Rights Theory, Current Events

Moral Philosophy Needs a Moral License to Offend

Peter Singer and Jeff McMahan, two of the most prominent moral theorists alive, published a column at the New York Times  about the Anna Stubblefield sexual assault case. Among other things, they question whether Stubblefield could really be said to have harmed her victim:

A central issue in the trial was whether D.J. is profoundly cognitively impaired, as the prosecution contended and the court seemed to accept, or is competent cognitively but unable to communicate his thoughts without highly skilled assistance, as the defense contended. If we assume that he is profoundly cognitively impaired, we should concede that he cannot understand the normal significance of sexual relations between persons or the meaning and significance of sexual violation. These are, after all, difficult to articulate even for persons of normal cognitive capacity. In that case, he is incapable of giving or withholding informed consent to sexual relations; indeed, he may lack the concept of consent altogether.

On Facebook and elsewhere, I mostly see philosophers react with outrage. Some say Singer and McMahan are monsters, others say that they suffer from outrageous moral stupidity, and still others say that Singer and McMahan are offensively ignorant.

Now, I’m not interested here in debating to what degree Singer and McMahan are right or wrong. Instead, I want to discuss a meta-philosophical issue.

Here’s my thesis: Moral and political philosophy require a license to offend. If we want to do good work, we have to give each other permission to argue on behalf of morally bad or evil things, and (as a corollary) we have to avoid getting outraged by one another. (I think something like that holds true of comedy, by the way.)

Why think that? Well, consider the questions moral philosophy has to ask: What makes something a moral patient, to which one can owe duties? What makes something a moral agent, which owes duties? Do different things have different kinds of standing? What rights do we have and why? When may we violate or trump those rights, if ever? When, if ever, do non-moral concerns trump moral reasons? What makes an action harmful? Why is rape or sexual assault wrong, and can it be less or more wrongful, more or less harmful under different circumstances?

These are difficult questions. One reason they are difficult is–as I think Peter Singer, among others, has shown us–is that most of us have conflicting and contradictory intuitions and judgments about the answers to these questions. If you ask the average person why an adult human has rights but a rock doesn’t, that person will give you answers which imply (even though the person doesn’t intend to say this) that very young children or severely mentally disabled people don’t have rights or only have very weak rights. If you ask the typical person what makes rape harmful, they’ll give you an answer which will imply (even though the person doesn’t intend this) that raping a baby is not as bad as raping a typical adult, etc.

Our commonsense moral judgments are a bit of a mess. Philosophers notice the conflicts, try to sort them out and resolve them, or argue we should eliminate some judgments in favor of others when we can’t resolve the conflicts. But it’s more or less inevitable that in their attempts to answer such questions, they’re going to defend positions which offend other people’s sensibilities. And sometimes, maybe not this case, but at least sometimes in other cases, the problem won’t be with the offending philosophers but with the offended other people.

Philosophy also has the job of critically examining our basic beliefs for granted. Most people have something like a set of metaphysical, epistemological, and axiological beliefs, but philosophy is in part supposed to challenge those beliefs and see if they withstand scrutiny. A great deal of moral progress comes from subjecting such beliefs to scrutiny. But it can also lead to bad results.

We can also learn a great deal from seeing and responding to arguments for things we find offensive. For example, I have students in my PPE course read Mussolini and Gentile’s “The Doctrine of Fascism” as well as sections of Hitler’s My Struggle. They regularly say these are two of the best readings. In particular, many of them are disturbed to discover that accept Hitler’s premises in his argument for why Germany should be able to conquer other lands. (This was especially true among students at Brown; less so at Georgetown)

I don’t want to push hard on the “everything’s offensive to someone” line, but there’s something to it. I joke in the beginning of my manuscript When All Else Fails that the historical purpose of political philosophy has been to rationalize evil. It looks to me like almost every political philosopher through history spends most of his or her time trying to explain why people in power should be held to lower than normal moral standards. Many of my colleagues see themselves as defending the poor and downtrodden, but to me it looks like many of their ideas about economics are simply outside the realm of reasonable debate. I expect that giving many of my colleagues (even the self-described anarchists) the policies they want would lead to gulags, mass starvation, democide, and authoritarian politics. I see many of my colleagues as providing moral cover for rent-seekers. Most democratic theory reads to me like a sixty pages of arcane Dungeons and Dragons bullshit followed by the conclusion that groups of people can violate individuals’ rights at will. When other people in the field are offended, half the time it looks to me like they’re pushing to get themselves and their friends increased status, power, and money.

(They of course disagree.)

If I wanted to, I could be offended all the time. But I’m not.

Imagine writing with the worry in the back of your mind, “If I get this wrong, my colleagues will say I’m evil, ostracize me, and try to get an Internet mob to come after me.” I don’t see much progress being made in an atmosphere like that, and, incidentally, it sure doesn’t seem to me like the departments where people are quick to take offense are the places publishing ground-breaking work.

