Gongol.com > Research > Objectivism and Free Speech

Objectivism and Free Speech
Brian Gongol
October 18, 2000

Free speech is one of the most jealously guarded rights Americans ensure themselves. It is a distinctively individual right; one maintains it on a personal basis even when it is defended as the right of a group. Upon this basis, it is clear that Ayn Rand's Objectivist (or Rational Individualist) philosophy would call for the careful protection of this freedom from the encroachment of either legislation or judicial interference, though it may call for the reservation of action based on one's own enlightened self-interest.

The subject of "questionable" content has been around as long as there has been public speech. Socrates was put to death for his speech as were Jesus and hundreds of other philosophers of ancient times. Their speech was considered "objectionable" by the authorities of the time, particularly because it challenged the social order of the day, often by advocating the empowerment of disenfranchised or marginalized groups. It is with this in mind that a Rational Individualist would place any restriction on the right to speech under extraordinary scrutiny.

Rational Individualists (including Ayn Rand in particular) argue that reason is the only truth which humanity can know. It is succinctly stated in a simple proposition: If one plus one equals two, all else follows. If we adopt a rationalist paradigm, then the interference of any other power - religious, political, social - is completely limited. As individuals, we understand that one plus one equals two; no government can tell us otherwise, nor can any religion declare it a heresy, without losing our support.

It then follows, under the Objectivist paradigm, that the conduct of free speech is simply the conduct of traffic in rational ideas. This is the "marketplace of ideas": a forum in which ideas are offered wholesale to a broad agora in which the public - as individuals and as a group - listens, evaluates, and responds. Where one idea is superior to another, argue the Objectivists, the superior one will "win" in the marketplace and be adopted by rational "consumers" of thought. Where an idea is inferior (or fails the test of reason), it will wither away. Thus, even when a Rationalist finds an idea objectionable because of its irrationality or dishonesty, the Rationalist sees no reason for its censorship. Its placement in the marketplace of ideas simply offers more to the conduct of a free and open debate and its dismissal contributes to the drive to find a more rational idea.

Objectivists jealously guard their free speech, then, because none of it is "bad speech." Even when it is wrong, it has value because it contributes to the process of finding the right idea. Rational debate is better off when free from restriction by government or religious codes because it forces the individual to test and evaluate - strengthening one's own skills of ethical and moral evaluation. We cannot place a police officer on every streetcorner, nor can we adopt a law that can effectively guide every action; by adopting a philosophy of rational evaluation, though, we can make remarkable strides toward an open, free, and safe society. The Objectivist believes that the way to greater security lies in greater freedom rather than harsher restriction.

Besides its importance in the strengthening of one's individual moral conduct, the right to free speech is important to the Rational Individualist in that it is one of the "natural" rights of humankind. Government does not give the people a right to free speech; it recognizes that the natural right exists. Without regard as to whether free speech is a good unto its own self (which it is), the Objectivist sees free speech as a natural-born right of the individual, and considers the encroachment of government upon rights of this nature to be an affront. Objectivists draw directly from the text of the Declaration of the Independence:

The Rational Individualist reads these words literally and with tremendous gravity.

The Objectivist's firm support for the legal defense of free speech under any range of circumstances having been established, the Objectivist's personal consideration of the ethics of the situation must also be discussed. The Rational Individualist believes that the active pursuit of what is best for the individual results in the production of the greatest good for society as a whole and is the highest moral plane to which humanity should aspire.

The individual's self-interest cannot be taken simply as pecuniary gain. While the author of a book on terrorist methods or assassination may benefit in a financial sense from the production of the work, the Rational Individualist would demand as well that the author consider the greater impact of the work on the society in which he or she lives - not as it pertains to others, but as it pertains to the self. While I may derive monetary benefit from writing and selling a book on hiring a hit man, I may also contribute to the encouragement of that kind of behavior. This would be particularly unfortunate for me should someone close to me be killed; while my authorship of such a book would not have caused the death, it may have made me an unwitting contributor to my own misfortune.

Such an extreme example may be difficult to take seriously, but it has relevance on a broader scale as well. A Rational Individualist would look at a family-owned farm in the same way; while the application of harsh chemicals and aggressive practices may be my right as the owner of the land and may derive me short-term pecuniary gain, it may diminish my ability to use the land in the long run. In pursuing my rights to their fullest extent, I may violate moral obligations to my self. In the same way, while I may have a legal right to produce a "how-to" book on hired assassins (and while that right should be jealously guarded), the pursuit of that right in this particular circumstance may not be in my own enlightened self-interest.

The Rational Individualist believes in the sanctity of personal rights - both as goods unto themselves and as means of pursuing one's self-interest. While free speech may from time to time cause emotional distress or cognitive dissonance for some members of society, its absolute preservation is critical for the development of individual conscience, which is a far better "safety net" than any law. Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy recognizes the absolute necessity of defending and preserving personal liberties, but calls also for the individual's consideration of his or her own self-interest in a broad and enlightened sense - which may mean that the exercise of a legally preserved right may be contrary to personal betterment.