Often, the most intellectually challenging issues of moral philosophy are not right vs. wrong but right vs. right: how do we balance conflicting interests when rights collide? This article from Philosophy Now (UK) considers free speech vs. protections against hate speech.
"In this era of growing ethno-nationalism and xenophobia in Europe and America, and indeed, worldwide, debates over hate speech are intensifying. Decent people argue that the terrifying rhetoric of extreme right wing groups online and on the streets – and escalating confrontations – demonstrate the necessity of hate speech laws. Supporters of freedom of speech have responded that the non-coercive speech of all should be protected – including the free speech of racists, neo-Nazis, and bigots. In diverse liberal societies, they argue, it is inconsistent for the state, or even powerful social media platforms such as Facebook, to protect some expressions of ideas while banning others merely because some groups object to it. It is also likely, they argue, that hate speech laws or bans can be weaponized against their advocates, such that polemical ideas by minority activists or leftist radicals can also be prohibited when their right-wing or authoritarian enemies turn hate speech prohibitions to their own advantage.
The stalemated debate between these two positions suggests a sort of ‘incommensurability of values’ that Isaiah Berlin once wrote about – between liberty on the one side and human dignity and civic equality on the other. They’re all prized and recognized to have tremendously beneficial consequences when realized in law and in custom. Yet an increase in free speech often involves some diminishing of dignity. Freedom for the swaggering bully takes away equality and dignity for those at the bottom of the playground pecking order. Conversely, enforcing equality and respect for dignity involves some diminishment in liberty. The would-be bully keeps his thoughts and urges to himself, but perhaps so do many others, as the vigilant headmistress casts her shadow over a quieter, seemingly more egalitarian playground.
I want to suggest that a compromise between freedom and dignity over the problem of hate speech might be possible. My approach is inspired by a philosophy called perfectionism. Perfectionists typically hold that there are objective values or goods whose promotion contributes to morally valuable ways of life, nurturing the ‘better angels’ of human nature; and also that objective moral value means some ways of life are more valuable than others. Many (but not all) moral perfectionists think that the state has a role in promoting the better ways of life by passing legislation and distributing resources to enhance different goods or promote different values, in areas such as welfare, education, the arts and sciences, employment, and civic morality. For such perfectionists, laws against hate speech make sense in terms of promoting more mutually-respectful ways of living in diverse societies."
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