Taking Offense is part of a larger project, “Harm and the Limits of the State,” the first volume of which, Liberalism Undressed, Oxford University Press published in 2012. That book, which began with a grant from Phi Beta Kappa more than forty years ago, and which took nearly as long to write and rewrite, began as a meditation on why we divide social interactions into public and private realms. It soon became clear that the question I was really asking myself was as old as political philosophy itself: When, if ever, ought the state meddle with things that people do, alone and together? What principle justifies government interference with our activities? Though simple to state, the answer that emerged is complex: The state is justified in acting only to deal with harm, a conclusion I tentatively set forth in “The Relativity of Injury,” a 1977 article in Philosophy and Public Affairs. Liberalism Undressed, the longer work, became an extended riff on the Harm Principle, stated most clearly and succinctly by John Stuart Mill in his classic short work On Liberty, originally published in 1859.
The Harm Principle has usually been dismissed for lacking sufficient clarity or power to do all that many people suppose governments in the modern era ought to do, or to curb it from doing what it should not. In the 1980s, Joel Feinberg, a philosopher at the University of Arizona, devoted a magisterial four-volume work, The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law, to demonstrating the breadth and complexity of the Harm Principle. But I set myself a broader agenda than Feinberg’s. He saw the Harm Principle as a guide to shaping criminal law. I want to put the Harm Principle to a larger task: to authorize and limit government in all its manifestations, not just in its commands in criminal statutes.
The Harm Principle might be decisive in the battle against offensiveness, except for this limitation: not everything that people do is harmful to others just because the others don’t like what’s being done. One significant class of objectionable but arguably non-harmful behavior is expression or conduct that offends the feeling of the hearer or observer. To combat the offensive, then, some other principle must be invoked.
In Offense to Others, the second volume of The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law, Feinberg proposed an Offense Principle and held to a narrow version. It permits the government to step in to quash certain types of offensiveness. I’m not so sure. At least not yet. That’s what I’m trying to puzzle out. Among other things, I want to know, as a psychological matter, what is happening when we say we are offended. Psychologists have been studying the emotions for a very long time, and I have many books on my shelves devoted to anger, disgust, humiliation, and many other emotions. I have not found any psychological studies of the state of being offended. Nor is it clear to me that whenever a person claims to be offended that that’s the feeling actually felt. The word is likely a chameleon, and bears investigation. And only then, when all that dense brush has been cleared away, can we even begin to consider what we ought to do about offensive expressions and activities. Are they harmful? If not, does it matter? Can we live with an Offense Principle? Can we live without one?
So that’s where I am. By spring 2016, I hope to have written a book outline in this space. I’m hoping you’ll help, both in forming it and rewriting it, as needed.
P.S. Special thanks to Elisabeth Schiffbauer, research assistant during 2013-2015, whose work helped develop much of what is to come.