David sketches two main approaches to ethical deliberation, consequentialism and deontology, and invokes the contemporary ‘ethics of care’ in passing. He doesn’t say anything about virtue ethics, the sort that Margaret and I ingested at one of the sources of virtue ethics’ resurgence in the 1980s and ’90s, when we studied at Duke. We’re still strongly inclined in the virtue-ethics direction; at least, I am (I didn’t ask Margaret before I wrote this).
He then observes that neither deontology nor consequentialism seems to clarify the ethical status of the recent shutdown of Parler, the online hate-speech haven. Now, I would disagreee with David on a number of points in the preceding parts of his exposition — but here I think he takes a very wrong step indeed, treating the value of ‘moral frameworks’ as though they were defined by their capacity to provide a satisfying answer to the question ‘Should a society that places paramount value on free speech permit corporate interests to encourage or stifle particular sorts of expression (i. e. hate speech)?’
I don’t think it’s a moral framework’s job to decide ethical questions for you; there’s always, inescapably, going to be moral discernment going on at some stage of the deliberation. Deontological ethics tend to treat actions as if they belonged to natural kinds, easily sorted into ‘murder’, ‘armed robbery’, ‘littering’, and so on. (I know there are more sophisticated analyses of this, but I’m writing a blog post, not an ethical treatise.) Consequentialism begins from the premise that ‘happiness’ or ‘well-being’ can be identified and agreed upon easily enough that its founding premise (‘maximising happiness/well-being’) can occupy a pivotal role in the discourse (but ask a comfortably bourgeois person and an impoverished person how to define general well-being and the problems with that premise emerge fairly rapidly). These frameworks function poorly at articulating ‘what everybody should think’, but do better at providing a system for locating various ethical concerns relative to one another, for somebody who adheres to this or that schema.
So rather than asking ‘which moral framework can define the right thing to do about a medium overflowing with bilious conspiracists?’, I would pose the question ‘granted what you believe about the world and the Good, how does Parler fit in to the moral cosmos that defines your actions?’ In answering that question as a Christian theologian, I reply that although it is indeed a very good thing to permit people to speak as their conscience dictates, that good cannot outweigh the harm caused when people whose leading characteristic is self-interested deceitfulness have means to propagate disinformation and to plan violence against the public. Not everyone is a Christian theologian (and not all Christian theologians see the world as I do)(more’s the pity), so other people will reach other conclusions, but that was always going to be the case anyway.
If we want to argue the matter out in public debate, I wouldn’t lead with ‘Be a Christian and it’ll solve all your moral conundrums’, a claim that is as false as it is unconvincing to… people who are’t already Christians. I’d talk about the ways that making room for Parler advances the cause of people who are in the aggregate already more privileged, and endangers people who are (in the aggregate) already imperilled in the course of daily life. Black Lives Matter. But I would have arrived at my convictions about the importance of standing up for people at the short end of the oppression stick from theology, not from Kant or Mill.
That doesn’t solve David’s frustration, I don’t think, but it may give him something to push back against productively.