A Philosopher's Blog

Wedding Cakes & Cartoon of Muhammad

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on May 6, 2015
U.S Postage Stamp, 1957

U.S Postage Stamp, 1957 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On May 3, 2015 the American Freedom Defense Initiative put on a contest in which cartoonists drew images of Muhammad for a cash prize. To most Muslims, such portrayals of Muhammad are deeply offensive—much in the way that many Americans find the burning of the American flag offensive. As such, it is reasonable to infer that the event was intended to be provocative—the event was certainly well protected with armed security forces. As such, it was hardly shocking when two gunmen attacked the event. These armored and heavily armed men were killed by a traffic officer armed only with a pistol. ISIS has claimed credit for the attack, although it is currently unclear if the terrorist group had a direct role.

As I have argued in previous essays, the use of violence in response to offensive artwork or other forms of expression is not warranted. As such, there is no need to re-hash those arguments to support the claim that the attack on the event was morally wrong. Outside of the realm of violent extremists, I doubt there is much dispute over this point. As such, I will proceed to the main matter I wish to focus on.

But a short while ago, Indiana was making headlines with its religious freedom act. There is also the recurring talking point that religious liberty and religion are under attack in America. One example given of the threat to religious liberty was the requirement that employers of a certain size provide insurance coverage that covered birth control for full-time employees. Another example of the threat is the steady march towards legalization in all 50 states by same sex-marriage. A third example is that many states have laws that forbid discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation. This is supposed to violate religious liberty by forbidding, for example, a Christian baker to discriminate against a same-sex couple that wants to buy a wedding cake.

Though I have written extensively about these specific matters, my general view is based on the principle that religious rights do not allow a person a right to violate the legitimate rights of others. To use an easy and obvious example, a faith that claimed human sacrifice as a basic tenet of its faith would justly be denied the right to engage in this practice. After all, the right to life trumps the right to practice one’s faith on others against their will.

In the case of discrimination against same-sex couples, I follow the same principle: the freedom of religion is bounded by the principle of harm. Since same-sex couples are members of the civil society and being able to engage in free commerce is a basic right in capitalism, to deny them the right to goods and services because of their sexual orientation would harm them. While it might be countered that selling a cake to a same-sex couple would harm the Christian baker, it is not clear what harm is being done. After all, she is making a sale and the sale of an item is not an endorsement of the purchaser. If, for example, Nazis are buying my books on Amazon, I am not thereby endorsing Nazism.

In the case of a company being required to provide coverage that covers birth control, the company does not seem to be harmed by this. The company is not required to use birth control, directly hand it to the employees, or endorse birth control. They are merely required to provide employees with the opportunity to have such coverage if they so desire it. It is, in fact, a form of compensation—it certainly does not violate the rights of an employer if employers spend their salaries as they wish—even on birth control.

While the laws that are purported to defend religious freedom do not, for obvious reasons, specify that they are aimed at defending a specific variety of Christianity, it does seem fairly evident that the concern is not about defending religion in general. If it were, the event in which people competed to draw cartoons of Muhammad would have been condemned by all the folks supporting the religious “freedom” laws and those who claim religion is under attack in America. After all, holding an event explicitly aimed at mocking a religion and provoking members of a faith would seem to be an attack on religion. This sort of event would certainly seem more of an attack on religion than forbidding bakers from discriminating against same-sex couples.

While I think people should not engage in such offensive behavior (I also believe that people should not burn American flags or piss on crosses), my consistency requires that I must accept the freedom of people to engage in such offensive behavior. This is, as with the case of the wedding cake, based on the principle of harm: restricting freedom of expression because the expression is offensive creates more harm than it prevents. Part of this is because while there is a right to freedom of expression and it can be wrong to offend people, there is no right to a freedom from being offended. That said, members of civil society do fall under moral expectations of polite behavior. So, while there is no right to forbid people from pissing on crosses, burning American flags or drawing cartoons of Muhammad, a decent human being will consider her actions and act with respect for the views of others. That is what good people do. I admit, I have not always lived up to that myself and that is a failing on my part.

It is, of course, possible to cross from mere offense to actual harm. This boundary is, unfortunately, not always sharp and admits of many gray zones. Fortunately, though, the principle is clear: mere offensiveness does not warrant forbiddance and religious freedom does not warrant unjustly imposing on the rights of others.


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What is the Worst Thing You Should (Be Allowed to) Say?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 26, 2015
Members of Westboro Baptist Church have been s...

