Rights and Judgment

This story reports that the Obama Administration has issued a statement questioning the “judgment” of the magazine Charlie Hebdo in publishing insulting pictures of the Prophet Mohammed (discussed by Mark immediately below).  The Administration — through its “porte-parole” Jay Carney — was careful to distinguish the issue of the magazine’s constitutional “right” to publish the pictures and its judgment in doing so because the Administration “know[s] that these images will be very shocking for many people,” and “might provoke violent reactions.”

The reaction of the Administration reminds me very much of the controversy over the construction of the so-called September 11 mosque in New York City.  I recall distinctly that the position of some at the time was that though there was and surely should be no legal barrier to the use of particular property vaguely proximate to the site of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, it would be unwise, or evince a lack of good judgment, for the rights-holders to exercise their rights.  I recall the cute statement, made somewhere by someone, that it is “not a question of rights, but a question of what is right.”  I also remember that the President came out at first quite strongly in support of the mosque and cultural center (as did Mayor Michael Bloomberg), but then backed off a bit when the issue was put not in terms of rights, but of judgment: ““I was not commenting, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there,” the President said. “I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about.” 

How about it readers?  Are the situations formally identical (with the exception that the President has commented negatively on the wisdom of publishing the cartoons, while he declined to do so with respect to the Ground Zero mosque)?  If so, are there nevertheless other salient differences between them?  Are there categorical differences, for example, between the wisdom of exercising a speech right and the wisdom of exercising the freedom of religion?

2 responses

  1. There seems to be salient difference. For starters, the intent of the actors is arguably different. But even if one concluded that the mosque builders intended to provoke outrage by building their mosque a few blocks away from Ground Zero, the foreseeable impact of these actions is clearly different. The AP reports that “France plans to close its embassies and French schools in 20 countries this Friday as a precaution against demonstrations that could occur after services in mosques.” In short, the provocation and the absolutely barbaric and foreseeable response to it is putting people’s lives in danger. That is poor judgement by any measure. To be clear, from a rights perspective there is absolutely no difference, but from a judgement perspective, I’d say the differences are salient. Finally I am fully aware that the primary difference is how the “offended” reacted, but how the message will be received and what impact the reception might have on third parties is part of exercising judgement, and that is what is being criticized here.

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  2. Thanks, Matt. For what it’s worth, just a couple of responses.

    First, I don’t think it is clear that the magazine posted the cartoons solely in order “to provoke outrage.” I think they intended to send a message about the freedom of speech, and about not being intimidated by threats of violence. That seems to be a large part of what the magazine’s editor is saying.

    Second, the exercise of “judgment” is not a particularly firm criterion on top of which to have a discussion. For example, I might think it a very good judgment to take and support actions which maintain certain important principles, and not to abandon my principles in the face of thuggery and intimidation. Another person might think that good judgment depends on knowing when to say enough — it’s not worth sticking by one’s principles when human life is at stake. A third person might claim that good judgment consists precisely in sticking to one’s principles when the stakes are highest. When they are low, and the cost is meager, allegiance to principle is cheap. A fourth might reply that judgment is finding some kind of happy mean among all of these points seemingly in tension.

    All of that to say that I don’t think I agree with you that it’s clear that invoking “judgment” alone helps us to understand when one or another course of action is the wise one.

    Thanks for the comment.

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