If we’re going to do moral philosophy, we need to give each other license to defend evil things. Otherwise, the only reasonable alternative is for pretty much everyone other than Chris Freiman, Michael Huemer, Bas van der Vossen, and me to quit, since most of the rest of you keep offering arguments for morally wrong conclusions.

P.S.: I see certain people claiming that Singer and McMahan are only saying stuff like this because they are white men. If you’re going to assert something like that, be scientific about it. For instance, you could collect data on what people think, who they are (their demographics), and then test various cognitive traits (IQ, knowledge, logical aptitude, background in philosophy, or whatever might be relevant). With those three sets of data, you can then statistically determine whether people’s beliefs are explained by their demographics (while controlling for their cognitive traits) or by their cognitive traits (while controlling for demographics). Don’t just assert it.

  • Andrew Pearson

    Perhaps ironically, Stubblefield herself wrote an article arguing that criticism of Facilitated Communication (the “service” she was providing to her alleged victim) should be treated as Hate Speech. http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/1729/1777 (Not that this affects your argument!)

  • Pingback: McMahan & Singer: Stubblefield Is A Victim Of Injustice (updated) - Daily Nous()

  • Fernando Teson

    Jay, I agree as far as it goes. But why would moral philosophers (and comics) alone enjoy that franchise? Why not political scientists (e.g. Murray)? Or, now that we’re at it, why not everyone else? Why can’t the guy on the street have the franchise?

  • IEIUNUS

    “Most democratic theory reads to me like a sixty pages of arcane Dungeons
    and Dragons bullshit followed by the conclusion that groups of people
    can violate individuals’ rights at will.”

    Classic.

    “If we’re going to do moral philosophy, we need to give each other
    license to defend evil things. Otherwise, the only reasonable
    alternative is for pretty much everyone other than Chris Freiman,
    Michael Huemer, Bas van der Vossen, and me to quit, since most of the
    rest of you keep offering arguments for morally wrong conclusions.”

    Do you think that argument will sway the academic masses? If not, perhaps you could provide society with more value by switching fields to say, biomedicine, chemical engineering, or some other appreciable hard science, instead of wasting your time. It’s possibly the difference between a hard working, intelligent person developing sound arguments, and a hard working, intelligent person developing the cure for cancer, i.e., advancing the general standard of living for billions of people.

    I know life is good for you now as a professional philosopher. But, do the right thing!

    • Jason Brennan

      It’s a performance. I’m being pissy here on purpose to illustrate the point.

      • Libertymike

        A fine performance at that.

        Perhaps IEIUNUS has a point: Given the scale of iatrogenic death, Brennan, I would rather you be in charge of all things health care and medicine than what we have now.

  • Kevin Heckman

    I also hate arcane Dungeons and Dragons bullshit, which is why I only play clerics.

    • Jason Brennan

      You and Steve Horwitz!

  • Henry Vandenburgh

    Absolutely. People just need to shut the fuck up about “offended.” Do some onerous working class job being called out at 3:00 am– then you can say offended.

  • P.E

    Of course people will have negative reactions to an influential public speaker voicing opinions on matters that can change judicial and medical procedures. If the person is really ignorant about the facts and if his opinion is really outrageous, there’s nothing wrong in being upset about it. It’s not as if he’s only publishing a pure mathematics paper that only a handful of people will read. He’s shaping opinions on matters that he doesn’t know much. He’s being imprudent.

    You may say that those negative reactions are unfounded because Singer is an expert on the field. Well…

    1) He’s very good at finding holes in our intuitions, yes, but, philosophically speaking, he’s lacking. Rosalind Hursthouse once said that you can skip Singer’s philosophy on Animal Liberation without missing anything important. I agree with her. Talking about that Stubblefield piece specifically, there’s nothing robust about it. He talks as if you can’t have “good intentions” and do harm at the same time (you know what’s wrong with that, come on) and that something being “pleasurable” (in a very watered down sense) negates that it can be problematic. To be clear, he doesn’t argue in favor of that. He only asserts it.

    2) It’s not as if people are mindlessly rejecting a conclusion because it is offensive. They have reasons to reject it. For instance:
    https://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2017/04/03/a-reply-to-mcmahan-and-singer-on-the-stubblefield-case/

    You can also read the comments here:
    http://dailynous.com/2017/04/03/mcmahan-singer-stubblefield-victim-injustice/

    Maybe the philosophers on Facebook are only expressing their negative reactions and not really arguing against the piece, but this is what I would expect from… a Facebook post.

  • JdL

    If I’m reading this right, the author is instructing people to stop being offended. In my view, this is both a pipe dream and unnecessary. A pipe dream, because you might as well instruct men to stop lusting for women, as tell people not to be offended by things that do, in fact, offend them. Unnecessary, because trying to shut down discussion by being offended is effective only temporarily. An idea with merit will find an audience willing to listen, and the offended will find themselves bombarded with this idea from every direction, until they have little choice but to re-examine their thinking. That, or be marginalized themselves as kooks.