Members of Westboro Baptist Church have been specifically banned from entering Canada for hate speech. Church members enter Canada, aiming to picket bus victim’s funeral (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The murders at Charlie Hedbo and their aftermath raised the issue of freedom of expression in a dramatic and terrible manner. In response to these deaths, there was an outpouring of support for this basic freedom and, somewhat ironically, a crackdown on some people expressing their views.

This situation raises two rather important issues. The first is the matter of determining the worst thing that a person should express. The second is the matter of determining the worst thing that a person should be allowed to express. While these might seem to be the same issue, they are not. The reason for this is that there is a distinction between what a person should do and what is morally permissible to prevent a person from doing. The main focus will be on using the coercive power of the state in this role.

As an illustration of the distinction, consider the example of a person lying to his girlfriend about running strikes all day in the video game Destiny when he was supposed to be doing yard work. It seems reasonable to think that he should not lie to her (although exceptions are easy to imagine). However, it also seems reasonable to think that the police should not be sent to coerce him into telling her the truth. So, he should not lie to her about playing the game but he should be allowed to do so by the state (that is, it should not use its police powers to stop him).

This view can be disputed and there are those who argue in favor of complete freedom from the state (anarchists) and those who argue that the state should control every aspect of life (totalitarians). However, the idea that that there are some matters that are not the business of the state seems to be an intuitively plausible position—at least in democratic states such as the United States. What follows will rest on this assumption and the challenge will be to sort out these two issues.

One rather plausible and appealing approach is to take a utilitarian stance on the matter and accept the principle of harm as the foundation for determining the worst thing that a person should express and also the worst thing that a person should be allowed to express. The basic idea behind this is that the right of free expression is bounded by the stock liberal right of others not to be harmed in their life, liberty and property without due justification.

In the case of the worst thing that a person should express, I am speaking in the context of morality. There are, of course, non-moral meanings of “should.” To use the most obvious example, there is the “pragmatic should”: what a person should or should not do in regards to advancing his practical self-interest. For example, a person should not tell her boss what she really thinks of him if doing so would cost her the job she desperately needs. To use another example, there is also the “should of etiquette”: what a person should do or not do in order to follow the social norms. For example, a person should not go without pants at a formal wedding, even to express his opposition to the tyranny of pants.

Returning to the matter of morality, it seems reasonable to go with the stock approach of weighing the harm the expression generates against the right of free expression (assuming there is such a right). Obviously enough, there is not an exact formula for calculating the worst thing a person should express and this will vary according to the circumstances. For example, the worst thing one should express to a young child would presumably be different from the worst thing one should express to adult. In terms of the harms, these would include the obvious things such as offending the person, scaring her, insulting her, and so on for the various harms that can be inflicted by mere expression.

While I do not believe that people have a right not to be offended, people do seem to have a right not to be unjustly harmed by other people expressing themselves. To use an obvious example, men should not catcall women who do not want to be subject to this verbal harassment. This sort of behavior certainly offends, upsets and even scares many women and the men’s right to free expression does not give them a moral pass that exempts them from what they should or should not do.

To use another example, people should not intentionally and willfully insult another person’s deeply held beliefs simply for the sake of insulting or provoking the person. While the person does have the right to mock the belief of another, his right of expression is not a moral free pass to be abusive.

As a final example, people should not engage in trolling. While a person does have the right to express his views so as to troll others, this is clearly wrong. Trolling is, by definition, done with malice and contributes nothing of value to the conversation. As such, it should not be done.

It is rather important to note that while I have claimed that people should not unjustly harm others by expressing themselves, I have not made any claims about whether or not people should or should not be allowed to express themselves in these ways. It is to this that I now turn.

If the principle of harm is a reasonable principle (which can be debated), then a plausible approach would be to use it to sketch out some boundaries. The first rough boundary was just discussed: this is the boundary between what people should express and what people should (morally) not. The second rough boundary begins at the point where other people should be allowed to prevent a person from expressing himself and ends just before the point at which the state has the moral right to use its coercive power to prevent expression.

This area is the domain of interactions between people that does not fall under the authority of the state, yet still permits people to be prevented from expressing their views. To use an obvious example, the workplace is such a domain in which people can be justly prevented from expressing their views without the state being involved. To use a specific example, the administrators of my university have the right to prevent me from expressing certain things—even if doing so would not fall under the domain of the state. To use another example, a group of friends would have the right, among themselves, to ban someone from their group for saying racist, mean and spiteful things to one of their number. As a final example, a blog administrator would have the right to ban a troll from her site, even though the troll should not be subject to the coercive power of the state.

