Moral Philosophy

Eve Garrard comments at Normblog on this whole incompletely theorized thing we have going here (though not in those terms, which I have only just this second dragged in). Her comment is interesting, and it helpfully omits the part about being puzzled as to why I keep etc etc (yes, I am having fun with that, why do you ask?) – but it still isn’t quite what I’m talking about, at least I think it isn’t.

It’s very hard to see why we would think that Holocaust-denial ought to be legally permissible unless we think that there’s a moral right in play, that people have a moral right to speak their minds, even if what their minds contain is false and indeed disgusting. But this is what Ophelia jibs at – given that Holocaust-denial involves lies and falsifications, why should we think we have a moral right to engage in it? How can we have a moral right to lie, falsify the evidence, play fast and loose with the truth?

That isn’t exactly what I jib at. Because I don’t think Holocaust denial does necessarily involve lies and falsifications. It can involve error, self-deception, misinterpretation. It can also involve, no doubt, transient lies in speech rather than in print, and it can involve minor infrequent lies in print – lies that are unsystematic enough to fall short of unmistakable deception and falsification. But I take systematic falsification to be a different matter – and, again, I think it is telling that people mostly don’t defend Irving’s right to engage in systematic falsification; at the very least I wonder why that is, and if it doesn’t hint at something.

This is not an unreasonable question. Lies and falsifications are generally (and certainly in the case of Holocaust-denial) morally wrong. And it does seem puzzling, even paradoxical, to say that we can have a moral right to do that which is morally wrong. Nonetheless it’s true that we do: we sometimes have the moral right to act – that is, people ought not to prevent us from acting – in ways which are undoubtedly morally wrong.

Hmm. Which people and in what sense of ‘prevent us’ I wonder. In the examples Eve gives, I’m not sure it’s true that people close to us ought not to try to prevent us by persuasion, for instance. But no doubt she means forcibly prevent, which is another matter. Anyway, this is Eve’s field, and it’s certainly not mine, so I’ll take her word for it. It’s like that comment Jon Pike made in reviewing Honderich in Democratiya – ‘there is a standard, ordinary language distinction between having a right to do X and X being the right thing to do.’ I’ve been keeping it in mind throughout this discussion. But I don’t think it applies to falsification on the scale Irving practiced it – or at least I’m not convinced that it does. I’m just not convinced that he does have a moral right to deliberately falsify the evidence on the scale he did (remember what Lipstadt said: every single footnote had something wrong with it). I don’t think it should be a police matter, I don’t think it should be an imprisonable offence, but I’m still not convinced it’s a free speech right or a moral right. I think it’s something in between those (something not fully theorized, perhaps).

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