  • King Goat

    I think it’s much less impressive to not be moved to upset when the things being debated have a more remote chance to, to the extent certain positions might, are or were accepted, result in practices or policies which negatively (sometimes horrifically) impact people like yourself. And the converse of this is true.

  • Sean II

    “…you can then determine whether people’s beliefs are explained by their demographics…”

    Why would anyone think such a crazy thing?

    I was arguing this very point with a friend the other day.

    He was all like “East Asians tend to be collectivist and patriarchal, which is why gerontocracy rules so much of the rim”.

    And I was like “No way, homez. Asian-Americans love Bernie Sanders. So that’s your theory shot right to shit.”

  • CJColucci

    What, exactly, is a “license to offend”? Nobody is going to put Singer and McMahan in prison. They both have tenure, so they will not lose their jobs. (FWIW, I don’t think this would be a firing offense if they didn’t have tenure.) If any private person attempts to assault them, or firebomb their homes, or vandalize their cars, well, we have police to deal with that, who will probably expend more resources to that end than either Singer or McMahan could likely scrape up.To that very considerable extent, they have a “license to offend.”

    I am not offended by what they said, but it cannot have come as a surprise to them that some people, maybe many people, would be. You cannot reasonably expect people you offend to be well-disposed toward you. They may say mean, even hateful, things about you. They may shun your company, or refuse to buy your books, and try to persuade others to do likewise. Some may choose not to hire you if you go out on the job market. No “license to offend” can, or should, do anything about that; and for people who think they cannot produce the great work they think — almost certainly wrongly — is within them unless they have such a license, they should just grow a pair.

    • Farstrider

      Agree 100%. This is called the “market place of ideas.” And it is a feature, not a bug, that people get offended and react angrily to certain kinds of speech – regardless of whether I or you think that speech is correct or deserves such a heated response.

      • TracyW

        But it depends on how you react angrily. A reaction of “this is wrong and I’m going to prove it” is a good reaction if it is approached with a dedication to truth.

        A reaction of “this is wrong and I’m going​ to say mean and hateful things and try to suppress your speech” is a terribly bad reaction, harmful not just to the person you are attacking, but also yourself.

        • Farstrider

          “this is wrong and I’m going​ to say mean and hateful things and try to suppress your speech”

          One of these things is not like the other. Responding to speech by saying “this is wrong” is perfectly fine. Responding to speech with speech of your own, even if it is “mean” and “hateful” is also perfectly fine.
          But neither is an effort to “suppress your speech.” An suppressing speech necessarily needs to be something more than mere responsive speech. As CJColucci says, it needs to be something like firebombing, vandalism and other violence.

          • TracyW

            Responding to speech with speech of your own, even if it is “mean” and “hateful” is also perfectly fine.

            An interesting moral claim, what moral philosophy does it come from?

            My own thinking is that saying mean and hateful things is a bad thing in and of itself. It may possibly be justifiable in cases where an even greater bad is thus averted, but even in those cases it would be even better to find an alternative solution that didn’t require saying mean and hateful things (and meets other moral requirements as well).

            But neither is an effort to “suppress your speech.”

            Well if you wish to be pedantic then I can work with that. Saying mean and hateful things in response to someone saying something you find offensive is not suppressing speech, but suppressing the benefits of speech. At least for yourself. You are following the letter but denying the spirit.

            And that’s the bad thing.

          • Farstrider

            This is a legal discussion, not really a moral one. How one ought to speak in a moral sense is certainly distinct from how they should be permitted to speak. But you can still get pretty far by appealing to a philosophy of allowing people to do what they want unless it violates someone else’s rights. Since the listener has no right to be free from “mean” speech – indeed has there ever been a more ambiguous term – that seems good enough, no?

            It’s not pedantic to draw a line between (a) violence in response to speech and (b) speech in response to speech. For the obvious reason that one is always bad and one is always good.

            You are also overlooking that this idea that some speech has benefits and some speech does not is completely not administratable. Who gets to say which speech is valuable and which not? By what criteria shall they make that decision? Every would-be censor will have different tastes. You favor tone policing, it seems, but your neighbor might be fine with tone so long as the speech does not stray into blasphemy, or does not criticize the government, or does not refer to certain topics, etc. Far better to allow all the speech and let the marketplace of ideas sort it out.

          • TracyW

            This is a legal discussion, not really a moral one.

            Nope, it’s a moral discussion. And not just because I’m making moral arguments, but because you do too. For example, right at the end of your comment you say:

            Far better to allow all the speech and let the marketplace of ideas sort it out.

            Now how is that statement relevant to a purely legal discussion? What is the legal sense in which “far better” applies?

