April 9, 2015

Dealing With Bad Ideas: Introduction

English: The philosopher John Stuart Mill and ...
The philosopher John Stuart Mill and Helen Taylor, daughter of Harriet Taylor. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As we moved into 2015, I indicated that I planned to focus more on free speech. I am happy to report that this is exactly what I have been doing. While it has not eclipsed the other topics I address here, I have been giving it more attention so far this year than I had previously.

I started by explaining a bit more about what I meant when I said that I'd like to see people who are secularists, freethinkers, skeptics, and/or atheists take the lead on defending the freedom of speech against those who attack it. I wrote a few more posts on the subject, focusing on the importance of free speech, the need to make sure that our defense of free speech is not limited to the expression of ideas with which we agree, some of the trickier issues surrounding the manner in which some Muslim extremists seem to be using our commitment to free speech against us. I've also continued to address some of the threats to free expression happening in the U.S. today.

Now I'd like to start what I expect to be a slow and lengthy process of taking a look at how we deal with bad ideas and whether attempting to suppress their expression is one of the strategies we should be pursuing.

Here is what I wrote previously on this subject:
I believe that the answer to bad ideas (e.g., sexism, racism, creationism, faith) is not to suppress them through the use of legislation and/or social coercion against those who hold them; the way to answer bad ideas is to reveal their shortcomings in the public forum and provide reasonable alternatives.
At the outset of this discussion, I want to stress two important points that should be kept in mind. First, while my thoughts on the subject of free speech have been influenced by many sources and are continuing to evolve, I anticipate that I will be drawing heavily on one source in particular: On Liberty by John Stuart Mill. I've been re-reading this book lately, and it has prompted me to ask some difficult questions of myself and to critically examine many of my preconceived notions about the free expression of ideas and the role of free speech in society. It has provided some of the ideas I plan to explore here.

The second point I want to make here at the beginning is that many of the views I will be sharing here are somewhat new for me. A big part of why I am doing this is that I want to try on some aspects of this philosophy (starting with but not limited to Mill's) to see if it is tenable and where it might lead. My mind is far from made up, and I expect that my perspective will continue to develop as a result of writing about it and attempting to apply it in my daily life.

What Do I Mean By Bad Ideas?

I'd like to keep this as simple as we possibly can and say that a "bad idea" in the context of this discussion is nothing more than an idea you or I consider to be a bad one. I'm okay with this being completely subjective, at least for now. This means that I'm not generally thinking of claims about reality that can easily be shown to be true or false or about one's personal preferences. When I refer to bad ideas, I'm thinking mostly about the sort of attitudes we are often motivated to try to change, worldviews to which we are likely to object, and theories we oppose.

Yes, some ideas are bad because they are inconsistent with facts or are based on claims that have been shown to be false (e.g., climate change denial, creationism). But there are many others that take us into areas where factual information is either difficult to come by or only marginally relevant. The set of ideas most of us would refer to as racism are bad for a variety of reasons, only some of which involve factual claims of the sort that can be demonstrably true or false. Many political ideas are loosely associated with factual claims and instead involve suggestions for shaping society in various ways that reflect values. The idea that causing offense to Muslims can justify murder is a bad idea that does not readily lend itself to the sort of factual analysis we might like. So while an idea can sometimes be revealed to be bad because its basis can be shown to be false, this is not true for all (perhaps even most) of the ideas we consider to be bad ones.

I'm excluding personal preferences from consideration as bad ideas because these are statements about the person making them with no relevance outside a particular individual. They cannot be good or bad; they just are. My love of metal music would fit here, as would my strong dislike of Brussels sprouts. As long as I'm not trying to make general claims about the nature of reality or attempting to impose my preferences on others, these are statements about me can't be good or bad (or right or wrong) in any meaningful sense.

In the next post, I'll take a look at some of our options for dealing with bad ideas. We'll see that attempting to suppress them is one option but certainly not the only one.

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