Moral Offense Is Not Morally Neutral

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.

Your Thoughts?

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.

The Contexts, Objective Hierarchies, and Spectra of Goods and Bads (Or “Why Murder Is Bad”)

Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness)

Grounding Objective Value Independent Of Human Interests And Moralities

Non-Reductionistic Analysis Of Values Into Facts

Effectiveness Is The Primary Goal In Itself, Not Merely A Means

What Is Happiness And Why Is It Good?

On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness

Deriving An Atheistic, Naturalistic, Realist Account Of Morality

How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity

From Is To Ought: How Normativity Fits Into Naturalism

Can Good Teaching Be Measured?

Some People Live Better As Short-Lived Football or Boxing Stars Than As Long Lived Philosophers

The Objective Value of Ordered Complexity

Defining Intrinsic Goodness, Using Marriage As An Example

The Facts About Intrinsic and Instrumental Goods and The Cultural Construction of Intrinsic Goods

Subjective Valuing And Objective Values

My Perspectivist, Teleological Account Of The Relative Values Of Pleasure And Pain

Pleasure And Pain As Intrinsic Instrumental Goods

What Does It Mean For Pleasure And Pain To Be “Intrinsically Instrumental” Goods?

Against Moral Intuitionism

Moral vs. Non-Moral Values

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

On Good And Evil For Non-Existent People

My Perfectionistic, Egoistic AND Universalistic, Indirect Consequentialism (And Contrasts With Other Kinds)

Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

Further Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

On The Incoherence Of Divine Command Theory And Why Even If God DID Make Things Good And Bad, Faith-Based Religions Would Still Be Irrelevant

God and Goodness

Rightful Pride: Identification With One’s Own Admirable Powers And Effects

The Harmony Of Humility And Pride

Moral Mutability, Not Subjective Morality.  Moral Pluralism, Not Moral Relativism.

How Morality Can Change Through Objective Processes And In Objectively Defensible Ways

Nietzsche: Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Are “Equally Childish”

Immoralism?

Is Emotivistic Moral Nihilism Rationally Consistent?

The Universe Does Not Care About Our Morality. But So What?

Why Be Morally Dutiful, Fair, or Self-Sacrificing If The Ethical Life Is About Power?

A Philosophical Polemic Against Moral Nihilism

Why Moral Nihilism Is Self-Contradictory

Answering Objections From A Moral Nihilist

If You Don’t Believe in Objective Values Then Don’t Talk To Me About Objective Scientific Truth Either

On Not-Pologies, Forgiveness, and Gelato

Yes, We Can Blame People For Their Feelings, Not Just Their Actions

Why Bother Blaming People At All? Isn’t That Just Judgmental?

Is Anything Intrinsically Good or Bad? An Interview with James Gray

My Metaethical Views Are Challenged. A Debate With “Ivan”

On Unintentionally Intimidating People

Meditations on How to Be Powerful, Fearsome, Empowering, and Loved

Is It Ever Good To Be Annoying?

No, You Can’t Call People Sluts.

Why Misogynistic Language Matters

Sex and “Spirituality”

Can Utilitarians Properly Esteem The Intrinsic Value of Truth?

No, Not Everyone Has A Moral Right To Feel Offended By Just Any Satire or Criticism

Moral Offense Is Not Morally Neutral

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://outofthegdwaye.wordpress.com/ George W.

    Can someone please forward this post to John Loftus?

    • http://songe.me Alex Songe

      Everyone’s favorite black homosexual feminist who is as much a white heterosexual male as can possibly be.

  • http://songe.me Alex Songe

    I’ve got an odd question that runs kind of sideways across this series of posts. You’ve convinced me about moral offense in your previous couple posts, and I enjoy learning about this. But what are our moral duties to understand morality, what is morally appropriate, and other philosophical questions? Are these just subtleties compared to focusing on only moral behavior? I’m not saying one is allowed to be completely ignorant of what kind of moral code they actually obey or possess, but surely not everyone is morally obligated to understand all that can be honestly explored about morality to the exclusion of their other interests. Is a kind of moral behaviorism that you wanted to get rid of a good “minimum moral standard” (some kind of “rule utilitarianism”) against anti-pluralism? I think you’ve shown the value of moral offense as a tool in personal judgement, so I have to drop that question, but I was just wondering about the moral responsibilities of “other people”.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Ha, it’s funny you ask that, as I have just begun typing away on my next post about why movement atheists need to pay self-conscious attention to moral concepts since we are publicly engaged in many endeavors rooted in specifically ethical judgments.

