Leslie Green on Right Speech

Leslie Green argues that Buddhist ideas about avoiding divisive, abusive and false speech can help us live together well in free societies.

This is an edited transcript of Leslie Green’s lecture. Watch the full video in the ‘Watch & Listen’ section of this website. Leslie Green argues that Buddhist ideas about avoiding divisive, abusive and false speech can help us live together well in free societies.

The most important idea of right speech

Given that speech can cause and sometimes constitute harm, which is of obvious moral relevance. So we ought to have regard to what we might do by and in speaking. If our verbal world runs on auto-pilot, we may find ourselves on a crash course. That is the single most important take-home lesson that the Buddha has for us. Speech matters. It matters morally. There are moral norms governing the use of speech qua speech.

Here is the council he offers to his son Rahula. The Buddha says: “Whenever you want to perform a verbal act, you should reflect on it. This verbal act I want to perform, would it lead to self-affliction? To the affliction of others? Or both? Is it an unskilful verbal act? If, on reflection, you know that it would lead to self-affliction or the affliction of others or to both, it would be unskilful, with painful consequences, painful results, then any verbal act of this sort is absolutely unfit for you.”

Ignore the utilitarian flavour of that quotation, or at least that translation. The satisfaction of desire is not the Buddha’s idea of the good life, and the frustration of desire is not the only form of pain. So too, I want you to overlook for now the Buddha’s over-statement to Rahula that unskilful speech is absolutely unfit, for the Buddha is no deontologist. Right speech norms do not articulate Kantian deontological prohibitions which it is wrong to violate. They are much more like what Aristotle has in mind when he tries to articulate virtues by which we should live, virtues that will make life go well. The Buddha is trying to articulate virtues that will make our life through speech – which is after all much of our life – go well. That idea, the most important take-home idea, is both true and important. We should be mindful of our speech.

Principle 2: avoid abusive speech

The second principle is that we should avoid abusive speech. The Buddha describes the offender in this way: “He engages in abusive speech. He speaks words that are harsh, cutting, biting to others, abusive of others, provoking anger and destroying concentration.” The Buddha has a very stringent doctrine of compassion and beneficence, rivalling the views of Jesus of Nazareth. The Buddha for example never says he has come to bring a sword – only ever peace. In the same place, he says that we should only say words that are soothing to the ear, that are affectionate, that go to the heart, that are polite, appealing and pleasing to people at large.

Maybe that is an ideal for monastics, but it is far too demanding to be a general norm of speech. Certainly, if speech is to perform any of the functions that Mill assigns to it, we are going to need to say things that are not appealing and pleasing to people at large, and if we cannot find someone to do it, then as Mill says we need to hire a devil’s advocate. As I said earlier, the suspicion that injunctions to avoid abuse or even hatred are really just jumped up demands that we be polite or never offend people is so common now that it gets in the way of seeing what is truly at stake in abusive speech.

Let me now quote not from gentle Jesus or beneficent Buddha, but from one of the hardest of the hard men. In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes is exquisitely aware of the tendency of abusive speech to escalate so as to make social cooperation impossible. People want to be respected, they want their standing as being worthy of respect to be known, they want people to respond to signs of disrespect with anger that will escalate disrespect and of course eventually, for Hobbes, war. So Hobbes tells us to “avoid contumely and let no man by deed, word, countenance or gesture declare hatred and contempt of another”. At the foot of Hobbes’s rather stern philosophy is this view of all of us as having a kind of equal power over each other, at least when the sovereign is asleep, as speakers and agents. That is actually very fundamental to it. Hatred and contempt, in Leviathan’s terms, are the vices that are at issue here. These are characteristic ways of abusing persons – not just their views, but persons – for abuse is a kind of misuse, ordinarily by unmerited vilification and condemnation.

At this point we cross over into the realm of hate speech, which poses problems that I cannot address today. But I do want to adopt one move from Jeremy Waldron’s moderate and measured defence of hate speech prohibitions, and it is this: Some kinds of abuse are such as to generically undermine a class of persons as our interlocutors, either directly by producing contempt or distrust, or indirectly by undermining their assurance that they are full members of our speech community. If this properly attracts criminal sanction in some very grave cases, for example where speech is actually and radically undermining that assurance, it nonetheless does attract moral attention when it is uttered with the intention to do that, or whether one is reckless as to one will do that or not. So even if you vote the other way on hate speech, we can take this core analysis of what is wrong with hate speech and imagine it engaging right speech norms.

Principle 3: avoid divisive speech

I now move from the two principles that aim to prevent wrongs to two norms that mainly aim to prevent harms. We should not speak to break communities apart, to set up an us-them-barrier that precludes understanding. This is something that overlaps with the other two principles. Lying, as I said, is the multivalent vice, and so it is frequently an instrument of divisive speech. Of course, once divisive speech is up and running, it undermines the assurance of full standing and the subordinate group is already set apart. So we have got the stage set for a worry about division in the speech community.

