T Nation

Is Anti-War Speech Immoral?


Interesting academic question being debated among legal scholars on their weblogs, but I thought it would be interesting to get some non-lawyer reactions here.

Here's the set-up:


[i]Let's assume, without deciding, that the following propositions are true:

1) Americans have a robust First Amendment right to criticize the government. This includes both the decision to go to war and the conduct of war.

2) The United States is facing a ferocious and determined enemy in Iraq.

3) The United States has a just cause, which means that victory by the United States is the morally preferable outcome.

4) Certain forms of speech (for example, strong demands that U.S. troops withdraw) objectively aid the enemy (say this speech emboldens the enemy, so more U.S. troops die and chances for victory are reduced), even if the speaker does not intend to do so.

If all this is true, isn't the speech in question morally objectionable, even if constitutionally permitted? Certainly, the fact that I have a legal right to say something doesn't morally justify my saying it. If telling you (frankly and truthfully) that your new haircut makes you look ridiculous will hurt your feelings, maybe I should refrain from saying it. This is why the only way I see morally to justify someone who aids the enemy with his speech is to deny assumption 3), that the United States has a just cause. In that case, the correct moral position is indeed to demand that the troops return. But if one accepts 3), then I cannot see how one can avoid the conclusion that the speaker is acting immorally.[/i]

It seems to me that all four of the assumptions are sound; in particular, I do think that certain kinds of antiwar speech do objectively aid the enemy. In Winston Churchill's words, statements that "weaken confidence in the Government" and "make the Army distrust the backing it is getting from the civil power" may prove to be "to the distress of all our friends and to the delight of all our foes." (Winston Churchill, Speech in the House of Commons (July 2, 1942).) Such assumptions of objective harm to the war effort are sometimes made too hastily, but it seems to me that they are often correct (though of course we can speak more confidently of their tendencies than of any precisely provable effects, since the effects of such statements on morale both of our forces and our enemies' are hard to accurately measure). This is often good reason for people to refrain from certain kinds of criticism of the war effort.

Nonetheless, it seems to me important to recognize two matters.

  1. Speech often has multiple effects (and therefore so does silence). Much wartime speech may both embolden the enemy -- which the speaker may genuinely regret -- and help accomplish other morally worthy goals. For instance, exposing improper conduct by American soldiers or intelligence agents may both hurt the war effort (for instance, by hurting our military morale, weakening civilian support, moving some neutrals towards our enemies), which is bad, and stop, diminish, and deter such improper conduct, which is good. Likewise, one might think that victory is the morally preferable outcome, but not if the cost in U.S. soldiers' lives is too great; calling for a withdrawal of American troops may therefore have bad effects (reducing the likelihood of victory) as well as good ones (reducing the loss of U.S. soldiers' lives).

Conversely, a social norm that people ought not criticize the government during wartime, since this will hurt the war effort, may both help the war effort and at the same time help shelter improper behavior by the military, or increase needless waste of our soldiers' lives. We need to consider the aggregate of these effects; we should neither solely focus on those effects that decrease our chances of victory nor ignore those effects.

  1. Much of the debate may have to do with people's disagreement about #4. Some people, for instance, believe that withdrawing U.S. troops will actually increase the likelihood of victory, because it will reduce one source of Iraqis' anger, and make them more willing to make peace. Those people may well be mistaken; but say they're sincere in their beliefs, and especially if the beliefs are reasonable, even if not persuasive to us. The speakers then basically share our goals (victory and saving U.S. troops lives'); they simply disagree with us on the empirically sound means to accomplish those goals. It's hard to see their speech as "morally objectionable" when it rests on such predictive disagreement, especially when the disagreement is reasonable.

So before we decide whether someone's wartime speech is morally objectionable -- even if we think the speech would aid the enemy -- it seems to me that we need to know a lot more about (1) what other effects the speech may have, and (2) what the speaker believes the likely effects of the speech will be.

To do this, let's first shift the discussion from the war on Iraq to World War II.

What speech (if any) by Americans during World War II do you think would have been harmful to the war effort, even if it weren't deliberately aimed at helping the Nazis win? If you think some such speech would have been harmful to the war effort then, but are skeptical about similar claims related to speech related to the war in Iraq now (as many commenters on this thread seem to be), why do you think there's a difference? (I should stress that I don't think that all antiwar speech is harmful to the war effort, and -- as I noted above -- that I don't think that even antiwar speech that harms the war effort is necessarily immoral. I do think, though, that a considerable amount of such antiwar speech is indeed harmful, and that people sometimes underestimate these harms.)