            And, more generally, why do you want to limit this discussion to legalities? You haven’t identified a single point of disagreement between us on legal issues. Do you think the moral issues are unimportant? And if so, why?

          • Farstrider

            My position is based in the proposition that more freedom is better than less freedom. I guess that is a moral stance, but I thought it was one everyone agreed on, and therefore not up for debate.
            I guess you come from a different perspective, at least with respect to speech. Per your comments above, your view seems to be that people should only offer speech which is valuable – and you seem to assume that “mean” speech can never be valuable.
            The problem remains – and you still have not addressed it – that there is no way to decide which is valuable and which is not. You may disagree on the social utility of “fuck the draft” and “fuck da police,” but – no offense – who cares what you think about that? Why should your tender sensibilities dictate what other people can say? That is the point of the Supreme Court decision quoted above. Certainly you are free to say “you shouldn’t say that” and “I find your speech offensive.” If that is as far as you are going, fine.
            My concern is that censors never ever want to stop there. And you are sounding a lot like a censor.

          • TracyW

            My position is based in the proposition that more freedom is better than less freedom.

            Actually I agree with you. But, when we are taking morality (NOT legality), the question is how best to pursue freedom. I maintain that seeking out truth grants more freedom in the long-run than just saying whatever you want to in the moment. Not just freedom of speech, but freedom of action.

            Like staying out of debt means restricting your freedom in the short-term (eg not buying that pretty jewelry) to gain more long-term freedom from not having to hide from creditors.

            Per your comments above, your view seems to be that people should only offer speech which is valuable

            For a broad definition of the word “valuable”. I like nonsense verse and late night bull sessions and the like.

            and you seem to assume that “mean” speech can never be valuable.

            May I suggest you re-read what I wrote? I explicitly noted that “mean” speech might be justifiable sometimes to avoid an even greater evil. My dispute was with your claim that mean and hateful speech was “perfectly fine”, and, later on, “good enough”.

            Quite honestly I’d prefer it if you restrict yourself to engaging with what I actually said, not what you think I assume.

            The problem remains – and you still have not addressed it – that there is no way to decide which is valuable and which is not.

            So how do you decide what to say? If there’s no way to decide what speech is valuable and what is not, how come you’re here making coherent sentences, rather than off on Twitter posting random syllables?

            This issue of deciding what speech is valuable is a problem for you as much as me. With legal freedom of speech the the responsibility falls on the individual speaker, but even the individual speaker can’t say everything at once and thus must make these decisions.

            And, when making these decisions about what speech is is valuable for yourself to say, there’s no problem I can see with being influenced by other people’s​ arguments about what sort of speech is valuable. Eh, in my experience in France you get much better service at cafes and shops if on entering you say “Bonjour Madame” (or the relevant equivalent depending on time of day and whom you’re addressing). If you go to France you are free to follow my advice or not.

            You may disagree on the social utility of “fuck the draft” and “fuck da police,” but – no offense – who cares what you think about that?

            Because I cite examples of major successful campaigns to change people’s​ thinking that didn’t use the word “fuck”.

            It’s not so much what I think, it’s that in reality (as far as I can tell), being polite and drawing out your opponent’s vileness seems more successful.

            Look at it this way. Imagine I was never born. It would still be the case that Thomas Paine, William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King, achieved major changes to social thinking and the legal system without using the word “fuck”. They would still be evidence against your claim that infringing that style of speech ” would have profound and negative impacts” .
            It may be that if I never existed there would be no one pointing this out (though I think that this would be placing too high an importance on me), but those facts would still be in existence.

            Why should your tender sensibilities dictate what other people can say?

            Exactly! That’s why I totally ignored my sensibilities and argued facts about what works in terms of persuasion.

            I might be wrong about those facts. Or I might be overlooking some important facts that point the other way. Personally I think that’s a far more interesting argument to be having than all this stuff about my sensibilities, which I think is an utter waste of both of our time.

            That is the point of the Supreme Court decision quoted above.

            Which is of course utterly irrelevant to the argument I actually made.

            Certainly you are free to say “you shouldn’t say that” and “I find your speech offensive.” If that is as far as you are going, fine.

            If you are merely speaking of what is, or should be, legal, then I agree with you. But, on moral terms, I think it’s actually morally wrong to say “You shouldn’t say that” or “I find your speech offensive” and stop there. Morally (not legally) I think if you complain about people’s behaviour or speech you morally owe them also an actual argument as to why they should stop.

            Otherwise you’re just doing what you criticize me (groundlessly) for doing above, of regarding your opinions and sensibilities as sufficient reason to interfere with others’ speech.

            And you are sounding a lot like a censor.

            That may be. But I note that you don’t disagree with anything I’ve actually said. Can I take it that you agree with me on what I am actually saying? (As opposed to what I seem to you to assume, or what I sound like to you.)

