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.      


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