A couple weeks ago I challenged the notion that everyone has the moral right to be offended by whatever they happen to feel offended by. I acknowledged, of course, that we do (and should) have the legal right to feel whatever feelings we do. But morally, I argued, we are not justified to take offense unless we, or a whole group of people, have been genuinely disrespected in an abusive, unfairly disempowering or threatening way. Being disagreed with or having our favorite ideas or institutions ridiculed as part of making a philosophical or political point is not genuine disrespect. No people are rightfully owed exemption from all philosophical or personal criticism. No ideas or institutions should be exempt from vigorous intellectual examination, counter-arguments, or satirizations that best illuminate their flaws. And anyone who wrongly claims offense at those things should not be told that they just have to live with being offended, but rather they should be told they have no moral right to feel offended, regardless of their legal rights.
Amidst many thoughtful, vigorous challenges, I received a set of philosophically lazy replies I found troubling (though, as was proper, not offensive!). In these there was the thoughtless desire to just waive away these questions and just say “everyone has the right to offend” and “everyone has the right to be offended” and “no one has the right not to be offended”. This is an incredibly sloppy attitude that, insofar as it is many people’s default, only contributes to a great deal of conflict and apparent hypocrisy. Gutting the word “offensive” of its moral connotations and making it a mere synonym with morally neutral irritation both cuts against language in a way that leads to harmful misunderstanding in important moral disputes and also removes a helpful distinction between crucial morally distinguishable concepts.
The simple fact of the matter is that we cannot say that offense is inherently morally neutral just because sometimes people claim we offend them and we do not want to be silenced. Because if we do that, we effectively waive the right to make our own rightful claims of offense into matters of moral principle. When we take offense and claim that something someone has said or done is “over the line”, we are making a moral claim. We are not just saying something morally neutral such as “I don’t like that” or “I found that irritating”. We are saying “what you did was wrong, it requires social penalties, apologies, and/or demonstrations of repentance”. Moral offense is a serious issue.
This is not merely a matter of irrelevant semantics. Human cultures have developed, and continue to regularly employ, distinct concepts of moral offense (and related or equivalent concepts) for good reasons. We need good distinctions about which irritations deserve what degree of social disapprobation and accountability. We need good distinctions about when our anger at others is justified and to what extent, including when it is properly moral in character and properly incurs responsibilities upon others.
Atheists are often wrongly charged with being offensive when we are perfectly within our rights. I understand that many atheists’ reflexive reaction to this is to just assert the legal right to offend. Minimally, we do have to insist on that. But it is an imprecise overreaction to foolishly declare that everyone has the right to morally offend anyone else however they wish as well. This misidentifies the mistake of our opponents in a really sloppy way. We should have stronger spines and argue the merits of whether the people claiming offense deserve to make that claim against us. We need to show them that they do not. Or, if we have acted in ways that are truly morally offensive and not merely philosophically or artistically critical in morally justifiable ways, then we need to take responsibility and apologize and not hide cowardly behind our legal rights to be assholes as though that were the only authority anyone could ever be demanded to respect.
This is important. There are many injustices which are legally and/or morally offensive. Atheists (like everyone else) have the right to be morally offended when we are disrespected in ways that go beyond philosophical or artistic criticism to be personally demeaning in unfair ways. Individual members of groups of all sorts which are disempowered to one degree or another need to retain the right to be morally offended by discourse which degrades and marginalizes them in no philosophically or artistically valuable way. And we all need to retain the right to feel offended politically in ways that justify claims of legal redress when not only our moral rights but our legal rights are violated. I’m not going to waive our rights or the rights of any group to make morally strong claims of offense against others simply because some religious people, out of an unseemly overblown sense of privilege, abuse the right to claim offense and thereby all too often get atheists, secularists, family members, corporations, artists, and the media to kowtow to them. And I am not going to let their false uses of the word offense stand as legitimate and thus dilute a powerful moral concept so that it becomes indistinguishable from hypersensitivity.
We certainly need to push back hard against those religious people who cry wolf with the word “offense”. But it is the wrong strategy to make the word “offense” morally toothless and a matter of arbitrary feelings which are immune to criticism. Because by doing that, we then take away a valid and valuable moral tool for enforcing the rights of the genuinely mistreated. Their genuine cries of offense can be dismissed as entirely matters of arbitrary feeling which no one need to pay any moral heed to. That’s unacceptable.
And, yes, we can blame other people for their feelings, not just for their actions. If we don’t, they will never fix the fount from which their bad actions flow.
And no this is not a call for prosecutions of “thought crime”—it’s normal moral judgment, which is rightly normally interested in judging both intentions and feelings of people who do wrong. It’s not the imposition of legal penalties for mere thoughts. It’s the properly moral rebuke of expressions of attitudes which are morally unfair. This is how we influence each other’s characters and help shape each other’s values. It is through taking seriously each other’s moral claims and emotional expressions and not simply asserting our minimum legal rights to irritate each other with no attention paid to moral rights or wrongs.
In short, contrary to popular saying, you do have the moral right to not be genuinely morally offended, even if you do not have the legal right to not be morally offended in every case. And you do not have the moral right to be offended just whenever you happen to feel like you do. And we can and should take issue with, and dispute, your feelings of offense when they are morally unjustified. If we do so, we will begin to center our disputes on our real points of values contention and not evade them with a hostile truce built on mutual disrespect and disengagement that resolves nothing.
The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.