T.M. Scanlon Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Freedom of Expression, Tolerance, and Human Rights: Conversation with T. M. Scanlon, Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity; Harvard University; February 20, 2007, by Harry Kreisler

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Moral and Political Philosophy

In reading your essays in The Difficulty of Tolerance, it seems that clarity in the way you're thinking about the problem, and expressing that clarity so the reader will come to the same insight, are very important.

That's certainly the most important thing, the constant drive to try to make it clearer. One is most dissatisfied when one hasn't been as clear as one thought.

This book is a collection of essays on political philosophy. As a sub-field of philosophy what is distinctive about that focus of your attention?

It has to do with our relations with each other that are mediated through the institutions we share. Moral philosophy has to do, by my lights, primarily with what we owe to each other as individuals, and a lot of those are questions of, "Am I going to tell you the truth? Am I going to kick you? Am I going to keep my appointment?" -- questions which don't necessarily depend upon larger scale institutions, although they may have different effects because they take place within such institutions. But some of what we owe to each other we owe to each other as participants in large-scale institutions. We pay our taxes, we vote, we take part in political processes, and we feel obliged to obey and accept the results of those processes and to not interfere with other people's participation in them.

So, the question: We're born into these institutions, we find them operating around us, why should we accept them? What demands can we make on them? If people think they're being treated improperly by them, when is it appropriate for them to complain? When are their complaints justified? Those are moral questions in a large sense, because they're questions of what we owe to each other; they're not just questions of personal interaction. They're questions about the conditions of our participation in large-scale systems of cooperation.

When you were dealing with issues of political philosophy, the rigor to logic is still required, but you're also dealing with an area of passion. People have very strong views that aren't always driven by logic. How do you reconcile that tension? Does your background in philosophy make that easier?

I don't know if it makes it easier. It imposes discipline on me to focus my attention, but I would register a bit of skepticism about the contrast between logic on the one hand and emotions on the other. Logic, of course, is a formal subject and operates according to definite rules; you can turn it into mathematics like calculus. Let's not think about logic but reasoning more broadly.

When I'm drawing inferences about whether I'm really seeing a chair, or a person, or a blackboard, or when I'm reasoning about what's likely to happen, if it's going to rain, something like that, that's reasoning in a looser sense. I take certain evidence as grounds for drawing a certain kind of conclusion. If I can take evidence as grounds for drawing a conclusion, I can take facts, such as the fact that I told you I was going to be here, as a reason to do something. Both of those things are reasoning in exactly the same sense, even though the second one may motivate me to act in a way that the first doesn't, in a more direct and obvious way.

Even when we are acting out of emotion, we're acting for a reason. If I'm angry at you, that means I'm inclined to take the fact that you wouldn't like it if I said something as a reason to say it. We can't understand emotions without looking at them as complexes, of tendencies to see things as reasons. The idea that when I'm reasoning about whether it's going to rain, or about whether I should go to Berkeley or not, that's one thing, but acting on emotions is something else. Responding to what we see as reasons, either consciously or unreflectively, is common across these domains. There's not as big a separation as is often suggested.

In this collection you direct our attention to a number of important problems in political philosophy: human rights, freedom of expression, tolerance, urgency, and so forth. In this realm is it more important to go back and look at what the great philosophers have said, as you carve out your position? Is this an area where you find yourself doing that more of the time than in other areas of philosophy?

I think the answer is no. I don't know quite why, but my writings in moral philosophy have paid more attention to the great writers of the past, particularly Hume, Kant and to some degree, Aristotle. In political philosophy, I look at the questions, or deal with the way they've been presented, by more recent figures such as my teacher John Rawls.

These essays, which were written from the seventies to the early 1990s, deal with issues that in the post - 9/11 world have come back in a very powerful way. I'm curious as to how you think your ideas, once they've been put down, are affected by the changing times? Everything you'd written long ago still applies today. To what extent is there an impact of the relevancy of the times on what you do? Would you go back and read this stuff and see if it still stands up?

