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‘No right not to be offended’?: Part Two

Thanks to everyone who commented on my earlier post, the one in which I cast doubt on the popular claim that ‘nobody has a right not to be offended’. Here – at last – are my responses to the various comments people have made. Should an apology be needed, could I apologise for having taken so long to reply.  Perhaps I should also apologise for the length of this reply, but, given the number of interesting responses to my earlier post, I can’t really see how I could have made it any shorter.


I think the best way to organise this response is to set out my original argument step by step, and then deal with the objections which people have raised against each step in turn.  Here, then, is my initial argument in brief summary.


Step One: It is easy enough to think of cases in which (i) one person, P, offends another, Q and which are also (ii) examples of behaviour which any person of normal moral sensibility must recognise as morally wrong. (In my initial post, I illustrated the point with the example of someone who hurls verbal abuse at randomly selected passers-by.)


Therefore, ….


Step Two: Contrary to the claim at issue, there is a right not to be offended.




Step Three: Any argument purporting to defend the liberty of speech and expression on the grounds that ‘there is no right not to be defended’ cannot be sustained.


Now let me take each step of the argument in turn.


Step One: On this point, Iain suggests that the claim about being offended should be separated from the claim about knowingly acting in a way likely to cause offence. I am sure he is right about this and it is, of course, the latter form of behaviour upon which any half-way credible defence of free speech ought to concentrate. There is no need to worry about failed attempts to offend by issuing utterly pathetic ‘insults’ such as ‘Your mother was a hamster’, and I am sure we have all been guilty of the occasional unwitting faux pas. Then again, I am sure we can all think of weirdly hypersensitive individuals who are offended by just about anything. I can’t see how any programme of legislation could accommodate the feelings of such people, because legislation is – after all – intended to apply generally across entire populations. However, I think there are situations in which one might want to worry about the feelings of the hypersensitive, as in the case of my prissy aunt. See below.)


Lex raises a rather different objection to the first step of my argument. He suggests that  randomly shouting insults at people in the street is wrong, not so much because it is offensive but – e.g. –  ‘because it may, or is highly likely to be considered aggressive and cause people to fear for their personal safety?’  As he points out, ‘such behaviour may constitute common law assault’.  I think he is right about this, and I am sure that there are, in fact, all sorts of reasons for which randomly insulting people can be a bad thing to do. In the face of his objection, I do have to concede that I used a rather silly ‘philosopher’s example’ with which to illustrate my point.


However, I would add two further points here. The first is that I could have used a different example, one which is a more obvious case of offensive behaviour. Thus, in a recent piece on this subject I told the story of how I would insist that my teenage son changes out of his offensive t-shirt when visiting my prissy aunt, – who is easily offended by such things. (For examples of such garments, all you have to do is type ‘offensive t-shirt’ into Google, or else, ‘Cradle of Filth, t-shirt’. There really are traders who specialise in such things. I won’t bore you with examples. The point of the story is that, whereas my adolescent son finds the t-shirt funny, and whereas I find it embarrassingly puerile, it is only my aunt who finds it offensive. Nevertheless, we take her feelings into account.)


Secondly, and following Lexs’s suggestion, it might be argued that the behaviour of P in my example is wrong, not so much because it is ‘offensive’, but because it falls into some further category. Call it category C. (Of course, there may be more than one category at issue here,  and one of them may or may not be the category of aggressive action, but that is neither here nor there so far as the present point is concerned. ) If this is right, then the problem for defenders of free speech is to determine the character of C. This seems right, but I’m not sure that it’s all that different from the conclusion to which my own argument points. It is a commonplace that rights can be defeasible, and I am suggesting that the right not to be offended is a right which is defeated or ‘trumped’ in certain situations. If I am right, the task facing defenders of free speech is to determine what those situations might be. So, are Lex and I making different points, or could it be that we are making the same point in different ways? I’m not sure, but, either way, the practical implications of our positions would appear to be the same.


Step Two: According to my argument, if the claim I make at Step One is correct, it follows that there is a right not to be offended. This is a point upon which quite a few of you take issue. For example, Gregory Lewis suggests that someone in favour of the position I am criticising could just say that acts of gratuitous offence are wrong in some other way than breaking a right. Likewise, Regina Rini wonders if I haven’t overly constrained the space of normative possibilites and points out that, ‘any person whose moral sensitivities are at all normal could only deplore such behaviour’ does not necessarily entail, ‘people have a right not to be treated in such ways’. She gives the example of the person who spends hours a day fantasising about abusing children, but without actually acting upon the fantasy. This, she says, is morally deplorable, but  it does not violate anyone’s rights.


