Freedom of Expression, Diversity, and Truth
Klemens Kappel, Bjørn Hallsson and Emil F L Møller, Section of Philosophy, University of Copenhagen, August 2015.
Forthcoming in Blackwell Companion to Applied Philosophy, Eds. Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen, David Coady and Kimberley Brownlee
Generally, a legal system permitting a wide array of speech behavior does not by itself have determinate socio-epistemic effects, as these are determined by the details of how agents interact under that system, and the legal setting does not determine these. Obviously, speech behavior is subject to non-legal incentives. Views may be threathened into silence, or there may be insufficient incentive to voice them. Agents may have incentive to assert what they know to be false or unjustified. As concerns the socio-epistemic outcome of speech behaviour, the nature and distribution of non-legal incentives are at least as important as the legal limits of free speech. (s. 2-3)
Epistemic diversity may also improve the outcome of critical debate. Critical debate may take various forms, but for present purposes we will assume a modified version of Alvin Goldman's account of defeater argumentation:
A proponent Pro asserts a particular view C, on the basis of evidential premises R1-Rn.
A challenger Con then introduces a defeater D, where a defeater is a proposition that removes Pro's reasons to hold that C is true. A defeater may, for example, be direct evidence that C is false, an indication that one or more of R1-Rn is false or evidence that R1-Rn do not support C after all.
In response to this, Pro might then point to defeaters to the defeater adduced by Con, or may reassert C on the basis of new reasons, or Pro might concede that the case for her view C has weakened or been eliminated.
If Pro and Con are sufficiently competent in adducing true propositions in defense of their views, and in detecting and evaluating proposed defeaters and changing their views accordingly, defeater argumentation will often have a valuable epistemic outcome. Through a process of critical debate Pro and Con will come to base their views on true premises (or will a least get rid of some false premises), and they will eventually know how to respond to all proposed defeaters. As a result, Pro and Con will often know the truth of the propositions they endorse, and they will possess extensive discursive justification for these propositions. (s. 5)
Psychological research shows that we are not very apt at finding defeaters against our own arguments, or arguments whose conclusions we already take to be true (Kunda, 1990; Mercier & Sperber, 2011; Nickerson, 1998; Taber & Lodge, 2006). We tend to look selectively for confirmation of our views, and to ignore reasoning-errors behind conclusions that we concur with. By contrast, we are more inclined to search for and detect errors in a pattern of reasoning when we disagree with the conclusion to begin with. For these reasons, critical debate is often held to be improved by diversity of opinion. (s. 6)
Critical debate may even be harmful in the absence of diversity. Homogenous groups may fail to search for defeaters against their shared beliefs, and members instead provide each other with additional evidence supporting those beliefs. This is an important mechanism underlying the phenomenon of group polarization: that members of homogeneous deliberating groups end up with more extreme beliefs than they had prior to deliberation. (s. 6)
The outcome of critical debate is conditioned on a willingness to conform to what we might call the norms of deliberation. [...] In their exchange of arguments, Pro and Con should assert only premises and defeaters that they sincerely believe to be true, or likely true, and they should limit themselves to what they consider evidentially relevant for the topic under discussion. Pro and Con should be willing to revise their views in response to arguments and defeaters brought forward. (s. 7)
Mill held the epistemic benefits of diversity to be crucial for the justification of freedom of expression. We have suggested that freedom of expression basically is a legal environment in which very different forms of discursive interactions may thrive, including those that swamp or undermine division of cognitive labour and critical debate. So, we should be skeptical about there being any simple connection between legal frameworks of freedom of expression and any particular epistemic ends. (s. 15)
The pool of public knowledge is a public good in the economic sense: no one can be excluded from utilizing the pool of knowledge, whether they contribute or not. As is true with other public goods, public knowledge is in danger of being insufficiently produced. In this special case the pool is also in danger of being contaminated by ideas that haven't been sufficiently critically discussed. Assume that the public pool of knowledge is generated in large part by deliberation. So, public knowedge is created when enough individuals share knowledge and cognitive efforts and engage in critical debate. Participating in this endeavour, however, might be costly for the individual. So, while we each benefit from the existence of the pool of knowledge, we might individually be better off by not contributing to its production. (s. 17)
For similar reasons, the existence of a sound deliberative environment is a public good. By a sound deliberative environment we mean one in which a wide variety of sincerely held views are asserted and defended without fear of retribution, in which most agents consider the views proposed with an open mind, and in which no one succeeds in distorting the deliberation, say by pushing misleading information into the process or by pressing irrelevant agendas. We all benefit from the existence of a sound deliberative environment because it enhances the quality and relevance of the views that become dispersed. But we benefit whether we contribute to its existence or not, and may individually benefit from deceiving, or from silencing views that run counter to our interests. So, the existence of a sound deliberative environment is also at risk of being insuffiently sustained. (s. 17)
In an essay on free speech the social control of speech behaviour might sound oxymoronic. However, it might relieve some concern once we compare the idea with the norms governing science and academia. Science is regulated by an elaborate system of norms that govern how assertions should be based on evidence, how evidence should be collected and assessed, and how one should be willing to respond to criticism or revise one's views. These norms become second nature for many scientists and academics when they become internalised as result of their training and socialization. In addition, the scientific community generates strong social incentives to comply with norms. Anyone who is perceived to not play by the rules is at risk of damaging his or her reputation. The harm this can do to non-compliers is quite significant; what is at stake is one's membership of the scientific community. The scientific community imposes considerable costs on certain forms of speech behaviour, and rewards others. (s. 18-19)
Note, however, that science generally regulates the epistemic processes behind what is asserted, not the content. There is no view that cannot be asserted, rejected, or criticised, provided that what one says meets standards of evidence, relevance, critical discussion with peers, etc. The norms governing speech behaviour in science operate on the epistemic processes behind what is said, not on content. The norms are quite restrictive as regards the former, but place no restrictions on the latter.
Compare this to well-known sinister forms of censorship. Traditional censoring institutions enforced by states and churches have targeted certain types of content, no matter how well justified the content expressed was. Something similiar is true of intellectual environments dominated by political correctness that work by imposing social costs on those who express certain views. Again, this form of political correctness is a system of social control that operates on content, not on the cognitive process that preceedes the assertion of content. (s. 19)
Freedom of speech is a legal environment that may enable us to harvest the epistemic benefits of diversity. One should, however, recognize both the complexities and the limitations of this idea. There are several forms of diversity contributing to the promotion of epistemic ends in different ways. The most important mechanisms are those of division of cognitive labour and critical discussion. Other mechanisms often praised are less important. Biases often do not cancel out, the marketplace of ideas is not governed by a truth-loving invisible hand, and while information markets can be remarkably effective, they are of limited feasibility. Both division of cognitive labour and deliberation presuppose the existence of sophisticated social practices, including adherence to norms of deliberation. In many settings we do not have incentive to observe these norms, which may generate a collective action problem. This in turn raises questions of how to create incentives necessary for solving this collective action problem. We suggest that this problem partly averted by an unselfish moral disposition to comply with the norms of deliberation. Another part of the answer is that we all should do our share to reinforce social incentives to comply with norms of deliberation by rewarding compliers and punishing non-compliers. This is not unlike the moral social control we try to exert over one another in other domains, and it is similar to the sort of social control which is vital to science. (s. 19-20)
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