The satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which has a history of making satirical caricatures of Muhammad, was attacked by Islamic extremists on January 7th 2015, thus leaving 12 killed and 11 injured.
Currently as I am writing the article there are on-going developments on the event from which I shall refrain myself from commenting on too quickly. The central focus of the conversation here and now is freedom of speech.
Due to the nature of Charlie Hebdo’s publication, as well as the nature of the attacks, various communities of people have gone on to argue that religious tolerance infringes freedom of speech. However, we must ask what is freedom of speech? Let us not be rash about asking questions and answering them, for this shall be the central one and not the first one to tackle. It is fundamental that we ask the question “What is freedom?” before we ask anything else; whereas in terms of understanding speech, it can simply be regarded as expression and communication of ideas. Thus, what is freedom?
It would be incorrect to reduce freedom to be “[the ability] to satisfy more of our desires” (Robert Kane, A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will, Chapter 1.2). Defining “freedom” is not an easy task, for it is, in fact, part of a quite elaborate metaphysical discourse in philosophy. This definition of freedom which is inadequate, nonetheless, presents to us “surface freedoms” which, in fact, imply the more complex and the more metaphysical freedom of which philosophers argue themselves to death over. So, when we are talking about our political and economic freedoms in our society, we are implying that we have this fundamental notion of freedom. However, we haven’t answered the question yet, what is freedom?
Briefly, I shall survey the notions and characteristics of metaphysical freedom that philosophers have managed to establish to some degree; this is merely a survey and many of these statements will remain unsupported by an argument. For a more detailed introduction to the free will debate, my recommendations would be Richard Taylor’s Metaphysics and Robert Kane’s book which I cited above.
If we imply that we have freedom of this fundamental sense, then we are committing to other ideas that are intimately tied with the freedom of the will. These ideas include and are not limited to: the ability to do otherwise, open futures and alternative possibilities, agents of action, and moral responsibility. Our metaphysical notion of freedom highly relies on the notion that it is up to us to decide what we are going to do next, for instance, we deliberate about our choices. I only deliberate about my own behaviour, not someone else’s. I can only deliberate about future things, never about the past or the present. I cannot deliberate about what I shall do if I already know what I am going to do. And I can only deliberate if I grant that it is up to me to act (Richard Taylor, Metaphysics 4th edition, Chapter 5.4). Granted, in this process of deliberation, I find that I have options of what I can go on to do; I have access to alternate possibilities for an undetermined future. It is up to be to decide how the future will unfold – it is up to me. And thus, we begin to shed light at the intimate relationship between freedom and responsibility.
Moral responsibility, our laws, our notions of blame and praise, highly imply that there is someone to praise or blame (a subject or self) and that this someone is capable of acting and doing other than they choose to – Essentially, moral responsibility implies that we are not determined by other circumstances, for otherwise, why would we blame or praise anyone? Both blame and praise are attitudes that are directed towards someone by implying that they legitimately played a role in what they did. If we talk about freedom of speech, we fundamentally end up with responsibility of speech. However, in answering the question of what freedom is, freedom is the ability for oneself to act more than one way, all of which are compromised by responsibility.
Though there is much more than can be said about the argument of free will and the responses from the determinist, compatibilist, and indeterminist views, we lack the time and space here to address it. Now that we have arrived at the notion of responsibility which is closely tied to freedom, I intend to make a critique of how we talk of freedom of speech.
The on-going debates for freedom of speech emphasize the notion that this freedom should not be infringed and that we should be able to satisfy the desire of saying and expressing whatever we want to say and express. However, this debate neglects the responsibility that comes from our actions and inactions. To begin with, if we have this sort of freedom which we assume we have in order to have freedom of speech, then freedom cannot be infringed, it can only be met by responsibility regardless of whether it is praise or blame. There is plenty of blame to go around.