The third boundary is the point at which the state can justly use its coercive power to prevent a person from engaging in expression. As with the other boundaries, this would be set (roughly) by the degree of harm that the expression would cause others. There are many easy and obvious example where the state would act rightly in imposing on a person: threats of murder, damaging slander, incitements to violence against the innocent, and similar such unquestionably harmful expressions.

Matters do, of course, get complicated rather quickly. Consider, for example, a person who does not call for the murder of cartoonists who mock Muhammad but tweets his approval when they are killed. While this would certainly seem to be something a person should not do (though this could be debated), it is not clear that it crosses the boundary that would allow the state to justly prevent the person from expressing this view. If the approval does not create sufficient harm, then it would seem to not warrant coercive action against the person by the state.

As another example, consider the expression of racist views via social media. While people should not say such things (and would be justly subject to the consequences), as long as they do not engage in actual threats, then it would seem that the state does not have the right to silence the person. This is because the expression of racist views (without threats) would not seem to generate enough harm to warrant state coercion. Naturally, it could justify action on the part of the person’s employer, friends and associates: he might be fired and shunned.

As a third example, consider a person who mocks the dominant or even official religion of the state. While the rulers of such states usually think they have the right to silence such an infidel, it is not clear that this would create enough unjust harm to warrant silencing the person. Being an American, I think that it would not—but I believe in both freedom of religion and the freedom to mock religion.  There is, of course, the matter of the concern that such mockery would provoke others to harm the mocker, thus warranting the state to stop the person—for her own protection. However, the fact that people will act wrongly in response to expressions would not seem to warrant coercing the person into silence.

In general, I favor erring on the side of freedom: unless the state can show that silencing expression is needed to prevent a real and unjust harm, the state does not have the moral right to silence expression.

I have merely sketched out a general outline of this matter and have presented three rough boundaries in regards to what people should say and what they should be allowed to say. Much more work would be needed to develop a full and proper account.


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South Park vs. Radical Islam

Posted in Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on April 20, 2010
The main characters (in order from left to rig...

Image via Wikipedia

South Park’s 200th episode featured Muhammad. He was not, of course, actually drawn as Muhammad but rather presented wearing a mascot’s bear costume. This, not surprisingly, has led revolutionmuslim.com to post a warning to South Park creators: they will end up like van Gogh. No, not the painter who allegedly sliced off his own ear. Rather, this is Theo van Gogh who was murdered after making a film about violence against women in certain Islamic cultures.

One reason for this response is that it is supposed to be forbidden to create images of Muhammad. The idea that certain images should not be displayed is not unique to Islam. There have been times when the displaying of certain religious images was forbidden in Christianity (and not just graven images, etc.). While the idea that such images should not be displayed seems like mere irrational superstition, it can be argued that people’s religious  beliefs should be respected. So, for example, if Islam forbids the portrayal of Muhammad, then this should be honored. Then again, the idea that the free expression of ideas and views can be held hostage by theological views might strike some as rather medieval.

Another reason for this response is that the episode can be seen as mocking Islam-or at least making a veiled (sorry) attack on the followers who tend to be rather obsessed about Muhammad being portrayed. While people obviously do not like having their beliefs mocked, how people respond to such mocking shows a great deal about the people in question. South Park routinely makes fun of Christianity (Jesus is a recurring character on the show and his epic battle with Santa is a thing of legends), yet Christians generally do not make death threats over such mockery. In contrast, Islam’s defenders might be seen as operating like the Spanish Inquisition-quick to use violence to “defend” the faith. To be fair, people claiming to be Christians do still use violence and justify it on the basis of their faith. Perhaps the best known examples are the murders of doctors who perform abortions.

It might be the case, as some have argued, that a significant number of Muslims are still operating in the mindset of the dark ages (that is, how religion often operated in Europe prior to the Enlightenment…and beyond). After all, a mature and rational human being can, as the saying goes, take a joke. Also, an ethical person proportions her response to the severity of the offense. Having Muhammad in a bear suit might seem a bit silly, but it hardly seems something worth killing over.  As such, the folks at Revolutionmuslim.com might be regarded as rather immature and unethical. Some might go so far as to make the same claim about many followers of Islam or perhaps even the entire faith.

Islam might, as some see it, be lagging behind because it is a younger religion and also because it has been far less influenced by Modern and contemporary ideas and influences (like democracy, women’s rights, scientific advances, and liberal political theory). Perhaps, as some have argued, Islam will eventually emerge from the dark ages after a long and prolonged struggle, much like Christianity.

Then again, as some argue, perhaps Islam is not lagging behind. After all, this presumes that religions progress towards some sort of “better” state. It might well be the case that Islam is up to date with the 21st century, just not the Western and liberal 21st century.

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