In a Facebook post made on June 2nd, The Burkean Conservative wrote on the outrage over a videogame that simulated a school shooting. In response to this game being available, the writers associated with this site wrote the following:
“Burke often said that in order for freedom to be preserved, it must be limited.
This is different than the libertarian version of freedom that has injected itself so much into current conservative discourse in America. Libertarians will tell you that more freedom in almost every situation is a good idea.
But Burke knew that freedom can only survive insofar as the citizenry remain virtuous. Playing a video game simulating a school shooting in which *you* get to be the shooter is, in my opinion, one of those limits. It demonstrates the point that freedom of expression cannot be absolute if we are to preserve the decency of society, justice, and —ultimately— freedom itself.
This is entirely different than gun ownership. There are valid, tasteful, and wholly justified reasons for gun ownership including hunting, marksmanship training, and home protection. But a video game is for entertainment, and this one bleeds over into a virtual reality that is unnecessary and perhaps dangerous.
Conservatives love freedom. But we understand that it is a fragile and beautiful thing, and that too great a license for vice will destroy the whole enterprise. Say ‘no’ when necessary to protect our civilization.”
In The Burkean Conservative's perspective, virtue and freedom are intertwined in a way that, for a Sartrean like myself, is a bit worrying. While I will not dispute the accuracy of the observation made about mainstream libertarians believing that more freedom is the same as more virtue (which absolutely is the case), I will dispute that the rules of play are not changed, merely amended. The argument is that freedom is related to virtue still, but in an inverse way: the better (not the more) it is limited, the closer it comes to virtue. The last line eloquently encapsulates this sentiment well, but I would like to challenge it with three points: the argument that freedom is not a social construct, the argument that freedom has no connection to virtue on its own, and the argument that freedom of expression is absolute.
As for my first point, I do not find freedom to be a social construct. What do I mean by this? Well, if freedom is a social construct, then it would make sense to argue that freedom is “fragile” and thus requires some form of protection upon on that basis. More concisely, freedom is not reliant on the existence of society or social norms in order to exist. It is, to put it vulgarly, an ontological fact. We are free, and condemned to be so, whether we like it or not. The irony of this is not lost upon me, but I must be serious on this note: freedom, even when physically suppressed, exists. In his article Lettres francaises, Sartre wrote,
“Never were we freer than under the German occupation. We had lost all our rights, and first of all our right to speak. They insulted us to our faces. ... They deported us en masse. ... And because of all this we were free.”
What this statement means, although at first seemingly contradictory, is that freedom exists even when we are limited. Every action is a commitment, and all freedom is not dependent on the outcomes (as libertarians and conservatives argue) but on the very ability to choose. Even strapped in a chair, with your eyes held open, you have a choice. You can scream, or you can be quiet.
This is important because we must realize that any attempt to give “trade offs” for freedom, whether a trade off for security or a trade off for virtue, is impossible. I cannot trade my freedom for anything. In our society, I find we are often told we are giving up or have given up our freedom. That we cannot, say, go to a store and steal some candy bars. However, in fact, you can. That limit is not set by anything but yourself. You can assume the consequences, and you can calculate if it is worth it, but ultimately it is your choice. When someone tells themselves that they “cannot” do something, they commit what Sartre calls “bad faith." This is the idea that we limit ourselves, under the false assumption it cannot be done, when in fact it can, we are merely trying to console ourselves because we are trying to shirk our responsibility.
So freedom cannot be fragile, it is the basis of our entire existence. It is the base of the tree. Any trade off for freedom is nothing more than allowing for yourself to be artificially suppressed.
To my second point, I question this assumed relationship between virtue and freedom. While it makes sense to argue that without freedom, there is no possibility of virtue, the existence of freedom does not correlate to there being virtue in either the conditional or unconditional sense. While virtue itself is hard to define, the nature of virtue tends not to change: it is the idea of acceptable behavior being elevated to a moral imperative. So one would have to be free to accept this idea, but one would have to then act this way regardless of the fact that they could act in some other way. Often, we find in theories of ethical behavior that exceptions to rules can always be found (like when Kant said one can never lie, but then one must consider what to do about the axeman) and often have to be considered due to the variability of life. So if an individual is virtuous, are we to say that it is because they adhere to a specific form of life, or is it because they exercise their own judgement when life gives them lemons?
Alas, we always try to label something virtuous, or to give credence to people by saying if they are virtuous, then the dangers of life will melt away in the face of this virtue. To be free, again if we accept the usual definition of virtue, is to be free to be full of vice. Thus the connection between freedom and virtue is not as clear cut. One can choose to do the virtuous thing, but to try and guarantee it, through some naive idea that freedom is inherently virtuous or through the idea of some regulatory virtue ensuring it, is to not understand freedom.
Third and finally, freedom of expression is absolute. The fear that seems to permeate throughout the post, subliminally, is that freedom of expression lacks consequence. This is not an entirely unfounded fear due to the attempt by our politicians to make a world where consequences are dulled (eg. safe spaces). This notwithstanding, what must be understood is that freedom of expression is absolute. If I want to play the game mentioned above, I can. If, due to this, you wish not to associate with me, or want to report me to the police (which I would say one should), then I am entirely responsible for the consequences.
But freedom of expression is not merely absolute because I have to accept responsibility (which can be done even if I possess the cognitive dissonance to deny my responsibility), but because as I mentioned before, freedom is an ontological fact. Were you to keep me from playing this game, I would still have the freedom to expression, even were it not in the form of playing the game. I am always expressing myself, thus the problem one has in deciding where freedom of expression has gone too far is deciding where to draw the line. To quote one of my favorite TV characters, Raymond Reddington from The Blacklist, “Do you know the problem with drawing lines in the sand? With a breath of air, they disappear.” Thus, it is so with drawing lines on expression. It can go too far, or it can be overcome by changing social norms, or by the innate desire to be free.
I suggest we leave freedom of expression alone.