February 28, 2017

February 28, 2017

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February 28, 2017

February 28, 2017

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Speech Act Theory

February 28, 2017


Debaters often (generally more out of necessity than choice) argue that a particular policy will “send a strong message”. The problem is establishing a link between that message and any real change with which the debate might be concerned. Illocutionary act theory (or speech act theory) is a philosophical idea that can be really helpful here! Note, the Langton article referred to throughout is: Rae Langton, ‘Pornography, Speech Acts and Silence’ in Hugh LaFollette (ed) Ethics in Practice: An Anthology (Blackwell, 3rd edition, 2007) 338.


Illocutionary Act Theory

This analysis is a way of making the typical argument that something “sends a strong message” both more analytic and linked more closely to reality. It seeks to analyse the consequences of that which is implicit either within states of affairs or acts of expression understood more conventionally (i.e. specific actions or statements). Note that I’ve used the phrases “speech” and “expression” interchangeably and in their broadest senses – as literally anything that expresses something (e.g. both audibly cursing at someone and punching them in the face express contempt).

  1. The premise of the argument is that in any act of expression, there are at least two processes enacted;

    1. The direct effect (or the “perlocutionary”). Langton suggests that we conceive of this as the consequences of a particular act of speech.

    2. The tacit effect (or the “illocutionary”). Langton suggests that we ought to conceive of this as the speech itself as in act. That is that quite apart from the consequences of the speech, the speech itself performs certain functions.

  2. The direct effect needs little explanation. If a person with the requisite authority gives an instruction, the direct effect of that will be the carrying out of the instruction. E.g. if a superior officer instructs a junior officer to carry out an order, the direct effect will be the execution of the order.

  3. The tacit effect is more interesting. For instance, let’s say that a very large, strong and imposing man forcefully gives an order to a small girl. These two individuals have never met before. The direct effect of his words is likely to be that the girl will carry out his instructions. The words themselves, however, establish a power relationship between the two individuals in which the man is superior and the woman is subordinate. In addition it is likely that the girl now feels intimidated and feels less free than she otherwise might because she’s been intimidated by the larger man. Finally, it could probably be said that she’s now worse off than she was because in establishing that power relationship she is a less independent person and, if the interaction happened in a public environment, others are likely to view her as a less independent person also. They may even consider her to be of less moral significance than others and thus may feel as though they themselves have permission to treat her in a similarly disrespectful manner.

  4. Langton, therefore, effectively formulates the following argument.

    1. Where the speaker is an entity of sufficient authority;

    2. And where the expression occurs under the right conditions;

    3. The act of expression itself can have particular effect. What that effect will be, however, will depend upon both the relative positions of the speaker and the what is spoken or expressed.

  5. Example: This House Would Cut All Government Funding For The Arts

  6. A government team might run the following argument.

    1. Governments are the most powerful social actors both in a direct sense (they’re the only body that can legitimately use coerce force) and a normative sense (they’re elected by the majority of individuals therefore represent, at least in an approximate sense, the will of that majority). People, therefore, care deeply about the things that governments say and the things that governments do.

    2. Government decisions involve public money, are always controversial and, therefore tend to be well publicised.

    3. Government cannot fund all art projects as there is a limited pool of funds available. The art that government chooses to fund is an expression of confidence and an endorsement of that artwork by that government and, by extension, by the majority. The reverse is true of the art that the government refuses to fund; it is an expression of a lack of confidence in that artwork and a disendorsement of it by that government and the majority.

    4. Government funding of the arts therefore entails two expressive acts – endorsement and disendorsement.

      1. Endorsement as an act;

        1. Confers a false moral legitimacy upon the message that the artist is trying to convey. I.e. it’s not clear why simply because the majority agrees with something it is necessarily right to do so. Governments arbitrating in this way stratify artists into lesser and greater categories. Since we lack an objective way of adjudicating on the quality of ideas or on the quality of art this would be a task better left to individuals.

