How do we decide if offending someone is unethical or not?

Stéphane Charbonnier’s Charlie Hebdo offended people of all religions, but when does causing offence become unethical? EPA/Yoan Valat

Causing offence to others often causes hurt. Such actions have been condemned as unethical, even immoral behaviour in a civilised society. There have been many examples.

The Bill Henson photographs of naked children created much opposition. The Salman Rushdie fatwa is another. The “Piss Christ” photograph depicting a crucifix submerged in a glass of urine created “religious fury” and the Catholic Church unsuccessfully sought a court order to suppress it.

Mel Gibson’s controversial 2004 film, The Passion of the Christ, attracted charges of anti-Semitism and the actors were forced to seek protection.

Now we have the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo. Are they unethical? Is it OK to give offence to others, especially to religions? Or is it just plain wrong?

It has been a long unanswered question for this writer. It was most recently examined when I was a speaker in an Association of Visual Arts panel discussion on ethical boundaries in the visual arts.

Ethical behaviour and the link to harm

In attempting to answer questions about the ethics of giving offence, first we have to define ethical behaviour. Unfortunately, philosophers have been waging this argument for more than 2000 years and still have not reached agreement.

This examination will search many moral philosophies, first using the most common ethical guideline, the version of Utilitarianism developed by British philosopher John Stuart Mill. His overriding rule is:

The moral rules which forbid mankind to hurt one another … are more important to human well-being than any maxims.

It is also my personal ethical guideline, as I have argued in The Conversation. Mill claims his version incorporates the Golden Rule:

Do unto to others as you would want done for yourself.

As such, Mill is also saying that we should prevent or alleviate harm that is being suffered by others.

But is giving offence the same as harming someone? If you search the philosophers, you can find a dozen interpretations where a harm would clearly be a wrong.

Bernard Gert gives us several: causing pain; depriving freedom; depriving others of pleasure; deceiving; telling untruths. Even an indirect harm through a misleading advertisement that nobody reads is a wrong.

Joel Feinberg in Harm to Others tells us that the harm has to be wrong – that is, it violates someone’s rights. It also has to be universally disliked, an unpleasant experience that causes disgust, revulsion, shock, shame, embarrassment, anxiety, etc. It has to be serious, too.

Finally, Feinberg requires that the interests of those who wish to avoid offensive behaviour be weighed against the interests of those who wish to engage in it.

Mill argues that causing mental anguish is sufficient. He labels his utilitarianism “The Greatest Happiness Principle”, which is telling us that we should not cause unhappiness. Mill’s On Liberty is also the first, and greatest, advocacy for free speech:

If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.

But none of the great philosophers clearly tells us whether to insult somebody – to offend a religion and its leader – is to cause harm. Or even whether it is unethical.

A question of purpose

Immanuel Kant, esteemed by many, has another philosophical guideline that can possibly help us in a version of his categorical imperative:

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.

In short, Kant is saying: “Do not use other people for your own purposes.”

But we do not know what was the purpose of Bill Henson or those parents who pushed their children into being photographed naked by Henson. If it was to boost their own public image, then the children were being used. It is then wrong.

Police seize artworks from Bill Henson’s exhibition in 2008. Charges were later dropped, but many parents would be uncomfortable with photographs of their naked children being publicly displayed. AAP/Jenny Evans

Kant’s other version of the categorical imperative is that we all have to agree that to be moral, an act is universally acceptable:

Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.

You may get an indication that photographing children naked is likely wrong by asking at your next dinner party whether any parents would allow their 12-year-old daughter to be photographed naked and the photographs put on display.

The media are ambivalent about cartoons or photographs that offend a religion. The Economist’s editor-in-chief, John Micklethwaite, argues in his leader:

The magazine was targeted because it cherished and promoted its right to offend: specifically to offend Muslims. That motive invokes two big themes. One is free speech, and whether it should have limits, self-imposed or otherwise. The answer to that is an emphatic no.

Others – such as the UK’s Telegraph and the New York Post – disagree and published photos of Charlie Hebdo editor Stephane Charbonnier holding one of the offending front-page cartoons, but either cropped the photo or blurred part of the image.

The Associated Press distributed no images that included the cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. This was in keeping with its longstanding policy on offensive images, AP vice-president Santiago Lyon said.

We’ve taken the view that we don’t want to publish hate speech or spectacles that offend, provoke or intimidate, or anything that desecrates religious symbols or angers people along religious or ethnic lines.

Thus the media, perhaps even the rest of us, do not meet Kant’s criterion of universality. So is offending others a wrong – an unethical act?

The answer has to be “only you know”. For it is only you who knows what your intentions are.

If they are to use the denigration of others for your own purposes, be that to sell your magazine, or photographs, or publicise your name, then it is unethical. If it is an offensive action where your purpose is obvious to all of us, and that is to benefit yourself, then it is unethical. It is wrong. Otherwise free speech must override.


Editor’s note: Peter will be answering questions between 11am and noon AEDT on Friday January 30. You can ask your questions about the article in the comments below.

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