On Offense (Free Speech and The Right to be Wrong)

When I first discovered the online skeptic movement, I was thrilled. A community of people devoting themselves to rationalism—to actively opposing fallacious reasoning and cognitive biases for the noble goal of maximizing truth? I am unequivocally on board with these ideals, and on the whole, the skeptic movement tends to be far better than average in its approach to scientific reasoning. “Better than average,” however, still is not perfect, and the unfortunate reality is that even skeptics fail to exercise critical thinking at times.

There is a distressingly common trend, even among self-styled rationalists, where empty rhetoric is parroted in lieu of rational argument, disregarding the entirety of what someone says if it contains elements that run counter to the former person’s malformed ideals. This runs entirely counter to the expressly stated goals of skepticism. Free speech is one such recurring example. There are those who say that freedom of speech is absolute—that imposing any restrictions on the content or context of someone’s speech is uniformly a violation of that person’s rights. This is, of course, demonstrably false, yet the claim persists. “Free speech” is a nuanced concept, and holding it up as if it were some immaculate, unconditional virtue is the polar opposite of rationality: it is perhaps even dogmatism, that unholy grail of skepticism sins, and those who would have you believe it to be absolute and axiomatic would ask you to surrender your reasoning capacities in favor of their hollow ideology.

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On Abortion and Vaccines

At first glance, it might seem strange to combine an evaluation of abortion with vaccination, but the two are inexorably linked. At their cores, they are both rooted in the same issue: the right to bodily autonomy.

Of all rights, the right to control one’s own body seems the least controversial. If rights exist at all, then the right to make choices regarding what happens to your body should be paramount. In a way, it is from this right that all others derive—the right to free speech is the right to use your body to speak. The right to be free from physical violence is the right not to have your bodily integrity damaged by another. The right to privacy, where it exists, is to regard a person’s private space as an extension of their body. Property rights are useless without the right to use tools being implicit within the right to bodily integrity.

Before we move on, let’s address the question of whether—and how—rights exist. The religiously minded answer to the question of whether rights exist is inevitably “Yes, of course they exist. God gave them to us.” This answer is not satisfactory, and not only for the not quite trivial reason that no such beings exist, so they cannot “give” us anything. That point aside, rights are legal privileges that dictate what actions a government can and cannot take. The “right to free speech” is a legal principle that forbids a governmental body from restricting the speech of its citizens. This is a powerful principle, and much of the developed world takes it for granted, yet it is not present everywhere. There are countless people for whom speaking out against the dominant ideology would mean political suicide—or very conceivably death.

We needn’t consider such an extreme example, however, to realize that rights are not inviolable. Even the United States recognizes that “free speech” does not allow a person to say absolutely anything they desire. Even in the context of a free society, some speech must be limited for the public good. These exceptions are not immediately apparent upon hearing the phrase “free speech,” but there can be no question that the majority of the developed world, this concept is treated with great reverence. The list of examples of speech that can or should be restricted has been fleshed out over time; as it became apparent that new instances of speech were particularly troublesome, they were considered and argued by legal scholars. Thus, we see that rights are social constructs, and while they may not be “endowed by [our] Creator,” they are still very much real, and they contain just as much nuance as any other area of legal scholarship.

With the example of free speech, we see that a right is contingent upon something else to exist—rights are not self-evident. But what? The answer seems to be harm: rights apply only as long as the application of that right prevents harm. We do not allow speech that directly invites harm—we censor lies, threats, and provocations of violence and lawlessness because each of these things has a palpable risk of harm if left unchecked. We recognize that shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater carries an immediate risk of panic (which carries an immediate risk of harm), and even though we may possess the ability to respond by shouting “There is no fire!” in return, quelling a mob is significantly harder than inciting one, and what damage has been done cannot be undone by such a counter-exclamation.

To the case of abortion, then. The arguments in favor of keeping abortion legal by and large make an appeal to the right to bodily autonomy—the principle that demands “I am the ultimate arbiter of what happens to my body.” We instinctively recognize this right in ourselves, yet some people seem to have difficulty extending the idea to others. We do not recognize the government as possessing the power to forcibly tattoo citizens. If agents of the government sought to enforce a policy of compulsory body piercings, there would be outrage. “No government can force me to pierce my nipples,” men and women alike would shout. Similarly, the government has no reasonable basis for banning the voluntary practice of navel piercing, but it does have a reasonable argument for regulating the practice—by establishing health standards, the government is justified in demanding that such procedures, when voluntarily undertaken, be done in ways guaranteed to mitigate the threat of harm. We would never abide a policy of involuntary violinist-tethering; if, however, a violinist were in dire need of an organ transplant, we do have voluntary donor programs that serve this very function!

