Freedom of Speech Meets Speech Act Theory

In celebration of my one year in the blogosphere I have decided to start a new (randomly published) series of posts highlighting a post from exactly one year ago that did not recieve much attention. Here is the First.

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If you have been around here lately then you know that I have been working on a paper on the higher-order theory of consciousness, and right now I am supposed to be converting the paper into a PowerPoint presentation, but I was distracted by the following line of thought…ah well…why fight it?

Freedom of speech is a foundational value in American society, and indeed ought to be foundational for any free society. Yet, even so we all recognize that there ought to be some limits set of this freedom. The important question, of course, is just what these limits ought to be. Famously Mill argued for what has come to be know as ‘the Harm Principle,’ which says, as he puts it, “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” But what limits does this impose?

Here is a quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Mill.

If we accept the argument based on the harm principle we need to ask “what types of speech, if any, cause harm?” Once we can answer this question, we have found the correct limits to free expression. Mill uses the example of speech related to corn dealers; he suggests that it is fine to claim that corn dealers are starvers of the poor if such a view is expressed through the medium of the printed page, but that it is not permissible to express the same view to an angry mob, ready to explode, that has gathered outside the house of the dealer. The difference between the two is that the latter is an expression “such as to constitute…a positive instigation to some mischievous act,” (1978, 53), namely, to place the rights, and possibly the life, of the corn dealer in danger.

This kind of argument is common is the free speech debate. It is akin to the adage ‘you can’t yell “fire!” in a crowded theatre’and the so-called “fighting words” exception to free speech. Recent times have seen an adaptation of this kind of argument (especially in Britten) with respect to inciting terrorism.

It seems to me that what this kind of an argument amounts to is an injunction on certain kinds of speech acts (i.e. an injunction against certain illocutionary forces especially when they have some harmful perlocutionary effect. (I take it for granted that you know some speech act theory (Austin, Grice, etc), if you don’t let me know in the comments and I will give you a brief introduction to the basic ideas)). In fact when one goes back and re-reads Mill with some speech act theory in mind, it becomes clear that he is defending our right to make assertions (read: express beliefs) that are unpopular/believed to be false by others and to express moral sentiments that others may deem immoral but this clearly does not apply to ever kind of act that we can perform with speech.

Once we see speech as a kind of action then it becomes obvious that we ought to prohibit some kinds of speech, in just the same way that we prohibit certain kinds of actions (this, I take it, is similar to Stanley Fish’s views and why he says that no speech is ‘free’ though he does not appeal to speech act theory). In particular it becomes obvious that some kinds of speech acts that fall under ‘hate speech’ ought to be prohibited. We would not allow someone to poke a random person on the subway with a stick repeatedly, just to annoy the person. Why, then, should we allow someone to psychologically jab at someone with a racial slur, just to annoy the person?

Let us invent a racial slur for discussion’s sake. Let us say that there is a group of people for whom to be called a ‘bagger’ is as hurtful to them as our English “n” word.  Now suppose that someone said “Baggers are less intelligent than Asians, and it is a waste of time to try to educate them.” On the view that I am advocating it would be allowable for someone to say that in the course of asserting that baggers are less intelligent than Asians, as that is the expression of a belief which is an allowable speech act no matter how repugnant the belief is, and also no matter how much it pains me to hear you express it. This is because the perlocutionary goal of assertion is to get someone to believe something and not to cause harm to that person. Any harm produced is “collateral damage.” 

But it would not be allowable, on my view, to say the same thing in the course of performing some other kind of speech act that had as its perlocutionary goal inflicting some kind of psychological damage on the person, or of inciting them to do violence. Thus what matters is not what is said, but what one is doing in and by saying it.

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7 thoughts on “Freedom of Speech Meets Speech Act Theory

  1. Interesting stuff. I think that you are right that whatever is to be prohibited regarding speech acts should be in the realm of perlocution.

    Relatedly, Rae Langton has a paper from a while back defending the view that pornography is comprised of speech acts that have as their illocutionary force the subjugation of women. I wrote a paper (long lost) back in grad school criticizing this view on the grounds that the relevant felicity conditions could never be actualized and that whatever harms ensued would have to be perlocutionary.

  2. Wow! We agree on something? Uh-oh…:0

    Thanks for the reference, I was unaware of her work on this issue. I did some quick research and it seems that her view is that pornography in effect prevents women from performing certain kinds of illocutionary acts and so is wrong for that reason…but certainly this ‘silencing’ argument depends on the perlocutionary effects of subjugation, doesn’t ti? And so I think that her view really collapses into ours…

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