            If you agree with me on all the substance I am interested on your advice as how to convey the substance without sounding like a censor.

          • Farstrider

            It seems like all you are expressing is a preference for certain types of speech, namely, the kind of speech you find to be more effective at persuasion. And then you add to that a moral obligation, that people should limit themselves to that kind of speech. I have no problems with these being your preferences. I also have no problems with you attempting to persuade others that your preferences should govern their speech as well.

            But you’ve fallen well short of establishing that persuasion is the only justifiable reason for speaking or that your preferred means of speaking is the only or even best method of persuasion. I think that is where we disagree.

          • TracyW

            or that your preferred means of speaking is the only or even best method of persuasion. I think that is where we disagree.

            Why?

            You’ve told me at length that you disagree with what you assert I “seem” to be saying, with what you say you assume you think, with what you imagine I prefer, but you’ve never actually disagreed with any of my actual arguments on this point.

            At this point, I think my arguments must be pretty good, if you can’t think of a single relevant counter-argument to them.

            On your other comments, I’ll make one response as I’m

            you’ve fallen well short of establishing that persuasion is the only justifiable reason for speaking/blockquote>

            Woah! You don’t get to sneak that one in there without a single supporting argument. Don’t tell me that you go through life only speaking to persuade, that you’ve never made a joke just for fun, or told a nonsense rhyme to entertain a 3 week old baby, or recited a poem or sung a song to pass a boring trip. What a kill-joy attitude to life, to think that speech (or anything) needs to solely be for one purpose!

            (Though I suspect you’re just going to dash down another rabbit hole of what you think about how this “seems” or what you imagine I prefer, etc, etc, etc.)

          • Farstrider

            As to the first point, I thought it obvious that different people are susceptible to different types of argumentation. You seem to be saying that the best way to be persuasive involves acting like an adult and politely attacking ideas. But some people do not find this approach persuasive. Emotional appeals are more persuasive to some, while humor and parody are more persuasive to others. And it is also obvious, I thought, that these different styles of argument can be more or less persuasive depending on the subject. Emotion may be more effective with some topics, while humor is more effective with others. You have to show that I am wrong about the above before you can seriously claim that your preferred means of persuasion is the only or even best method of persuasion. I don’t think you can, and you have not even tried.

            As to the second point, I never claimed that persuasion is the only justifiable reason for speaking. It was you who wrote the following: “Please note that I think people should be legally​ free to say “fuck the draft” or “fuck da police”, my disagreement is only over the moral and practical impacts of actually exercising that legal right.” I took this to mean that you think there are moral prohibitions on such speech because it does not contribute to, or frustrates, persuasion. In other words, you are the one that wants to put limitations on speech, not me. Your examples of jokes, baby babble, songs etc support my point that speech serves important roles that have nothing to with persuasion. Those same examples under cut your claim that persuasion is the only, or perhaps most important, role of speech.

          • TracyW

            As to the first point, I thought it obvious that different people are susceptible to different types of argumentation.

            That may be. But how many to each and in what ways? Remember earlier on I said that mean and hateful speech was “harmful not just to the person you are attacking, but also yourself.” [emphasis added]

            Take for example white Southerners who supported slavery and then the Jim Crow laws (and other similar racists). They spent decades saying mean and hateful things about blacks, and mistreating blacks. And what did it get them? They were terrified of a black uprising (and you can understand why), they spent millions in today’s money enforcing segregation because they were persuaded by that hateful and mean speech they were saying. Even where racists have not had political power, they lose from their hateful and mean speech, how many racists have lost out on their families because they couldn’t accept a son- or daughter-in-law of the wrong race?

            Or take the ur-example of hate speech: the Nazis. Carrying out their racist beliefs about Jews and Aryans and Slavs led to their leader committing suicide in the ruins of the German capital and the German ‘Aryans’, in whose name they did it all, starving and at the mercy of invaders who the Nazis had given ample reason to seek revenge.

            Okay that’s racists. How about Communists? They spent decades saying mean and hateful things about capitalism and capitalists, they get into power, Communism turns out to be harder than they first thought, so, in line with their rhetoric, they attribute this to capitalist sabotage and in the process of trying to root out the enemy they believed to be mean and hateful, they kill millions and turn their ideal into a byword for tyranny.

            There are two failure modes with saying mean and hateful things as a persuasive strategy: you might not convince your victim and …. you might convince yourself.

            On the rest, you are once again criticising what you imagine me to be saying, or what you think I said, or what you think my preferences are, not what I actually said. If you have any genuine questions about what I think, you are free to ask me.

          • Farstrider

            With the racists, you’ve got the cause and effect backwards. Hate speech reflects biases. It does not cause them. And perhaps more importantly, suppressing hate speech does nothing to cure biases. The better way to cure biases is to allow, but confront, the idiotic speech of racists. Sunlight is the best disinfectant and all that. With the commies, same problem: people say communist things because they believe in communism, not the other way around. And the way to defeat communist ideas is through argumentation, not censorship.

