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On the idea of absolute rights

According to legend, Alexander the Great asked Diogenes the Cynic what he considered the most valuable thing in the world. Without hesitation, Diogenes answered "parrhêsia"(a term commonly translated from Greek to express "freedom of speech").


18th and 19th Liberal Uprising in Madrid by F. P. Van Halen July 1854.


By Joshua Peters

Are our rights absolute? A very important question, and I may not be up to the task of giving a complete answer. But I will give a response, which I hope is sufficient.

If such a thing as an “absolute right” exists, then I will say it is but one right, and that is freedom of speech—and from freedom of speech, we derive all other rights.

For a right to be absolute, there cannot be any other right that competes with it or has the potential to undermine it. That is to say, other rights are either compatible or relative in relation to the absolute right. Here, I will argue that freedom of speech is the only right that can be positioned as an absolute right.

American linguists like Chomsky, Pinker, Searle, Putnam, and McWhorter advocate the perspective that language is encoded with an innate structure, contributing to our experience as human beings. If this premise holds true, then language, more than any other form of expression, becomes an inherent feature of our everyday existence, providing a means (i.e., communication, discourse, dialogue, etc.) to achieve ends that enhance our experience and understanding. Therefore, freedom of speech is not merely an abstract concept or theory limited to text-to-text relations, but rather a necessity for human life that is instrumental in our understanding of concrete phenomena.

If I am correct in saying what I have said, then the question becomes, “What authority does any institution, corporation, or government have to dictate the limits, if any, on freedom of speech?” To which I will respond, they have no authority in and of themselves to determine the limit of freedom of speech.

As one might wonder, how is it possible to enforce restrictions on freedom of speech without legitimate authority? We have seen employers, social institutions, and governments—through the use of agencies—limit freedom of speech with little to no consequences. A notable example involves Google, where employees have alleged retaliation for speaking out on issues ranging from sexual harassment to the company’s involvement in certain government contracts. In academia, debates over “safe spaces” and “free speech zones” on college campuses arise, where the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) often highlights cases in which universities have overstepped in regulating speech, arguably to the detriment of open dialogue and academic freedom. The Twitter Files serve as a distressing example of governmental agencies leveraging social media companies to censor freedom of speech. These examples underscore the importance of Albert Camus’ philosophy during times of oppression: “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”

Unfortunately, it is the natural tendency of all organizations that do not adhere to principles and lack a system of checks and balances to ensure individuals are held accountable for deviating from said principles. Without such a system, these organizations tend to lean towards totalitarianism, often disregarding your rights, however absolute they may be.

But the response I have given to the initial question is unsatisfactory because all I have said is that we may have an absolute right to freedom of speech, but some collective body could care less if it can get away with restricting it.

Exploring the potential limitations on freedom of speech becomes particularly intriguing when considering its status as an absolute right. The critical question then emerges: How can society impose limits on speech in a legitimate manner without infringing on freedom of speech? This discussion necessitates a deeper examination of two fundamental concepts. Firstly, we must understand the intrinsic nature of freedom of speech when regarded as an absolute right. Secondly, it’s essential to explore how this notion of freedom of speech as an absolute right can coexist with the principle of equality.

Asserting that freedom of speech as an absolute right permits individuals to say whatever they wish without facing consequences is oversimplistic to the point of immaturity and undermines its significance. Such a view is reductive, failing to capture the meaningful essence of what freedom of speech as an absolute right truly entails. A more nuanced and mature interpretation understands freedom of speech not merely as the absence of restraint but as the liberty to employ our inherent capacity for rational thought. It is the right to pursue the depths of an idea through diligent reasoning and comprehensive understanding. This approach acknowledges freedom of speech as an absolute right, rooted in the pursuit of knowledge. This, I believe, is the essence of freedom of speech as an absolute right.

The perspective previously mentioned is rooted in the philosophical movement of idealism, which emerged towards the end of the Age of Enlightenment. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724—1804) built his philosophical framework on transcendental idealism, positing that our capacity for knowledge is founded on reason and understanding. At the heart of this rationalistic viewpoint is the notion of freedom within the realm of causality, described as an “unconditioned,” “absolute totality” affirmed by reason, thereby facilitating understanding.

[H]ence, reason here takes the road of starting from the idea of totality, though its final aim is indeed the unconditioned, whether that of the whole series or of a part thereof. This unconditioned may be conceived in two ways. … In the former case the series is a parte priori [on the side of what is prior] without limits (without a beginning), that is, is infinite, but given as a whole; the regress in it, however, is never complete and can therefore be called infinite only potentially. In the latter case there is a first member of the series, which with respect to past time, is called the beginning of the world; with respect to space, the limit of the world; with respect to the parts of a given limited whole, the simple; with respect to causes, absolute self-activity (freedom); with respect to the existence of alterable things, absolute natural necessity.

