Freedoms versus rights

Mark in Mayenne, an Englishman living in France and running a gîte there, as well as running a fine blog, wrote me this below and it’s pure OoL subject matter:

I have been reflecting on freedoms, especially that of speech recently. I have come against a bit of a brick wall, and I’d appreciate your thoughts:

I’m a libertarian, in that I favour freedom and responsibility over constraints. But my freedoms might well impinge upon your rights. If you consider that you have the right to live until a random accident or nature takes you off, then my right to kill you is curtailed.

Generally, the more rights you have, the fewer freedoms I have, and so, if we assume that you and I both have the same rights and freedoms, then the more rights I have, the fewer freedoms I can enjoy.

States regulate the trade-offs between rights and freedoms by means of laws (and by implication, crimes). Different states balance things differently, which, at fundament, is the difference between states.

It follows logically from the existence of laws, that free speech must be curtailed: incitement to commit a crime is an attempt to commit a crime by proxy, and must, logically, itself be a crime.

Similarly threats. Not threats of the kind “If you don’t buy me an ice cream I’ll hate you forever”, but threats of the kind “I’m going to do something illegal to your detriment” (whether or not the threat is made in an attempt to coerce a certain behaviour from the target) must be a crime.

Both of the above fall logically straight out of the existence of laws.

There’s a third category of restriction of freedom of speech, that is libel and slander, that arise out of a reasonable right of a person not to be harmed by lies created or circulated about them.

Now, we don’t seem to have too much trouble with the idea that one can be “free” despite one’s day-to-day existence being hedged around with many and complex laws. So I’m wondering why freedom of speech has to be binary: you can either say whatever you want, or there’s no freedom of speech.

So I’m shouting at Manuel Valls on the telly the other day, when he is explaining to us how freedom of speech for Charlie Hebdo is 100% compatible with jailing people for celebrating the attacks on the newspaper, and then I find myself wondering if he’s right.

Given that the existence of the above three types of constraint on free specch are OK, why not others, that arise from different “rights”? ………

The only argument I can come up with (in favour of complete freedom of speech) is that the effect of only allowing people to say whatever the state happens to agree with, is worse than allowing people to say whatever they like.

Which is an opinion, not a fact.

I need to think out a response to that.  What about you, readers?

13 comments for “Freedoms versus rights

  1. john in cheshire
    January 16, 2015 at 5:41 pm

    I cannot accept that one must, in a free society, afford equivalence to evil. So, in my world, English civilisation is superior to all others and some others are pure evil; I cite islam; in which case I see nothing contradictory in granting freedoms to the one and denying them to the other.

    • January 25, 2015 at 7:16 am


  2. January 16, 2015 at 5:52 pm

    That second-to-last bit should read: “The only argument I can come up with (in favour of complete freedom of speech) is that the effect of only allowing people to say whatever the state happens to agree with, is worse than allowing people to say whatever they like”

  3. Bucko
    January 16, 2015 at 8:27 pm

    The first rule of the Libertarian is surely, “Do no harm”.

    If you have a true understanding of that short phrase, freedom of speech (Or any other freedom for that matter) comes into perfect focus.

    He begins by looking at murder which is obviously the ultimate harm. You can’t take any more from a person than their life.

    Offense is the other end of the scale. It’s such a wishy washy notion; what offends one and what offends another. At the end of the day, offense is not harm and can be easily responded to by way of debate, discussion or simply ignoring the offender.

    I find a moral code easy to have if everything you do is based on Do No Harm. It covers everything I’ve ever wrestled with, without exception.

    • January 17, 2015 at 6:21 am

      You know – think I’ll make that my tagline now at N.O.

      At the same time, the concept of “do not interfere” would be nice in there somewhere.

    • January 25, 2015 at 7:17 am

      But sometimes, in order to protect your rights or property, you HAVE to do harm.

  4. Voice of Reason
    January 17, 2015 at 12:14 am

    In the US (subject to political correctness), we take freedom of speech very seriously. Even so, there are limits, as described by the Supreme Court. Those limits are basically ones to prevent actual physical harm to others (the ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre, physical threats, etc). I believe that it’s about as close as it is possible to get in a crowded sociatey.

  5. January 17, 2015 at 6:33 am

    Having now read this properly [meaning unencumbered in the morning], it’s really the old dilemma, innit and further to that – how far should governments decree where the limits are? The offense taking is the really tricky one. Somewhere in here should be the concept of “affording the other no escape”, e.g. on Tube billboards.

  6. Lord T
    January 17, 2015 at 12:53 pm

    I’ve always tried to follow the ‘Do No Harm’ line.

    Perhaps another way to look at it is you can do what you want but have to face any consequences.

    So I can kill my neighbour because their cat uses my garden as a toilet but then I have to face the result of the law I broke.

    I can call my neighbour a thief because I don’t like him and then face the consequences of being sued for slander.

    So we pretty much have a lot of freedom in those respects already.

  7. January 17, 2015 at 4:03 pm

    I seems to me that the Charlie Hebdo affair is further evidence that Islam is demanding that even non believers in a secular society follow their dogma.

    Freedom of speech debates are in fact a red herring, the radicals complaint is about disrespect for their religion, we cannot have both a secular society and laws that force us to obey religious strictures. It is not actually a matter of free speech but freedom from being forced to obey the rules of their religion, in this case at the point of an AK47.

    I do not care that Muslims might be insulted because I do not respect their god and I do not want to be forced to do so because they claim they are insulted by my lack of respect, that is their problem.

  8. Graham wood
    January 18, 2015 at 9:45 am

    Good and thoughtful post by Mark. Of course we accept the concept of free speech, free expression, and liberty of conscience as givens, and I think we do right to stand with Charlie Hebdo’s insistence in protecting that right.
    However, sometimes that right comes with a very big price tag, and the tragic CH case proves the point.

    It is also important to understand where militant Islam is ‘coming from’, on the basis of “know thy enemy”
    For an astonishing explanation of Islam’s driving force please see this ‘must read’ link

  9. January 18, 2015 at 12:16 pm

    Thanks for those.

Comments are closed.