The Dartmouth Observer
Tuesday, October 18, 2005
Beyond the Pale?
Adam Shpeen over at the Agenda Gap (good stuff guys keep up the good work) made a very interesting remark today concerning a debate at Dartmouth on torture. First he quoted from the Dartmouth's summary of the event:
Attendees at a Monday discussion about whether torturing wartime prisoners is
After which Shpeen wrote:
Edsforth's protest baffles me. I agree with Edsforth that torture is
Adam frames the debate over Edsforth's remark to concern "a well-informed, healthy debate on the merits of torture" the censorship of which would be "a serious danger to the civil liberties we enjoy." He juxtaposes this to the claim that the debate itself would surely not threaten society. Edsforth, on the hand, seems to be defending a very different kind of ideal. In his mind liberal democracies ought to consider some issues settled for the purposes of debate; some practices are so morally indefensible to merit only condemnation as "barbaric, illegal, and immoral." Shpeen and Edsforth aren't actually talking to one another. Whereas Adam sees a political and civil issue, Edsforth has staked a normative-moral position.
Are there some topics that democracies oughtn't talk about due to lack of moral justification and defensibility? Should we debate rights that are moral indefeasiable, or, alternatively should we view this only as a civil-political issue. What if there was debate on "Should slavery be legal in the United States?", should persons attend? How about "Should women have the right to vote?" Edsforth's logic seems intuitively true here. There are some questions that ought to be so settled in a liberal democracy that are beyond the pale of free speech protection. Amy Gutmann's thoughts on the issue, now president of the University of Pennsylvania, will help frame my next few comments.
Let me be clear here: universities and communities dedicated to intellectual inquiry should aim to give the broadest possible protection to speech-acts and discourse. However, these same communities need a shared moral vocabulary larger and richer than our right to free speech. Guttmann writes in Multiculturalism that views which should earn our respect as political liberals are those positions we can understand as "reflecting a moral point of view." Can a defense of torture and extra-judicial killings, the specific policies Edsforth doesn't want us to debate, be seen as reflecting a moral point of view? Perhaps Adam cannot not so quickly answer that question. Even though Gutmann's next quote was meant to deal particularly with racist and sexist speech, I believe that it applicable to the moral logic behind Edsforth's protest: "[Certain] incidents [of speech] challenge members of liberal democratic communities to articulate the most fundamental moral presuppostions that unite us. We fail ourselves, and more importantly, [potential victims] if we do not respond the often unthinking, some drunken disregard for the most elementary standards of human decency."
I welcome discussion and deliberations on this point.