The first article I published, which is the first article in the book, is called "A Theory of Freedom of Expression," which I wrote in the early 1970s. It begins with a quote from Justice Holmes. It said that when you see that speech is going to cause certain harms, there's nothing more rational than trying to restrict speech in order to prevent those harms. He then says that when we understand how history works, then we see we have to hold back in that. He was talking about cases that arose around the time of the First World War, anarchist agitation and so on. As cycles of political controversy come around periodically, they raise essentially the same questions. Is Congress entitled to act to prevent perceived serious harms at the expense of limiting citizens' rights to participate in political forum, to express their ideas? That's a perennial question and it's not surprising that it keeps coming back. I was thinking about it in the context of the Vietnam War, reading someone who had written about it at the time of the First World War. Now we're in another war; national security issues are again on the forefront, so similar questions come back, but they don't always come back in the same way.

Another way in which questions of freedom of expression frequently arise has to do with sex and social mores. Restricting pornography or literature that's thought to be obscene or offensive is another perennial topic. At the time I wrote that essay, and even the subsequent follow-up to it in the later 1970s, the forms in which the demand that expression on sexual matters should be limited were mainly coming from people who wanted to prevent sex from being discussed. Sexual repression was the way the pro-speech side would have described the worry. By the time you get to the late 1970s and beyond, it was coming from feminists who were worried about it. It's a question of equality: if we want to preserve a social outlook in which women are respected, we need to restrict expression that perpetuates stereotypes or suggests that women want to be dominated. Similar questions come up about hate speech which affect racial equality. The idea that we need to restrict speech in order to preserve a certain social outlook is a perennial, but exactly what the issue is, whether we want to prevent people from being too concerned with sex, or whether we want to preserve equality, may change. And so, one has to think about them in a different way.

And so the role of a philosopher, and the contribution, is to define these problems in such a way that these groups who come forward do not undermine our basic understanding of the principles at stake.

One would have to refine our understanding of the principles at stake in order for us to see how we can, on the one hand, do justice to the claims that people are making, but still somehow explain how we can preserve a climate of open discussion which we think is important. How should we understand the values that are in conflict? Here's the thing that's always on the agenda: what kind of judgment we are making when we're saying, "although this value is important, restricting expression for that reason would violate a right"? Therefore that draws a line. What kind of a judgment are we making when we appeal to a right? That's the underlying question that keeps coming back.

What did you come to see as the important dimensions of freedom of expression? We're in the realm of political philosophy where we're talking about people's relations with their institutions.

In this first article I wrote, I was very taken with the idea of individual autonomy. It's important for citizens not only to be able to make up their own minds about important questions about life and politics, but also to have their relations with each other, and with government, defined by the idea that they are autonomous. I thought that recognizing other people's autonomy, recognizing citizens' autonomy, drew a sharp line. It's incompatible with seeing citizens as autonomous for government to decide this can't be published because it might lead them to draw some false conclusion. Whether the conclusion is false is up to them to decide. That's what it means to treat them as autonomous.

Later on, I came to think that the restriction on the way speech could be restricted was too tight and one should adopt a more -- I don't know if I want to say practical, but a more instrumental view. The main reason why government can't have unlimited power to restrict speech has to do with the dangerousness of giving governments that power. We're properly more willing to allow governments to restrict some kinds of false advertising than we are to allow them to restrict what they take to be false political speech. Government is -- one might assume, although this isn't always true -- somewhat less partisan, less untrustworthy and less likely to abuse its power in the realm of false advertising about products (about how dangerous your lawnmower is, or how long your car's going to last) than it is in the realm of deciding what answers to the basic political questions of our time are true.

I felt that my original idea, that it is autonomy that sets the limits, was too rigid, and one needed to take into account the question of how dangerous this is, how dangerous it is for government to have power of a certain sort. There's a lot of drawing on historical experience from past governments to see what would happen if government had the power to do this. When we think there's a right, what we think is that it's too dangerous for government to have that power, so they don't have it.

Going back to this idea of autonomy, you make an important distinction about the information that people need so they can be an independent agent, versus helping somebody with the means to take action which the thought might lead them to.

Right. When I was writing about this, a friend of mine said, "I hope you'll explain why people can't publish their recipe for making nerve gas at home." So, I incorporated that into my article. People shouldn't be blocked from having the information they need to make political decisions, but I don't need to know how to make nerve gas in my sink in order to decide whom to vote for. I thought in that original article, and to some degree I still think, that information about technical matters isn't necessarily something that can't be restricted. Information that just might lead me to decide that single-payer healthcare is a good thing or a bad thing isn't something government can restrict because they think I might do the wrong thing with it.

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