Ethics for Everyone

Moral wisdom for the modern world

Freedom of Expression and the Truth

Truth is independent of freedom of belief and expression.

When people engage in dialogue and discussion about controversial moral issues, a common refrain when disagreement arises is "I have a right to my opinion!" The assumption seems to be either:

  1. If someone disagrees with me, then they don't believe that I have a right to believe and express my opinion; or
  2. The fact that I have a right to my opinion entails that my opinion is true, or at least as plausible as opposing viewpoints.

However, both of these assumptions are clearly false. Concerning the first point, two individuals may disagree about the morality of capital punishment, for example, and offer arguments to support their views. But mere disagreement here does not entail that either person believes that the other has no right to their opinion, or that she has no right to express it. People can disagree about all sorts of controversial moral, political, and religious issues and still respect the rights of those with whom they disagree. Of course, people do not always show such respect, but that is for reasons other than mere disagreement.

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In order to evaluate the second point above, consider what Russ Shafer-Landau calls “The Argument from Freedom of Conscience and Expression,” in his book Whatever Happened to Good and Evil?:

  • Premise 1: If people possess equal rights to an opinion about X, then their opinions about X are equally plausible.
  • Premise 2: People possess equal rights to an opinion about morality.
  • Therefore, people’s views about morality are equally plausible.

The problem, as Shafer-Landau points out, is that the first premise of this argument is false. I might have the same right to my opinion as my doctor has concerning the nature of my current illness or the extent of my latest soccer injury. But that does not mean that my opinion about this is just as plausible as hers. Similarly, I might have the same right to my opinion about some moral matter as anyone else, but this does not mean that our views are equally plausible. If that were true, then the views of the abolitionist and the slaveholder would be equally plausible, as would those of Adolf Hitler and Mother Teresa. Clearly these views are not equally plausible, and it is also clear that the right to believe what we want about morality and to express that belief does not lead to the conclusion that all moral views are equally plausible. Or, to put it another way, if there are good reasons to believe in moral relativism, they have nothing to do with these rights.

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Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University.

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