17:30 to 18:30
End date
28 October 2019
Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Wolfson College, Linton Rd, Oxford OX2 6UD
Monday, 28 October 2019 - 5:30pm to 6:30pm


Free Speech, Good Speech, and Social Media: Self-control or legal control?

In this lecture, Professor Sir Richard Sorabji considers free speech in the age of social media, and questions whether legal restrictions on certain speech acts or self-restraint would be the most effective and appropriate means to secure freedoms while protecting against harms.

We can be thankful if we live in countries which allow a right to freedom of expression. But before using it, we need to think what is the value of freedom of expression. J.S. Mill’s wonderful survey of its benefits seems to presuppose that free expression leads to discussion, and hence to more understanding. But what, for example, about attacks on rival religions? They can stop discussion dead and replace it with retaliation, which impedes even re-thought about the original attack. The law is a clumsy instrument, and voluntary self-restraint could be better at preserving the benefits of free expression. There have been cross-cultural examples since ancient history of leaders good at encouraging listening to rival views.

But in at least one case, I wonder if new legislation is needed against the funding of some (not all) social media, through the sale of personal profiles to advertisers, including propagandists. Does this encourage extremist content, facilitate the manipulation of voters with targeted propaganda tailored to their profiles, and create wealth sufficient to pay or contest any fines? Should the sale and purchase of personal profiles be made illegal?

Professor Sir Richard Sorabji is a fellow of the British, American and Royal Flemish Academies, author of books on Aristotle; Gandhi; and Moral Conscience through the Ages (in preparation); and editor of 100 volumes of translation from philosophy linking late antiquity to the middle ages. 

He founded the King’s College Centre for Philosophical Studies between 1989 and 1991, with the aim of promoting philosophy to the wider public, and was Director of the Institute of Classical Studies from 1991 to 1996.

Professor Sorabji was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1999 for his services to ancient philosophy, and knighted in the 2014 Birthday Honours for services to philosophical scholarship.