No Offense

intended, but this post by Daniel Finke seems to me to be so wrong on so many counts that it deserves demands a rebuttal.

As one who often finds claims of offense offensive, it feels odd to be objecting to an argument that the feeling of offense can be morally wrong, but that does seem to be where I have to come down on this.  Even more than usual, my thinking here is only half baked and I expect to come back and re-think and re-edit this a number of times before it becomes clear to me (let alone anyone else!)

The problem as I see it is partly with the conflation of subtle differences of language which so often underlies the conflicts of philosophers. There are context-dependent differences between finding something offensive, being offended, and taking offense and the kind of blanket rules they seem to so deeply love do not really apply.

Finding a bad smell or taste offensive is not something we have conscious control over and so can hardly be judged morally wrong. Perhaps  Finke would consider that a silly objection because he was “clearly” referring to something completely different. But how different really is the feeling of visceral disgust that we may have towards something we “all” consider morally despicable? Of course Finke admits (and demands of others) that we share his offense at what he considers reprehensible. It is only the feeling of offense that he doesn’t share which he considers morally wrong. But we all have the sensibilities that we have been born with or trained to and the unbidden feelings of offense, even if “wrongly” directed cannot be judged themselves to be morally wrong. What can be judged (and this may be what Finke really means though he makes no attempt to say so) is the conscious welcoming of the feeling of offense without regard to proper consideration of whether or not it is appropriate. Such taking of offense is much more than feeling offense or being offended and that is what does offend me (and though I think I should try to avoid actually taking offense, at it I often slip into my own sense of righteous indignation when I see too much of it).

The real backdrop for all this is of course the converse question of whether and how hard we should try to avoid giving offense to those who are inclined to take it (with the “should” here referring to a possible moral obligation rather than to any consideration of fear regarding possible consequences). I actually am inclined to find some expressions of humour or opinion morally wrong if they appear to be made without any purpose to compensate for feelings they may hurt even if those feelings are irrational. There are cases where exposing the irrationality of the offense taken may be of sufficient value to justify the pain of that offense but often I suspect the motive is more like the excitement of bear baiting than a sincere effort to enlighten.

I also have more detailed complaints and quibbles with Daniel’s post which will have to wait until another time.

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