From WP:

Some legal scholars... have argued that the traditional issues of free speech -- that "the main threat to free speech" is the censorship of "suppressive states", and that "ill-informed or malevolent speech" can and should be overcome by "more and better speech" rather than censorship -- assumes a scarcity of information. This scarcity prevailed during the 20th century, but with the arrival of the internet, information became plentiful, "but the attention of listeners" scarce. And in the words of Wu, this “cheap speech" made possible by the internet " ... may be used to attack, harass, and silence [emphasis mine] as much as it is used to illuminate or debate.”

As freedom of speech is quite dependent on the definition of "harm" (as this answer also points out), and as the concept is quite complex, which philosophers defend the notion that what constitutes "harm" should be answered exclusively by the individual upon whom it is supposedly inflicted? If there are arguments in the historical or contemporaneous ethical or political philosophy literature, what are those arguments?

  • Thank you for your words @tkruse and Kevin. As we have different opinions here, I have asked a question on meta to see what is the best practice. Feel free to share your thoughts. Nov 29, 2020 at 7:20
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    The moment you move from "Should there" to "Are there philosophers who", you leap over the objection that arises in the form when evaluators believe that the question is likely to be answered with opinions rather than facts and citations.
    – J D
    Nov 29, 2020 at 17:10
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    By citing a reference to support your assertion that free speech and ethics are intertwined, you can include a quotation that drives home the point that the current debate about the limits of free speech are a function of how speech is arguably a tool of intimidation.
    – J D
    Nov 29, 2020 at 17:13
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    And lastly, if you post some specific links to political philosophy and ethics which are highly concerned with argumentation about the nature of the cause and effects of social communication and it's regulation, the question becomes undeniably apropos for the forum. Anyway, you get the idea. Ethics and political philosophy aren't my tea, or I'd venture an answer. Good luck!
    – J D
    Nov 29, 2020 at 17:15

3 Answers 3


As we have seen of late, and as Jonathan Haidt so adeptly pointed out in his The Coddling of the American Mind, the concept of harm has essentially been reconstituted to include things like having your feelings hurt, being offended, having your sensibilities violated, having your lived experience invalidated, being caused to feel unsafe, etc.

And while neither expressly defend the notion that what constitutes "harm" for purposes of limiting freedom of speech, should be determined exclusively by the experience of the individual upon whom the harm it is supposedly inflicted, the philosophical doctrines of transcendental idealism and of phenomenology, by validating only the objects of our experience, and invalidating non-inferential knowledge of real world objects/states of affairs, would seem to lend support to such a position.

Kantian Transcendental idealism (Critique of Pure Reason (1781)) posits that:

…the conscious subject cognizes the objects of experience not as they are in themselves, but only the way they appear to us under the conditions of our sensibility. Thus Kant's doctrine restricts the scope of our cognition to appearances given to our sensibility [phenomena] and denies that we can possess cognition of things as they are in themselves, i.e. things as they are independently of how we experience them through our cognitive faculties [the inaccessible “nomena]. (See Wiki).

And phenomenology, which came on the continent to be prized as the proper foundation of all philosophy, is essentially the study of Kantian “phenomena” :

…appearances of things, or things as they appear in our experience, or the ways we experience things, thus the meanings things have in our experience. Phenomenology studies conscious experience as experienced from the subjective or first person point of view. (See SEP).

Having found their way into 21st Century popular culture (and in the process given birth to a host of related doctrines: from pragmatism to identitarian epistemology to the modern popular notion of "lived experience"), these ideas have essentially rendered any adherence to positivism, objectivity, realism, even rationality, naïve, and allowed popular culture to slowly slip into epistemic nihilism, the position that there is no truth at all.

All of this has given rise, as I have here noted before, [the cultural ethos of] “post-truth,” the OED’s word of the year in 2016, the use of which had risen over 2000%; defined as:

“…relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than are appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

From this history/narrative it is not surprising to find the popularly held sentiment which, as the OP suggests, by oversimplifying the complexity of the issue concludes that “what constitutes ‘harm’ for [purposes of limiting freedom of speech] should be answered exclusively by the individual upon whom it is supposedly inflicted.” Given where we currently [to some extent rightly] are epistemically, who else would be qualified to do so?


Harm is subjective, every person may have a different opinion.

It's not useful to defend a notion that a single individual should define an objective truth about something known to be subjective.

Instead the philosophic approach would be to talk about harm as seen by the claimant, ham as seen by the defendant, harm as seen by an expert, harm as seen by the law, etc.


Yeah, it's largely pointless exrsize... Laws, ethics, Judiciary, democracy, Economy, Social policies -- they can keep society in the good shape for a while. Ultimately, however, the no democratic traditions, no rule of law, no career bureaucracy would be able to withstand the self-destructive tendencies of the hive or lizard ppl or whoever is in charge in the US... and in Canada.

I don't think it really matters who is controlling people and how, none of that would be possible if so many Americans, Canadians tricked into betraying their countries, their communities -- everyone, starting with themselves. The reason they were so easily deceived is as simple, as it is profoundly tragic. They simply weren't allowed by society to fully develop their humanity. They -- as their conscious rational Self -- were not allowed to stay in control of their human, to keep not just learning, but use what they have learned to gradually expand their rational understanding of reality by piecing together the big picture. Then, with reasonable support from adults and older children, it won't be that hard for those kids to achieve the true, the real kind of enlightenment.

It happens when they collect enough of the puzzle pieces and most of the big picture is complete to reach the critical mass. When it happens, everything falls to pieces and... it feels like you are walking through the same forest, but your eyes are open.

Just to give you an idea -- I know only a handful examples of true enlightenment, like Heraclitus, Socrates, Jesus, Buddha and, Spinoza. Plus scores of real humans outside of "civilization"... at that time. For someone born inside -- no matter which country, but as long as it's the same nuclear family and relentless slut-shamnig (and that's the signature of civilization), they create conditions where a child has close to zero chance of getting the human Soul. Only much later in adulthood, one in a million stands a chance.

So, back to the question... Democracy, rule of law is doomed when most people completely give up on their agency. Their Self exciled to the back seat and demoted to Ego. After that they are running on the autopilot.

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