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The fuzziness the freedom of thought, expression, and action

What is freedom of thought? What is freedom of expression? How do these differ from each other and freedom of action?

According to Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."

The Declaration also states in Article 19 that "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

However, what is not clear in the definition of these above mentioned human rights is the distinction between thought, expression, and action, and how we resolve conflicts between each of these three. It is this lack of clarity, as well as a likely conflict of personal and subjective moral sentiments or conceptions of rights, that lead to debate and controversy about what a person is reasonably allowed to think or express within the boundaries of their or others' human rights.

As a way to illustrate the confusion, consider a classic example in the context of the separation of church and state. There are some individuals who feel that there are people in our society (a subset of the overall population) who have the right to express their religious beliefs by erecting a moment of the 10 Commandments on State or city property. They believe this is their "God-given" right and, perhaps, that in expressing themselves this way, they are not violating the rights of other human beings. However, there are also some people who feel that this "expression" is short-sighted and does indeed imply a violation of another human right, set of rights, or moral principles. Do human beings have the right to be protected from having to fund and support (via their tax dollars) the establishment and maintenance of the public expressions of others on government property, where those expressions contradict and violate their fundamental worldviews regarding religion, spirituality, and morality? Does not this type of expression violate the Golden Rule?

Suppose a group of individuals wanted to express themselves by erecting a statue of Hitler, with an inscription advocating anti Semiticism and his motives for the holocaust. Clearly, this would not go over well. However, in principle, there is no difference from the prior example, as both involve taking a shared set of freely conjured thoughts or beliefs and manifesting them into an expression that impacts many people. In principle, and in context of the above example, it should not matter if we are referring to a monument of the 10 Commandments, an offensive statue of Hitler, an Islamic monument that expresses anti-Christian sentiments, or a statue of Richard Dawkins promoting atheism. All such examples involve taking the thoughts or beliefs of individuals (which they are surely free to have) and manifesting them in a form of expression that irrevocably impacts other human beings. Hence, there is more to so-called freedom expression than meets the eye. Context and impact are critical, and nothing is black and white.

Let's see if we can shed some additional light on the confusion. First, from an intuitive standpoint, it seems to make no sense to introduce the notion of freedom of thought in the strict sense of the meaning of "thought."  Are we not all free to think as we please? With exception of extreme cases involving brainwashing or severe inculcation, how can we, as consenting and responsible adults, not be free to have our own thoughts? Even if we were forced to act a certain a way, or talk or write in such a such a way, we can still isolate our pure thoughts. It is not as if we can insert ourselves inside a person's mind and block them from thinking what they want to think (again, all extreme exceptions aside). In this sense, arguing that we have freedom of thought, or that we ought to have freedom of thought, seems like a moot point. German Philosopher Immanuel Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason, once said, "Certainly one may say, ‘Freedom to speak or write can be taken from us by a superior power, but never the freedom to think!’." Our private thoughts are our own and no one can force us to think a certain way. We simply think freely (all those extreme cases being duly noted).

Perhaps when people use the phrase "freedom of thought" what they actually mean is their right to freedom of expression.  Alternatively, freedom of thought may simply be a shorthand way of stating that no human being has the right to violate another person's rights based on what they think or belief. This seems to get to the core of the matter, because there are certainly countless cases in history where such discrimination has occurred, simply on the basis of a person or group of individuals' beliefs.

Second, most of us may agree that in our society and culture, we are not allowed total and absolute freedom of action. We could regard total freedom of action as license, which could undermine our entire system of human rights, laws, morality, etc In short, no one can reasonably argue that we are permitted total freedom of action, because even practically  and legally speaking this is not possible. This would lead to social chaos.

However, is not expression, whether verbally or literally expressed in society, a form of action itself? It is not as if the expression we are referring to here is a pure cognitive activity that never leaves one's brain. We are really speaking of just another form of action. Speaking and writing are actions, and those actions when done in social contexts (as opposed to the privacy of our own homes) have implications. But where do we draw the line, if we are not permitted total freedom of expression?

The key here is that phrases such as "freedom of expression," "freedom of press," and so on, in the context of human rights and the subject of treating other human beings with dignity and respect, are implying principles of appropriate action. And the interesting thing about principles is that they can be constructed in order of priority whereby one principle may over-ride another based on the implications of a situation.

Consequently, freedom of expression is not as simple as permitting absolute freedom of expression; rather, it is permitting expression so long as that expression does not violate the rights of others in a way that is more severe than if we were to prohibit that initial instance of expression. For example, we are not permitted to freely express ourselves in the form of slander, with the consequence of posing series negative consequences for other innocent individuals. In this case, we are certainly free to express ourselves, but we have to take responsibility for that expression, as an action, given its consequences. In short, freedom of expression, as a principle, requires some thought and consideration of its implications and trade-offs in relation to other principles of human rights.