      But as a short answer to your question, not everyone needs to be a moral philosopher by any stretch. But all of us make moral decisions every day and so I think everyone should have a basic education in moral philosophy comparable to what they should receive with respect to biology and physics and mathematics and literature, etc. They should be as conversant in the basics of the moral philosophies of Kant and Aristotle and Mill and (I would argue) perfectionists as they are with the basics of Darwin and Mendel and Einstein, etc.

      But more narrowly speaking, it is valuable that wherever there are specifically problematic conceptions about morality that they be corrected would explicitly clarifying philosophical distinctions. And in general I think there is a certain level of intellectual conscientiousness that any minimally morally conscientious person should be engaged in since how we think, especially in ethical matters, has broad consequences for how we behave.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I think we can allow for relatively speaking a lot of laissez-faire pluralism in moral theory and moral reasoning but without allowing that just any moral system is equivalently valid as any other. Some are even minimally insufficient to be respected by any one who adheres to any other moral system.

  • Pen

    This is how we influence each other’s characters and help shape each other’s values.

    I might make up my mind whether I agree with your overall argument in a while. But in the meantime, look at the quote above, how nice and neighborly it sounds. Now look at any example of conflict in which the issue of moral offense was raised. Would it be possible to have a philosophical language that acknowledges how rough it gets on the ground, maybe? Errr.. how about: ‘this is how we try to make sure we really are justified before we trash each others’ characters and trample each others’ values into the ground’.

    • http://songe.me Alex Songe

      I think the answer here lies in the refuge of moral pluralism. There are multiple compelling moral systems that people can honestly operate under and create attitudes and behaviors we recognize as moral. This is, in fact, a key component of a search for truth, as we have to “multiply perspectives” in order to prevent systematically lying to ourselves in ways we can’t recognize. Just because something is morally outrageous in your favorite pet moral system, it doesn’t give you the warrant for moral outrage. What might permit moral outrage is violations of basic common tenants of multiple compelling moral systems. We do not have to take all moral systems seriously, though. There are some which are downright ridiculous and should be ridiculed.

      One failsafe I’ve noticed in my own moral development is making moral intuition my “null hypothesis”. In order for me to go against my moral intuition, I need damn good reasons. These reasons go up in magnitude as my moral intuitions are being violated.

      Other people seem to have very similar moral intuitions. As part of moral outrage, we should point to these intuitions and demand an account for the morality of their action. They should either explain themselves or make serious apology.

      Also, for less harmful offenses, we have a step below moral outrage, and that’s moral disappointment. Mentioning to someone how disappointed you are can really cause them to think. Moral disappointment also has the property of respecting the other person as their own autonomous moral ends, giving them the responsibility to fix their moral failing in order to regain your respect.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Well, as undeniably ugly as things get “on the ground”, I think it is better we be upfront that we are standing on moral ground and not reinforce the unfair impression of the general public and our enemies that we are simply interested in the untrammeled right to morally dubiously disrespectful obnoxiousness while our opponents are motivated by “sincere moral and religious conviction that no one can be blamed for”.

  • http://angramainyusblog.blogspot.com/ Angra Mainyu

    I hope my reply isn’t lazy :), but I will argue that everyone has the (moral) right to be offended (in nearly all cases, anyway; one could find unrealistic counterexamples).

    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.

    I beg to differ. I would argue that they have the moral right to be offended.
    Let’s suppose they don’t have the legal right to be offended, because a totalitarian government bans it. Then, it seems to me that the government in question is failing to respect their moral right to be offended.
    Usually, this is not a matter of feelings, but of expressions of feelings, but to put a concrete example:

    Let’s suppose a regime bans people from publicly expressing moral outrage at any laws, because the rulers consider that publicly protesting against any law is treacherous and/or anti-revolutionary (and generally, immoral), and that they (i.e., the government) are justified in banning such behavior, and in punishing those who break such a rule.

    The regime passes a law that allows women to have abortions, and establishes that abortions at public hospitals (the only hospitals available to most women) are provided on demand, free of charge (taxes aside, of course).

    Some Christian protesters defy the ban, and publicly express outrage at the law in question, saying that those women, the doctors involved, and the government who passed that law are murderers because they engage in abortions and – they claim – acts of abortion are heinous acts of murder against innocent children.

    So, the government sends the police against the protesters, and the police beat them up and then throw them in jail.