Kant lays the groundwork for our rational constitution of reality. Through reason, we synthesize our understanding of the world based on transcendental ideas and explore the practical concept of freedom, anchored in his “transcendental idea of freedom”:

Freedom, in its practical sense, is the independence of our will from coercion through impulses of sensibility. Our will is sensible insofar as it is affected pathologically (by impulses of sensibility); it is animal will (arbitrium brutum) if it can be necessitated pathologically. The human will is certainly an arbitrium sensitivum [sensible will], not, however, brutum [animal], but liberum [free]; for sensible impulses do not necessitate its action, but there is in human beings a faculty of self-determination, independent of the necessitation through sensible impulses.

According to Kant, reason equips us with a practical means to improve our existence as self-determined beings, merging a transcendental idealistic view of existence with the empirical world. Thus, reason becomes a practical tool that enables us to navigate life in a manner that rationalizes our experiences towards a better future—a progression towards freedom.

Building upon Kant’s idealist tradition, Hegel further explores the convergence between the rational and the real, unveiling absolute freedom. Hence, the idealist conception of freedom is fundamentally rational. This forms the basis of my argument for freedom of speech as an absolute right.

Exploring the concept of freedom of speech as an absolute right, and my understanding of it, allows us to examine the role of equality in establishing legitimate limits on speech without, I believe, infringing on freedom of speech. Before delving deeper, let’s establish a foundational understanding. Imagine you are a parent contemplating the optimal way to cultivate your child’s development towards a productive and happy future. Considering the child’s growth from infancy through to juvenile stages and maturity, what legitimate restrictions might you impose on their behavior during these developmental phases?

Most people would agree on the necessity of imposing restrictions before maturity, recognizing that the child lacks a fully developed capacity to comprehend the consequences of their actions. It becomes crucial, then, to instill an early understanding of the repercussions of specific behaviors. If this analogy is valid, we can begin to bridge the gap between immature and mature speech and how mature speech unfolds into the conception of freedom of speech.

Equality enters the discussion as previously hinted at in the analogy when I mentioned that “most people would agree.” Equality serves as a check on immature speech but remains compatible with mature speech as this becomes the normative idea by “most people,” and thus the conception of freedom of speech as I have expressed it. The Founding Fathers of the United States articulated this sentiment: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” I believe that the principle of equality, especially in the participation of establishing normative ideas, is the driving force behind a society founded on the belief that freedom of speech is innate to an individual’s existence, underpinning our commitment to freedom of speech as an absolute right.

Inspired by the belief in individual equality, we have liberated ourselves from regressive and restrictive notions of freedom. This process allows us to transcend immature speech, moving towards its more mature and absolute form. Although abstract, this concept of freedom of speech has concrete historical examples. For instance, there was a time when the common belief was that women and individuals of non-European descent should not vote. This belief, freely expressed, reflected the social arrangements of the time. However, the spirit of equality motivated individuals to advocate for a new normative idea that didn’t arbitrarily restrict voting rights based on such criteria. As our conception of freedom evolved, so did our discourse.

In contemporary times, the notion that individuals should be denied the right to vote based on innate characteristics is largely rejected. If such individuals exist, they likely represent a negligible fraction of the population. Their immature speech is, I argue, legitimately constrained by the manifestation of equality in the form of democracy. Drawing from Hegelian ideas, we can see the progression towards freedom of speech as an absolute right that aligns with democratic processes.

However, this democratic view should not be misconstrued as advocating for the silencing of freedom of speech. It posits that while democracy, especially one rooted in liberalism, may legitimately limit immature speech from impacting society, it has no right to suppress personal speech or advocate for the silencing of such expressions. This determination is left to the dialectical process.

Moreover, democracy lacks the legitimacy to restrict freedom of speech that is based on rationality, both individually and societally. When democratic processes serve to silence speech, it signals what Alexis de Tocqueville termed the “tyranny of the majority.” Just as totalitarianism is unacceptable in a free society, so too should be majoritarianism.

Addressing good faith discussions that may lead to immature forms of speech, it’s important to recognize that in practice freedom of speech is freedom from unjust authority, not from just accountability. The right to speak rational ideas does not imply freedom from consequences in the form of rejection, offending, or concerns with the direction of one’s idea. But we must proceed with having the discourse regardless. As Jordan Peterson famously states, “In order to be able to think, you have to risk being offensive.” In good faith discourse, we aim to ensure that consequences are just, however, facilitated by a dialectical process that seeks clarity in language and understanding of the experiences underlying advocated speech. This process holds individuals accountable for consequential behavior arising from good faith discourse, affording due process to the individual involved.

I hope this serves as a sufficient starting point to address the question, “Are our rights absolute?” Even if it falls short, it underscores our freedom to engage in ongoing discussions and refine our understanding of what it means for a right to be absolute. Intriguingly, the very act of contemplating the absoluteness of rights presupposes the freedom to discuss and define the nature of those rights. This preliminary freedom forms the foundation of our exploration, inviting us to consider the inherent role of freedom of speech in the concept of absolute rights.

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