epictetus as saying to him, “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.”

Pigliucci saves the best for last. Chapter fourteen, “Practical Spiritual Exercises,” provides the reader with twelve actions we can undertake daily so we can actually practice Stoicism rather than just read about it.

But before he details these twelve actions he provides a succinct summary of Stoic philosophy (pages 204 and 205):

  • “Virtue is the highest good, and everything else is indifferent” because “nothing is to be traded against virtue.”
  • “Follow nature. That is, apply reason to social life.”
  • “Dichotomy of control. Some things are under our control, and others are not (though we may be able to influence them).”

And the four cardinal virtues of Stoicism:

  • “(Practical) wisdom: Navigating complex situations in the best available fashion.”
  • “Courage: Doing the right thing, both physically and morally, under all circumstances.”
  • “Justice: Treating every human being – regardless of his or her stature in life – with fairness and kindness.”
  • “Temperance: Exercising moderation and self-control in all spheres of life.”