Bryan Caplan  

Voltaire Reconsidered

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Voltaire never actually said, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."  But Voltaire would probably embrace this line - just like legions of other smart, well-meaning people.  Interpreted poetically, it's a sublime human rights slogan.  But interpreted literally, the Voltairean maxim is rather silly.  Let's walk through its flaws step by step. 

Suppose for starters that you know for sure that X is true.   Unfortunately, X is so unpopular that loudly asserting your right to say X inevitably gets you killed.  Question: Should you make a point of loudly asserting your right to say X?  Probably not.  You can do so much with the gift of life.  Why is asserting the right to say X so much more important that everything else you'll experience and accomplish by remaining alive? 

Sure, you can devise hypotheticals where courting death by asserting the right to say X is an admirable choice.  Maybe standing up for the right to say X will, via your death, save many innocent lives, or replace an awful tyranny with something much better.  Maybe you only have ten minutes left to live, and want to go out with a noble bang.  Except in such unusual circumstances, however, throwing your life away to speak a few forbidden words seems not only imprudent, but wrong.  Any true friend would beg you to come to your senses and shut your piehole.

Now consider: If standing up for your own right to utter truth X is a grave mistake, why is standing up for someone else's right to do the same any better?  Indeed, common sense morality says you have only modest obligations to help perfect strangers in dire need.  Why then should you assume a blanket obligation to die in defense of strangers' rights to speak when they could easily remain silent?

Notice: So far, I've assumed that dangerous-to-say claim X is definitely true.  Question: Should you be more willing to suffer on behalf of the truth or error?  Truth, of course.  The right to do wrong is important, but how could it possibly outshine the right to do right

All this yields the following moral rank ordering: staying alive> asserting your own right to say truths> asserting others' right to say truths > asserting others' right to say falsehoods.  Voltaire's maxim seems a gross overstatement.  Indeed, it's basically backwards.

Of course, you can flatly deny everything I've said.  But should you take that route, consider these two awkward facts. 

1. The world provides ample opportunities to die defending people's right to make offensive statements.  Reposting Charlie Hebdo cartoons on your Facebook page is only getting your feet wet.  If you're really ready to die for free speech, travel to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and start handing out copies of the cartoons in person.  Martyrdom for civil liberty awaits you.

2. Almost no professed Voltairean takes such actions. 

My point is not that Voltaireans are hypocrites, but that they run afoul of the Argument from Conscience.  The fans of Voltaire are fine people.  The fact that Voltaire's most ardent admirers don't throw themselves on their swords for freedom of speech shows that, deep down, they too realize that their maxim is only eloquent bravado.

P.S. Lest I be misunderstood, I staunchly defend the right to say things I disagree with.  But I think it's almost always a bad idea to perish in defense of this right.  Call me cowardly if you like.  I'm just being honest.

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COMMENTS (19 to date)
Charlie writes:

Can we still enjoy the phrase if we interpret it in the "til death due us part" since. That is, we don't intend to honor and keep our spouse until this bloody battle royal kills us, but rather we will defend the right for you to day wrong stuff until we die.

Phil writes:

But your example does not illustrate "defend to the death your right to say it." It illustrates "defend to the death saying it."

Although it doesn't make THAT much difference. Travel to Syria and hand out pamphlets justifying the right to publish the cartoons, and your fate will be almost as ill as if you handed out the cartoons themselves.

Sanjeev Sabhlok writes:

The right to offend is not an obligation to offend.

Bryan, you've got this wrong. It is the principle that is worth fighting. And freedom never came in a platter.

Sam writes:

You seem to confuse attempting to exercise a right with the act of defending it. Traveling to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and handing out cartoons would do little to defend the right to free speech.

Actually defending the right would require traveling to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and defeating with force those who suppress free speech. This is something many brave people have indeed attempted.

Peter Drake writes:

Another quibble. I always read that to be addressed to a fellow citizen. It's not a purely altruistic position as the speaker has an interest in a free society in which unpopular positions can be freely voiced and heard.

To me this is related to the 'trust' dynamic where people invest at personal cost in common principles for the greater good. The typical academic example being fairness studies where people punish others for being unfair, at personal cost to themselves. Those studies yield different results in other societies. It would be interesting to correlate trust in societies with support for free speech.

Diomides Mavroyiannis writes:

I would never dismiss the evolutionary angle. As a holder of truth it is important to stay alive so that the truth survives, perhaps through your kids. Inevitably an opportunity for this truth to dominate without persecution will emerge. Of course if this truth doesn't have a benefit there is probably no reason it should spread at all, not everyone needs to know irrelevant nuances of the world.

Nick writes:

I disagree with the step where you say:

"asserting your own right to say truths > asserting others' right to say truths"

I defend other people's right to say what they want because I want to live in a world where people speak their mind even if it's unpopular. I prefer that world because it's a world with more information and more ideas, which benefits me.

Selfishly, I'm not interested in defending my own right to assert unpopular opinions, because any value of such assertions only goes to others while the costs fall entirely on me.

I want to live in a world with Socrates, but I don't want to be Socrates.

andy writes:

I always understood it in the sense 'the fact that I support your right to do/say it does not mean I agree with you (or, conversely, the fact that I don't agree with you is not an argument for forbidding you to do it)'. You so often hear the 'he defends right to smoke so he likes smoking', you don't want the state to restrict X therefore you agree with X etc. I never considered anyone would consider it literally, i.e. I should go and die if somebody's rights are not honored.

