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Is unrestrained free speech defensible?

By Barry Newman

Barry is a retired NHS intensive care consultant. He volunteers for Dorset Humanists, both on the committee and as a school speaker. In this article he explores the virtues and pitfalls of free speech.

Is unrestrained free speech defensible? This question is a major source of debate in society today. Why particularly today? No doubt modern technology, which has enabled the broadcasting of personal views to an unprecedented degree, and the liberal culture of elevated individual freedom, have both contributed to this trend. But is unfettered free speech an unequivocal “good” in the moral sense? Questions of morality are of course a minefield, but one that can be reasonably negotiated using well-developed tools.

Do we always weigh our words...?


Applying the instrument of utilitarianism, one could say that free speech is justified when it generates beneficial outcomes for most people most of the time. However, objections can be raised to this approach - such as the interests of a majority having the potential to harm minorities, and the effects of unintended consequences. Positive aspects of a utilitarian approach include the observation that we almost always consider the consequences of our actions - consciously or subconsciously. But do we consciously consider the benefit of our acts to the majority? Do we always weigh our words so as to avoid giving offence or consider higher principles to be more important? What kinds of higher principles might these be?

A human rights approach

Free speech is considered a human right. It is enshrined in the granddaddy of all declarations of rights - the UNDHR (Article 19). It is a negative right or right of protection in that it guarantees non-interference in a freedom. But does declaring free speech a human right make it a moral right always and everywhere? To those who hold these declarations to be close to (humanistically) sacrosanct, the answer may be “Yes, always”. To those who recognise the messiness and irrationality of human interactions the answer may be “Usually”.

Another principle that might be called upon is that free speech allows and encourages challenge to accepted knowledge so that we might learn to progress knowledge. In today’s world, this seems like a reasonable approach as we have progressed beyond people being persecuted for suggesting the Earth travels round the Sun! But we apply this principle mainly in the realm of the physical, by which I mean science. The principle doesn’t easily apply to human opinions and behaviours.

We can also consider the principle of applying rules or norms in relation to free speech. Can we logically develop rules governing the limits of free speech that apply everywhere and always? This does seem like a difficult task. Where to draw the line and set limits to free speech and how to justify such rules is the core question that must be addressed by those who claim that there should be clear limits. One approach is to set rules to limit giving offence. But as we see in at least one world religion, and in the rise of woke culture, the assumed right to take offence when someone disagrees with you tends to sabotage this approach.

A virtue approach

The final tool in the toolbox of morality that may be of help in deciding on the benefits and limitations of free speech is virtue. This is a rather vague but very ancient idea which encourages a person to act so as to enhance flourishing - your own and everyone else’s. Virtue might be considered the core of the humanist worldview.

Virtue does not require one to exclusively employ specific tools such as those above to arrive at answers to moral questions. The idea of virtue rather provides guidance on how to live in general. Virtue is not absolute but sensitive to context. The ancients saw virtuous behaviour positioned somewhere between extremes. Just as courage is a position somewhere between foolhardiness and cowardice, so we should perhaps seek the morally justifiable place for the limits of free speech between the extremes of absolute free speech and the tyranny of severely limited freedom of expression. How can we apply this worldview to the thorny question of free speech? How can we approach the golden mean on this spectrum?

A good place to start would be to consider the impact of gratuitous provocation on everyone’s flourishing. Another might be to reject deliberate incitement to violence. Systematic opposition to the promotion of blatant lies (that is, claims for which there is no evidence, and plenty to the contrary) might help, as may resisting attempts to limit the kind of free speech that augments our pursuit of flourishing. I suspect that this very short list of goals might take us quite close to the golden mean that we seek in relation to the moral question of free speech.

It is therefore puzzling why humanists should agonise about this matter, when our worldview so effectively provides us with sound and ancient guidance that is central to our belief system. All we have to do is to apply this guidance consistently, insistently, and persistently, and hope that we can make a difference.

Suggested reading

Free Speech And Why It Matters (2021) Andrew Doyle

Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World (2016) Timothy Garton Ash

Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction (2009) Nigel Warburton

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