The Democratic Will of God

There is no single definition of harm, and rights can be traded off to ensure the most efficient outcome. If there exists enough political support for the blasphemy law, it does not represent anything more than protection against offense and a value judgement over the importance of unmitigated freedom of speech. Think of it like an externality charge.

The Irish Government is currently considering the introduction of a new law which would make blasphemy a crime, subject to a fine of up to €100,000 (which could be reduced to €1,000 if a revision is successful). While it would unfortunately be included as an amendment to the Defamation Bill, arguments against the introduction on grounds that it is a ‘victimless crime’ are superficial.

The law is unlikely to actually infringe on the freedom of most decent individuals. Prosecution would be quite difficult. Under the new law, “Blasphemous matter” is defined as matter “that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion; and he or she intends, by the publication of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage”. The freedom to publish such material such is hardly an important one, or held dear by many.

Meanwhile, it must be conceded that under such circumstances, perhaps religious adherents should be protected from this mindless vandalism of their most precious beliefs. Freedom of definition over what constitutes harm should lie with society and is not subject to interpretation of the individual. If the political will exists to bring this law through, clearly the freedom not to have your religious views attacked in such a hurtful manner is more valued by society at large. Although, this argument clearly falls if it is purely motivated by the need for a law as required by the constitution – this has been the claim made publicly, but clearly wouldn’t be taken if it was politically unpopular.

The problem arises because non-religious individuals have no way of empathising with the victim, and discard it as harmless. This phenomenon sometimes arises in criminal law, where there is less public outrage if the crime seems like something the observer could do if they were in that exceptional situation. Meanwhile, unimaginable crimes are shown no mercy in prosecution.

Note that the arguments become significantly more complicated in discussion of international matters, such as the furore over cartoons of the Prophet Mohamad. Under those circumstances, there was clear violation of sovereign democratic law through threat of force.

The law should not be compared also to other blasphemy laws imposed in other countries. For example, conservative Muslim countries can still be criticised for their laws – which have in the past been employed with discretion to silence criticism, often against democratic will and with complete disregard for proportionality.

The introduction of such a law might make Ireland seem like a backward nation. Although the pressure which initiated this law is unclear at this early time, if the political will exists to make it tenable then perhaps Ireland still is a backward and conservative nation.

Freedom of speech should be supported, in the opinion of this commentator. Democratic will should also be supported. If there is cost imposed on society by outrageous blasphemy, it is efficient to impose this cost on the perpetrator and originator of the offensive material (presuming it can be estimated).

Although a “Blasphemy Tax” would be preferable, this law will ensure the optimal outcome with regards to production of matter which is grossly offensive to religion. Blasphemers will think carefully before they act, and only proceed if the benefit to them exceeds the costs in offense. Most of us will not notice.

© The Free Marketeer 2009


9 Responses to The Democratic Will of God

  1. Woesinger says:

    Would you care to describe and estimate what cost blasphemy imposes on society? And balance them out against any benefits blasphemy might have to a society.

    When you’re doing that, you might want to bear in mind the findings of the Law Reform Commission on this subject in 1991:

    “The argument that the freedom to insult religion would threaten the stability of society by impairing the harmony between groups seemed highly questionable in the absence of any prosecutions.”

  2. thefreemarketeers says:

    Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern gives the reasoning behind the amendment here.

  3. thefreemarketeers says:

    The lack of convictions doesn’t indicate that the law isn’t necessary. Rather, it could show that having the law prevents outrageous blasphemy and offense to religious groups. That reasoning ignores the deterrent effect, which is incalculable. Outrageous blasphemy would probably not be a very common occurrence anyway; that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be a crime.

    As regards estimating the cost, I would leave that to the courts to decide. I think fining the individual in question anything from a few hundred to thousand, and directing the funds to charity, would sound reasonable.

    This conversation has erred into the completely intellectual/hypothetical though, since the government has explicitly stated their lack of intention to actually prosecute anyone. I suspect that the referendum could be bundled with another vote in the next year or two?

  4. Woesinger says:

    I’d like to hear the argument for outrageous blasphemy being a crime at all.
    Who is the victim?
    If god, then which god?
    If a religious community, then what is so special about religious opinion and belief that it gets special protection against offence that other forms of opinion and belief do not enjoy?

    The whole concept seems at best a case of special pleading by the religious, at worst, completely absurd.

  5. thefreemarketeers says:

    It’s quite clear to me that the victim of blasphemy is religious groups, who can be quite distressed by outrageous blasphemy. Consider that we are talking about matter which “is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion”.

    I think it is reasonable to suggest that religious communities get special preference all the time. There are few beliefs that are so ingrained in individuals, that they care about so much, as religious belief. I’m sure that opponents would claim that their love of free speech is comparable. The reality is that it is not.

    Religious groups are shown deference, when it’s not a big imposition on the rest of society to do so. The problem that most people have with a blasphemy law is purely theoretical and philosophical. That’s not on the same par as the offense that people get from blasphemous material. Also, remember that the person has to intend on creating this outrage. He is literally doing it to piss them off.

    I think people do get protection from offense elsewhere. Offensive jokes, or materials which are taboo, are regularly censored. due to offense. I can think of many publications which have been censored or generated controversy by making light of the Holocaust, or Josef Fritzl, or suicide. Although, it may be that there is some overlap in the group that was doing the complaining..

  6. […] of the law claim that blasphemy is an “externality”, a harm imposed on third parties. But who exactly could these third parties be? If someone is […]

  7. […] and media which could be combined to produce and transmit it. Defenders of the law claim that blasphemy is an externality, a harm imposed on third parties. But who exactly could these third parties be? If someone is […]

  8. Graham says:

    Hi Jonathan, thanks for the link: I’ve blogrolled you too. And many congratulations on the excelllent blog. Just please forgive me if I choose to rather impetuously disagree with you from time to time!

  9. […] validity of a democratic majority prohibiting offense against religious sentiment was argued before here. But where external actors threaten force to over-ride the moral sentiments of a society that […]

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