            Two other points are worth noting.

            First, you have completely left the realm of speech behind, as your examples are now talking about extraordinary violence, not mere speech by assholes. You would have to show that a peaceful Klan rally, or Mein Kampf or the Communist Manifesto – in other words, pure speech – inevitably lead to the horrible violence you’ve described. Obviously, you cannot do that, as millions have heard or repeated this kind of speech with no ill effects. And we already have an exception for speech that incites imminent violence.

            Second, your shift from Southern racists and Nazis to communists is quite revealing. It demonstrates the fluidity of your notion of “hate speech” – such that it can encompass anything you disagree with. This is, of course, the ultimate goal of every censor, and one which we must fight with every fiber.

            Also, I’m not “imagining” anything about what you said. I actually quoted you. If that is not what you actually said, then what is?

    • P.E

      Right on

    • TracyW

      I know I am several days late, sorry.

      But I think the point here is that just because people are offended by something doesn’t justify those people reacting by saying mean, hateful things about you, nor should they try to persuade others to boycott your books, nor should they try to persuade others not to hire you.

      And indeed, depending on the role they are looking to fill, perhaps they should be even more inclined to hire you because you offend them. After all, if you are looking for a test engineer, you want someone who is good at testing to destruction, not some bleeding heart who will go light on the design because they’re concerned the client might be offended. And that’s as true of people who test ideas as well as those who test products.

      A lot of people seem to think that “freedom of speech” was originally written into constitutions or human rights agreements on some sort of whim, or some vague theoretical idea about what governments should do, and has absolutely no practical harm.

      But this is wrong. You can’t​ control your feelings, but you can control your actions. If someone offends you that doesn’t justify you acting like an overly-tired two year old, running around saying mean, hateful things and trying to shut them up.

      You can, and should, respond like an adult. You can politely attack their ideas. You can draw out the full filthiness for public consumption.

      Look at what the Civil Rights Movement did under Martin Luther King: they deliberately sent well-dressed black men and women to peacefully break segregationist laws and thus provided the world with a stream of images of respectable-looking men and women doing totally innocent things like eating a meal at a counter while they were surrounded by these racist whites with anger on their faces attacking. It was clear who was on the side of good and who was on the side of evil.

      And, if it’s not clear who is on the side of good and who’s on the side of evil, then you should be polite because perhaps you might learn something.

      (Note: as a practical matter, people who say offensive things should of course expect to be badly treated by fellow humans. If you have low expectations you sometimes get pleasantly surprised. But that’s a separate matter.)

      • CJColucci

        I don’t necessarily disagree with this, but it doesn’t address either my point or Brennan’s. People ought to be nicer and calmer than they are, but I didn’t take that to be Brennan’s claim, and, if it is, he has absolutely no standing to make it.

        • TracyW

          Brennan’s claim is, to quote him:

          Moral and political philosophy require a license to offend. If we want to do good work, we have to give each other permission to argue on behalf of morally bad or evil things, and (as a corollary) we have to avoid getting outraged by one another.

          That’s not precisely the same as “people should be nicer and calmer to each other”, but your phrasing strikes me as a decent enough paraphrasing.

          if it is, he has absolutely no standing to make it.

          Oh interesting! When did you get appointed to the position of deciding who has standing to make moral claims? And how does that work? Was there an election? Did angels descend on high? Did you pull a sword from a stone?

          Anyway, regardless of whether Brenan has standing or not, he has made that claim, or close enough. And he’s made pretty good arguments in favour of it. Meanwhile you haven’t offered a single counter-argument. Sounds to me like Brennan’s won this one, standing or no standing.

          • CJColucci

            I’m sorry I offended you. But how that inhibited your ability to say what you please or “do good work” still eludes me.

          • TracyW

            I’m sorry I offended you.

            Well as you’re feeling guilty, how about you make amends by answering my questions?

            But how that inhibited your ability to say what you please or “do good work” still eludes me.

            I thought you’d have worked that out *before* making public pronouncements about people having standing or not. Whadda they say? “Pride goeth before a fall.”

          • CJColucci

            You seem to object particularly to what I had to say about Brennan’s “standing” to complain when people say mean things in response to offensive ideas. All I’ll say about that is you must be new around here.

          • TracyW

            Actually I was just curious as to what was the chain of events that led to you deciding it was your role to pronounce on anyone’s standing to make arguments.

            It appears that my curiousity will forever be unfulfilled. I wish I could say I was thereby surprised.

      • Farstrider

        You are confusing effective persuasion with free speech. Effective persuasion requires acting like an adult, politely attacking ideas, etc. Free speech does not.

