Policy Documents

Attack of the Utility Monsters: The New Threats to Free Speech

Jason Kuznicki –
November 16, 2009

In this Policy Analysis, freedom of expression is under threat. Challenges to it are coming from all corners of society. These challenges seem to share an underlying concern, namely that we must balance free expression against the psychic hurt that some expressions will provoke. Often these critiques are couched in language that draws or appears to draw, on the law and economics movement. Yet the cost-benefit analyses advanced to support restrictions on expression are incomplete, subjective, and self-contradictory. Philosopher Robert Nozick once observed that utilitarianism is hard-pressed to banish what he termed utility monsters—that is, individuals who take inordinate satisfaction from acts that displease oth- ers. Arguing about who hurt whose feelings worse, and about who needs more soothing than whom, seems designed to discover—or create—utility mon- sters. We must not allow this to happen.

Instead, liberal governments have traditionally relied on a particular bargain, in which freedom of expression is maintained for all, and in which emotional satisfaction is a private pursuit, not a public guarantee. This bargain can extend equally to all people, and it forms the basis for an endur- ing and diverse society, one in which differences may be aired without fear of reprisal. Although world cultures increasingly mix with one another, and although our powers of expression are greater than ever before, these are not sound reasons to abandon the liberal bargain. Restrictions on free expression do not make societies happier or more tolerant, but instead make them more fractious and censorious.