Atheists and freedom of speech (was: Rights and fear.)

Russell Turpin
Wed, 26 Mar 2003 04:14:05 +0000

Joseph S Barrera III <>:
>What confuses me is that you'll hear someone claim that "all people have 
>the right to xxx", and yet that person claims to be a moral relativist. In 
>which sense they are drawing on an authority by using the word "right" 
>which they don't actually believe in. Of course, just saying "all people 
>should have xxx" doesn't sound nearly as powerful. But it's more honest 
>when spoken
>by a moral relativist.

(1) To my ear, the distinction between
"should" and "right" is more functional than
fundamental. The assertion that someone has a
right to something, doesn't mean so much that
someone should have or do that thing, but
that others should act in a fashion that
allows it, or secures access to it, and that
social institutions should be designed to
respect it or secure access to it. Thus, I
can consistently uphold someone's right to
say stupid things (meaning, I think social
institutions should be designed to allow it),
while at the same time saying one SHOULDN'T
say stupid things, meaning I think people
ought to engage their brain a good deal
earlier than their tongue. I'm not going to
argue over "right" (hee, hee) definitions,
but it seems to me that common usage makes a
distinction between "right to" and "should,"
in a way that has nothing to do with the
grounding of moral theories.

(2) I'm skeptical of the distinction between
moral absolutism and moral relativism. I've
never seen this explained in a way that really
gives it any potency. Most people who claim to
be moral absolutists either (a) rest their
moral theories on tacit premises of which they
are unaware, or (b) have premises that they
simply aren't willing to question. Now yes,
I guess "absolutism" is a good term for that.
But those who think moral absolutism is a good
thing seem to think there is something more to
it than lack of insight or willingness to
question, even though I've seen only fumbling
when they are asked to explain just what.

>P.S. As a general note to everyone, there really is no need to cc: people 
>who are already on the list.


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