Those who oppose abortion have traditionally adopted a stance of moral indignation, suggesting that a woman’s pregnancy has rights that exceed the woman’s right to autonomy. This approach, enduring though it may be, is utterly baseless. We do not grant rights equally to an adult, a child, a dog, a statue, and a box of paints. We recognize that each item in that list has fewer rights than the item preceding it. The paints have the potential to become a portrait, but we would never dream of hanging them on our wall. The statue may have all the same external physical characteristics of a person, but it gets no rights afforded to human beings because it isn’t a person. We recognize that the dog has some rights due to being a living, thinking creature. We see that dogs feel pain, thus they should not be subjected to needless torture; however, we do not seriously discuss a dog’s right to free speech or to the freedom of doggy-religion. Because children are capable of speaking, reasoning, and feeling pain, they are entitled to more rights than the family pet, but by virtue of their inability to engage in higher reasoning and to understand the consequences of their actions, we do not grant them the full rights and privileges of an adult. With these factors in mind, it seems we must conclude that rights—including the right to bodily autonomy—are contingent upon and proportional to one’s ability to feel, to plan, and to reason. Due to their reduced capacity for these things, the child’s and the dog’s rights to autonomy are consequently entrusted, at least partially, to their respective caretakers for as long as (and to the degree that) they lack the ability to do these things. Inescapably, then, a fetus can have no rights of its own because it has no more ability to engage in these higher-level activities than the statue or the box of paints.

Some anti-abortion activists suggest that because an embryo has the potential to become a person, it is entitled to the rights of a person, but this is absurd. A thing’s value is not determined by what it might one day become but rather what it is. If this were not the case, we would punish the amateur artist with prison for destroying a canvas’s ability to become the next The Starry Night when they fail to produce anything more moving than a painful self-portrait. An embryo’s ability to become a person is contingent upon an exhaustive list of conditions that are not guaranteed to occur, just like how any given blank canvas has the ability to become the Mona Lisa. It is incoherent and frankly offensive to insist on the treatment of potential as the equivalent of reality. To regard a cluster of cells that has the potential to become a person as having all the same rights as an actual person, is to fundamentally misunderstand the entire spheres of morality, legality, and biology.

But even this obscene false equivalence of potentiality to actuality is not what the anti-abortion crowd advocates. Instead, they would rank the well-being of this potential life above the woman’s by denying her the right to bodily autonomy. I don’t think there is any contention over whether children have the “right to life”—they certainly do! (Although I would stress that a “fetus” is not a “child.”) Children, however, do not have the right to be raised by their biological parents: we are free to give our children up for adoption, as abortion opponents just love to remind us. In the same sense, even if an embryo had any right to life, it would not have the right to impinge upon another’s right to bodily integrity. If such a right existed at all, I would insist that it exercise that right in someone else’s womb—someone who actually wants it there.

Yet we should always remember that rights are conditional. Just as the right to free speech does not guard against harmful speech, we must consider the potential harms of abortion. Does an abortion harm the fetus? There may be reasons to answer this question with a yes, but we cannot simplify rights to a false dichotomy of “harm exists” and “harm does not exist” because such a binary standard would be functionally unworkable. Instead, we have to look at a sliding scale, acknowledging that some actions are more harmful than others, and conceding that there is a certain threshold at which harm becomes inexcusable.

How do we draw this line? I don’t claim to have the perfect answer, but a good first guess would seem to be to use pain as a standard. A shoe does not feel pain. An amoeba does not suffer. A tree does not weep. These kinds of discomfort require neural activity—not just that, they require a sufficiently developed nervous system. Pain is a mental state, so things that are not capable of mental states cannot experience it. This is why we feel no remorse for killing and eating carrots. Most aborted fetuses lack this capacity. If it comes down to a choice between a pregnant woman’s bodily autonomy and the fetus, which is incapable of suffering, only someone with no moral compass could choose the latter, just as a choice between the rights of a woman and a park bench is easily decided in the woman’s favor. Where, approximately, is the line separating an acceptable imposition of pain from an unacceptable one?

To answer that question, let’s turn to the topic of vaccination. There can be no question that a government mandate requiring a person to be vaccinated is a suspension of their bodily autonomy, but we’ve already seen that rights can be suspended, so this alone is not a worthwhile question. Instead, let’s ask whether it is an acceptable violation. Violating the right to free speech is judged permissible when doing so prevents larger harms. For the most part, forbidding people from speaking freely in public can be seen to have very negative repercussions on that society in, for example, being subjected to official sanctions for actions that do not cause harm (as does sometimes happen). Thus, there must be some nuance to interpreting the acceptability of constraining rights. Let’s turn to cost-benefit analyses to better understand this.

In a cost-benefit analysis of forbidding “blasphemy,” we see the following:
Cost: People go to prison for disagreeing with religious claims.
Benefit: Religious believers don’t have to endure the inconvenience of hearing someone disagree with them about their religion.
Conclusion: Having the occasional person disagree with you is significantly less damaging than being imprisoned over disagreeing with someone. That cost does not justify the harm.

