The Ethics in Free Speech

This is moralism‘, we were told after having published an op-ed in one of the largest Norwegian newspapers, Aftenposten, in June 2013. This reaction made us even more curious about whether ethics is of any relevance to citizens’ freedom of expression. In our view, the critique is due to the confusion between what is normally understood as the ‘ethical’ and the ‘moral’. If so addressed, our claim is that the practice of the Norwegian free speech law should be supplemented by ethics, which we take to be rather the opposite of ‘moralism’. Nevertheless, in order to find out more about this problem, we will conduct our research by investigating the on-going public discourse on free speech in Norway after 22/7.

So far, our empirical findings point out three viewpoints in the debate. The ‘liberal’ view claims that the current free speech law is well-founded, while the ‘harm’ view holds that it should be regulated. Additionally, we have identified a third outlook, namely what can be described as a ‘middle way’ between the first two. Supporters of this view argue that free speech needs to be practiced in a more responsible manner than what is the case today.

In our research, we also wish to elaborate on this ‘responsibility argument’ by way of introducing a set of ethical guidelines with regard to the public use of free speech, which fully uphold a broad and liberal freedom of speech, yet specify reasonable ethical expectations. By doing so, we also attempt to shed more light not only on what ‘ethics’ is all about but also its relationship to law and values. With the help of the abovementioned distinction between ethical norms in the public on the one hand, and moral values in the private sphere on the other, we wish to argue that it is in fact a close relationship between ethics and law, a viewpoint which we take to avoid the accusation of ‘moralism’.

– Odin Lysaker and Henrik Syse

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