Hate Speech Laws and Utilitarianism

Hate Speech Laws and Utilitarianism

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·Jun 24, 2021·

4 min read

Over past the few years, ever since the Jordan B Peterson fiasco with the University of Toronto and the Ontario Human Rights Code being altered in conjunction with Bill C-16 being proposed, hate speech laws have been front and center of the debate sphere. So, in this article I will be articulating the point that hate speech laws are a good thing for all of society given a utilitarian take on ethics. First I will lay down the argument in it's barest form and then we will go through all the premises one by one. So here is the argument:


P1. Anything that causes an increase in net harm to society ought not be performed.

P2. Hate speech causes an increase in net harm to society.

C. Hate speech ought not be performed.

Argument in First Order Logic

\(Hxy: x \text{ causes an increase in net harm to } y\)

\(Px: x \text{ ought not be performed}\)

\(s: \text{society}\)

\(h: \text{hate speech}\)

$$ \forall{x} (Hxs \to Px)$$



Breakdown of the Argument

Anything that causes an increase in net harm to society ought not be performed.

This is fairly obvious if you're a utilitarian. The core tenet of the philosophy is to prevent harm if you hold to the harm principle.

Hate speech causes an increase in net harm to society.

This is the controversial bit. How do we know it causes harm? There are two main sub-points in support of this premise.

There is empirical data that suggests that hate speech can cause mental harm.

  1. A 2004 study found that suicide rates are directly correlated to hate speech cast towards ethnic minorities.
  2. A more recent study from 2018 surveyed disabled people who were victims of hate speech.
  3. The ICD-10 officially classifies pain stemming from emotional conflict as "Persistent somatoform pain disorder". More generally it is well documented that mental phenomenon can cause physical pain.
  4. A 2015 study on interviews of 101 members of ethnic minority groups found that hate speech can cause emotional distress.

Some forms of hate speech can cause an increase in incitement of violence.

The dangerous speech project has thoroughly documented how "dangerous speech", a subset of hate speech is used to incite violence.

People don't always choose to be offended by hate speech.

You can't choose not to feel pain in physical cases. You can't wish external stimuli away as it will persist for a while whether you like it or not. So it is the case with mental pain. There are kinds of speech that cause immediate mental harm which can't be wished away by a simple want for the pain to disappear.

Hate speech ought not be performed.

From these premises the conclusion logically follows. Let's say from a group of \(1000\) people a \(\frac{1}{10}^{th}\) don't have the mental fortitude to withstand and be indifferent to hate speech. If that is true, then on average to prevent harm to \(\frac{1}{10}^{th}\) of the population it is better to not use hate speech to anyone.

Counter Arguments

Some would argue that it's better to teach society to be tolerant of hate speech.

This is already addressed by the fact that people don't choose to not feel pain. If anything we always feel the pain and only cum eo reflect on whether to accept it. Even if it were true that we could build up tolerance for pain, we don't go around slapping people because on average most people can withstand the slap. It still hurts, but some people are indifferent to being slapped. This does not in any way however bolster the argument that it's okay hurt people because at some point someone will come along who cannot tolerate the pain.

Others would argue it would lead to censorship by the government.

I am not advocating for a broad definition of hate speech which allows governments to suppress their oppositions. But simply a careful and specific piece of legislation enforced by a jury just like in any other court case.

Freedom of speech is a human right.

Yes many countries have entrenched freedom of speech in their constitutions and laws. But absolute freedom of speech is not allowed anyway. Incitement of violence is already prohibited by most governments. Just because something is granted as a right, doesn't mean it's always moral. The right to own slaves was also perfectly legal at one point. Doesn't make it moral.

In order to be able to think you have to risk being offensive.

This is true somewhat. Our private thoughts should not be constrained by the whims of any government or religion. This however, does not mean you are being moral when you actually decide to say something hateful with the intent of causing mental distress. But what about, in conversations and debates? Yes, even in those conversations you can still discuss hateful content without actually directing it at a specific person or group. Remember that while all hate speech may be offensive, not all offense is hate speech.

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