Law, Morality, and the Freedom of Expression
It is hard to disagree that for all people to live in a safe, healthy, and reliable environment, it is essential to create certain rules and behavior patterns for everyone to follow. If a person breaks these laws, they should be punished in any way common to a specific society. Nevertheless, there is still a lot of debate regarding the types of conduct the law should adequately seek to suppress and the particular relationship that exists between morality and the law. How should people decide whether an action is appropriate or not? If conduct has to be suppressed by law in case it causes harm, what effect may be considered harmful? Should there be severe restrictions and suppression of words and images because of the safety of moral consensus, or is it crucial to let both good and bad ideas influence people in order for them to develop? Finally, how the freedom of expression, law, and morality apply to pornography and other controversial matters? Bernard Williams is looking for answers to all these questions in his 1981 writing “Law, morality and the freedom of expression.”
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Relationship between Law and Morality
To begin with, it is necessary to mention that it is widely accepted by a society that the law should suppress conduct if it threatens and harms people. Indeed, this is a rather appropriate decision that may seem to satisfy all members of society. However, this is not true, and people have various opinions regarding the definition of harm, as well as the negative effects of different publications and films (Williams, 1981). What is more, there is no precise answer to the question of whether “the fact that many people in society think something morally wrong is a good enough reason for there being a law against it” (Williams, 1981, p. 168). Most researchers tend to provide a negative answer because some actions may be harmless yet morally disapproved, and the harm condition does not allow the law to suppress such conduct. Nevertheless, if a person’s behavior is not approved and supported by the majority, specific social and moral disintegration may appear, and certain harm may still be expected. That is why this topic is much more complicated than it may seem.
Further, this discussion leads to the subject of moral judgments and personal taste and preferences. According to the harm condition, if one’s behavior does not threaten others, it should be precisely his or her business not judged by anyone as all humans have various tastes and may decide for themselves. However, not judging is actually not as easy as it may appear due to the fact that people also have different reactions that are rather complex, deep, and more serious than the mentioned model allows (Williams, 1981). Thus, it is still uncertain if the harm condition should be applied to both morality and the law.
The Freedom of Expression
Freedom of expression is a unique subject that may not be left without attention when discussing law and morality. It is not merely the freedom of coercion but, according to Williams (1981), a much broader and more profound concept, a “very special and fundamental form of freedom” (p. 171). This part of the reading starts with the thought that people cannot know everything about human nature and all possible ways to contribute to the development of society and man (Williams, 1981, p. 171). Therefore, no form of expression can be suppressed, restricted, or censored, and good ideas will flourish and multiply, while bad ones will simply die out. However, this conception is not found entirely convincing by the author because falsehood may prevail in the market sponsored by powerful agencies (Williams, 1981).
The freedom of expression also should not result in any harm; otherwise, it is allowed the government to interfere and control the situation (“Article 10: Freedom of expression,” 2020). Since one primary aim of governments is to protect the interests and safety of citizens, their incursions into people’s freedoms have to be justified. Members of the society are connected not only by shared values, history, culture, and a set of essential rules but also by moral consensus. Therefore, Williams (1981) states that “what threatens moral consensus threatens society,” and it is the responsibility of the law to take action and protect people from adverse and harmful events and processes (p. 169). Nevertheless, strict control may result in further harm; that is why this subject is so controversial and probably has no precise solution (Tzu-I, 2018). What is relatively straightforward is that certain publications should not be suppressed but restricted less drastically, and the printed word should be treated differently from pictorial matter.
Comment on Pornography
This is an extremely insolvable question, the study, and comment on which the author pays special attention saying that much consideration should be put into this matter. Both researchers and ordinary people cannot agree on whether pornography leads to severe or identifiable harm, and there is no consensus on what regulatory measures should be applied to it. On the one hand, some persons are not concerned with this portrayal of sexual subject matter and consider pornography entirely a matter of preference. It is each person’s individual choice, and no harm is done to others if one likes it.
On the other hand, some people do not perceive pornography as something that may exist in society and do not think that it is a proper decision to allow everyone to choose for themselves in this matter. It is actually dangerous and harmful for children, and the majority of adults prefer to protect their kids from learning about this. Thus, “the fact that a society was extensively given to the consumption of pornography” is a discouraging phenomenon that may gain moral or ethical disapproval (Williams, 1981, p. 168). Moreover, according to the concept of good ideas flourishing and bad concepts disappearing, it is strange that pornography is so widely accepted by people. Finally, despite the concepts of freedom of expression and speech, it is not clear whether it may be applied to pornography since this is not a speech or work of art and it lacks communicative content.
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The final part of Williams’s writing is about the concept and perceptions of harm. Indeed, who should judge whether an adult is being harmed or a publication is likely to be harmful? In the case of pornography, those people who choose to read it will not probably agree that they experience any adverse effects. Thus, should there be any paternalistic principles, and to what extent must they spread to adults and their personal decisions? The most appropriate solution is to let people decide for themselves but at the same time control that their further actions do not harm children or other adults.
Critical Evaluation of the Reading
The main advantage of Bernard Williams’s essay is, probably, the fact that he provides substantial arguments for both censoring pornography and considering it a normal state of humans development. Indeed, on the one hand, moral rules and truths suggest being against this phenomenon, and the fact that adults try to prevent children from being involved in any way proves it. On the other hand, there is the freedom of expression and the harmful condition that support any form of art unless it is damaging to a person. Thus, when talking about pornography, Williams (1981) clearly discusses the facts without imposing his opinion, which allows the readers to clearly see the ambiguity of this phenomenon. Finally, when choosing between the freedom of expression and morality, one should decide for themselves and at the same time be ready to make a choice in favor of protecting others from any harm.
Nevertheless, despite the importance and academic value of Williams’s writing, it is difficult to state that it is entirely relevant to modern society. Due to the fast development of technologies and people’s opinions related to morality, as well as the emergence of various movements for freedom of speech and expression, not all thoughts discussed in his essay actually work today. Overall, this is significant academic writing that reminds the readers of essential things like a moral consensus, freedom, and personal values.
To draw a conclusion, one may say that this topic is indeed controversial, complex, and severe. Since people tend to have various opinions concerning the phenomena surrounding them, it is impossible to provide exact and final answers to all the questions mentioned at the beginning of this paper. What certainly leaves no doubt is the need to limit one’s personal freedom of expression if it interferes or harms other people. If every member of society does this, life in this world will become better and more comfortable.
Article 10: Freedom of expression. (2020. Equality and Human Rights Commission.
Williams, B. (Ed.). (1981). Law, morality and the freedom of expression. (1981). In Obscenity and film censorship: An abridgement of the Williams report (pp. 167-177). Cambridge University Press.
Tzu-I, L. (2018). A battle between moral rights and freedom of expression: How would moral rights empower the “Charging bull” against the “Fearless girl”? The John Marshall Review of Intellectual Property Law, 17, 672-689.