Voltaire never actually said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” But Voltaire would probably embrace this line – just like legions of other smart, well-meaning people. Interpreted poetically, it’s a sublime human rights slogan. But interpreted literally, the Voltairean maxim is rather silly. Let’s walk through its flaws step by step.
Suppose for starters that you know for sure that X is true. Unfortunately, X is so unpopular that loudly asserting your right to say X inevitably gets you killed. Question: Should you make a point of loudly asserting your right to say X? Probably not. You can do so much with the gift of life. Why is asserting the right to say X so much more important that everything else you’ll experience and accomplish by remaining alive?
Sure, you can devise hypotheticals where courting death by asserting the right to say X is an admirable choice. Maybe standing up for the right to say X will, via your death, save many innocent lives, or replace an awful tyranny with something much better. Maybe you only have ten minutes left to live, and want to go out with a noble bang. Except in such unusual circumstances, however, throwing your life away to speak a few forbidden words seems not only imprudent, but wrong. Any true friend would beg you to come to your senses and shut your piehole.
Now consider: If standing up for your own right to utter truth X is a grave mistake, why is standing up for someone else’s right to do the same any better? Indeed, common sense morality says you have only modest obligations to help perfect strangers in dire need. Why then should you assume a blanket obligation to die in defense of strangers’ rights to speak when they could easily remain silent?
Notice: So far, I’ve assumed that dangerous-to-say claim X is definitely true. Question: Should you be more willing to suffer on behalf of the truth or error? Truth, of course. The right to do wrong is important, but how could it possibly outshine the right to do right?
All this yields the following moral rank ordering: staying alive> asserting your own right to say truths> asserting others’ right to say truths > asserting others’ right to say falsehoods. Voltaire’s maxim seems a gross overstatement. Indeed, it’s basically backwards.
Of course, you can flatly deny everything I’ve said. But should you take that route, consider these two awkward facts.
1. The world provides ample opportunities to die defending people’s right to make offensive statements. Reposting Charlie Hebdo cartoons on your Facebook page is only getting your feet wet. If you’re really ready to die for free speech, travel to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and start handing out copies of the cartoons in person. Martyrdom for civil liberty awaits you.
2. Almost no professed Voltairean takes such actions.
My point is not that Voltaireans are hypocrites, but that they run afoul of the Argument from Conscience. The fans of Voltaire are fine people. The fact that Voltaire’s most ardent admirers don’t throw themselves on their swords for freedom of speech shows that, deep down, they too realize that their maxim is only eloquent bravado.
P.S. Lest I be misunderstood, I staunchly defend the right to say things I disagree with. But I think it’s almost always a bad idea to perish in defense of this right. Call me cowardly if you like. I’m just being honest.