Utilitarianism of offense

[originally from November 14th, 2014]

“Group X does Y, but that offends a certain group Z, and therefore should be stopped” is actually almost a preference utilitarian statement. To be fully preference utilitarian, it should also consider the degree of offense taken by Z, compare it to the frustration of X for not doing Y, and weigh them with the sizes of the groups. But it does catch the most crucial concept of preference utilitarianism: ethical value is not intrinsic to the actions, but they are rather evaluated by their impact on other people. More poetically, it’s people who matter, not abstract moral guidelines.

The problem is that this rule is seldom followed by those who most often invoke it, and for a good reason: it can backfire in a way that they definitely not approve of (nor do I). In various historical periods there have been people out there offended by all sorts of things: homosexual couple, heterosexual couples kissing or even hugging in public, interracial couples, black people on the front seat of the bus, women is skirts shorter than knee, women in pants, etc. Furthermore, for almost any fight for someone’s rights, on some point there has been a situation where the number of people willing to execute a certain right was smaller than the number of people offended by that execution. Otherwise there wouldn’t even be any struggle – everyone would just agree that the right should be granted.

It is not necessarily true, but still quite likely that in 2014 the number of people who live in an interracial marriage, consider this possibility, or just support it strongly enough to be offended by the opposing position exceeds the number of people who are offended by the interracial marriage itself. Thus, it is strongly preferable to have it legal. But it’s not considered good just because the number of radical racists is small enough. Nor did it change the minds of civil rights activists in 50s. Apparently, by the time that interracial marriage was legalized, it didn’t even have the majority approval: http://xkcd.com/1431/

. The whole point was that the opinion of racists and the offense that they may take is irrelevant to whether interracial marriage should be legal or not.The same idea applies to nearly every other civil rights or social justice issue as well. This idea is impossible to hold on purely offense dynamics basis. One should take a moral realist stance on the issue: “it’s not just bad because it offends someone, but it’s also intrinsically and objectively bad”.

This is actually fine – I would argue that all people implicitly or explicitly hold a lot of ethical opinions that aren’t reducible to preference utilitarianism (even imperfect and irrational). The problem is that if “it offends someone” is not a good enough reason to cease and desist in all these cases, then it’s not a good enough reason in others as well (unless you completely renounce Kant’s ethics, and think that hypocrisy is OK). Offense merely indicates that there is an issue, a moral dilemma, there’s a conflict of interests. But it does not suggest how to resolve this dilemma, in whose favor – for that you would need additional arguments, and possibly ethical axioms.


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