Well, maybe so, but all I need for my argument to work is that there should be some cases in which offensive behaviour violates a right. Other possibilities are not ruled out. In fact, I was rather puzzled by the way so many people took exception to this part of the argument. It all depends what is meant by ‘a right’ of course, but all I am assuming is that ‘Person, P, has a right not to be treated in such-and-such ways’ is another way of saying that (other things being equal) there are certain things you are morally forbidden from doing to P, even if there are, for example, good utilitarian reasons for doing those things. To borrow Nozick’s analogy, it is as if there is a moral fence around individual, P. The point is familiar, commonplace, and uncontroversial, so I should have thought. (Or am I missing something?)


Let me add that I am talking about a moral right here, not a legal right. (So, for example, my prissy aunt has a moral right not to be offended by my teenage son’s vulgar t-shirt, but no corresponding legal right.) In fact, I would say that, if you want to know if there is a legal right not to be offended, you should ask a solicitor, not a philosopher. Of course, the question for political philosophers is to determine when, if at all, a given moral right should be embodied in a system of legal principles, and backed up by legal authority. (Feminists who argue that certain material is ‘offensive to women’, supporters of laws against blasphemy who argue that certain material is offensive to religious believers, are presumably just two examples of those who support such measures.)


Step Three: Well, there is no space here to consider the wider implications of my argument, so I’ll just emphasise that I am not out to deny the importance of freedom of speech and expression. I’m only suggesting that there is no point in trying to defend important principles with the help of a lousy argument. We need to think of something better. That’s what philosophers are supposed to do, isn’t it?


Finally, since the names of Mill and Voltaire have inevitably come up in this discussion,  I should say – firstly – that Mill’s ‘no harm’ principle is such a notorious can of worms that I won’t even try to open it here. (Just for example, there is the familiar question of what can be meant by ‘harm’. In the absence of a precise definition, maybe we should even say that offending someone is a way of causing harm.) As for Voltaire – well – so far as I am aware there is no evidence that he ever uttered that line beginning, ‘I disagree with what you say, but …. etcetera’. In fact, there may be some evidence to suggest that he never did.



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6 Comment on this post

  1. Hello Alan,

    thank you for taking the time to write such a detailed response. I'm a bit confused about your reply to the particular point I raised, however.

    Allow me to reconstruct the dialectic as I see it, and you tell me where I'm mistaken. As I see it, your argument has the following form:
    (1) Certain acts of deliberately causing offense to others are regarded as deplorable by anyone with normal moral sensitivies.
    (2) For any act X, if X is regarded as deplorable by anyone with normal moral sensitivities, then there exists some right against X.
    (3) Therefore, there exists some right against certain acts of deliberately causing offense to others.

    As you note, I take issue with the second step. It is a universally-quantified conditional, so it can be shown false by the provision of a single instance of some X for which the antecedent is true and the consequent false. I offered such an instance: a person who spends hours each day fantasizing about causing violent harm to children, without ever acting upon or communicating these fantasies. I take it that this behaviour would be regarded as deplorable by anyone with normal moral sensitivites, and yet it seems like a mistake to assert that there is a right involved here. If you accept that this case is indeed one in which the conditional fails, then your premise (2) is false, and so your argument is unsound.

    The bigger problem is that I don't see any way to reconstruct your argument without premise (2). You've given us some specific cases of offensive behaviou which, let's grant, involve acts that would be regarded as deplorable by anyone with normal moral sensitivities. I and other objectors are denying that these are also cases of rights-violations, on intuitive grounds. In order to overcome that denial, you'd need some premise with the strength of a universally-quantified conditional. But, as I've suggested, the relevant premise here does not seem to work.

    1. "I offered such an instance: a person who spends hours each day fantasizing about causing violent harm to children, without ever acting upon or communicating these fantasies. I take it that this behaviour would be regarded as deplorable by anyone with normal moral sensitivites, and yet it seems like a mistake to assert that there is a right involved here."

      If such a person never acts upon or communicates those fantasies, how can such fantasies be an act of 'deliberately causing offence'?

  2. Hello Alan,

    Once again, thank you for taking the time to reply to the comments on your initial post;

    However, I still think, as I highlighted before, there remains a degree of confusion in your response between moral rights claims and legal rights claims. I think you need to consider in greater depth the question; what sort of issue (fundamentally and importantly) is freedom of speech? Is it moral or jurisprudential? (Of course this distinction is both important and problematic)

    First, have you missed out the starting point of your initial argument (is your “step one” above, actually “step two”)? The starting point of your initial argument was that various people (examples included Ronald Dworkin*, Shami Chakrabarti and Christopher Hitchens) had made the claim that “there is no right NOT to be offended”. You confidently and unequivocally asserted that “there is a major problem with the claim, namely that it is completely false”.