But I think that the division that the Buddha has in mind here is something that is over and above what follows from the first two principles. The miscreant is described as this: “What he has heard here he tells to break apart from those people there, thus breaking apart those who are united, and stirring up strife between those who are broken apart. He loves factionalism.” This sounds a bit like Rousseau and Hume and others who distrust factions. I think the first thing we feel when we read the divisive speech norm is that surely it only has special application.

The Buddha was trying to create not merely a philosophy, but a civilisation. To create that civilisation he had to hold it together in the face of competing religions and competing tribes. He had to spread the word and so forth. And in that you might think that division is a special vice only among a community in creation, maybe only among the Sangha of monks and nuns. Maybe that is the real worry. And there is certainly lots of evidence in the text that that is the main worry that the Buddha has when he advises us against division and there are clear examples in the text where the division complained of is division within the community of monks and nuns.

Still, I think it is more than that. Even in St. Benedict’s rule, which by the way has an awful lot in common with the Buddha’s teachings, not surprisingly, the abbot is charged to admonish people in a variety of ways, tailored to their circumstances and wrongs. Benedict writes: “He must vary with the circumstances, threatening and coaxing by turns. For the stubborn, arrogant and disobedient, he should resort to physical violence.” The rule of St. Benedict has all kinds of other un-Buddhist thoughts in it. But it has this one: “He should never act in such a way as to divide the community on itself or other communities.”

The capacity of contemporary religious forms of Buddhism, this will come as no surprise to people who read the newspapers, to sustain and promote division in society is breath-taking. But not more shocking than the ability of Christians, so-called Christians in Northern Ireland to sustain decades and decades of sectarian division and violence or now of American evangelicals who carry hatred and division into African societies. So although there is a kind of religious cast to this and it becomes most pertinent in religious contexts, I want to claim that the Benedictine conjecture is correct and that there is at least a thin kind of community to which we all belong and which needs to be sustained and which can be threatened by divisive speech.

What precisely is this thin community? If nothing else, it is the community of speakers. It is our speech community, the group of people who, as Mill says are trying to pursue the duty to find the truth and convince each other of the right. We are all interlocutors in the common enterprise, in what Mill thought of as joint effort to find the truth. None of us can find the truth on our own. That way lies dogmatism. The lesson of fallibility means we must build into our norms about speech things that will elicit it, that will test it. That means we have to take great care that that community is sustained at least far enough to be able to test our claims, for the argument to continue, for the debate to go on. Far enough so that people do not, to put it bluntly, stop talking to each other because there no longer is a point.

Here is a norm that Paul Grice finds in the very logic of human conversation: “Make your conversational contribution such as it is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purposes or direction of the talk you are engaged in.” There are wonderful examples Grice has of people violating these conversational norms, and what happens to a conversation when people ignore its accepted purpose. It can be anything from a simple misunderstanding to much more grave violations. But what I want to signal here is this notion of accepted purposes and direction of a talk. Notice that this is very thin, and it varies from conversation to conversation. Right now we are trying to engage in a conversation in which I will say things and you will say other things, and there are certain accepted purposes and directions of the talk that can only be sustained if I behave and respond in a way that does not divide us beyond further conversation.

Avoid false speech

The first of the four norms is one that we all know under one label or another: “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” Avoid false speech! Most importantly, we should avoid outright lies. Here is the Buddha describing a person who breaks this norm: “When he has been called to a town meeting, a group meeting, a gathering of his relatives, his guild or a court, if he is asked as a witness: ‘Come and tell me, good man, what do you know?’. If he does not know, he says: ‘Oh, I know.’ If he does know, he says: ‘I do not know.’ If he has not seen, he says: ‘I have seen.’ And if he has seen, he says: ‘No, I have not seen that.’ Thus he consciously lies, for his own sake, for the sake of another or for the sake of a certain lord.”

That little sketch suggests that there are two features of the admonition against right speech. One of them, and this is important in Buddha’s thought, is that is intention-dependent. Richard Gombrich has very convincingly argued in his work that this is one of the very original things that the Buddha brings into Indian thought, that emphasis on intentionality, not just the ritual character of actions that we see in other religions. I am just appealing to his authority here. So the sketch suggests what is wrong, and what is wrong lies in part with intentionally misleading people about the truth as one sees it. So false speech bears on assertoric speech, claims about the way the world is or is not.

Maybe that is because in the example I just read you we are dealing with someone who was called to be a witness. You might say, maybe these are special features of witnesses. They are to exhort this norm. Maybe it does not apply more generally. But I do not think that is true, and in any case I do not think other texts support that narrow view, that it is only lying that the false speech norm prohibits.

