More on Sanction in Speaking

 Posted by on 11 August 2005 at 6:11 am  Libertarianism
Aug 112005

My friend Ari Armstrong sent me this e-mail the other day, in response to my “Stinky Garbage on Islam” post. I asked him whether I could post it to NoodleFood, since I thought it elucided some valuable distinctions on the propriety of speaking in different fora.

Diana, your critique of Kelly’s take on Islam is quite good, and for that reason quite disturbing.

There is a subtlety here, though, pertaining to the Libertarian Supper Club, that just struck me.

There is nothing inherently wrong with inviting different speakers to discuss different moral views. An honest person can reasonably consider alternative ethical theories and evaluate them, before reaching firm moral convictions. And so I conclude that there is nothing inherently wrong with speaking to a group that invites speakers of different persuasions (e.g., Rand speaking at Ford Hall).

But the stated, explicit goal of many in the libertarian movement is to create a coalition of people with varied (i.e., incompatible) moral views. Thus, the motive in inviting speakers with different views is not to honestly evaluate different views and adopt the correct views, but rather to advertise libertarianism as a movement that is consistent with any ethical view. The idea is something like, “Look! Objectivists can be libertarians, too!” Next week, the message is, “Look! Christians can be libertarians, too!” And so on. I think that’s the thrust of Schwartz’s criticism [in "Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty"].

The motive of the speaker is relevant, too. If the motive is to show that Moral View X is one of many possible foundations for libertarianism, then that’s a problem. However, I do think it’s possible to be ignorant of the full motives of the inviting group, and to go into a forum reasonably believing the goal of the participants is to establish the truth. In other words, it would not be appropriate to automatically condemn somebody just for speaking to a libertarian group about ethics; such a condemnation would require additional evidence concerning the goals of the speaker.

To tie this to Paul’s example of the surgeon, there is a difference between speaking to a group one knows to be sympathetic to quacks, and speaking to a group one reasonably believes is pro-science but in fact is not. One can be mistaken in one’s initial evaluation of a group. On the other hand, surely the speaker has some responsibility in checking out a speaking engagement first.

Yet I still haven’t resolved this issue completely. Here are three examples that illustrate my problems.

1. [Example omitted as it concerns unreliable information about a particular person.]

2. Diana is going to the “Positive Psychology Conference,” which pertains to a movement that contains some really bad ideas.

3. I am speaking to an economics reading group about Referendum C. It’s not a “libertarian” group, but I know some self-described libertarians will be there. Also, while I will not speak to any Libertarian Party group, I have thought that it would be a good thing if members of that party worked against Referendum C.

There does seem to be a crucial distinction between the sanctioning of bad ideas and the formation of appropriate strategic alliances. I feel like I’m starting to get a better handle on what’s appropriate and what’s not, but I’m still struggling to completely work this out.

I really appreciate Ari’s comments on the relevance of the basic purposes of the audience and the speaker: Is the goal to make a rational choice about some issue — or to show that rational choice is unimportant? That’s a really helpful way of framing these questions about sanction in speaking, I think. (Even more, I appreciate Ari’s thoughtful approach to this general issue over the past few years, particularly since it’s so unusual for someone in his position.)

In the case of David Kelley, it was wrong to speak to the Laissez Faire Supper Club — and as a professional Objectivist intellectual, he ought to have known that. Yet it was his defense of that action in “A Question of Sanction” that really sealed the moral case against him.

I do have some preliminary answers to the questions Ari raises toward the end, but not the full theory that I’d like. Any thoughts?

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