A Conversation with Scanlon

Over at Conversations with History, Harry Kreisler talks to the philosopher Thomas Scanlon:

[Kreisler] What did you come to see as the important dimensions of freedom of expression? We’re in the realm of political philosophy where we’re talking about people’s relations with their institutions.

[Scanlon] In this first article I wrote, I was very taken with the idea of individual autonomy. It’s important for citizens not only to be able to make up their own minds about important questions about life and politics, but also to have their relations with each other, and with government, defined by the idea that they are autonomous. I thought that recognizing other people’s autonomy, recognizing citizens’ autonomy, drew a sharp line. It’s incompatible with seeing citizens as autonomous for government to decide this can’t be published because it might lead them to draw some false conclusion. Whether the conclusion is false is up to them to decide. That’s what it means to treat them as autonomous.

Later on, I came to think that the restriction on the way speech could be restricted was too tight and one should adopt a more — I don’t know if I want to say practical, but a more instrumental view. The main reason why government can’t have unlimited power to restrict speech has to do with the dangerousness of giving governments that power. We’re properly more willing to allow governments to restrict some kinds of false advertising than we are to allow them to restrict what they take to be false political speech. Government is — one might assume, although this isn’t always true — somewhat less partisan, less untrustworthy and less likely to abuse its power in the realm of false advertising about products (about how dangerous your lawnmower is, or how long your car’s going to last) than it is in the realm of deciding what answers to the basic political questions of our time are true.