Irfan’s recent discussions about the Charlie Hebdo affair and Islamic debates about iconoclasm have brought me back to a question that I’ve wondered about in the past and not come up with any satisfying general answer to: when and why should the fact that something I do will offend someone give me sufficient reason not to do it? When I was an undergraduate studying in Greece, the conventional wisdom among our group was that it was considered very offensive in Greece, and in many other parts of Europe, to recline with your feet up on a chair. I don’t know if that’s actually true, but everybody in the group believed it simply because a few apparently informed people insisted on it so strongly and seemed so stressed out whenever anybody put their feet up on a chair that we all assumed it must be true. Late one night in a hotel lobby, I was sitting with the one member of the group who was pretty universally loathed for a number of reasons, both good and bad. We were talking about something or other when he decided to get comfortable and put his feet up on the chair in front of him. I quickly tried to stop him, reminding him that people in Greece considered it very rude. He then treated me to a lecture on why cultural relativism was false, and how he used to be a cultural relativist when he was an anthropology major, but that realizing the falsity of cultural relativism was one of the reasons he’d decided to become a classicist and study the ancient Greeks, who were so much wiser about these things. Since cultural relativism is false, he reasoned, there was nothing whatsoever wrong with putting his feet up on the chair; the Greeks have their fussy conventions, but by nature there is nothing wrong with treating a chair as a stool.
Now, I was even less philosophically astute then than I am now, so I didn’t make what I would now think of as the obvious rejoinder: the thought that you should avoid offending and upsetting people for no good reason does not presuppose or entail “cultural relativism” or any such thing, and the fellow was just weaving a sophomoric, pseudo-sophisticated rationalization for being insensitive and lazy (I don’t remember what I said in response, but it was probably something likewise sophomoric and pseudo-sophisticated, though of course more true). I take it to be fairly apparent that, ceteris paribus, the fact that some action of mine will offend people tells against my doing that action. But of course, cetera are often not paria, and while I’m pretty certain that the marginally greater comfort of resting my feet on a chair does not defeat the reason I have to avoid offending and upsetting people who are showing me great hospitality, I’m likewise pretty certain that in a vast range of cases the sheer fact that someone will find my words or actions offensive by itself gives me no reason to speak or act otherwise. Since I loathe the tendency of some purportedly neo-Aristotelian virtue ethicists to simply wave their hands at points like these and talk about the importance of judgment and the fine discernment of practical salience by the virtuous person, I’d like to be able to say something more. What can we say?
One thing I think we can say is that when we can accomplish the same goals by means of one action that offends and another that doesn’t, and the non-offensive alternative isn’t significantly more costly, inefficient, burdensome, or the like, we have a pretty decisive reason to prefer the non-offensive alternative (I’m ignoring cases in which another person is being disrespectful or otherwise provocative, in which case we might even have reason to prefer the offensive alternative). That’s just another way of saying that, ceteris paribus, we should avoid offending people. To take an easy case, if I can say “excuse me, I’m sorry” when rushing past someone in an unavoidably obtrusive way, I should do that rather than simply being obtrusive and obnoxious. Less straightforward, but still sensible, I think: if a textbook can educate students about Islam just as well without depicting Muhammad, then the offense that the images would cause gives its authors and editors good reason to refrain from depicting him. But these cases are easy, at least to my mind, because as I see these scenarios there is nothing at all at stake; the only significant difference is that one alternative offends and the other does not. But when it comes to, say, kissing my girlfriend in public or uttering the sentence “Islam is false” during a conversation in a public space, I frankly don’t care whether anyone is offended (I’m tempted to say: that’s their problem, not mine). If the alternatives are withholding my displays of affection and the straightforward expression of my opinions to a wholly private sphere, then it seems to me that the cost of avoiding offense is too high. But I’m not sure I can say anything satisfying about how to assess those costs in a non-arbitrary way beyond appealing to my intuitive judgments.
On the one hand, I’ve sometimes wondered how far the difference between cases in which I have reason to avoid offense and those in which I don’t can be understood in terms of whether my action leaves the would-be offended people the opportunity to ignore me, so that I am not in effect forcing them to be faced with what they find offensive. To say “Islam is false” while walking down the street or sitting in a restaurant does not intrude on anyone; to run around town with a megaphone shouting “Islam is false!” intrudes upon people (again, I’m assuming that the people in question are themselves not intrusive or otherwise disrespectful or provocative). But the more I think about this sort of account, the more implausible it seems, and it seems implausible for just the same reason that certain sorts of libertarian appeals to the non-aggression principle seem implausible: it tries to bracket out the question of whether people have good reason to be offended by what I say or do, just as the simplest versions of the non-aggression principle try to bracket out questions about whether people’s consent or lack of consent is reasonable. This bracketing strategy leads to all manner of wildly counter-intuitive conclusions in both cases, and yet the principles seem to be defensible, if at all, only by their ability to explain a wide range of intuitively obvious judgments as well as to help settle more contentious cases (if there is some other, more foundationalist style argument for the non-aggression principle or its narrower, offense-centered version, I haven’t seen it; certainly the sort of thing that Rasmussen and Den Uyl offer, and that I think I have sometimes heard from Randians, comes nowhere close to justifying any principle nearly so strong as these) . So I’m led to wonder whether the better route would be to think simply in terms of whether people are reasonably offended or not, and whether my actions and words are actually disrespectful.
I don’t think it’s disrespectful to anybody to kiss my girlfriend in public, or to say that Islam is false. If someone is offended by those things, the real reason I don’t much care isn’t that I think I’m giving them the opportunity to ignore me, it’s that I don’t think they have any good reason to be offended. There is nothing offensive about me kissing my girlfriend (does this even require argument?), and even if Muslims shouldn’t be offended by my view because my view is right and theirs is wrong (after all, if Islam is false, nobody has good reason to be offended by someone saying so), they certainly shouldn’t be offended by my expression of my belief (I’m certainly not offended when Muslims say that Islam is true; though you wouldn’t know it from watching cable news, to disagree is not ipso facto to be offended!). But this puts me in a position uncomfortably like that of my obnoxious companion in Greece; there’s no good reason to be offended by people putting their feet up on chairs, so we should just put our feet up if we feel like it. And yet I still tend to think that there are cases where it isn’t reasonable for someone to be offended, and yet the fact that I will offend them gives me good reason to avoid acting in a way that I might otherwise prefer. I don’t think Muslims have any good reason to be offended by depictions of their prophet, and I don’t think that Greek hotel keepers have any good reason to be offended by somebody putting his feet up on a chair late at night when nobody is around. But while I might simply be indifferent to whether the history book depicts Muhammad, I would still tell that obnoxious kid to get his feet off that chair.
So am I just harboring incoherent beliefs and attitudes, or is there some way to maintain that what matters most in thinking about whether I should do something that others find offensive is whether those people have good reason to be offended, and yet also to allow that, even if they don’t, I might still have good reason to avoid giving offense?