If that is the case, and the outcome should be logically placed over the initial act or its relevance, then the other argument about Tookie being put to death links directly in with this mentality. You can't claim that free speech should have boundaries based on the potential outcome...yet then carry out penalties based on past actions irregardless of the acts of the individual since that time and the potential good that may result in the future. Right or wrong?


Moral is different than legal prof. You can claim something is perfectly legal but is immoral. I believe that's GDollars argument regarding stuff that's "tantamount to torture."


That is one major league stretch there.

Except for some verbage re: potential outcome, nothing here correlates


After further review, let me more specifically answer this.


No one is claiming the legal right of free speech should have potential boundaries. The claim is that the moral evaluation may be different from the legal evaluation when regarding the speech. The right of the speech isn't limited, and no penalty is sought.

And, irrespective, it's a non sequiter to try to analogize that to the Tookie Williams situation. You're trying to say that Tookie's acts subsequent to his bad action should be relevant in reviewing his bad action. The speech example says that the consequences of the original action are relevant to judging the original action from a moral perspective.


If this is the simple concept of morality, then why is there a discussion at all? Is someone claiming that there are people speaking against the war with the direct intention of putting our troops at risk? That is an even farther stretch. Who does anyone accuse of doing this? Are there any examples?


As stated, everything hinges on #3. If you support the war, why would you speak negatively about it? If you don't support the war, then you should speak negatively about it.

3 is kind of loaded in it's wording as well. On one hand it presumes the war is just. On the other, it states that the U.S. should win. Just or not, most feel the U.S. should win, but to equate the two really just sets the arguement up in the author's favor.

The morallity issue is realy a moot point, designed to make those who would dare oppose the war feel like their thoughts and speech are wrong.



I think that's correct. The analysis is only relevant to the extent you think the U.S. has a just cause and should win -- and by win, I mean militarily decimate its enemy.


I can't believe my eyes... perhaps you should just cut to the chase and say it is REPREHENSIBLE?

The administration already backed away from that stance.


Agreed. I don't even understand the discussion other than to try to put forth the notion that there is something wrong with not agreeing with this war.


Much of the anti-war rhetoric is inaccurate, misguided and unwise in my estimation, but immoral - I don't think so.

Voltaire said "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it". I guess that is where I am. A lot of these idiots are pontificating merely to further an agenda, but I am sure there are some who genuinely think we are wrong in what we are doing. Do we really want to suspend someone's right to free speech because we don't agree with them? Is speaking against the war the same as shouting "fire" in a crowded building?

By the way, there is no such word as "irregardless"


No vroom,

This is a serious question, and I don't care what the administration's stance is on the subject. It's an interesting question.


Who is to decide morality, and whether is is moral to speak against the war (or any war for that matter?)

For me, it is absolutely immoral to support this war. This is kind of the reason that i don't have a "Support the troops" magnet on my truck. I say support the troops by bringing them home, and not putting them in that position. Others say support the troops by supporting the war; others support the troops by saying pull them out and tactically nuke the whole place. By meaning everything, those magnets mean nothing.

Anyway, when you do not believe that the country has just cause for the war, it makes everything else less important (except the lives of the troops, which is the only thing that is important to me). When there is no just cause, there can be NO backing of the war, unequivocally.

There is also no conception of "Victory" for me. There will be no "VT" day, when we say "terrorism is defeated". There will be no parades, no assuring peace treaties. Victory means making Iraq capitalist, and little more. Not much of a victory there. It means deciding their government for them, and giving them the same lopsided economic problems that we have- only worse, because they not only have many more in poverty, but a strong Islamic base that will rally those in poverty and inevitably overthrow whatever capitalist government we install.

So "supporting the war effort" and "victory" mean very little to me, from my politcal standpoint. What is most important is removing the troops, making sure they come home, and never repeating this imperialist bullshit again. It may embolden terrorists, it may calm them to know we want to leave. Either way, pulling out is for the greater good- of the troops, the economy, the general populace, and the "American Ideal", and needs to be done very soon. The terrorists, and what they think, are not my foremost concern right now.

"Almighty God has created the mind free and manifested His supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint... All attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens or by civil incapacitations tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion who, being Lord of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in His Almighty power to do, but to extend it by its influence on reason alone." --Thomas Jefferson: Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, 1779. ME 2:300, Papers 2:545

"The world is my country, all mankind are my brethern, and to do good is my religion" - Thomas Paine


With rights such as free speech comes responsibility. We have retained the right to free speech but seem to have lost the responsibility that goes along with this important right. Responsibility, honor, respect, duty, are discarded by many as being old fashioned and not keeping with the times.

Much of the anti-war speech is misguided and uninformed, some blatant lies. Endemic to politics I think but still wrong.

Speaking out against the government is a patriotic act. Debate in a Democracy is important. Supporting the enemy of your own government and country is not patriotic no matter how much you have convinced yourself that it is.

