In my previous posts, I have discussed three common ways that speech is perverted in general: gossip, deception and broken promises. But what ultimately matters when discussing the ethics of speech is what perversions are proper to speech. In other words, what wrongs can only be done through speech and not in any other way.
In order to determine what perversions are proper to speech it is first necessary to determine what speech is. Speech is a form of communication. It is always directed from one person to another. It many be directed from more than one person or to more than one person, but that is the minimum. It is not necessarily true or false. Some speech (such as commands) cannot be true or false. All speech is about something and says something about that something. What is said may be true or it may be a command, wish, desire or some other mode of speech.
It follows immediately that one of the ways to pervert speech is to direct it at no one or from no one. But speech requires rational abilities in order to be created. So speech cannot come from no one. (Speech that comes from a computer was programmed into the same computer.) While speech can be directed to no one, this simply amounts to failure to actually speak. Although this form of speech error is in fact a perversion, it is impossible for human beings to speak this way. We might pretend to speak to an invisible person, but that is a form of deception.
A second way to pervert speech is to speak about what does not exist. Any mode of speech could be spoken of this way. So we could command someone to feed the unicorns or ask someone where the space ship is buried. This form of speech is either a joke – because the examples are obvious and no deception is intended – or they are a form of deception. (It is possible that both are true as well.) Provided that no deception is intended, such a mode of speech is not obviously defective since a joke is not really treating those things as if they were actually referring to anything.
A third and final way to pervert speech is to deceive in some manner. Commanding something we do not desire, stating something with the intent of misleading someone or asking a question that includes a false statement are all different forms of deception. Deception is not merely leading someone to a false belief (although it includes that) but it is also any use of speech that is contrary to the appearance of that speech in the context of that speech. This is general enough that is covers all other ways that speech can be perverted.
This means that this other wrongs connected with speech are not proper to it, but are different forms of harm or other general evils that are also found in speech. A proper analysis of the ethics of speech will analyze the nature of deception as well as the conditions under which deception is permissible.