The arguments for free speech in current debates are almost exclusively based on a principal of utility. Simply put, free speech will result in benefits for society. Those acquainted with the academic discourse on free speech are likely to appeal to J.S. Mill’s utilitarian arguments which he summarises in four points. In brief, to suppress all beliefs in favour of one held to be the truth, presupposes infallible judgement. No one and no group is infallible. Thus the clash of many opinions is the way to the truth. That presupposes free speech. If people reason their way to true belief, they will not hold that belief by prejudging – not as a prejudice.
If arguments from pure utility are unconvincing for some, one can also mount a Burkean defence of free speech incorporating an idea of utility, but one drawn from man’s nature rather than resting solely on a principle of utility. There are two crucial passages in Burke that provide the basis. The first is in the Reflections:
Continue reading Burke on natural rights and the right to free speech
When Edmund Burke claimed in An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs that the French Revolution ‘was a wild attempt to methodize anarchy; to perpetuate and fix disorder…that it was a foul, impious, monstrous thing, wholly out of the course of moral nature,’ he was targeting a particular theory of political organization now known as ‘social contract theory’. It is important to understand that for Burke social contract theory not only determines the form of political organization of a particular people but the accompanying social organization as well.
The early theorists of social contract were Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), John Locke (1632-1704) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), Hobbes being considered the first to introduce the idea. Burke was clearly familiar with the writings of these political philosophers. There are recognizable references to Hobbes (Leviathan) and Locke (The Second Treatise of Government) in his speeches and writings, although he does not mention them by name. He was scathing about Rousseau, reducing his entire philosophy (including the Social Contract) to one of vanity, claiming that ‘with this vice he was possessed to a degree little short of madness,’ and that ‘it is plain that the present rebellion [in France] was its legitimate offspring.’  In other words, he attributed the ‘wild attempt to methodize anarchy [and] to perpetuate and fix disorder’ in France to Rousseau as a major influence.
Continue reading Edmund Burke on what it means to be a ‘people’
This piece by Roger Scruton on EPPC (Ethics and Public Policy Center) is a must read for those concerned about what it means to be a people and a nation. It touches on the issues of Brexit, national sovereignty, national borders, globalisation, and uncontrolled migration.
The Case for Nations
There is a respectable opinion among educated people that nations are no longer relevant. Their reasoning runs roughly as follows:
We live in an interconnected world. Globalization and the internet have created new networks of belonging and new forms of social trust, by which borders are erased and old attachments vaporized. Yes, we have seen the growth of nationalism in Europe, the Brexit vote in the U.K. and the election of the populist Donald Trump, but these are signs of reactionary sentiments that we should all have outgrown. The nation-state was useful while it lasted and gave us a handle on our social and political obligations. But it was dangerous too, when inflamed against real or imaginary enemies.
In any case, the nation-state belongs in the past, to a society in which family, job, religion and way of life stay put in a single place and are insulated against global developments. Our world is no longer like that, and we must change in step with it if we wish to belong.
The argument is a powerful one and was highly influential among those who voted in the U.K. referendum to remain in the European Union. But it overlooks the most important fact, which is that democratic politics requires a demos. Democracy means rule by the people and requires us to know who the people are, what unites them and how they can form a government. Read on…
For those of us who love Russell Kirk, T.S. Eliot, and Irving Babbitt, the extravagantly convoluted term, “the moral imagination,” rolls readily off the tongue and warms the heart like few other things. Yet, most of our closest allies on the right scratch their collective and individual heads in confusion. “What is this moral imagination,” they ask in some understandable bewilderment. The term comes from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. It only appears once in this seminal writing, but it is the cornerstone of the entire work. And, yet, even for those of us who love the term and the concept… we too easily employ it, more often than not, out of its context, thus rendering this precious Burkean-ism somewhat un-Burkean. Read on…