Friday, September 9, 2016

The Offense Principle: The Case of Breastfeeding in Walmart

In my previous blog I outlined the Offense Principle and the role that it plays in the Ethics of Micro-Aggression. So under what conditions might any given society monitor and enforce rules or laws that control harmless, micro-aggressive behavior?  Note that (as a matter of fact) some societies are more thin-skinned than others. Western liberal societies tend to follow J.S. Mill’s lead and limit legal intervention to speech and acts that actually harm others. In recent years, the Offense Principle has been enforced mostly via the use of warning signs, which warn various classes of “thin-skins” to avoid being offended. This practice is most evident in the media where warning labels routinely precede sexy and/or violent material. Philosophers, however, argue over the relationship between the Non-Aggression Axiom and the Offense Principle; and whether there a point where an offensive micro-aggression becomes a harmful aggression. Let’s take a look at a recent case study.

Some individuals and groups are offended when they see mothers breast-feed their children in public places, like Walmart. They insist that breastfeeding ought to be done only in private places such as restrooms. Indeed, many argue that, as a matter of morality, women ought to be taught from an early age that breast-feeding “ought” to be done in private. Some say that there ought to be, not only moral rules that forbid breastfeeding in all public places, but also laws. Today, some Walmart stores that permit unrestricted breastfeeding post signs outside the store, warning thin-skinned customers that breastfeeding is allowed. This allows those who might be offended by the sight of breastfeeding to exercise their liberty by not shopping at that Walmart. Note that in some nations, such as Saudi Arabia, breast-feeding in public is regarded as both immoral and illegal. But it is also offensive, immoral, and illegal for women to appear in public without a male escort, or even drive an automobile.

First of all, let’s acknowledge that no one is actually harmed by the sight of breastfeeding mother. Therefore the only relevant liberty-limiting principles are Legal Moralism, the Utility Principle, or the Offense Principle. Nevertheless, should there be moral rules or laws that forbid breastfeeding in public? Or should there (at least) be rules or laws that require a minimal degree of discretion when breastfeeding in public? Should Wal-Mart to post signs stating that unrestricted breastfeeding is allowed?

Libertarians argue that, if Walmart chooses to ban breast-feeding within its stores or restrict breastfeeding to restrooms, it has moral right to do so. After all, Walmart owns the building. On the other hand, nursing mothers also have a right to choose whether or not to shop in Walmart. Thin-skins have a similar right to choose whether or not to shop at Walmart.  In short, libertarians argue that the free market will ultimately resolve issues involving the Offense Principle. Walmart, therefore, must decide whether to protect thin-skins right to avoid the sight of breast-feeding mothers or protect women's right to breastfeed in a public place. Most stores acknowledge that breast-feeding in a public restroom is not a good idea and therefore have delegated separate rooms for breastfeeding mothers. However, the decision to allow unrestricted breastfeeding, ban breastfeeding, or offer a separate room would depend on how many breast-feeding mothers actually shop at Walmart and how many thin-skins might be offended. Would breastfeeding women be satisfied with that separate room? Or, would a sign indicating that breastfeeding is allowed throughout the store satisfy those thin skins? Would some breastfeeding mothers prefer that separate room?

Personally, I have no problem with posting signs warning thin-skinned customers of potentially offensive activities. However, that practice does bump up against the Principle of Utility. How many signs must Walmart post outside the store? After all, some people might be offended by the sight of obese women in stretch pants and/or men with large beer bellies wearing T shirts, unruly children, or teen age boys wearing low-riding pants that reveal their underwear. Some thin-skins are offended by the sight of certain products on the shelves, such as: contraceptive pills and/or devices, abortion pills, sexy or violent videos, racy tabloids, underwear on manikins, alcohol, or guns. But at what point does protecting thin skins with warning signs begin to break down? How would Walmart go about deciding how many warning signs to post outside it's stores? Finally, let me point out that if Walmart adopted a policy of forbidding breastfeeding in their stores, I would exercise my personal liberty and never shop there again. I would also exercise my free speech by writing a blog and posting it in Facebook urging others to follow my lead.      


