Sunday, 17 January 2010


“[W]e are pitted against an enemy swathed in religious and political certitude and we have only the ghost of a notion to sustain us: the notion of freedom of speech and freedom of thought.” [1]

I find it almost incredible that anyone could believe not only that the idea of freedom of speech and thought sustains us, which is a weird belief all by itself, but that it is the only thing that does so. I accept that liberalism estranges a man from reason and reality, but could it really set him so far asunder? Surely it is possible, but I doubt it in this case: it is far more likely that here is just another instance of flippantly-hyperbolic and ill-considered status-posturing to magnanimity which is typical of liberals  when they are taking  the safe opportunity to demonstrate their adherence to a creed which consists of little else but flippantly-hyperbolic and ill-considered status-posturing to magnanimity. [2] Still, if they expect their airy nihilism to be of any force against “an enemy swathed in religious and political certitude”, then they may be disappointed. Then again, perhaps the vapour of liberalism really does have the power to corrupt and corrode everything that comes into contact with it. [3] That is a possibility which cannot be discounted, but it is one too awful to contemplate.

[1] Rod Liddle, “We must defend the right to be stupid, vile and obnoxious”, The Sunday Times, 17th January 2010. (There is no such right, no corresponding duty to defend it, and therefore no right for liberals to impose that duty. Thereon see also a post at one of the other places, or better still, see David S. Oderberg, “Is There a Right to be Wrong?”, Philosophy, 75 (2000), pp.517-537.) Mr Liddle does have his good side: he heartily offends those further to the left of him, for which we may be thankful.
[2] One may be curious to know whether a careless mind feels like a great soul, but one would have to become a liberal misquoting a philosophe to find out.
[3] Friedrich Nietzsche once kindly noted: “The honourable term for mediocre is, of course, the word ‘liberal’.” (The Will to Power, tr. W. Kaufmann & R.J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), p.462: §864.)


Bruce Charlton said...

Thanks for the pointer to David Oderberg's essay. Very thought-provoking indeed - and it made me realize that I have been (probably still am) guilty of just the kind of nonsense which he critiques.

Rich said...

Yes, thanks for that Oderberg link. Very useful.

Alat said...

I also thank you for the Oderberg essay.

Deogolwulf said...

My pleasure.

TDK said...

I'm a little disappointed by the linked essay. If he's going to examine the idea that there is a right to be wrong then he needs establish some proper argument beyond, what seems to me to be, straw men:

the right to make mistakes is often, especially in modern society, seen as a positive good, something to be encouraged. The thought here is that the right to make mistakes is central to a person’s self determination

Perhaps that's a true account of modern society but it is not a defence of the right to be wrong.

Let me try and make such a defence. First, let's remind ourselves of the idea of Natural Law. There are truths governing the affairs of man regardless of whether or not we can rationally describe them. Think of this as human nature if you like. Explain the deficiency by virtue of the fact that we are an animal which is limited in the regard of not being able to recognise that we have certain limits. The important issue is that there is truth out there regardless of whether or not we know it. And that truth will out.

As a practical example, think of the issue of ethics. We have a developed sense of right and wrong and, as a species, attempted to understand and rationalise this - Utilitarianism, the Categorical Imperative etc. All such rationalisations have flaws. This suggests that we still haven't arrived at the truth albeit we may be closer.

In the same way Newtonian laws of motion have been found wanting at the sub atomic level. We might say that his truth was flawed. Nevertheless his error brought us closer to the truth.

The idea of the right to be wrong is not concerned with the propagation of errors but in determining the best path to the truth. Truth emerges from free enquiry, but it isn't an inevitable outcome - free enquiry comes up with falsehood as well.

The alternative is that we seek to limit free enquiry to prevent falsehood emerging. If so, who will we select to be the priesthood that protects the truth.

Deogolwulf said...


The charge of his setting up straw men is just silly. The rest of your comment deals not at all with his arguments nor even with the spirit of his essay, and it certainly provides no defence of the absurd idea of the right to be wrong. It strikes me that you have not understood what he is saying. (He is not, by the way, a defender of Lockean so-called Natural Law, which, as Edward Feser points out, is such in name only, and would perhaps be named better as Supernatural Law.) Some relevant passages from Oderberg’s essay:

“Given that there is a duty to believe what is true, it would also be an impossible act morality allowed us to perform if we also had the right to believe what was false, since by performing the duty and exercising the alleged right we would again be engaged in believing a contradiction. Now whether it is logically or only psychologically impossible to believe a contradiction is irrelevant: if it cannot be done, there can be no right to do it, and something has to give. Since there is a duty to believe the true, there cannot also be a right to believe the false.” p.530.