Philo writes:

"I staunchly defend the right to say things I disagree with"--so long as such defense is not too costly to you. But how much expected cost are you willing to bear to defend freedom of speech? Is the answer high enough to justify your term 'staunchly'?

P.V. Gaayam writes:

People operate within legal boundaries -- voltaire only holds within the boundaries of republics with constitutions that actually defend free speech. Asking people to go syria or some middle eastern country to "prove the voltairism" is a lame argument that ignores that fact that the people in a state that defends free speech in the constitution have to defend the right of others to offend.

The author is justifying his own cowardice in not taking a stand while sitting in countries that defend free speech, unlike Charlie HEbdo which took voltarie seriously. Lame arguments like this one are just excusing violent behavior of murderers who do not have the werewithal to ignore what they do not like.

Attitudes such as those exhibited by this author are the start of the slippery slope as voltaire recognized based on experience. The whole point is that offensive speech must be ignored so that people don't start defining what "offensive speech" means - and certainly "offending religions" is the kind offense that needs to be protected by the State.

Don't travel to syria, and start defending voltaire's ideas sitting in the warmth of your own home -- that is not tokenism. That is the first steps to publicly draw the line on what can and cannot be tolerated.

Granite26 writes:

In modern terms, I interpret that statement to mean 'I'm willing to accept the risk that living in a free society will leave me vulnerable to blowback from the violent societies your statements offend'.

You do make an interesting point concerning the tension around having to be offensive to prove you have the right to be offensive. How do you defend , assert, a societies right to free speech without engaging with it?

France is certainly in a position where the only way they CAN show support is to distribute the comics. Otherwise, they're stuck in a downward Niemöller circle...

Hazel Meade writes:

I think this is another case in a pattern of Bryan being oblivious to the effect of social norms.

We all benefit from establishing and maintaining norms of free speech and tolerance. If those norms don't exist for things we disagree with, then we cannot count on them for protection for things we do agree with. It's not a valid rule if it only counts for speech we think is "true". We cannot know what is true, and must maintain a position of agnosticism when establishing the rules under which we are allowed to speak. Furthermore, being able to speak unpopular truths often has very important real-world effects on people's lives.

If you let that norm break down, you will soon discover that society has created a new and more intolerant norm against uttering all sorts of "offensive" speech, because it's more natural for people to coalesce around intolerance of the different than tolerance of all. The norm of tolerance is less stable and demands constant defense. Including the defense of speech that you disagree with.

B.B. writes:

Voltaire's supposed statement is a bit silly for this reason.

Freedom of speech does not come from a willingness to die for that freedom. Who wants to die for the right to offend?

Freedom of speech comes from a willingness to kill for that right.

This is the Gen. Patton view of things: "No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country."

The Nazis wanted to take away our freedom of speech. We killed a very large number of them to prevent them from doing so.

I have no problem with that. I have pity on the dead, but I have no remorse for what the allies did in the Second World War. I have no remorse for what we are doing to ISIS either.

RPLong writes:

When Bryan Caplan writes blog posts like these, he always reminds me of people who oppose vaccinating their children. Their views are only harmless so long as a critical majority feels otherwise; once the balance tips, the virus starts to spread.

And so it goes with freedom of speech. So long as enough other people are willing to face great physical risk to protect it, Caplan can feel however he wants to. But the minute no one is willing to put their own lives on the line is the moment Caplan's approach to free speech fails.

ilya writes:
interpreted literally

I don't think literal interpretation of this phrase is possible without a context: defend who? from whom? am I the only one one available to defend? what are the risks of death?

The way is sounds to me, in modern-speak, is more like 'In our society, I feel myself closer to those who believe in peacefully expressing their opinions even if they are currently wrong than to those who seek to establish their factually correct opinion by force. I'll defend our right to free thoughts and speech verbally, and if necessary physically, the most likely scenario when this defense can turn deadly being an external aggression by significantly less freedom-loving folk.'

austrartsua writes:

This is an odd, almost tongue in cheek, post. The question is not whether you would fight to the death for one person to say one particular thing one time, it is whether you would fight in general for the right of any man to say what he wants any time. This is a noble cause. I am as cowardly as the next but I'd like to think that, if push came to shove, I would fight for freedom of speech and even go to war for it. Of course there is a gap between who I want to be and who I am.

By the way, the distinction you make between truthhood and falsehood is utterly meaningless. Who decides what is true? According to the person uttering it, X is true. Who are you to tell him he is wrong? In fact, speech is the only way we know to determine truth from falsehood. I would defend to the death the right of someone to say a falsehood (what I think is false, anyway) because discussion and speech is the only way the truth will out. By uttering said falsehood, we may learn truth in the ensuing debate.

All in all this article was highly inadequate. Bryan needs to familiarize himself with "the kindly inquisitors" by Jonathan Raunch.

KPres writes:

But Voltaire, by virtue of being a famous historic thinker, probably qualifies as one of your exceptions. So while it may not be right for you, Bryan Caplan, to fight to the death for somebody else's rights, that's only because you're not influential enough.

Matt writes:

As long as we're taking this literally... I'm not sure why you limited your assumptions...

You left out a few possibilities about how I can defend to the death your right to speak. I don't have to die doing it. I just have to die eventually. As long as I defend your right in some way, no matter how insignificant, I can actually be defending it. I can write anonymous letters, think positive thoughts about free speech, or even start a blog! And unless I live forever, I will have fulfilled my pledge.

Major.Freedom writes:

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