Monday, September 5, 2016

The Offense Principle: The Ethics of Micro-Aggression

Lately, there has been a lot of discussion in the media on the moral and/or legal responsibility of individuals and institutions to protect individuals (and classes of individuals) from various micro-aggressions. Issues include the question of whether transgender persons OUGHT to use male or female designated restrooms. Does an “ought” imply legal coercion one way or another? How do micro-aggressions relate to macro-aggressions or harms?

Philosophical ethicists approach “ought” questions in terms of conflicting moral principles: utility, beneficence, harm to others, liberty, and justice. They also argue over whether an “ought” requires monitoring and enforcement by government; that is a law.

The Liberty Principle (like all moral principles) is limited by the other four principles. In previous blogs I discussed several proposed liberty-limiting principles: harm to others (you can do whatever you want but you cannot harm others), harm to self (you can do whatever you want but you cannot harm yourself), harm to public institutions (you can do whatever you want but you cannot harm public institutions) and legal moralism   (you can do whatever you want but government reserves the right to monitor and enforce rules against harmless immoralities (speech and acts) or “micro-aggressions.” Here I’d like to focus on an especially timely liberty-limiting principle. The offense principle states that you (individuals and groups) can do whatever you want but you cannot "offend" others.

First, let’s admit that the act of being offended is a social phenomenon. It is something that is done to us by others in a social setting. We can’t “offend” ourselves. Moreover, we know when we are being offended based on a distinctively unpleasant non-cognitive, feeling or emotion. The experience of that emotion affects both our subsequent thought and behavior to greater or lesser degrees. Thus offense is subject to “greater and lesser” degrees. Micro-aggressions by definition, involve low-level aggressions and feelings. When we experience a micro-aggression sometimes we are able to tolerate those unpleasant feelings and control our subsequent thoughts and behaviors. Sometimes we can’t (or won’t) and subsequently seek moral and/or legal retribution; ranging from a simple apology, to verbal, physical and/or financial punishment.

As a liberty-limiting principle, the offense principle states that in the exercise of our personal liberty, we have a negative duty to avoid offending others. And, when we do offend others we have a duty to offer them some form of just retribution. But sometimes we deliberately offend others and sometimes we do it inadvertently. Inadvertent offenses result from not knowing something about the person or persons that you offended:  Sometimes you “should have known better.” And, sometimes you “couldn’t have known better.” If you are offended by another person or group of persons (deliberately or inadvertently), what are the duties of the offender? What is fair retribution for any given micro-aggression?

The most obvious difficulty with applying the offense principle as a liberty-limiting principle is that we all have different levels of sensibility in response the speech and acts of others. What offends one person may not offend another. Therefore, offense is largely contextual. At least some people are offended by rap music, public nudity, burning the American flag, Rush Limbaugh's radio show, and/or houses painted pink. On the other hand, there are at least some words and actions that are universally regarded as offensive in most or many contexts. No one enjoys being called fat, ugly, or stupid. Most of us would prefer not to see someone defecate in public. No one enjoys being spat upon. Does the fact that there are some quasi-universally offensive speech and acts, suggest that there ought to be (at least some) laws that prevent the use of those words or the performance of those acts?

Recall that John Stuart Mill argued that legality ought to be limited to the sphere of harmful human actions and that speech can be justifiably regulated only to the extent that it harms others: “You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater.” Legal philosophers argue over the extent to which speech can be harmful, and whether at least some offensive, but otherwise harmless actions or speech ought to be morally and/or legally regulated. The line between aggression and micro-aggression is murky at best. If you have AIDS and spit at someone that act may be not only offensive, but it may also violate the “Harm to Others Principle.”   

Again, the basic problem with both the moral and legal applications of the offense principle is that some of us have relatively “thick skin” and are not easily offended; and, some of us have “thin skin” and are offended very easily. Skin thickness of individuals is shaped psychologically by biological, individual, and cultural causation.  There are probably evolutionary reasons why the vast majority of humans are offended by being spat upon or being called names that refer to other human excretions. Some of us are offended by certain acts because of something that happened in our personal lives. Others are offended based on cultural norms. Many Muslims are offended by scantily clad women in a public park or by someone walking their dog. 

The deontological ethics of micro-aggression requires specifying the corresponding rights and duties of both those who are (in fact) offended; and, those who deliberately (or inadvertently) offend them.  In my next blog I’ll take a look at a couple recent case studies involving the application of the Offense Principle.