Context and Intent Must Matter. Royal Babies Don’t

It has been shown that, in complex domains, punishment is an ineffective means of controlling behaviour. The reason is that if someone cannot tell whether a decision will lead to punishment then they cannot rationally incorporate that factor.

Communicating your ideas in a way that is both accurate and also funny is a complex domain. Locking up a comedian for making a bad joke is therefore unlikely to be effective. Pragmatically, it is a stupid idea.

Markus Meechan, Count Dankula, is today being sentenced for the crime of using “gas the jews” as a cue for a cute dog to make a Nazi salute. The context was a joke about cute dogs not really being so special. The intent was to ridicule Nazis. Making jokes to illustrate what aspects of a thing are genuinely special and valuable is an unequivocal social good. Ridiculing the third most evil political movement in recent history is an unequivocal social good. I wish people would make similar jokes about Stalin and Mao.

I’ve written before about how speech precedes politics and should not be regulated by political action. Setting that aside for a moment, there are social goods embedded in  Meechan’s intent. We know punishing people in complex domains won’t work, but what it will do is force people out of the complex domain. If there is a clear line between the complex and the straightforward it will mean fewer people crossing that threshold. It will force them out of attempting to create edgy jokes about bad people. It will force comedians to make safe, tame, infantilised rubbish, and will stop people taking the time to ridicule Nazis.

If we want good comedy, if we want bad people to get a hard time, if we want good ideas and good humour to come to the surface, then we need to tolerate dark dank corners where people are allowed to get it a bit wrong. Context and intent matter both as a way of filtering genuine evil and make believe evil (Meechan’s evil was make believe), but also as a way of guiding our eye to what is valuable.

If you forget them, your TV will be full of bad comedy and Royal babies.


  1. I have nothing against Royal babies.

    I detest most television “comedy” – which is not funny, it is mostly just leftist propaganda and not very well presented propaganda at that.

    That dealt with let us get on to the meat of the post…..

    Freedom of Speech is indeed being legally undermined – it has been step-by-step since the 1965 Act, an attack upon Freedom of Association as well as Freedom of Speech – the American Civil Rights Act of 1964 was justified on the basis of counter balancing many years of “Jim Crow” laws against black people, but there were no “Jim Crow” laws in Britain, the 1965 Act can not be defended in this way.

    Since 1965 there have been many new laws and changing interpretations of laws – so now we reach the position where if someone is “offended” by speech, the speaker (or writer, or presenter) may be punished. That is tyranny – there is no point in sugar coating the current legal position, it is evil.

    But what philosophy produced this legal position. Contrary to Karl Marx laws are not, mainly, produced by the “changing forces of production” leading to changing “class interests” – laws are produced by ideas and ideas are produced by philosophies (not by machines).

    Both David Hume (the “euthanasia of the constitution” man), politely, and Jeremy Bentham, very bluntly, denied there was any such thing as natural rights (or natural law) limiting the power of the state. If there are are no such thing as rights (other than as the gift of the state – which the state can take away) then there is no right to Freedom of Speech or any other fundamental liberty (such as Freedom of Association).

    John Stuart Mill seemed to (partly) understand that there was a problem generated by the philosophy of his mentor Jeremy Bentham (“rights are nonsense – natural rights are nonsense on stilts”) and tried to produce a utilitarian argument for Freedom of Speech – this is the famous “On Liberty”.

    However, as Ayn Rand pointed out (and James McCosh pointed out a century before) Mill’s arguments do not really save liberty – they make it a matter of calculation (the greatest good for the greatest number) and the state may calculate utility differently. Mr Mill thinks he has saved the basic principles of liberty – but he has not.

    The British establishment elite had become convinced of the 18th century legal argument of Sir William Blackstone that Parliament could do legally anything it liked (the “Blackstone heresy” that would have horrified Chief Justice Sir Edward Coke and Chief Justice Sir John Holt – and did horrify the American Founding Fathers), and now they had a philosophy (the philosophy of David Hume and Jeremy Bentham) that denied philosophical limits on the powers of the state – whether or not Mr Hume (or anyone else) was personally well disposed to Freedom of Speech is beside the point – the fact remains that they undermined the basic philosophical idea that there were natural law (moral reason) limits to state power.