        • TracyW

          Your response here I think illustrates the heart of our disagreement.
          As I said in the comment you are responding to:

          A lot of people seem to think that “freedom of speech” was originally written into constitutions or human rights agreements on some sort of whim, or some vague theoretical idea about what governments should do, and has absolutely no practical harm.

          You appear to be constructing “free speech” narrowly, as a legal matter, ignoring the ‘why’; the benefits both to society and to individuals of having free speech. The mere legal obility of others to speak freely is necessary, but not sufficient, to benefit from free speech. The benefits only come if at least a certain proportion of society listens freely as well as speaks freely, if at least some people are willing to learn. And, even if that proportion exists, if you personally refuse to participate you limit yourself to only the spillover benefits of the others.

          But perhaps I have misunderstood. It has happened before. Why do you think “free speech” was introduced in the first place?

          Note for the Slow-Of-Thinking: obviously no one can freely listen to everything. As a practical matter, we have to pick and choose as best we can. But when we do have time to listen, we should listen and respond like rational adults, not toddlers.

          • Farstrider

            I think you’ve changed topics a bit. If your point is only that it is good to give a fair hearing to new ideas, then of course we agree. But that has little to do with what kind of speech should be permitted in the first place, which is what I thought you were suggesting. For example, you want to restrict certain kinds of critical speech (” just because people are offended by something doesn’t justify those people reacting by saying mean, hateful things about you, nor should they try to persuade others to boycott your books, nor should they try to persuade others not to hire you”) and permit only certain other kinds of critical speech (“politely attack their ideas”).
            I would also point out that your own senses of virtue, propriety and politeness have nothing to do with the value of speech. “Fuck the draft” and “Fuck tha Police” are not polite attacks on ideas, but abridging the right of people to say these things would have profound and negative impacts on both the people who think this way and the people they want to persuade.
            As the Court said in Cohen, “[t]o many, the immediate consequence of this freedom may often appear to be only verbal tumult, discord, and even offensive utterance. These are, however, within established limits, in truth necessary side effects of the broader enduring values which the process of open debate permits us to achieve. That the air may at times seem filled with verbal cacophony is, in this sense not a sign of weakness but of strength. We cannot lose sight of the fact that, in what otherwise might seem a trifling and annoying instance of individual distasteful abuse of a privilege, these fundamental societal values are truly implicated….Additionally, we cannot overlook the fact, because it is well illustrated by the episode involved here, that much linguistic expression serves a dual communicative function: it conveys not only ideas capable of relatively precise, detached explication, but otherwise inexpressible emotions as well. In fact, words are often chosen as much for their emotive as their cognitive force. We cannot sanction the view that the Constitution, while solicitous of the cognitive content of individual speech, has little or no regard for that emotive function which, practically speaking, may often be the more important element of the overall message sought to be communicated.”

          • TracyW

            I think you’ve changed topics a bit. If your point is only that it is good to give a fair hearing to new ideas, then of course we agree.

            I don’t see any justification for restricting our tolerance to just new ideas.

            And, beyond the fair hearing, I think we should also tolerate, even actively seek out to hire for certain roles, people who say offensive things.

            But that has little to do with what kind of speech should be permitted in the first place, which is what I thought you were suggesting.

            How do you give fair hearing to ideas (old or new) if you also permit yourself to say mean and hurtful things about the person saying them? At best aren’t you making life harder for yourself by making yourself go through a mental shift between the two roles?

            (Note I am taking about moral requirements and permission here, not legal matters. If you are in a country where any criticism of the Prophet Muhammad is punishable by death, my thinking is that you are morally permitted to engage in criticism of Mohammed, although prudence may advise extreme carefulness about your audience.)

            For example, you want to restrict certain kinds of critical speech (” just because people are offended by something doesn’t justify those people reacting by saying mean, hateful things about you, nor should they try to persuade others to boycott your books, nor should they try to persuade others not to hire you”) and permit only certain other kinds of critical speech (“politely attack their ideas”).

            Given the context of this debate, let me be clear that my interest here is in people adopting moral restrictions on their own selves. I am in favour of the legal system permitting saying mean, hateful things. I am not one of those people who thinks “legal” is synonymous with “good”. In either direction.

            I would also point out that your own senses of virtue, propriety and politeness have nothing to do with the value of speech.

            That may be. I do not want to overestimate my own importance. But the general population’s sense of virtue, propriety and politeness might have something to do with the value of speech. As I argued earlier, the Civil Rights Movement was very skilled at showing themselves as polite and full of propriety

            “Fuck the draft” and “Fuck tha Police” are not polite attacks on ideas, but abridging the right of people to say these things would have profound and negative impacts on both the people who think this way and the people they want to persuade.

            A bold claim. As far as I know, the American Revolution proceeded without Thomas Paine ever writing the word “fuck”. Nor do I recall the words “fuck slavery” appearing in Wilberforce’s speeches. Or in MLK’s “I have a dream” speech.