        2. Implicitly denies the legitimacy of the art that the government refused to fund. See next section for harms.

      2. That act of expression (i.e. the disendorsement of that art) is itself an act that;

        1. Rejects and denies the legitimacy of the art that the government has refused to fund. That’s bad because given that most art is written with some sort of a political or social message in mind, the government has effectively denied the legitimacy of the message itself. That’s bad because given the normative power of government, society is likely to interpret that as a condemnation of that particular agenda which, in turn, makes it harder for the artist to send the message they were trying to send. This is particular harmful where minority art and artists are concerned; they already have a very hard time getting any traction with the majority as it is. An explicit government rebuke makes that ever harder.

        2. Given that particular communities also often coalesce around particular art genres also, the refusal to fund particular types of art can also be seen as an implicit rebuke of those communities by the government also. For example, part of the appeal of “emo music” is that it’s anti-majoritarian. The government extensively funds classical music but (at least in the popular imagination, which is all that needs to be relevant for the purposes of this discussion) would never extend funding to “emo”. That then is likely to intensify the anti-social and negative tendencies of those groups as now the government has expressed a refusal to engage with the art around which their communities are organised. The upshot of that is likely to be a further distancing of those groups from the state; unfortunate given the types of communities that are often in question and the conduct that they engage in.

  7. The argument obviously lives in debaterland to an extraordinary extent. It can work however though, provided the causal links are drawn closely!

  8. Remember also that these arguments need not only be made where the expression has socially undesirable results. The enactment of hate crime legislation, for instance, would arguably constitute a speech act by government (and therefore by the majority) that empowers those who are likely to be victims of hate crimes. That is, that as a speech act, enacting hate crime legislation delegitimises hateful groups and their agendas.

  9. Additionally, a single act is not needed for this theory to work – a state of affairs is valid enough also. For instance, the continuing legalisation of prostitution is often cited as an act of expression by government endorsing the continuing political and social inferiority of women.

  10. Finally, this analysis implicitly underlies much which is often said about the difficult time that members of minority groups have in getting their agenda taken seriously. This analysis is my own but is based loosely on John Stuart Mill and Tim Scanlon.

    1. The purpose of the right to free speech is to allow individuals to contribute to public discourse. In doing so, it is hoped that both the individual will benefit by being able to advance their interests and that society will benefit by having as many views as possible up for discussion and debate, with something close to the truth eventually emerging.

    2. The necessary precondition for that purpose to be fulfilled is that each speaker be taken equally seriously. I.e. if a speaker is not treated with the same degree of respect as any other speaker, their views will enter the “marketplace of ideas” at an immediate disadvantage because they are unlikely to be given either a fair hearing by the audience or their meaning might be distorted by a pre-existing perception that society has of the speaker.

    3. The only way that that equality between ideas can ever be realised is if the speakers themselves are treated as moral equals

    4. The problem, however, is that that equality doesn’t exist. A proponent of racial equality, for instance, might argue that society has subordinated a particular minority group to such an extent that their inequality colours everything that is said by them. The over-reporting of certain minority criminal offences, for instance (something free speech seems to demand we permit), might be said to cause all their attempts to legitimately enter public discourse to be distorted. For instance, a political advocate for a minority has to not only compete ideologically with all other views but must also struggle against the disadvantage he experiences that (in certain contexts) he’s likely to be dismissed out of hand purely by virtue of his membership of that minority.

    5. If the views are distorted or dismissed, it cannot be said that the victims of the distortion have a right to free speech equal with that of every other person because persons in the majority can expect to have an effect given to their words that the person’s in the minority cannot.

    6. At that point, the acts of free speech that perpetuate the distortion of that minority’s views  themselves undermine the purpose of free speech. The continuing negative social percpetions they generate deprive the individual the capacity to advance their interests and tdeny the majority access to the minority’s contribution to discourse. The letter of the right to free speech is used to defeat the purpose. That’s incoherent and a prima facie case for limiting that particular act of expression.





Rae Langton, ‘Pornography, Speech Acts and Silence’ in Hugh LaFollette (ed) Ethics in Practice: An Anthology (Blackwell, 3rd edition, 2007) 338.

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