    So here we have the position where the state is told (by the tradition of Blackstone) that it may legally do anything it likes, and the state is told (by the philosophical tradition of Hume and Bentham) that its job is to maximise human happiness – with no strict limit to state powers. The results of such legal and philosophical thinking are easy to predict – the destruction of liberty, by a well meaning (but horribly destructive) state. There is no conspiracy – there is only tragedy. With the state trying to promote happiness by preventing people being upset – being made unhappy, being “offended”.

    For an alternative view of the state see (for example) the Constitution of New Hampshire (1784) and the Constitution of Texas (1876) – yes they do talk about the promotion of happiness and what not (and that is a horrible mistake when one is talking of government – the “Sword of State”), but they also uphold fundamental rights and restrictions on government power – and, as such, are a rejection of the philosophy of Hume and Bentham (as well as Thomas Hobbes before them) and of the legal thinking of Sir William Blackstone.



  2. Short version.

    One can not get to the Bill of Rights (British or American – or the State Constitutions of New Hampshire, Texas and the other 48) from the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Jeremy Bentham. Fundamental liberties (found by moral reason) that the state may not justly violate – are exactly what such philosophy REJECTS.

    J.S. Mill desperately tried to preserve fundamental liberties whilst keeping to the philosophy of Hobbes, Hume and Bentham, but his effort breaks on the rocks of the philosophy he himself had been taught. The philosophical foundations of basic liberties had been undermined in this country (and elsewhere) and we are living with the consequences of that – in terms of the death of Freedom of Speech and other fundamental liberties. One can not have the politics of the “Old Whigs” without (contra Hayek and so many others) the philosophy of the “Old Whigs” on such things as what a HUMAN BEING is.



  3. @ Paul Marks,

    I think you’re being a bit harsh to Sir William Blackstone. Quoting from the first volume of his Commentaries:

    “The absolute rights of man, considered as a free agent, endowed with discernment to know good from evil, and with power of choosing those measures which appear to him to be most desirable, are usually summed up in one general appellation, and denominated the natural liberty of mankind. This natural liberty consists properly in a power of acting as one thinks fit, without any restraint or control, unless by the law of nature; being a right inherent in us by birth, and one of the gifts of God to man at his creation, when he endued him with the faculty of free will. But every man, when he enters into society, gives up a part of his natural liberty, as the price of so valuable a purchase; and, in consideration of receiving the advantages of mutual commerce, obliges himself to conform to those laws, which the community has thought proper to establish. And this species of legal obedience and conformity is infinitely more desirable than that wild and savage liberty which is sacrificed to obtain it. For no man that considers a moment would wish to retain the absolute and uncontrolled power of doing whatever he pleases: the consequence of which is, that every other man would also have the same power, and then there would be no security to individuals in any of the enjoyments of life.”

    Further on, in discussing “the liberties of Englishmen”, he states:

    “And we have seen that these rights consist, primarily, in the free enjoyment of personal security, of personal liberty, and of private property. So long as these remain inviolate, the subject is perfectly free; for every species of compulsive tyranny and oppression must act in opposition to one or other of these rights, having no other object upon which it can possibly be employed. To preserve these from violation, it is necessary that the constitution of parliament be supported in its full vigour; and limits, certainly known, be set to the royal prerogative. And, lastly, to vindicate these rights, when actually violated or attacked, the subjects of England are entitled, in the first place, to the regular administration and free course of justice in the courts of law; next, to the right of petitioning the king and parliament for redress of grievances; and, lastly, to the right of having and using arms for self-preservation and defence.”

    It’s been a while since I read the whole thing, but the above indicates straight away that he held to the principle of natural rights and of a personal sphere, which was not the business of the state to interfere with.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s