            You put a long quote from a court below, I’m guessing an American one. But that quote doesn’t cite any evidence for the claims it makes, and I personally think my freedom of speech includes the right to disagree with assertions about facts made by a court, even if it were a court of a country of which I am a citizen, let alone an American court to which I owe no loyalty. So I remain of my original opinion.

            Please note that I think people should be legally​ free to say “fuck the draft” or “fuck da police”, my disagreement is only over the moral and practical impacts of actually exercising that legal right.

  • martinbrock

    From all the moral issues raised by Singer, McMahan and Stubblefield, you’ve managed to distill the most superficial and narcissistic. Everyone, in the United States at least, already has a license to offend. If Stubblefield’s case hasn’t inspired an episode of South Park yet, it’s only a matter of time.

  • Bill Othon

    Look, the issue is resorting to ad hominem attacks instead of addressing the disagreement in principle. Spitting and name calling should be a warning to the observer that you are dealing with someone not ready for substantive engagement.

    The point isn’t not to offend someone. The point is that your case is stronger and maybe more pursuasive by sticking to the point.

    Try this: write a response to something you vehemently disagree with out in the blogosphere. Make sure you are really mad about it, think the speaker is an idiot. Now, go back over your writing, and remove any personal attack that might have snuck in. Does your point survive? Is there even anything left over?? 🙂

    • Rob Gressis

      I would bet that your point is stronger, but I doubt it’s more persuasive. It really depends on your audience. I think invective does a reasonably good job at signaling to people who are on the fence that they better get off the fence and go in the safer direction, wherever the truth may lie.

      By the way, I really dislike invective and try to avoid it whenever possible, you monster.

  • Irfan Khawaja

    I literally do not understand what this post is saying–or more specifically, the conclusion it’s arguing for. The conclusion seems to be: moral and political philosophy should have “license to offend.” OK, but how do we lack a “license to offend” right now?

    A reasonable inference would seem to be that we lack it because if Smith defends some putatively outrageous conclusion p, Jones might well take Smith to task for asserting p. Whereas if Smith had license to offend….something else would happen, but it’s not clear what. Does a “license to offend” require giving Smith a safe space that immunizes Smith from Jones’s outrage? Or does it demand that Jones not give voice to his outrage at all? Or does it demand that Jones simply suppress his outrage, regardless of the content of Smith’s original claim? Of course, the psychological literature suggests that thought suppression just leads to intensification of the suppressed thought, so I’m not really sure what Jones is supposed to do here. If he feels outrage at something someone says, should he just take a cold shower?

    In other words, I don’t see how your proposal is different than or superior to the status quo. Right now, in countries that lack censorship, philosophers sometimes say offensive things, and people get offended by what they say. We then choose either to respond or to ignore these offended people. What does “license to offend” add to this state of affairs that improves on it?

    It would make more sense to argue that we should have license to offend without suffering consequences that are irrelevant to or disproportionate to the (supposed) offense, or suffering consequences that simply penalize us for doing our jobs. (It might also help to demand that when a claim is supposed to be outrageous, those outraged by it explain what is outrageous about it. It’s outrageous how infrequently this is done.) An academic should not be denied tenure or shouted down–or called to the Dean’s office for a reprimand, as I recently was–for saying something supposedly outrageous. I can sign on to *that*, but it’s not what you said in the post.

    At any rate, one can’t reasonably demand that outrage dial itself back and cease to exist. Genuinely outrageous claims will reasonably elicit outrage. Whether this is true of the Singer-McMahon claims is irrelevant. It’s true of some claims. You can’t demand license to offend and then blanch at the fact that people get offended by them, and act like offended people. What did you expect them to do? If you want to argue that the public expression of offense is itself wrong, you need to provide an argument for that conclusion. Demanding license to offend isn’t going to do it. You already have ample license to offend. The question is how the offended are properly supposed to react. Little in the post deals with that, but it’s the essential issue.

  • Craig J. Bolton

    I am personally delighted that we can now have a calm and rational discussion about the sacrifice of infants to Moloch. We have seen what happens over the past three thousand years since this practice was suspended. Yet no one has dared point to the obvious cause for the pervasive wars, revolutions, epidemics and famines, because people just can’t carry on a civil conversation over the obvious connection. Worse, those who have tried to reinstitute infant sacrifice have been subjected to the full force of the law, in some cases having been themselves executed. Nothing angers Moloch more than having one of his worshippers persecuted for righteous practices.

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  • As someone with a science background, this is the type of Philosophy I love. It doesn’t try to ask ‘what is reality’ or ‘what is consciousness’ but rather ‘given what we know of reality, what should we do with it?’

  • John Alexander

    If you are offended by what I say, this is your problem, not mine. I do not need permission (a license) to offend because I do not offend, your reaction creates the offensiveness.

  • Tomh

    Can one rape a sex toy

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