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Speech: Thought or Action?

Speech: Thought or Action?

In his excellent book Skin in the Game, Nassim Taleb makes the point that Sargon has been making online for a few years: morality is about what you do not what you think. As I have noted before, thinking of morality in terms of words instead of deeds actually makes it easier for predators to prey upon their victims, because it is trivially easy to simply say the right things.

Most people (Christians excepted) do not consider thoughts to be morally good or bad. Meanwhile, everyone except strict behaviorists hold actions to be morally culpable. Speech seems to hover somewhere between the world of thought and action — more than mere thought, but in most cases, not rising to the moral level of actions.

I was brainstorming this subject on paper earlier today, and this is what I came up with:

The proliferation of “virtue-signaling”–speech that appears intended to imply moral righteousness of the speaker–necessitates an inquiry into the relationship between speech and morality. On the one hand, it has become obvious that people can say one thing and do another. Thus, judging someone’s trustworthiness and moral worth on what they say seems foolhardy. On the other hand, this very separation may be thought of as immoral, as its revelation erodes the trust of those who perceive it. Conversely, the person who says what is is considered morally praiseworthy, if his speech is relevant, and especially if his speech incurs risk to himself.

Since morality concerns right action, investigating the subject of moral speech must begin with the relationship between speech and action, so that we may ascertain when speech may be considered an action.

Now speech is what is said, by mouth or by pen. Speech–being a product of the mind–necessarily conveys some portion of our thought. For even in deceit, our words convey the subject of our attention. They may even betray us, or may reveal self-deception to the speaker himself.

When we speak of action, we refer to two senses of the term. First, as a physical act by an agent; second, as a behavior judged worthy of praise or blame based on some effect. Some of the first kind fall into the second. Action is also a product of the mind. Action can be divided into two categories: that which is consciously intended and that which is not. The former, we call “choice,” and the latter, “rote” or “habit.” We make this distinction even though habits are created by choice because in the moment of action, a choice overrides a present state of things, whereas what is rote or habit follows the existing, present state. Both choice and habit are functions of mind.

Actions may be morally blamed or praised for their effects: an architect who builds a sturdy house may be praised, while an architect who builds a home that collapses may be blamed, each for their effects.

Some argue that speech is morally empty because speech an only have subjective effects — without an audience, speech has no effect whatsoever, whereas the effects of actions may be ascertained without reference to subjective interpretation. But the subjectivity of interpretation does not negate the existence of effects, because effects may be subjective. And while the effect of an action may be objective, the evaluation of an act as worthy of praise or blame is inherently subjective relative to him making the judgment. Thus the subjective nature of the effects of speech does not preclude speech from being an action.

By definition, speech cannot be action of the first kind. If speech is to be considered as action, it must therefore be of the second kind–behavior judged worthy of praise or blame, based on some effect. As a product of mind, speech is a behavior, unlike mind-less bodily functions such as the production of blood cells. The only question is whether or not speech can produce the kinds of effects which are praised or blamed, and if so, to what degree the speaker can be held responsible for his speech as an action, given the subjective interpretation which necessarily separates all speech from effects.

The effects of actions of the first kind are judged to be good or bad based upon some frame. A utilitarian facing the trolley dilemma commits a moral act based upon his moral frame by pushing a man to his death, and in doing so, saving five others. Through a Kantian frame, however, the utilitarian has committed an immoral act.

I feel like I write more clearly by hand than I do at the keyboard, and so I won’t sully what I have so far by continuing it here at the computer (more will be added later). Needless to say, the subject of “intent” needs to be worked in at some point.

But I think there are still some conclusions that can be drawn so far:

  • If moral speech exists, it likely entails congruency with action.
  • Speech outside the moral frame (ritualistic greetings, ordering coffee, comedy) is still probably best thought of as amoral.

But most importantly:

  • Attempting to defend free speech by declaring speech to be entirely subjective actually protects censors because it removes speech from the domain of moral (positive or negative) behavior. If nothing positively moral can be said (because subjective, therefore, amoral), then it becomes logical to censor the kinds of speech which predictably generate social strife.

More on this subject later.

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