    In that scenario, the protesters clearly did not have the legal right to publicly express moral outrage as they did.
    However, by forcibly preventing them from expressing such outrage, the government behaved immorally. So, they violated those Christians’ moral to express outrage in that manner.

    So, my position is that those Christians had the moral right to protest and express public outrage as they did, and of course also the moral right to feel as they did.

    On the other hand, I would also say that those protesters were not doing the right thing by expressing moral outrage like that. Moreover, I’d say that they were behaving immorally.

    In general, my position is that ‘Agent A has a moral right to do X’ does not imply ‘Agent A is not acting immorally if he/she does X’, or ‘Agent A is doing the right thing if he/she does X’, etc.

    Perhaps, ‘has a moral right to X’ is used by different people differently to some extent, but if that is so, then that is problematic, since it would tend to create confusion. In such a case, perhaps simply saying that feeling that way – or expressing their feelings that way, etc., depending on the case – is immoral (rather than talking about rights) would avoid some difficulties.

    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.

    I agree with that. I would say that sometimes it’s immoral to express moral outrage.
    Whether it’s sometimes immoral to feel it without intending to express it is a bit more complicated, but I tend to agree with that too.

    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.

    Yes, I agree with that as well.
    But I just think that imposing legal penalties would be a violation of their moral right to feel that way, even when feeling that way is an immoral action (using ‘action’ broadly) on their part.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      When I say that people have the legal rights to be offended, I am referring to instances where they should have that civil right enshrined in (and enforced by) the law. Yes, sometimes one’s civil rights are not granted. But they still deserve those civil rights morally and politically even if they are not being granted.

      Your interpretation of the case of the maltreated Christian protesters is confused. Yes, the Christian protesters are rightly morally offended by violation of their civil rights. But this is totally independent of whether their moral offense over abortion rights is justified. Just because they are rightly morally offended by the violation of their own civil rights does not mean they are rightly morally offended over the limits on their abilities to impose theocratic laws. So I don’t see any dilemma here that my distinctions cannot account for.

    • http://angramainyusblog.blogspot.com/ Angra Mainyu

      I’m afraid you miss my point; I guess I’ve not been sufficiently clear. Let me try to clarify:

      I did not claim that those Christians are rightfully offended by their violation of their civil rights – they may well be rightfully offended, but that wasn’t my point.
      My point was that the government was violating their moral rights, not their legal rights.
      You’ve introduced a new term now: ‘civil rights’.
      It’s not entirely clear to me whether you’re saying that they (i.e., the Christian protesters) have those civil rights, and the government is violating them, or that they do not have those civil rights because the government fails to grant them, but the government should grant them.

      So, I will consider both cases (please let me know if I misunderstood):

      1) If it’s the former (i.e., those Christians have a civil right to express moral outrage in that case, but the government fails to recognize that), then what you call ‘civil rights’ aren’t legal rights – since the Christians in question don’t have any legal rights on the matter -, but moral rights.
      So, by violating their civil rights to publicly express moral outrage over the abortion law, the government is violating their moral right to publicly express moral outrage over the abortion law.
      So, those Christians have the moral right to publicly express moral outrage over the abortion law (and, plausibly, to feel said moral outrage).

      2) If it’s the latter (i.e., those Christians do not have a civil right to express moral outrage in that case), then their civil rights aren’t being violated – since they just don’t have them -, but the government is still violating their rights to publicly express outrage over the abortion law by forcibly preventing them from expressing themselves in such a way.
      So, those Christians have the moral right to publicly express moral outrage over the abortion law (and, plausibly, to feel said moral outrage).

      That aside, we may consider the (perhaps less realistic) case in which a government actually bans people from feeling morally outraged over an abortion law: the government would still be violating their moral rights to feel that way if they tried to enforce the law (there are no legal rights in this context).

      I do agree that whether those Christians are rightly morally offended by the violation of their civil rights (if they are, then those civil rights are moral rights) does not mean that they are rightly morally offended over the limits on their abilities to impose theocratic laws.
      To be clear, though, I’m not saying that those Christians are rightly morally offended over the limits on their abilities to impose theocratic laws. The expression ‘rightly morally offended’ would appear to imply that their feelings of moral offense are not immoral, which I do not claim – in fact, I do claim that their actions of protest are immoral.
      What I would say is that they have the right to feel morally offended over that, and to express such feelings publicly, in the scenario in question. That’s a moral, not a legal right. But that they have a (moral) right to behave in a certain manner does not mean that acting in said manner would be morally right – that’s the distinction I’m arguing for.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      The Christians are morally entitled to civil rights. Among our civil rights is to be morally and intellectually wrong in matters of conscience. The Christians morally deserve the right to their moral and intellectual errors. Moral behavior can only be truly moral when uncoerced by other people. Therefore there is a moral right to a civil right that allows us our moral mistakes and our intellectual ones whenever this is civicly tolerable. It is civicly tolerable that people be allowed their immoral feelings. But that does not mean we need to privately avoid criticizing or socially sanctioning them in the ways I call for.