As everyone knows, if the wrong of lies is in the misleading, then one can do that without stating any falsehood at all. I can mislead you without saying anything that is false. Grice is filled with wonderful examples of this: “Do you have any children?”, asked of someone who has six. “Yes, I have a girl.” It is not false. Profoundly misleading, and probably wrong, and wrong for the same reason. If what is wrong about misleading is that it manipulates others, solely as a means to one’s own end or treats them without the respect that we owe them as people capable of conceiving their own ends, then surely it can also be wrong to mislead by recklessness or negligence. At least when one knows or should know that others depend on one’s word.

So I am going to follow a minority tradition within the Suttas and say that the first principle of right speech to avoid not only lies, that is the majority tradition, but also manipulative falsehoods of other kinds, too. Of the four principles, false speech, abusive, divisive and idle speech, this is the only one whose force is not doubted, and the only one that has received exhaustive and exhausting scrutiny in the western philosophic tradition.

We do, however, disagree about its basis and stringency. For Kant, some of whose ideas I echoed a few minutes ago, for Kant the wrong of lying is absolute. Those of you who do not know Kant’s philosophy, for Kant any wrong is an absolute wrong. If it is not an absolute wrong, it is not wrong at all. Kant thinks we should never lie, under any circumstances, for any purposes, not even to prevent the murderer from finding his intended victim. Worse, Kant also thinks that those who do lie become morally responsible for all and any consequences of that lie, however unforeseeable. Even that murderer to whom you revealed Anne Frank in the attic. It is all your fault.

If you find this convincing – and by the way, few Kantians find this convincing, an even loyal Kantians twist and turn to show that either Kant does not mean this or it does not follow from his premises, or read in light of the doctrine of virtue their escape hatches and on and on and on. Anything to prevent Kant from saying what he so plainly and repeatedly says: Lying is always and absolutely wrong. Like lots of philosophers I am troubled by Kant, but not by his rigourism, not by this fact, this absurdly demanding view about speech. Because the Buddha’s injunction is pretty rigouristic too. I’m troubled by Kant’s formalism. A norm that is even plausibly absolute in force will have to be formulated under a very tight description, one that excludes from the definition of lying or misleading all the sorts of harmful falsehood that are not absolutely prohibited. This is how the game works. Those of you who are lawyers how to do this. And so we may have to say that a lie is not a lie if its recipient has no right to be told the truth. That will fix the murderer at the door. Or it is not a lie if we had good reason to make a mental reservation as to its truth – Roman Catholic moral theology depends on this claim. Certainly did in days that we were burning bishops outside the door of Balliol College.

This is morality as a tax lawyer thinks of it. Rules that are to be respected qua rules but only under some description, one description that squeaks within the letter of the law, just barely under some conceivable interpretation of those words. You can tell by my tone of voice that i do not find that convincing either as a form of argument or as a general moral outlook. I am with Bernard Williams on lying, and I think that he basic wrong in lying consists in the way that it tends, when pervasive, to undermine trust. We need to cooperate, and we cannot reliably do that without a reliable respect for accuracy, knowing the truth from the false, and also what Williams calls sincerity: Telling the truth as we see it. And we need to value these intrinsically, and not just instrumentally, if they are to get the bite that they need to have.

Our common need to be able to take as true most of what other people tell us is in most ordinary circumstances embedded even in the very idea of communicative language. Paul Grice argues that if we are to have a conversation at all, about anything, belligerent conversations even, the most elementary condition of fulfilling Mill’s idea that we have a duty to speak, we have to rely on certain shared cooperative norms that make communication possible. Donald Davidson argues that unless we can make the charitable association that most others see most others see most of the truths as we do and speak it we lack an adequate beachhead to interpret their language at all. Famous principle of charity. For all its utility in disputing and contending all the things that Mill rightly points to in chapter two, the ultimate foundations of our language at least as a communicative device, and thus in some respect of our thought, are cooperative, and they depend on avoiding false speech.

Although this shows why the norm is so fundamental to our well-being it does not show how exigent it is. The odd lie does not undermine the basis of trust. We can speak intelligibly, though we know that the cooperative norms of speech are sometimes in breach. The principle of charity exerts holistic overall influence in our language, not a one-by-one guarantee of truth or presumption of truth for every utterance. And we are not going to get an absolute or even near-absolute duty to avoid falsehood on any of these bases. And I have already shown my hand in suggesting that Kant’s argument will not give it us either. I think the fact of the matter is that our loyalty to the truth, the primary norm of right speech, though extremely important, is not absolutely and indefeasibly important. Despite the occasional absolutist text, the Buddhist tradition largely shares this view. Richard Gombrich points out that in the monastic code of discipline lying is prohibited, but actually not all that stringently among the monks. With the one absolutely charming exception, the monk’s absolute duty not to falsely pretend to have a deeper insight into the nature of reality than any other monk. Horrifying to think what that would do to the business of philosophy!

Transcribed and edited by Free Speech Debate.

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