Several organized or semi-organized groups of people in the world have really horrendous ideas, and react disproportionally strongly to any critique. I think most readers can agree with that statement, although we might disagree about which groups constitute examples of this. My set of such groups currently include militant Islamists like ISIS, the far right and far left political fringes in the West, the fanatically pro-Israeli (who tend to label any criticism as anti-Semitic), the fanatic Palestinians, and, yes, the typical modern day philosophers who, according to highly respected philosopher John Searle, make a living producing a lot of (quote) (1)“nonsense”.

Now my general approach to such groups is to not accept or bow to their rules.

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E.g. I don't accept that criticism of Israel is criticism of Jews or is anti-Semitic. And e.g. I don't accept that one should discourage people from drawing caricatures of Mohammed. And in particular I don't accept that one should refrain from calling a spade a spade when it comes to nonsense philosophy . For example, I think it's right and necessary to dismiss Kurt Gödel's proof of the Christian faith's god as nonsense (it can be applied to any other incompatible god), and idiotic nonsense at that, but that doesn't mean that it would be right to say that Gödel, a mathematical genius if there ever was one, was dumb or idiotic. Geniuses can maintain idiotic things, and as I see it, I should not be so afraid of being labeled this and that that I should in any way refrain from treating the idiotic nonsense with the simple lack of respect that it does deserve, while treating the man with the enormous respect that he truly deserves (in particular for his completeness theorems, and his incompleteness theorems).

Of course, in the case of groups such as ISIS, the individual persons will probably not deserve any respect; I'm not dogmatic about respecting people.

I guess that there must be some established philosophy about this, and I guess that I would have to go in that direction in order to frame a useful question that can be simply answered, instead of as in philosophy, discussed.

So, tentatively I'm asking if the approach outlined about is morally defensible?

1) John Searle: “I don’t read much philosophy, it upsets me when I read the nonsense written by my contemporaries”, in an interview with New Philosopher Jan 25th 2014.

  • i don't think everyone in the so called "hard left" are offensive :)
    – user6917
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 17:19
  • @MATHEMATICIAN - Strictly speaking I don't think it's likely that everyone in any of those groups is "offensive", nor do I think Cheers is implying everyone is given the "probably not" rather than just "not" when applied to ISIS which is arguably the most offensive as a group from among those listed.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 18:48
  • out of my sleeve - I suppose you can argue both ways; on the one hand calling something by its name can be useful to society, even if it hurts a particular individual or group (similarly to punishment or desert); on the other hand offending someone publicly may inflict great and unexpected distress similar to bullying; some people are liable to taking their own life in response to something they perceive as the destruction of their good name; can that be easily defended?
    – nir
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 20:36
  • 1
    There is a difference between criticizing respectfully and offending; note that Searle does not single out a particular philosopher in the interview that you referenced; finally; according to Jewish tradition shaming your friend in public is like shedding blood - "כל המלבין פני חברו ברבים כאילו שופך דמים", where friend is taken to mean anyone else...
    – nir
    Commented May 16, 2015 at 6:13
  • 1
    one more comment; turns out Searle does mention philosophers by names: he attacks Chalmers ruthlessly in The Mystery of Consciousness "I have so far been considering only those absurdities that he explicitly commits himself to. These are bad enough, but when at one point he warns the reader that he is about to enter 'the realm of speculative metaphysics' (p. 302) (unlike the previous 300 pages?), he goes off the rails completely." [p. 157], and ironically, Chomsky who I mentioned in an earlier comment also attacks colleagues without pity.
    – nir
    Commented May 16, 2015 at 20:35

1 Answer 1


I see here two different questions, conflated. One is a question about the right to speak in a certain way, given some circunstances. The other is a question about of the virtuousness of a specific line of action, given those same circumstances. The first one is about free speech, the second, about moral duty.

I'd say, preventively, that freedom of speech is something that applies to silence also. You should be free to not manifest about something. It is typical of fascist regimes to capture free speech by first capturing free silence. That's an old trap, and we must always be vigilant to avoid falling in it.

To answer your question more directly: your definition of "horrendous" is casuistic (and that does not mean I disagree, neither that I agree with it). For some concrete line of action to be defensible (ethically), it is enough that it can be aptly defended. That some concrete attitude is "defensible" doesn't take away one iota of responsability from the agent. Also, the ethics of concrete action ("is it right to do x?") is normally the subject of law scholars or ideologues, not philosophers.

Additionally, I'd say that there can be efficacy in not acting, as there can be in acting. Political action is, first of all, strategy. Tactics comes in a distant second place.

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