Masthead CMC Magazine / January 1, 1996

* Philosophical Approaches to Pornography, Free Speech, and CMC, by Charles Ess

We Discover the Foundations of Our Disagreements

Most arguments in favor of free speech rely on John Stuart Mill's utilitarian defense of free speech--i.e., one which argues that the consequences of free speech (at least insofar as such speech does not directly inflict harm), including the free expression of noxious and hateful ideas, are preferable to the probable consequences of attempting to impose limits on speech. But as especially Susan Dwyer points out, such a focus on the consequences of a possible act is not the only way we arrive at our moral claims. In point of fact, those who argue for limits on free speech often do so on entirely non-consequentialist grounds, such as (Kantian) principles of the absolute respect owed to human beings as ends-in- themselves.

Understanding which philosophical foundations we may assume in our debate can help us avoid unnecessary disagreement by helping us discern more clearly the fundamental, but ordinarily tacit, grounds of our disagreements. As we discern more clearly the larger philosophical frameworks both we and our interlocutors assume--we may discover that the debate in some ways runs more deeply--i.e., as a debate more generally about whether to approach such issues from either consequentialist or non- consequentalist grounds. Focusing more directly on the underlying sources of disagreement promises to help us more readily move beyond disagreement: we cannot resolve differences we are unaware of. --


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