Torture, free speech, and how the questions we ask might be making us dumber.

Recently I heard a clip from an interview where someone was arguing that hate speech shouldn’t be protected. It was an interesting argument and an opportunity to think about something that I had never really questioned. Then an odd thing happened. The argument reminded me of the justification of torture.

The thrust of the argument is that free speech, as it applies to hate speech, was a primary force behind the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany. In essence the question is, ‘If we can protect ourselves from the rise of fascism, isn’t it worth the cost?’ That’s a tough question to answer, however, in my opinion it’s also a question that makes us dumber.

Before explaining how a question can make us dumber, or at least make debate dumb, let’s cover the similarity to torture. Often, the question is posed, and accepted as perfectly reasonable, “If you could torture one person, in order to save thousands of lives, wouldn’t that be the right thing to do?

In essence these questions support the concept of the ends justifying the means. That concept has a major flaw. We can’t accurately predict the ends, not all of them.

In each of these cases, the question contains a hidden assumption. The assumption is that we can accurately predict the outcome. With small things we are pretty good at this, however, with the big, complicated, moral decisions, it’s almost impossible.

Let’s take an absurd question that people like to ask sometimes, “If you could go back in time and kill baby Hitler, would you do it?” Of course, you could probably just go back and stop his parents from getting together, or maybe give him an A on an art project, however, I digress.

We can be reasonably (though not 100%) certain that if Hitler never existed the specific atrocities he was responsible for wouldn’t of happened. What would be impossible to predict, is the entirety of the change that would have made to the world. There are possible scenarios with worse dictators, maybe nuclear war. Of course it’s just as likely that we have a more peaceful war. The point is, it’s the pinnacle of hubris to think we have more than a darts throw chance of predicting the ‘ends,’ when it comes to things that involve millions of people.

With torture, setting aside all of the perfectly good reasoning for avoiding torture based on it not working, we can not predict, nor will ever really know, all of the potential damage done.

With regards to free speech protection of hate speech, it’s quite possible that we are better off allowing these people to show themselves, instead of forcing them underground where we might not know they exist.

If we can’t predict the ends, how do we decide on the means. It’s important to understand that almost anytime someone is making an ‘ends justify the means’ type of argument, they’re proposing means that they themselves are accepting are immoral.

A (maybe the) core moral belief, that I believe almost everyone shares, is the golden rule (i.e. Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you). This may be a biological result of survival as ‘pack animals’ or it maybe a gift from god, or maybe both. In any case, most people feel a deep core connection to the belief that you should treat others as you’d like to be treated.

Where this breaks down is when we can’t empathize with another person’s situation. If you can’t put yourself in the shoes of a person negatively impacted by a decision, it makes it much easier to ignore a lapse in morality.

Listen for this statement, “I don’t understand how [people/persons] can [take action/make decision/etc].” In politics, this sentence is uttered often by both parties, and most often by the people who are most extremely to one side or the other. Of course, the person you’ll probably hear say it first, is yourself. There’s a pride behind it, that’s truly odd. Click here for the post I just wrote about this.