August 26, 2008

The Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor and professor of law at Florida International University, in Miami, and dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Stanley Fish, writes in his New York Times blog about the difference between what he calls the “colloquial” sense of the term “censorship” and what he calls the “philosophical and legal” sense of that word.

According to Fish, according to the colloquial sense,

censorship occurs whenever we don’t say or write something because we fear adverse consequences, or because we feel that what we would like to say is inappropriate in the circumstances, or because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. (This is often called self-censorship. I call it civilized behavior.)

while according to the “philosophical and legal” sense, censorship has the characteristics that

(1) it is the government that is criminalizing expression and (2) that the restrictions are blanket ones.

Fish’s entire basis for the post is the unexplained assumption that the latter sense is the correct one, while the former one is simply a mistake. This, of course, in itself, is a major flaw, since, accepting Fish’s premises, he is criticizing a speaker for using a word in its accepted sense.

Going beyond this point toward more substantial matters, much of Fish’s thinking is resting on false notions.

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In large groups which rely on elections of delegates, it is often the case that the field of candidates (or at least the field of “credible” candidates) represents a narrow set of policy options. In such a situation, many voters have the option of voting for the credible candidate whom they least disfavor, an act known at lesser-evil voting, or abstaining[1].

The discussion regarding the preferred choice of action in this case can become quite emotional and vitriolic.

One argument against lesser-evil voting is moral. This point of view holds voting as expressing the political views of the voter. Thus, voting for a candidate who does not represent the voter’s views is considered wrong (immoral, anti-democratic, mendacious). I am going to dismiss this argument. In my view, voting is not an action with inherent moral value – it should not be seen as a direct expression of beliefs, but as a political tool. Voting (or not voting) is one tool of political action that is available to members of certain groups. Those members are morally bound to use that tool (like any other political tool) to shape the policies of the group for good. The question is, therefore, which course of action is most likely to produce good results: lesser-evil voting or abstaining?

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