Why we Cannot Have the Right Not to be Offended

19 January 2018

CULTURAL ANALYSIS & PHILOSOPHY — Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, known for his critique of political correctness and offense-sensitivity in the context of higher education, has presented a formidable defence of his position in a recent interview with Cathy Newman. (Revised on 5 September 2018)

In response to Ms Newman’s question why his right to freedom of speech should trump a person’s right not to be offended, Peterson said: “Because in order to be able to think, you have to risk being offensive. (…) You’re certainly willing to risk offending me in the pursuit of truth.” (Daily Wire) To Ms Newman’s credit she did not attempt to push the point, what was a wise thing to do as she would be committing what Jürgen Habermas called a ‘performative contradiction’. Peterson’s statement can be analysed as an affirmation of Discourse Ethics, a transcendental-pragmatic position developed by Jürgen Habermas and Karl-Otto Apel (see On What is Right: The Problem of Grounding in Ethics).

According to Apel (Selected Essays: Ethics and the Theory of Rationality. Humanities Press International, 1996), “Humanity is in essence linguistic, and therefore depends always already for its thinking on consensual communication.”(p211) “The logical justification for our thought” therefore commits us to “understand arguments critically” and to “mutually recognize each other as participants with equal rights in the discussion.”(p29) The claim of ‘right not to be offended’ is incompatible with these conditions, as it either monopolises the discussion (makes a subjective demand of another to limit expression) or precludes understanding (if both parties claim offence). In any case, subjective judgement about what is offensive cannot even hypothetically be the basis of a normative principle (Setiya, Kieran. Explaining Action. The Philosophical Review, 2003). Setiya shows that subjective judgement provides only explanation of our reasons, not their objective justification. […]

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