How about forbidding calls to violence?
Cost: People can go to jail for saying things like, “Hey everyone, let’s go firebomb that building!”
Benefit: Fewer buildings get firebombed.
Conclusion: If enforced, this leads to a very plausible deterrent effect, strongly suggesting a more stable society as a result of having less crime. This fairly convincingly outweighs the inconvenience of having to express yourself without asking people to commit themselves to violent actions.

What about vaccination, then? Well, contrary to popular urban legend, vaccines do not cause autism. There are recorded instances of vaccines having unfortunate side effects, but these have been largely corrected for through the wonders of modern medical science, wherein scientists identify the mechanisms that cause sickness and address those mechanisms—you know, instead of just hoping really hard. (There is actually a lot of misinformation about vaccines that is constantly spread around by anti-vax ideologues with no grasp over science.) On to the cost-benefit analysis, then:
Cost: In the case of the MMR vaccine, a less than one in one million chance of severe side effects.
Benefit: A breathtakingly effective way to avoid the harms of diseases that ravaged preceding generations for hundreds or thousands of years.
Conclusion: When you calculate the difference, you see that the risk of harm from the disease is over ten times greater than the risk from the vaccine.

With these cost-benefit analyses in mind, why should we compare abortion to vaccination? At first glance, the issue of whether or not we can legislate abortion seems to need the same answer as whether or not we can legislate vaccination—if bodily integrity requires that abortion be legal, then mandatory vaccination must also be illegal, right? Or, conversely, if mandatory vaccination can be legal, then we should be able to declare abortions illegal on the same reasoning, right?


In the case of mandating vaccination, the benefits demonstrably exceed the costs. The temporary violation of the individual’s right to bodily autonomy is offset by the drastic improvement in that same individual’s quality of life. Also, by contributing to herd immunity, that individual’s vaccination also improves the well-being of every other member of society. What are the benefits to outlawing abortion? Doing this would endow a fetus—a potential human, rather than an actual human—with rights more powerful than the woman’s own right to bodily integrity. At best, the result of this is that a new, unwanted child enters the world. But this interpretation is a white-washing of the normal physical and psychological effects pregnancy has on a woman’s body, the potentially very serious complications of pregnancy, and the increased trauma of being forced to bear a child against her will, which has been likened rather convincingly to forced organ donation.

In my eyes, this is an open-and-shut case. Government mandated vaccinations are low-risk inconveniences akin to, well, being forced to go to the doctor’s office. At the worst, they bring a slight risk of harm well below that brought on by the diseases they prevent.* Government mandated child-bearing, on the other hand, introduces a guaranteed substantial investment of time and energy. This forces a woman to undergo a torrent of physiological changes that will very likely result in permanent and unwanted changes to her body. This is a guaranteed harm. If we are going to permit the temporary suspension of the right to bodily autonomy, which I contend we must, let it be only in cases where doing so is overwhelmingly beneficial to the person whose rights are being overridden. Demanding that women relinquish their right to bodily integrity to carry out a policy of mandatory pregnancy would be nothing short of the abrogation of moral reasoning.

So, dear reader, does this sound like a reasonable interpretation of these two issues? Why or why not? I welcome your feedback.**

*I guess you also have those incessant spurious pseudoscientific claims that endure in spite of being regularly debunked by the scientifically literate. Some might say that that’s a pretty big drawback, but it certainly doesn’t outweigh the health benefits of immunization.
**If any of this didn’t make sense, I blame the fact that I faced a constant stream of interruptions while writing this. Feel free to point out any indecipherable bits.

Secular Morality and the Foundations of Governance

Religious morality is anything but. When compared to evidence-based approaches, dogmatic adherence to scripture is less productive at best and more likely to be actively destructive. There is no good reason to prefer religious doctrine over scientific approaches. History overflows with examples where religious solutions to problems have succeeded only in making the situation worse, and knowingly perpetuating this pattern is indefensible. If there were any evidence for god claims or any good reason to believe one religion were true, this might not be the case. Thankfully, there is no such evidence, so we have no compelling reason to construct anything but secular models for society. (To the circular argument that says, “the Bible must be true because the Bible says the Bible was written by God, so God exists like the Bible says, so we have to obey God exactly how the Bible says,” I respond only with this.)

What would a society based on secular values look like? To paint that picture, we must first identify the foundational guiding ethic. Here’s my attempt at doing so:

  1. That which does no harm is not bad and must not be forbidden.
  2. That which contributes to the betterment of society is preferable to that which does not.
  3. That which causes harm must resisted and responded to in proportion to the harm done.

I can’t think of anything to add to this list, but there might still be ways to improve it. (I’ll update it as suggestions merit revision.)  These rules govern the relative morality of any given action or policy, and a society that sought to pursue them as core considerations of governance would be superior to one adhering to an alternate agenda.

What follows is a somewhat long-winded consideration of good governance. This might not be everyone else’s cup of tea, but I got into a somewhat lengthy discussion of politics earlier today, and I’d like to assemble my thoughts on the subject.

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