    However, you didn’t, and haven’t, stopped to question the type of “right” claim they were making.

    Were they claiming;

    1) A "strictly" “moral” claim? (An issue for an ethicist, rabbi, vicar… or perhaps Jeremy Kyle)

    2) A factual legal claim about, what the “black letter law” in this regard (and in their particular jurisdiction) actually is? (An issue – as you say – for a solicitor or perhaps more accurately a judge)


    3) A normative jurisprudential claim as to what the law in this regard ought to be? (an important issue for a legal philosopher or jurist… such as Dworkin… I know the borders of moral, political and legal philosophy are blurry, but legal philosophers… we do exist and the distinctions between the three are important!)**

    Your assertion may (or may not) be correct depending on the sort of claim they are making. Of course, without asking the claimants we cannot know for sure what sort of claim they are making. However, I would suggest that they are probably claiming the third option. If it is the first, what is the outcome? Moral disapproval – of the Dick Emery kind? I doubt Hitch or an acne faced grease nipple “Cradle of Filth” fan cares much about that – indeed they may even crave such moral consternation.

    When issues of freedom of speech and individual liberty arise, the fundamental issue, it seems to me, is freedom from what? If it is state coercion or the legally justifiable loss of a job, livelihood etc because of something you have said, then it seems to be an issue of considerable importance. However, if, as you somewhat confusingly say, it is a just a moral issue, and you are simply talking about freedom from moral disapproval (?)… Why should we really care… (and how would this work)?

    Sorry for the rushed response (and pressing the issue, again, of the distinction between legal and moral rights – but I do think it is crucial and has thus far been confused in your posts)…

    * See Ronald Dworkin, The Right to Ridicule, where he makes this claim.
    ** See for example legal philosopher Stephen Guest's, “Respect for Bad Thoughts”, which considers an issue raised by Regina Rini in both her comments and highlights the distinction between morality and normative jurisprudence.

  3. I wouldn't want to offend my prissy aunt on a visit precisely because I'm visiting her as a guest, which carries certain responsibilities of politeness, and because she's my aunt, implying that we have a certain kind of relationship of mutual love and respect for one another's feelings. So it's not that she has a right not to be offended per se; rather, if she has a right to anything here, it's a right to expect that guests in her home will attempt to comply with some of her preferences, and that her close relatives have a special interest in her feelings. If the desire not to display a rude t-shirt isn't related to the specificity of being a guest and being someone's nephew, in this case, then it would be just as wrong to wear it out in public where we can be pretty sure that at least one of the anonymous prissy aunts of the world will encounter it and be offended.

    Under the second step of the argument, I'm concerned that the idea of "normal" sensibilities could be doing a lot of work. Many people who experienced the antics of Diogenes probably thought he was randomly harassing the passers-by, and people of "normal" moral sensibilities might have come to considerable agreement that his behavior was deplorable. Yet did they have a right to be free from hearing a negative assessment of their moral virtue, expressed in a context where they were also free to ignore the comment and walk away? Imagine the kind of normative agreement one might find regarding the activities of sidewalk preachers who enjoy shouting to all the college students that they're destined for hell.

    Maybe Mill's arguments from "On Liberty" could be fruitfully extended to cover this situation. If we're wrong to take offense at something, then the offensive expression might actually help us in "exchanging error for truth", or otherwise improving ourselves. Even if we really should take offense at something, the "collision with error" that reveals truth might make it worthwhile to allow an offensive expression to be aired, rather than insisting on a right to be protected from it.

  4. Those of you who have criticised the argument I initially set out seem to agree with me that gratuitously offending another person is a bad thing to do, but disagree with my claim that it follows, tout court, that there is a right not to be offended. So, before I add any more detailed comments on this subject, could I ask those of you who are still following this argument – if anyone is – the following question: In your opinion, what conditions does something have to satisfy if it is to qualify as a right? If you can answer that, I will then know what it is that I’m supposedly missing, and which makes me guilty of a non sequitur.

  5. Hello Alan,
    Sorry, but I'm not clever enough to outline the conditions something has to satisfy to qualify as a right.
    But your argument seems to take the following form :
    1 x is a bad thing to do to someone
    2 I therefore have a right not to be x"d
    Thus a "right" is a claim not to have anything done to which is bad, Yes, OK, if that's what you want. But aren't we in danger of devaluing the notion of "right" in defining it so widely ?

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