Monday, July 21, 2008

Offense as the foundation of ethics

Geoff Arnold disagrees with my identification of taking offense as foundational to ethics. In my previous essay, I say in a nod to meta-ethical subjective relativism that
Fundamentally, all ethical beliefs are about being offended; without the concept of taking offense, each person would object only to physical harm he or she personally suffered. It is taking offense when we care about harm caused to others and condemn acts that harm others.
Taking offense is a necessary condition to bringing an issue into the ethical arena (but not, as I go on to argue, a sufficient condition to make a determination). If no one takes offense at some action or state of affairs, by what virtue, then, does it become an ethical issue?

Geoff doesn't think this construction quite works. But upon further reflection, I'm not sure we disagree at all. The intent of my post was, to a large extent, to defend the idea of taking offense to a certain degree, to focus attention not on taking offense itself but on what we actually do about taking offense.

His first rebuttal hinges on what constitutes an ethical issue:
First, there’s a large class of ethical beliefs which have deeply non-rational roots. (Yes, I’m thinking of Fischer and Ravizza’s famous “trolley” problem.) In such cases, expressions of being “offended” are almost certainly no more than social convention (One is expected to express ethical conflicts in this kind of language.)
First, the trolley problem doesn't demonstrate irrationality, except perhaps in philosophers who dismiss experimental evidence.

Second, just because philosophers — even a lot of philosophers — think that the trolley problem constitutes a specifically ethical problem doesn't mean it actually does*. What's notably missing from the trolley problem is how we judge other people who take one action over another. The trolley problem is related to ethical problems because it examines some of our underlying preferences that we bring to how we judge other people, but without the component of judging others, it loses much of its ethical flavor.

*I consider most philosophers to be little better than theologians.

Geoff notes other kinds of problems that might not have taking offense at their root:
There are other ethical dilemmas which don’t seem to fit The Bum’s broad brush. Consider what we might call the “ACLU problem”, Evelyn Hall’s “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” The “disapprove” bit fits The Bum’s model, but “defend” is also viewed as an ethical stance.
I and a lot of other people are more offended by censorship than we are about bad opinions. I don't see how this case, or even the class of cases this case represents, fails to fit my model.

Geoff then offers a refinement of my ideas on taking offense:
To get a full picture of this, I think that we need to go beyond “offended”, and introduce another one of today’s “fighting words”, “disrespect”.
This point is a refinement of my idea, not a counter-argument. People take offense when they feel they have been disrespected; remember, I introduce taking offense as a necessary condition, not a sufficient condition.

Finally, Geoff mentions disrespect, rather than mere taking offense:
We take offense over questions of an ethical nature which also arouse feelings of disrespect. And the way in which we act when we’ve taken offense is strongly (completely?) determined by the feelings of disrespect that are triggered, and may have little to do with the “Y” of the matter.
I'm not sure this point is even a counterargument. One takes offense when one feels disrespected; since I introduce taking offense as a necessary, not sufficient, condition, the addition of an additional condition to actually make an ethical determination does not contradict my thesis.

More importantly, the reaction to some action or state of affairs strongly, perhaps completely, characterizes the action's ethical nature. To what extent is a question an ethical issue if we are unwilling to condemn either side of the question? For example, if we are unwilling to praise or condemn another person who pushes a man in front of the trolley to save five others, and we are unwilling to praise or condemn another who refuses to do so, then by what virtue do we call the issue specifically ethical, and not merely preferential?

Therefore, to say that our feelings of disrespect (which seem ineluctably related to taking offense) determine our reaction is just to say that these feelings are foundational to our specifically ethical decisions, which is my point.

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