    • http://angramainyusblog.blogspot.com/ Angra Mainyu

      Just to clarify my position:
      I don’t object to your call to privately and/or publicly criticizing them for immorally expressing moral outrage in many cases.

      In fact, I agree with that.
      Moreover – and though I find the matter a bit more complicated – I also agree that their feeling morally outraged is an immoral attitude, in many cases.

      My objection is merely to the assessment that they do not have the moral right to feel in that manner, or to express themselves in that manner, for the reasons I explained in my previous posts.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Do you grant that they have the moral right from a civil rights perspective but not from a “legitimate basis for social actions” perspective?

      What is it to have an immoral attitude if not to have an attitude that one does not have a moral right to (in some important sense)?

    • http://angramainyusblog.blogspot.com/ Angra Mainyu

      I’m not sure what you mean by distinguishing a ‘moral right from a civil rights perspective’ from ‘a moral right from a “legitimate basis for social action” perspective.

      If you’re saying that the term ‘A has a moral right to X’ is used in two different ways, and the former is the one I was using, I’d say I’m familiar with the former usage, but not the latter.
      If, however, that second usage is also common, then perhaps using other moral terms instead of ‘moral rights’ would be a way of reducing the chances of miscommunication.

      What is it to have an immoral attitude if not to have an attitude that one does not have a moral right to (in some important sense)?

      Personally, I think ‘immoral’ is a clearer term than terms like ‘moral right’, but in any case, in a language of moral rights and moral obligations, I would say that to have an immoral attitude is to have an attitude that one has a moral obligation not to have. I do not think I can put that in terms of moral rights.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I would say that to have an immoral attitude is to have an attitude that one has a moral obligation not to have. I do not think I can put that in terms of moral rights.

      If you have a moral obligation not to have something, don’t you have no moral rights to have that thing. If I have an obligation not to cheat, don’t I have no moral right to cheat? If I have a moral obligation not to have genocidal hatred, don’t I have no moral right to genocidal hatred?

    • http://angramainyusblog.blogspot.com/ Angra Mainyu

      If you have a moral obligation not to have something, don’t you have no moral rights to have that thing. If I have an obligation not to cheat, don’t I have no moral right to cheat? If I have a moral obligation not to have genocidal hatred, don’t I have no moral right to genocidal hatred?

      I don’t think so.
      For instance, the Christians in my example have a moral obligation to (at least) refrain from publicly calling women who have abortions and doctors who provide them ‘murderers’, but they nevertheless have the (moral, not legal) right to make that claim.

      Having said that, and given the way you’re using the term ‘moral right’ (i.e., the disagreement persists so far), I’m thinking that perhaps there are two common usages of the term after all.
      On that note, I’ve done some searching, and I’ve also found a number of examples that seem to match your usage.
      I’ll need to do more research when I have time for it, but an interesting question (to me, anyway) is whether both usages are quite common even if that’s generally not known, in which case the language of rights is more prone to confusion than I thought it was.
      Maybe simpler terms like ‘morally bad’ and ‘morally good’ are less problematic.

  • http://outofthegdwaye.wordpress.com/ George W.

    I think some people are struggling with the distinction between the right to feel a certain way and be free to express this (Freedom of conscience, freedom of speech) on the one hand, and the right to have those feelings and ideas sheltered from moral judgement on the other.

    If I understand the point Dan has been trying to make over his several posts- we have a legal right to express offense because it is rightly protected as an extension of speech, but this offense is not absolved of moral culpability.
    just as person has every right to think and even express that someone in his workplace has been hired not because of their skill but because they fulfill some nepotistic mandate, any person has a right to feel and even express offense from a legal perspective. No laws will stand in this persons way.
    A person does not have the right to express that offense free of judgement or criticism. Their exists no moral right for a person to act and believe with no consequences whatsoever.

  • Pen

    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.

