Morality and Causing Discomfort

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Professor Mike Adams has been banned from discussing his political views with colleagues who might be offended by them. Then he notes the clear hypocrisy here. The very same colleagues who are offended by his views, who want him no longer discussing them, offend him regularly with their own. He lists some good examples, which I won't repeat here (so that you might actually go look at what he says rather than relying on me to give you all the goods -- trust me; it's good; many of them would offend the average American, though not necessarily all for good reasons).

This raises some questions I've been wondering about for a while but haven't come up with anything good to say yet. What is it about other people's making us uncomfortable that makes us assign moral blame? I want to allow for some cases where there really is blame and others where there isn't, with some that aren't clear. I'm not sure how to divide these up, however. (I should say that much of what follows is even more off-the-cuff musing than is common in blogs. I really haven't thought much of this through in a systematic manner.)

College students who live in back of our house play very loud music late at night, knowing full well that there are families all over the area where we live, with children who get up very early in the morning, requiring their parents to go to bed earlier than a college student will leave for the evening most weekend nights. In the summer when it's necessary to keep windows open just to breathe, this seems morally unconscionable to me. When I tried to explain this to my students, they just didn't get it. However, one of my football players was able to translate it. His example was when people decide to mow their lawns at 8:30 am on Saturdays, in a neighborhood with a high college student population. Now students can suck it up more easily than parents, with the ability to take naps more easily and the ability to sleep in other days, so it's not quite equivalent, but it got the message across. This kind of behavior is just plain rude in a way that I think is morally wrong.

After having been through two pregnancies and the raising of two small children, I've become more sensitive to public smoking. I never minded people smoking around me. Some of my best friends throughout my life have been smokers, and I used to hang out in smoke-filled places with those friends at least on occasion. That had to stop once Rogue's my wife's mutant heightened senses from kissing Wolverine and absorbing his psyche and powers being pregnant kicked in. This gave me a clear sense of how it affects people who are sensitive to smoke when people smoke in a public place that other people need to be at or legally have every right to be at. We had to avoid one of my wife's favorite restaurants in the area because of smoke during her first pregnancy. Now the no-smoking laws are in effect, but we don't really want to go there with the kids.

Is this morally wrong? If the smoke blocks the entrance to a building, it might be. What if someone who is pregnant needs to get in that door? Should she be expected to walk around to another door where there isn't smoke? That seems at least a bit uncaring. Now I think an argument can be made based on virtue ethics that smoking is wrong simply because it's harmful. I tend to think doing something to yourself deliberately that harms you is wrong. (Note: I violate this moral requirement all the time when I eat something I'm not supposed to eat, which for me includes almost anything with concentrated sugar except right after a big meal. Therefore I'm not here dishing out any moral blame to smokers that I don't think equally applies to me.) This type of wrongness, however, is not wrong in a way that's rude to others. That seems to be a different question altogether. It's only smoking in certain contexts that would fit into this category.

Homosexuality is a good example of something that offends many people. It's a category mistake to say that homosexuality is wrong, but I do happen to think gay sex and relationships are morally wrong, which I've discussed elsewhere. Still, I think people who are offended in a way that affects how they will relate to people need to get over it. That sort of moral wrong is like someone who does something to themselves or to other consenting people and not like the cases I'm discussing. So what if people are disgusted by it? It's not the same sort of rudeness. Drunkenness at private parties, which is equally offensive to many people, is also like this. The issues about whether it's morally wrong are independent of whether its offensiveness is relevant to whether it's ok to bring it up around others.

Bringing up political views is unclear to me. A professor in my department does this at every possible opportunity, mostly to complain about how Bush is evil (though he complains about Bush's own use of the term 'evil' as mere political rhetoric, but I know he believes in evil, since he thinks Bush himself is an example of it). He hardly ever ties it into a discussion where it's really relevant, and it's clear that there's no room in his mind for discussion. This seems wrong to me. I know a number of other people who are like this, some of them quite conservative who did the same thing with Clinton, and I don't like it.

Should this offensive talk, as wrong as I think it is (at least in the way its being done) give me a right to complain? I think some of it is an abuse of power. He is, after all, in a position of authority over many people involved in these conversations when these things slip in, and the assumption seems to be that everyone should agree with him or shut up. I've been around people who haven't known me well enough to know that I'm a Christian doing the same thing about Christians. I've been told that it's much more common than what I've experienced, and that doesn't surprise me.

I guess what I'm wondering is whether the wrongness of any of this behavior gives anyone a reason to issue a gag order. I think the public disturbance stuff with noise pollution is important enough to have laws, and at least in the city I live in there are such laws. Smoking in public is still being debated right now, and my friends who smoke probably don't like the current law in New York prohibiting smoking in public buildings, but I think it's a welcome law for the many people who are very sensitive to smoke, including almost every pregnant woman and most young children. What about political venom? Is it something I have a right not to hear? I have a hard time saying yes to that. My suspicion is that Mike Adams' discussions wouldn't even count as close to venomous. My guess is that he was merely commenting about some of the views he'd written up in his columns. The mere existence of those views is what offends the people who called for this gag order. That makes me think there's a real difference between the kind of offense or discomfort that affects one's health and peace of mind and those that simply cause you to question your views. Those who simply refuse to engage in ethical or political reasoning don't have any justification for restricting the free speech of a university professor.

Thanks to Joanne Jacobs for the link.

1 Comments

That was a pretty damn good article, Jesus! And I know that guy would probably make me pretty uncomfortable often. And I hope I'd die to ensure that him and others could make me and others feel uncomfortable as often as they wish. That was really funny and ironically just...God forbid we ever make each other uncomfortable with our views, that would be just wrong. (what was his supervisor thinking?)

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