Who Are These People?

I listened with some (morbid) fascination to the exchange of words between London Mayor Ken Livingstone and Evening Standard reporter Oliver Finegold. I suppose it's safe to say that Jews around the world are not going to start bombing British embassies or rioting in the streets, even though the Mayor's remarks are arguably as offensive as any political cartoon. Even so, it's a little hard to understand what defect in prudential reasoning would lead someone to think that saying those sorts of things is ever a good idea. Free speech is one thing, but self-control is another. Just because I have the right to think or say whatever I like, it doesn't follow that I ought to do so, or that I am free from all moral blame when I do. Sometimes legal rights assure us, not of our moral rights, but of mere freedom of behavior, and in order to be genuinely free, we must be free to sin.

If Ken Livingstone believes the things he said, which he claims he does, then he is legally permitted to say them out loud (and, perhaps, ought not to be legally punished for having done so), but interestingly his moral culpability lies not so much in saying what he thinks, but in thinking what he thinks. The positive law does not always track the moral law, so he ought not to be punished by the law for either of those things, but he ought to be an outcast for the despicable state of his character.

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