    A very questionable atheist behavior for me is engaging in activities that we know perfectly well religious people will regard as desecration, with no other reason than to make a point that a) we can, b) their sky daddy appears not to strike us down for it. Obviously, the religious people are offended – the question is whether they are within their moral rights. So I tried to apply your criteria to this. Some atheists see it as a perfectly legitimate ridiculing of someone elses’ favorite ideas and institutions. They sometimes even have a moral argument to support doing it, rather than regarding it as morally neutral as your criteria might suggest.

    I wouldn’t like myself if I behaved in this way. If I wouldn’t like myself, that has implications for how much I like other people who are doing it. It implies that I think people who take offense are at least justified in withdrawing their goodwill and respect. I don’t specifically think it is abusive, disempowering or threatening though. It turns out I have a criteria for moral behaviour that involves not deliberately upsetting other people a great deal over a matter of no importance to myself. If I break that rule, I think they are morally justified in being offended with me.

    In other words, I can also make a moral argument to support a position that’s not especially popular around here. But needless to say, people rarely break moral rules they have thought of themselves. They just break other people’s moral rules, the ones they haven’t thought of or don’t agree with anyway. Being oppositional with them is virtually guaranteed to produce everything under the sun except an apology and an amendment of their behaviour. Just as it does with religious people.

    P.S. I don’t get the whole apology thing anyway. It strikes me as having religious roots in the whole repent and confess culture. You said:

    We are saying “what you did was wrong, it requires social penalties, apologies, and/or demonstrations of repentance”

    That’s a view I’m very much in the process of reconsidering. Given that people hardly ever go round giving offense knowing perfectly well that they are morally wrong, what is the point? If other people manage to change their minds for real, everyone’s happy from there on out. If they just browbeat them into saying sorry, which is often the case, it doesn’t count anyway. On the rare occasions when I ever managed to change someone’s mind about something that was upsetting me, I wanted to buy them a drink, not hear an apology.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Hi Pen,

      Please take a look at my post on Blasphemy Day, wherein I empathize with your queasiness about confrontationally upsetting people, but explain the justification (and sometimes the imperative) of being willing to do so for certain purposes (though not for all).

      That’s a view I’m very much in the process of reconsidering. Given that people hardly ever go round giving offense knowing perfectly well that they are morally wrong, what is the point? If other people manage to change their minds for real, everyone’s happy from there on out. If they just browbeat them into saying sorry, which is often the case, it doesn’t count anyway. On the rare occasions when I ever managed to change someone’s mind about something that was upsetting me, I wanted to buy them a drink, not hear an apology.

      How much this involves browbeating and how much it involves softer means of holding each other accountable depends on a lot of variables. It does not have to be as ugly and alienating a dynamic as possible. Insomuch as it can be a process where people learn and change the most with the least amount of interpersonal pummeling, it should be. But formally, from a moral standpoint, some efforts to influence each other for positive change are necessary. While not becoming gleefully insensitive or vindictive, we need stronger stomachs for conflict if we are going to care about values that are important.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Another post I want to recommend on this score is Why Bother Blaming People At All–Isn’t That Judgmental?

  • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

    Hmmm… interesting post, but I’m inclined to disagree. The word “offensive” just doesn’t mean what you want it to mean. Maybe this is the result of lamentable over-use, but I think the word is beyond the point of rescue. In practice, it’s an excuse to complain about things you dislike and nothing more. If we want to say something is offensive because it unfairly disempowers people or whatever, I’m inclined to think we should just say that instead of getting into a fight over whether or not offense is justified in that case.

    (But I’m not quite sure about any of that, and am leaving this comment mainly to get your reaction.)

    • http://angramainyusblog.blogspot.com/ Angra Mainyu

      How about the following, perhaps more limited claims?

      When religious believers publicly express moral outrage just because their religion is being criticized, they’re behaving immorally.
      Generally, if agent B engages in behavior Y, it’s immoral for agent A to express moral outrage just because B engages in Y, unless agent A has a warranted belief that behavior Y is immoral.

  • Adam Hayes

    I’m not sure how to understand this, and I think it’s not just a minor point, though I could be wrong. (My wife says that I’m semi-literate, and maybe that’s the problem here.)

    “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.”

    Does this mean that I have the right to not *feel* offended, or does it mean that I have the right to not be *assaulted* verbally, as a questionable synonym to “offended?”

    If it’s the former, that sounds like I have the right to not consider the morality of what someone says in terms of it being offensive. Again, I don’t think it’s a minor detail, because it should be consistent with our belief or disbelief in our right to go through life without considering morals, or ethics. Do we have the right to not question whether actions are right or wrong? That sounds like the basis for violence of different kinds.


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