“It is the truth that sets us free, not error. Of course knowing the truth is not always easy, especially in times such as these when diversity of opinion is prized as a great social value. Mill thought that truth would spring forth from this very diversity like a fountain fed by many tributaries. The reality, however, is that the more diversity of opinion there is for the sake of diversity, the harder it is to see even the most elementary truths. One might plausibly go further and assert that sheer diversity for diversity’s sake not only obscures truth and is therefore unlikely to promote it, but also positively works against truth by sowing confusion, multiplying error, and encouraging despair in the truth-seeking individual that he will ever find the object of his pursuit. Freedom of belief, then, to the extent that it exists, should really be called freedom of opinion. It does not consist in the right to embrace falsehood, nor in the right of a society to contain diversity of belief just for the sake of it. Rather, it consists in the right of individuals to keep an open mind in matters where there is no certainty, where evidence points in different directions, and where people of intelligence and good will towards truth differ in their beliefs about some proposition or other. Freedom of opinion, then, exists only at the level of the assessment of evidence and only when evidence is genuinely equivocal. Anything else would not be freedom but slavery, just as the lost man wandering the desert without a map is free to explore any direction he likes but is in reality a slave to his ignorance. It is the man with a map who is truly free.” p.532.

“There may not be any freedom of belief in the sense of a moral right to embrace falsehood, but there is indeed a moral right not to be coerced into embracing truth. Elizabeth may have no right to believe that two and two make five, but she does have the right not to be forced into believing that they make four. The reason is that just as the fulfilment of our rational nature requires the embrace of truth, so it requires that embrace to be voluntary. Compelled belief perverts our reason just as much as false belief..” p.532.

TDK said...

I don't have time for a full reply now.

I made the straw man accusation because I don't think anyone who makes a claim for the right to be wrong, makes a claim for a value in being wrong in itself. I rather think that the common element is that the right to be wrong derives from the idea that it is better to have a free society.

As to the comment about Natural Law, replace with Platonic Ideals if you prefer. I'm trying to distinguish between truth and the human conception of truth. A metaphor rather than an explicit reference to the Natural Law canon.

I don't think it follows that having freedom to make mistakes implies that we have to have a multiplicity of contradictory truths. ie Diversity for diversities sake. I would have thought my examples make that clear.

Nor does the historical record support the idea

The reality, however, is that the more diversity of opinion there is for the sake of diversity, the harder it is to see even the most elementary truths. One might plausibly go further and assert that sheer diversity for diversity’s sake not only obscures truth and is therefore unlikely to promote it, but also positively works against truth by sowing confusion, multiplying error, and encouraging despair in the truth-seeking individual that he will ever find the object of his pursuit.

To pick two examples:
1. The Muslim world achieved its creative zenith during its early years after conquering the Levant but before religious conformity stifle questioning.
2. The Christian World flourished when schism occurred between Protestant and Catholic and later between secularism and Protestantism.

Clearly conformity stifles. It might be correct that too much diversity is as much a problem as too much conformity but that case needs to be made.

As an aside I think that in the modern era words are captured by the political elite and perverted. Diversity means diversity of trivia like skin colour but absolute conformity in terms of opinion. Our society is not collapsing because of too much diversity of ideas!

JohnM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
TDK said...

Incidentally I don't want to leave without correcting the impression that I thought the essay valueless.

It's twenty odd years since I thought deeply about this issues.

Anonymous said...

I say, your writing is wonderful. What are you reading to keep your mind in this crisp, clean, pithy shape?

Stephen Fox said...

Deogolwulf and TDK,

Thank you for your excellent exchange of views.

Was it Lord Curzon who, when informed of the ancient custom of 'suttee', replied explaining our ancient custom of hanging people who murder newly widowed old ladies, and proposed carrying out the two customs, one after the other?
Perhaps this is not really a matter of right and wrong after all.
I shall now read the essay by Mr Oderberg...