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20.7.04

Lying Liars And The Bloggers Who Censor Them

David Bernstein says that:

I, along with I think anyone else sensible (including James Madison in his day), would be happy to censor false and deceptive speech if we (1) had a reliable mechanism for separating it from "good" speech, and (2) could ensure that censoring deceptive and false speech wouldn't lead to a slippery slope culminating in the censorship of "good" speech disliked by the government.


Will Baude offers as a counterexample someone engaging in a lawful activity who is being threatened with unlawful violence because of inadequate police protection -- a Jew in an anti-Semitic town, for example. Baude makes the reasonable case that such a person ought to be allowed to lie in order to save his or her own skin. But it seems that if we're assuming an unrealistically perfect honesty law, it would be very strange not to also assume reliable enforcement of assault laws. If our society is advanced enough to be able to carry out Bernstein's honesty law, it could protect Jews and other unpopular people from their neighbors.

One might rescue the example by restating it so that the harassment is within the law -- being shunned, not getting votes when you run for public office, and so forth. I think a good case could be made that it should be permissible for our hypothetical Jew to lie to his anti-Semitic neighbors to avoid such treatment. Then again, if our government is in the business of legislating morality in the realm of honesty, then it seems like they would also pass much more restrictive laws against bigotry and harassment (and enforce them well) so that there would be little scope for lawful harm to an unpopular person.

UPDATE: I should point out that I'm not necessarily defending Bernstein's claim. I'm not certain that my uneasiness with strong censorship is merely a case of moral instincts calibrated for our own imperfect world and which are therefore misleading in strange hypothetical situations. As someone with utilitarian sympathies, I'm forced to accept a number of strange hypothetical situations in which lying is not just permissible but morally required.

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