The Illusion of Philosophical Neutrality and the Problem With Free Speech

We heard a lot last year about Facebook striving to be philosophically neutral and to preserve free speech. These are two different categories, because philosophical neutrality is not the same as free speech or anti-censorship, but in the context of discussing Facebook, I want to address these issues together.

While pursuing graduate studies in library science, I was shown research proving that there is no such thing as a philosophically neutral algorithm. In a way, this is simple common sense. Algorithms are created by human beings to make decisions, and decisions are rarely, if ever, value-neutral. This is as true for the algorithms used by Facebook as those used by Google. And, of course, the human decisions made by content moderators will naturally have a philosophical orientation since such decisions are guided by the company’s criteria for what constitutes “hate speech.” I recently observed that Facebook’s criteria for “hate speech” involves subtle metaphysical assumptions and an anti-Christian bias despite Zuckerberg posturing himself as neutral. This should not surprise us, for neither humans nor robots can be philosophically neutral.

In itself, it is not a bad thing that Facebook has non-neutral censorship policies. If Facebook did not use human and AI content moderators, then the platform would become unrecognizable and unusable, flooded with spam, click bate, and bot-generated vitriol. Within a digital environment, total free speech would leave humans sidestepped in an epic information battle between robots, many employed by bad actors like China and the porn industry.

But even if total philosophical neutrality and free speech were possible in a digital environment, it would not be desirable, for as Brad Littlejohn recently explained for The Gospel Coalition, from a Biblical point of view, “absolute freedom of speech is neither a moral right nor a social good.” Dr. Littlejohn cited many passages of Scripture warning against the unnecessary multiplication of words, and he concludes that “speech limits are inevitable—and good.” (Dr. Littlejohn’s entire Biblical argument, which is nuanced and complex, can be read in full here.)

Here’s why this matters. Once we admit that some level of censorship is inescapable, then we can have a robust discussion about what values, virtues, and philosophical commitments should inform the policy decisions of companies we wish to keep accountable. We can ask questions such as,

  • Is there a meaningful framework for differentiating between “hate speech,” and legitimate criticism of another person’s lifestyle or beliefs?
  • Is it rational for Facebook’s censorship policies to treat race as a metaphysical category but not gender?
  • Should philosophies that justify child abuse and terrorism—such as nihilism, moral relativism, and neo-Fascism—be given an equal footing in digital platforms with philosophies that contribute to the common good?
  • Are certain parts of the Bible, such as Leviticus 18:22 or Romans 1:26–27, hate speech?
  • To the degree that social media platforms must be arbiters of truth, what criteria should they use in differentiating truth from falsehood?

Questions like these, of course, throw us back onto more underlying questions of worldview and even religion. And that tends to make us uncomfortable, since the entire project of secular modernity has been based on the illusion that rulers can be philosophically and religiously neutral—that there can be a space of public life that is value-neutral. This illusion means that our de facto leaders (men like Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos who control our access to commerce and information), can enforce their philosophical commitments independent of a robust debate about the veracity of those commitments. The illusion of philosophical neutrality simply means that one type of philosophy can become operationally dominant while remaining immune to critique because largely invisible and disguised.

Understanding philosophical neutrality to be an illusion not only challenges the neutral posturing of someone like Mark Zuckerberg, but it also gives the lie to the overly simplistic reactions to cancel culture embodied by lawmakers like Josh Hawley. It is not sufficient to simply bemoan “censorship,” and it is equally naïve to think these questions can be solved by straight-forward appeals to “free speech” or just letting people “be able to have our own say,” to quote Missouri Senator Josh Hawley’s CPAC speech.

See Also

The real solution to restraining Big Tech is lies in the realm of philosophy, metaphysics, and virtue ethics. We don’t hear a lot about virtue anymore in public discourse, and yet inchoate understandings of virtue still tincture all debate via proxy values. For example, being pro-free speech, like being anti-hate speech, are among many secular virtues that have become proxies for the virtues that no one wants to recognize or address. And this shouldn’t surprise us since a head-on debate about virtue is difficult, and quickly takes us to the core of how we view reality, including competing ideas of flourishing and differing conceptions of the common good. Failure to grapple head-on with these important questions leaves us merely trapped in the state of affairs described by Alasdair MacIntyre in the opening of After Virtue.

Further Reading


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