Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

Discourse, Insult, and the Doctrine of Double Effect

A recent row over the decision of the UCL Atheist, Secularist, and Humanist Society to use for their Facebook ‘pub social’ event page an image of Muhammad and Jesus sitting next to one-another at a pub, taken from the delightful Jesus and Mo’, and the subsequent request by the student’s union that the picture be taken down following a complaint, has got me thinking about one particular problem of pluralistic society:

In a pluralistic society, many forms of expression will offend somebody. How do we balance freedom of expression against our desire to foster a sense of mutual respect and recognition in our community?

Now, I am strongly anti-censorship. I think that prohibiting certain kinds of expression is a very dangerous move with the potential to lead to seriously diminished democratic freedoms and a degradation of the very discourse we should seek to protect. I’m willing to see incitements to violence outlawed, but beyond that I find limits on freedom of expression to be too slippery a slope.

But just because something shouldn’t be outlawed doesn’t mean that it isn’t morally wrong. The fact is, people feel safer and more comfortable in a conversation if they don’t feel as though other participants are deliberately trying to cause them insult or offence. This shouldn’t result in any hostility towards arguments, but it should lead us to be cautious about how we express our disagreement or even our anger at the beliefs and actions of others. We should not shy away from saying ‘this is bad’ but we shouldn’t stick out our tongues while saying it. Or, to provide an example, we should feel comfortable criticising the reaction many people seem to have over the depiction of Muhammad without shouting ‘Nyah nyah, look at my picture of Muhammad drinking an alcoholic beverage made from pig’s blood!’ solely with the intent of provoking feelings of grievance.

One clue as to how we can make moral assessments about our expression might be to employ an important part of Just War Theory: the Doctrine of Double Effect. Very generally and minimally speaking, it states that if a bad effect is foreseeable but not intended, the act that causes it is not wrong. For example, the ‘terror bomber’ who bombs a factory in order to kill its workers and create fear is committing wrong, but the tactical bomber who bombs the factory to render it inoperable is not doing wrong, even if the deaths of workers are likely. One is in the clear if one can answer ‘yes’ to the question ‘if the bad effect didn’t happen, would my goal still be served?’

In the case of this picture, I suspect the goal wasn’t morally wrong. It was posted for internal consumption, was thematically related to a social event to be held at a pub, and is the sort of thing this community finds clever and amusing. Whether it offended and insulted or not is unrelated to these reasons.

Of course, you might say that theories of justice in war are not so applicable outside of that context. This is a good argument – and an even better one might be to problematise the Doctrine of Double Effect itself, for suffering of any type is bad, whether intended or not – but I think it strikes a pragmatic balance here. It allows us to protect forms of expression while still allowing us to condemn things which seem aimed only at causing particular people hurt. It condemns deliberate provocations without condemning the provocative, so to speak. It may be difficult to assess the motivations behind another’s expression, but this rule can at least help us consider our own actions:

An act of expression is not morally wrong for causing offence when its intended effect is not specifically or solely to offend.


5 responses to “Discourse, Insult, and the Doctrine of Double Effect

  1. Ian January 11, 2012 at 8:14 pm

    That’s to say nothing of whether an act is necessarily morally wrong even if it is intended to cause offence. Is offending one’s sensibilities or beliefs a real harm? Many might argue not. And in some cases, causing that harm and outrage will generate you enough press to get attention to more positive messages. Remember too that no atheist billboard has gone up without people claiming to be offended, even ones as innocuous as “Millions are good without god.” I guess you could claim these ads as part of the doctrine of double effect, but I do question the validity of claiming causing offence is immoral

    Regardless, I prefer using a variety of tactics to appeal to as wide an audience as possible.

    • Said Simon January 11, 2012 at 8:23 pm

      I definitely take your point, and am sympathetic to it. My feeling is that some remarks which are intended to cause offence are merely cruel, and designed not to meaningfully challenge another person’s views or convictions. I’m interested in limiting those, even if I might empathise with the conditions behind a desire to lash out in this way. With this rule I’m asking for a self-conscious questioning of ‘do I intend this offensive expression as a rhetorical strategy and as way to show my feelings according to a certain aesthetic, or do I intend this to produce distress and a feeling of degradation in a target in order to satisfy my own anger at them?’

  2. Cian Murphy (@CianMurphy14) January 12, 2012 at 12:26 am

    I hadn’t heard of this doctrine of double effect before, but it does sound interesting. While I agree that not allowing something like a picture of Mo is the first step onto a slippery slope, I don’t think that this necessarily invalidates the idea. Societal reluctance to consider something solely because it is on such a slope implies a lack of self restraint or a fear that such an impulse for greater censorship could not be controlled.

    That said, I personally think that my right to freedom of expression is more important than your right to not be offended (Which I barely regard as a right to be honest).

  3. Pingback: We are what we believe – but let’s pretend otherwise. « Said Simon

  4. Pingback: Some of Simon’s Essays on Humanist Ethics « BC Humanist Blog

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