Friday, February 11, 2011

moral offense and moral response

I have two classes this semester that are focusing on justice, morality, and freedom of speech. We're looking at the First Amendment, exceptions to it, and the difference between the legal right to free expression, and the moral question of what one should or should not say. Later, we're reading the Republic.

But for now, I'm presenting them some material on obscenity. In addition to being a big fan of obscenity, I've also done a little stuff on the legal and moral issues, in particular about pornography. Although I don't plan to present them any porn, I am going to play them George Carlin's "Dirty Words" routine, and a couple snippets of a Lenny Bruce bit that got him arrested for obscenity.

My take on it is that there's a difference between obscenity and offensive speech, both legally and morally, and it's important to sort out what's what to that extent. Obscenity, we restrict. Offensiveness, we can't. By which I mean, in my view, it's not terribly compelling to claim a right not to be offended, and one key reason it's not compelling is that offense is subjective.

I had the classes read an article by a guy named Robin Barrow on what he calls the duty not to take offense. He attempts (and, my class yesterday and I believe, fails miserably) to distinguish what merely feels offensive to someone in particular from what is quintessentially offensive, and hence morally wrong. His example of such a quintessentially offensive display is, very unhelpfully, public beheading of a non-combatant. His initial example of what merely feels offensive is, also unhelpfully, his calling a colleague a "stupid bitch."

In class, I suggested we could write him a letter. "Dear Professor Asshole," I said we could begin.

Anyway, he does make one provocative point that has made me wonder further. He claims that we have a moral duty not to take offense, which he says is based on the "true moral principles" of freedom and toleration. Taking offense, he says, in the sense of making some formal action, based on a moral judgment in response to what has offended you, is intolerant. (So, as the class saw pretty clearly emerging from the paper, he wasn't wrong to call his colleague a "stupid bitch," or at least, not as wrong as she was for filing a formal complaint about it. Because, see, he apparently has the right to call her a "stupid bitch" and she hasn't the right to take offense at it. Um, yeah. Whatever. This, obviously enough, isn't the part that provoked me to think further.)

For instance, when we take offense in the context of someone joking, we are being humorless and overly "self-regarding." The context is the crucial thing here, and is the reason why nothing someone says can be "quintessentially offensive" in the way he points to. The class came up with a number of examples: "nigga," "faggot," "fat cow," etc.

The fact of the matter is, we get offended, and sometimes we are right to be offended, even if our taking offense is also self-regarding (is it always wrong to be self-regarding? Egyptians in the streets have clearly lost their sense of humor about Hosni Mubarak, but I would not want to say they are wrong to take offense...). It's a question that I come back to every so often about moral judgment: What is the right thing to do in response to what we find to be morally objectionable? If we have the right to make moral judgments of other people, what is the moral thing to do about it?

I think that most of the people I make moral judgments against are people I don't have a lot of respect for in the first place, and so, sorry to say, I don't worry very much about how I treat them, or what I say about them: "That guy is an asshole." "That chick is shit-crazy." "He's a deranged sociopathic monster incapable of seriously holding any belief or telling the truth." Because I'm not too concerned to be good or well-intentioned toward the deranged sociopathic monster, I don't worry about whether I'm doing something morally right or wrong when I treat him contemptuously or disdainfully.

In my cooler moments, I admit to myself that this is probably wrong of me. I should be better than that, I guess. But suppose that he really is a deranged sociopathic monster (and oh, he is!). Does my moral judgment against his behavior lead to any appropriate response?

And here, I mean something beyond protecting myself or others against him, I mean something directly responding to his morally condemnable behavior, something that is corresponding or seeks some kind of moral equilibrium. Kant, for instance, seems to believe that certain violations of the moral law can be met with reciprocal responses: hence, capital punishment for murder.

In the case in question, I try to let everyone I care about know what he's up to. Is that enough? Is that even a moral way for me to behave?


Leifer said...

I can't help but think that the "duty to not take offense" is specious. If a speaker is using offensive language, especially in the case of your example of the fellow calling a colleague a "stupid bitch," isn't he clearly intending to be offensive? That's not language you use with people you don't intend to assault on some level. The meaning of the words, the thrust of the phrase are not ambiguous. To not take offense would be to disregard a significant portion of what he's saying. I think Mr. Barrow - as you indicated - failed to make his point, and his example stunk.

I enjoyed your other examples, too. I work with people who could easily described themselves as assholes, and more than one chick who is genuinely shit-crazy, but obviously when speaking to them I use somewhat less salty language. When discussing with coworkers however, using the "shit-crazy" phrase sometimes requires I further differentiate: which shit-crazy chick?

The description of the sociopathic monster struck me as clinically accurate for a certain type of individual, and not offensive.

Thanks for sharing!

Doc Nagel said...

Well, first of all, I found your comment incredibly offensive, in particular your use of italics.

But seriously, thanks for this. The very difficult part of this issue for me is that I am a dyed-in-the-wool Lenny-Bruce-ite who thinks that there is indeed something terribly wrong with people taking offense at some things that truly are offensive, when what is meant is a challenge to the boundary or conception of what is or isn't morally despicable. For instance, Lenny Bruce used words like "faggot" and "cocksucker" in a way very likely to cause, and likely intended to be offensive - but in order to raise doubts about exactly why we might react with offense. For my part, I don't think the line between intending to offend and intending to offend in order to provoke doubt, is very bright.

Then again, I might just be an asshole.