The Important Distinction Between Offense and Harm
Discussing controversial ethical issues can be difficult for many precisely because they have a strong emotional content. While no one suggests completely ignoring one’s emotions when addressing these issues, it is beneficial and constructive to be able to distinguish reason from emotion and to allow reason to guide and inform our emotions. This may sound like an impossible task but it can be done. There are several useful philosophical insights that might make this task easier. First, we should distinguish the person making a statement or argument from the person himself. Second, we should distinguish offense and harm. Lastly, we can benefit from the insights of the Stoic philosophers who have had a strong influence on the psychological school of thought known as rational emotive therapy. I won’t be able to address all of these points in sufficient detail here. But perhaps an introduction to each will help clarify the issues and inspire you to learn more about these useful insights so that you can benefit from them, not only in this class, but also in other classes and perhaps in your life in general.
In logic there is a fallacy of reasoning known as argument against the person. The reason this is a logical fallacy (mistake in reasoning) is because there is a difference between the person and what that person says. If you disagree with something I say that doesn’t mean you are disagreeing with me as a person. In other words, if you disagree with me it doesn’t mean you are insulting me or attacking me personally. You may very well like me as a person but dislike something I think or say. For example, if I say I think golf is a great way to relax you may disagree with that. But does that mean you are insulting me or does that mean you dislike me? No. Now while that is a fairly tame example, logically speaking the same should hold true for other issues as well. Perhaps you disagree with someone’s view of capital punishment. You can say that you disagree and argue passionately for your view just as they can. But that does not mean that you dislike that person or are insulting or attacking them. Recognizing this should allow us to engage in spirited discussions without worry about offending anyone. We just have to remember that we can discuss an issue without personally attacking or insulting someone.
Another useful distinction which will help us is the distinction between offense and harm. A good resource on this subject is Lou Marinoff’s book The Big Questions. In one chapter he asks the question “if you’re offended are you harmed? The answer turns out to be no. Consider this. Suppose someone walks up to you and steps on your toe. You have no choice about whether that’s going to hurt. It is! So, here you are harmed. Being harmed is involuntary, you have no choice about whether to feel pain or not. Now, offense is not like this. If someone walks up to you and says “wow, you have really big feet” you have a choice to make. The choice is how you will react to this comment. I’m sure you’ve heard the expressions “no offense intended” and “none taken.” These are very revealing. Offense is something that can be offered and it’s also something that can be taken. But, importantly for us, offense is also something that can be refused. You have a choice in this and that’s what distinguishes offense from harm.
As human beings we are emotional beings. But, we are not slaves to our emotions. We have the ability to reason and think and this can aid us in our emotional reactions. This was a very important insight of the ancient Stoic philosophers. The basic idea behind stoicism is that we have no control over external circumstances. What we do have control over is out attitude towards them. As Epictetus once said “it is not things which disturb us, but our attitude towards them.” This perfectly sums up the stoic idea as well as how to handle offense. Similarly, the Roman emperor and stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius said “if you are pained by any external thing, it is not the thing that disturbs you, but your judgment about it. And, it is in your power to wipe out this judgment now.”
Of course, this takes skill and practice but it can be learned. One good approach to learning this is discussed by the psychologist Albert Ellis who developed something called rational emotive therapy. His approach is very stoic inasmuch as he maintains that what really disturbs us is not our emotions themselves but our rational (or more correctly irrational) beliefs. It is our beliefs which in large part determine what our emotional response to a situation will be. If we can formulate rational beliefs then our emotional responses won’t be ones of depression, anxiety, or offense. One way to begin is to reflect on why you’re having the emotional reaction that you’re having. As Ellis would advise, ask what beliefs do you have that are contributing to your emotional response. Then ask whether those beliefs are reasonable. Chances are, if the beliefs are unreasonable then your emotional response may be causing you to become unhappy or upset needlessly.
It should go without saying that there is nothing at all wrong with emotions or having them. But, if our emotions are ones of depression and unhappiness then it’s good to know that something can be done to address that. Notice as we go through the texts in our class that while we’re discussing many emotionally charged issues the attempt is always being made to discuss them from the standpoint of reason. Of course emotions inform our reason just as our reason informs emotions. The trick is not to allow either side to dominate to the exclusion of the benefits of the other.