How to Deal With Porn 101, Part Two: Isaiah Berlin on Freedom

A libertarian concept of freedom shows us why we must reject the Coalition’s proposed internet filtering bill, writes Richard Elliott

This week I’ve decided to write a second piece, following up from last week, on the current debate regarding the Coalition’s plans to filter search engines in UK homes, in order to limit the access of pornographic material. Some may find a second piece on the same subject excessive, seeing as the arguments from all positions have surely been cantered around the tracks a few times thus far. I don’t take this line for two reasons. First, I contend that there is still plenty of ground left untrodden, so my second whack at the matter may yet be warranted (and, better yet, may be found interesting).

Second, the reaction to this Bill, scheduled to be voted on by Parliament in October, has been the one piece of legislation which has truly stirred up a sense of vigour from the public of recent. I would even go so far as to wager that if this bill is to pass and the filtering systems are implemented, the Labour party, looking to be the only serious rival to the Coalition (despite the noise coming from camp UKIP), could run as its central manifesto pledge a repealing of the bill, and win. The public have quietly moaned and groaned about all other political ventures, such as attempts to downsize the NHS, the question of privatizing the Royal Mail, and throwing more money at the welfare state, ad infinitum; but on this issue there has been a genuine interlude to the usual apathy with which people treat contemporary politics, in a flurry of passionate public outcry.

two-concepts

The form that this bill takes is necessarily paternalistic. The political philosopher Isaiah Berlin defined freedom as the absence of obstacles to the range of possibilities of choices; in other words, I am free if I am free to do other than what I am doing. With the proposed bill for internet filtration, am I truly free to do otherwise? Isn’t that kind of freedom undermined, if I have to ask to have any such obstacles removed by the State? This kind of freedom, the kind where you have to ask for it, can only be a kind of ‘Freedom-lite’, or ‘Diet Freedom’.

One need also allude to the psychological embarrassment of having to ask someone else to have these filters removed; people do not want to be thought of in a negative light, even worse when their name will be put on a ‘naughty list’ by the Government. The problem with it all is, having to ask permission to watch something which gratifies you suggests, unconsciously, that what you enjoy is perverse due to its unorthodoxy. This in turn suggests that the higher power (the department of the Government which manages the ‘naughty list’) knows what orthodoxy is to the point of defining it for you. This kind of paternalism rests on the notion that the state thinks it knows best for you. Sometimes that notion might be correct; here, however, we can almost certainly say that it isn’t, largely due to the spectrum of sexual preferences out there. The trouble which arises from this is the decision of to whom it falls down to decide what is orthodox and what isn’t, and I can tell you that I wouldn’t trust anyone to tell me what is right for me and what isn’t; neither should you.

Cameron's internet speech

Even if there were a paragon of absolute orthodoxy regarding what kind of sexual gratuity people should be given unbridled (internet) access to, it would have to be the case that those working for the Government bestowing this public ideal of sexual normativity were themselves non-deviant from the norm they have set for others to follow. This obviously is not ever going to work in practice; just think of the heaps of MPs from all major political parties from just the last twenty years who are known to have been involved in what perhaps a paternalist would call ‘deviant’ sexual behaviour.  Now, I am not a paternalist, so my own view is that these MPs should set their own standards for sexual orthodoxy and/or deviance, and that they should be perfectly entitled to engage in whatever floats their respective boats. But, assuming this view, they should have no grounds for saying to anyone else that what they get up to on the privacy of their own internet connection is wrong.

The counter argument may be made that negative freedom, the kind of freedom expressed by Berlin, cannot account for a sense of morality within itself. It doesn’t ensure that people use their freedom in a moral fashion, and this is why certain checks on unbridled freedom are necessary, including the proposal for pre-emptive filtration of certain internet searches made by the Coalition. The advocate of negative freedom can provide an easy rebuttal to this, in that it should not be the Government who have the hegemony over what is or isn’t ‘moral’. Under the Government’s premise of restricting internet search capabilities ‘for your own good’, those who would have to ask nicely to have their internet restrictions removed are being, to use the paradoxical phrase made by Rousseau, “forced to be free.”

Even if I am wrong about negative rights being the only moral rights possible in a free society, and there are some positive freedoms indispensible to us, this is certainly not one of those cases. There is no elected official that I would put faith in to dictate to the populace what is right and what is wrong, particularly in matters of sexual etiquette.

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