Whether the intention is to support the enemy or not speech's by Howard Dean and John Kerry give the enemy hope, prolong the war and increase casualties among our troops. The same one's the anti-war activist claim to want to protect. The enemy we face now will not fight to the last man. The will fight until all hope for victory is gone. Telling them they still have a chance by weakening the resolve of the public with innacurate statements aids the enemy far more then our own troops. That is why the enemies we face align themsleves with the US media. They are useful idiots to them.

Weakness emboldens your opponent. Strength and committment scares them.

I also find comical some of the statements that the anti-war crowd makes. It's not about the war. It's about being right and it's about getting their agenda furthered...nothing more. The personal atacks speak more of a weakness of position rather then an idea to be debated.

Is Anti-war speech immoral? Depends on the reason behind it I guess. I have yet to see a lefty that doesn't despise the military in normal times...but now they are great supporters? Have they suddenly made a change of heart? Doubtful, more then likely they feel an advantage will be gained by supporting the military now. A generation ago they were spitting on them. Clearly the military despises the anti-war crowd so claiming you are speaking out for them is silly and untruthful.

When your country has sent men to fight they should be supported. Limit free speech no. Show some decorum and common sense...maybe even some responsibility, yes.


I don't want to get into a pissing match with you, and this is a nice quote, but get real. In an ideal world, this is fine and good, but we don't live in an ideal world. Jihadists don't want to be your "brother", they want you to die.

Thomas Paine also wrote "Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it."

"The only thing necessary for the triumph [of evil] is for good men to do nothing." Edmund Burke


I agree. But there is a difference between the argument that you have the right to say something, which you most surely do, and that exercising that right is a morally correct act.

BTW, who used "irregardless"? I used "irrespective" above.


Good Post!


Fightin' --

That's the gist then -- if you don't think the U.S. has a just cause, and that "victory," however defined, would not be a just result, then I think that in such a case one couldn't say that your anti-war speech would be immoral.

BTW, I think "moral" here in this case requires internal consistency more than anything else. You can self-define it, but if you decide the U.S. has a just and moral cause, then you try to analyze.

I think it makes a lot of sense to look at the rational expectations of the effect of the speech when making the determination. I think one can only be morally responsible for something one intends to do (except for a few exceptions of truly gross negligence in not knowing).

So, what are the expected effects of anti-war speech? (probably different for different critiques, but see if we can name a few).

Demoralization of the troops?

Emboldening the enemy because they think political discord at home can "defeat" us when they couldn't otherwise?

Improving the odds of success by pointing out weaknesses and getting them fixed?

It seems they have the potential to cut both ways -- what are some more?


Maybe I am getting hung up on the word "immoral". Irresponsible, stupid, reprehensible fit the bill for sure. I think when you bring morality into play, you are opening up a can of worms as far as defining morality. Who is the arbiter of all things moral? Is it only public opinion? I prefer to be more direct I guess.

Prof X used the "word" in his post. (Nothing personal X)


No pissing match, I understand your point. But looking at the world through my kind of paradigm, lines we draw on the ground and call boundaries mean little to me. I have far more in common, in thoughts and ideals, with a Zapatista in Mexico, or an anti-globalization protestor in Peru, than I do with a rich white man who sits in power in the White House, or Senate, regardless of their "party".

Jihadists have been brainwashed by religion into thinking that Americans are evil- when, in my opinion, it is not "Americans" per se, but our foriegn policy, that is evil. They look at it as fighting against oppression- while I look at them and believe that "fighting oppression" means destroying the burdens on organized religion and making their states based on thought and a social contract between the people and the government. It can be achieved- it was during our Revolution (when Paine wrote those words), and during the French Revolution.

However, it is a longer fight that they have to fight, being as they have been indoctrinated since youth into thinking that the murder of civilians- other working men and women- is somehow justified by the notion that God will reward them. But we are not helping that cause by being in Iraq, and showing blatant favoritismto Israel- we are actually hurting this cause, as they have a negative reaction to our system of government, which, as much as I sometimes dislike it, is the first step to a better Republic.

I am not a fan of Edmund Burke, nor anyone who disliked the ideal of the French Revolution. Burke was trying to ensure that such a revolution did not happen in England and overthrow the monarchy, as some say he believed in gradual reform. Marx thought otherwise: "The sycophant?who in the pay of the English oligarchy played the romantic laudator temporis acti against the French Revolution just as, in the pay of the North American colonies at the beginning of the American troubles, he had played the liberal against the English oligarchy?was an out-and-out vulgar bourgeois."

Want to see a pissing match? Check out Burke vs. Paine. It makes Rainjack vs. Vroom look like PAL basketball :wink: