What does a broad conception of free speech actually look like?

In my last post I argued against narrow, legalistic conceptions of free speech. In doing so I implicitly endorse a broader conception. What does that broader conception actually look like? My intuitions say something like this:

In the public sphere:

  • As an employer, never let an applicants ethics or politics influence your decision to hire them.
  • As an employee, never let your employers ethics or politics influence your decision to work for them.
  • As a consumer, never let a firm’s ethics or politics influence your decision to purchase from them.

My thoughts on the private sphere are more hazy and uncertain:

  • Politics is not the sum of a person. Don’t hate those with different beliefs nor try to exclude them from your social circles.
  • Don’t try to narrow the intellectual horizons of other people or manipulate them into believing what you believe. Manipulation includes lying but also extends to not telling others arguments you don’t find persuasive but think they would.

These norms are extensive and some of them, like the one about employees not discriminating against employers, are uncommon and deserve an article of their own. Still I think that it’s not really these specific intuitions or rules that are important. They’re just my rules and I could well be wrong. What’s important is the underlying principle which goes something like this: “A free society is one where people can hold any view they choose and speak as they wish without fear of reprisals”. My general litmus test for any behaviour is whether that behaviour universalised would lead to a society which is more or less free. If it’s the latter, there needs to be a damm good justification for it. Not being able to find employment if you have the wrong beliefs is coercive and an unjust restriction on speech. Not being able to found or lead a company if you have the wrong beliefs is also an unjust, coercive restriction both for the individual and for the belief-holders as a group because they are denied economic power. Ditto for a hundred other things we consider normal and acceptable but shouldn’t.


  • Conflicts with the individual freedom we believe people should have. Strongly so in the private sphere, you shouldn’t have to socialise with Nazi’s if you don’t want to, and more weakly in the private sphere, shouldn’t have to buy from regressive leftists if you don’t want to.
  • The general anti-open-society argument. Open societies lead to bad ideas and norms spreading. We should choose norms we like and enforce them. Not through violence but through social coercion.

Against legalistic conceptions of free speech

I think back to the day I met my girlfriend. We talked about free speech. Someone said that as long as the law does not punish speech, there is free speech. I disagreed. If social norms punish speech, if saying the wrong thing makes it impossible to have a career or home or family, then there is no free speech. 

Imagine a society. There are three political factions, the 1’s, the 2’s and the 3’s. There are no legal restrictions on speech but there is a strong social taboo against supporting 3. If you publicly support 3, others will choose not to associate with you. Employer’s won’t hire you. If you have a job, you’ll be passed over for promotion or fired if you choose to talk about why you like 3 in the workplace, despite talking about liking 1 or 2 being fine. Talking about 3 may even mean your children are taken away, not because talking about 3 is illegal but because it indicates you’re a bad person and likely can’t be a good parent. It may even mean your family disowns you, no one will marry you and no magazine, paper or journal will publish your work. Is this society free? Does it have freedom of speech? The answer is no and the absence of laws discriminating against believers in 3 doesn’t change that.

A society with perfect freedom of speech is one where people are free to speak their minds. A society with perfect freedom of religion is one where people may worship whatever gods they wish. A society with perfect freedom of association is one where people can spend or not spend time with whoever they wish. If people are less free to do these things, then their society has less of that freedom. Whether the restriction is enforced through the institutions of the state or through social norms is not relevant. Both are ways the collective controls the individual.*


  • There is a conflict between people’s freedom to associate with who they wish and other people’s freedom of speech.
  • State restrictions on speech are clear. What social norms constitute restrictions, less so. Does any norm which makes speech more (socially) costly reduce free speech?

A code makes you free

Living and dying by an ethical code makes you free. We are all constrained by those around us. By the web of social norms and expectations and the punishments for breaking them. Most people are simple and respond to incentives predictably. If doing something will cause more pain than pleasure, they avoid it. If the reverse is true, they seek it out.* All societies are different and some allow more and some less freedom. Still, even the most liberal societies force compliance with a range of norms. From what you can and cannot say to how to dress to how and when to sleep. Since material incentives are omnipresent, there is only one path to true freedom. Living by a code.

When you decide to do what is right, regardless of the costs to you, you are free. You’re free from social control and manipulation. From the laws and norms which punish dissent. You’re free from nature’s coercion, from the dark part of your mind telling you to gain status and power, to be a good mate and create a good life for your children.


  • An absolute code of ethics is both freeing and binding. It frees you from worldly constraints and the manipulations and coercions of the tribe. If binds you much more tightly to a set of moral rules which may well be more constraining than any society. I still think that embracing a code of ethics means eventually becoming it and at that point it no longer binds you any more than you being you binds you. Still, this is my view and your may differ.

*(Simplistic. It’s not the balance that matters, it’s the relative utility of the option compared to other available courses of action. People will choose to suffer when they other choices only promise more suffering)**

**(Still simplistic. People aren’t utility monsters. Most people do assign weight to their moral preferences, they just assign less weight to them than I would like.)

The good man is more dangerous than the egoist

A person who is driven by self-interest is only so dangerous. They cannot give their life to inflict harm on their enemies. The main benefit of harming your enemies is deterring future aggression. That deterrence means nothing if you are dead.

A person who is driven by communal interest is more dangerous. They can give their life to harm their enemies. Even if they die, their community, their family, their tribe will benefit from their sacrifice. Still, they can be controlled. If they community faces reciprocation or is held hostage, they can do nothing.

A person driven by ethics alone is the most dangerous. They can do anything. Their life means nothing if the alternative is giving in to evil. The wellbeing of their community means nothing. The only thing that matters is doing what is right. There is no way to control them. A man person driven purely by ethics is a person who has risen above the material world and achieved pure free will.


  • Communally interested people are more dangerous collectively because they make strong communities and strong communities are more powerful than even the strongest individuals

Don’t attack policies/ideas because of what they symbolise

(Epistemic Status: Uncertain. Many obvious counterarguments. At best a general rule with many, many exceptions)

In debating a few years ago there was a controversy over gender pronouns. At the start of a debate speakers introduce themselves. For example, the first speaker would say something like “I’m Bob, speaking first”. The British and American contingent in the world debating council pushed for gender pronoun introductions, meaning speakers would also say what their preferred pronoun was. There was a backlash with many non-anglo nations objecting. What happened next isn’t important. What is important is that those objecting to the policy made a fundamental mistake. Instead of objecting to what they actually didn’t agree with, creeping liberal bias and imposition of western far-left norms on debating, they objected to what they a visible symbol of those things and the faction that pushed them. This was wrong, both morally and tactically.

If there is something you think is wrong, it is usually good to attack that thing rather than other things tangentially associated with it. (We usually associate policies when they are proposed by the same faction or seem to be from the same political ideology). The original policy you disagree with probably has flaws and you can explain rationally and clearly why you think it’s bad. On the other hand, the related policy may well be good ideas and by attacking it you stop a good thing from coming to pass, make yourself look like an idiot and waste time and political capital on a hard target when a soft one is readily available. Don’t do it. You’re choosing to loose. You’re also contributing to the problem of ideas being judged by which side supports them rather than on their utility.

The general principle: Judge ideas on their own merits.

Blood like Water

I met a girl at work who wanted to join the reserves. When I asked her why, she talked about why it was good for her. Why she would enjoy the challenge. Why the skills would be useful. She never once mentioned serving the greater good. I told her that by joining she could be called into active service at any time, as many were during the Iraq war, and required to kill or die. She hadn’t considered it.

Looking back, what’s shocking is not the lack of thought and research that went into such a serious decision. It’s the amorality. Being a soldier means being a warrior. It means taking life. Even in a non-frontline role, what you are doing will kill. Translate the right enemy communication and an airstrike hits a house with enemy fighters. Give your troops better intelligence and they kill the enemy better. What’s chilling is the amorality, the fact that the decision to kill was made so lightly and based entirely on self interest.

I can understand people with different morals. I can respect them, even if I find their ethics objectionable or even evil. What I can never respect is a person without morals. Anyone willing to spill blood like water without a second thought, without any consideration of the moral weight of that decision, is a person who is not just.

Two kinds of bad people

There are two kinds of bad people. There are people who are bed because they lack morals. There are people who are bad because they have the wrong morals. They are very different.

Most people who are bad are bad because they lack morals. Criminals. Drug dealers. Thieves. Etc.. These people don’t do bad things out of a genuine belief that stealing or hurting others is the right thing to do. They do it because they do not have morals and/or because they are too weak to live by their morals. They may well have circumstantial justifications for their crimes but these are usually paper think and only serve as rationalisations. These people are like animals. They respond to simple stimuli: pleasure and pain. Hurt them when they do evil and they will stop. Establish dominance over them and make them fear you and you will have peace. If you’re faithful try to change them but  changing peoples character is hard.

Some people who are bad are bad because their morals are evil. Jihadi’s. Ideological killers. Etc… They do evil knowingly and willingly, believing it to be good. They differ from the average criminal. The criminals motivation is selfish. The ideologically motivated evildoers is not and some will be willing to pay for their beliefs with their lives if that’s what it takes. Hence dealing with them is a different matter. Force alone is seldom sufficient and bloodshed alone can’t kill an idea.

That’s a lie. It can and has. The soviets killed whole peoples. The mongols put Baghdad to the sword. The CCP smothered Falun Gong. If you’re willing to be brutal enough, to spill enough blood, you can certainly kill an idea. Modern democratic states are not so that option isn’t worth discussion. (And for those who think it is, remember that a state which can liquidate millions of it’s citizens at will may well be more horrific than whatever ideology/group you personally dislike.)

I don’t know what else to say so I won’t. One other thing. It’s not discrete. Most things aren’t. It’s a scale and many monsters will fall somewhere in the middle. Still, I’ve found the model useful.