Monday, October 18, 2010

Being offended

The paradigmatic letter to the editor in England is signed "Disgusted, Tunbridge Wells." Hence The Anti-Nowhere League's calling themselves the band that disgusted Tunbridge Wells. Since I used to live there, I like to think of myself as something of an expert on disgust and being disgusted. People get it wrong all the time.

The Kenneth Howell case is back in the news again. On p. 14 of the report we read:
Offensiveness. From the foregoing it should be clear that students have no right not to be offended; indeed, students deeply committed to some economic, political, religious, or philosophical teachings may be profoundly offended by having to engage with faculty criticism of those teachings—the more serious and thoughtful the criticism, the greater the likelihood of offense. We could not do our job, which is to instill the habits of a critical mind, if we had to be chary of giving offense. Accordingly, Professor Howell’s observations on homosexuality, relevant to the subject of moral natural law and its relationship to utilitarianism, should not be held to account because a student took offense. But they can be faulted on grounds having nothing to do with hostile student reaction; that is, as the Committee reads it, for being unlearned and jejune.
But surely students do have a right not to be offended. What they don't have is a right not to feel offended or to take offense. Professors should not insult their students, nor be offensive in other ways. A commenter at complains of being offended by political correctness. But this is not offensive. At worst it is ridiculous, but it insults no one. A professor who casually uses "the N word," on the other hand, is being offensive. Howell's email was borderline, I think (I haven't re-read it very carefully, but a quick scan didn't reveal any obvious horrors). It's more a bit stupid and insensitive than anything else.

It seems to me that Howell is pretty muddled about natural law ethics, but it's what he says about utilitarianism that has got the most attention. The report says this:
Though Howell connected utilitarian analysis to the role of individual consent, utilitarianism does not; utilitarianism takes a purely consequential approach to moral reasoning irrespective of individual consent. Further, according to McKim, Howell’s account of how a utilitarian would assess a decision of whether to engage in homosexual activity misstates how a utilitarian would assess the full range of interests at stake.
Utilitarianism is standardly understood as being purely consequentialist, but Anscombe invented the word 'consequentialism' in order to distinguish a new kind of theory from utilitarianism. So it seems reasonable to me to treat utilitarianism as not taking a purely consequentialist approach. Consent then could come into it, but it isn't clear how it does so. Not in Howell's simple way, I'm pretty sure.

How a utilitarian would assess a decision of whether to engage in homosexual activity is an interesting question. The fact that the views and prejudices of others might figure so much in the decision is a sign that utilitarianism is wrong. Again, anyway, Howell gets this wrong too.

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