Offense versus harm minimization

Imag­ine that one night, an alien prankster se­cretly im­plants elec­trodes into the brains of an en­tire coun­try—let’s say Bri­tain. The next day, ev­ery­one in Bri­tain dis­cov­ers that pic­tures of salmon sud­denly give them jolts of painful psy­chic dis­tress. Every time they see a pic­ture of a salmon, or they hear about some­one pho­tograph­ing a salmon, or they even con­tem­plate tak­ing such a pic­ture them­selves, they get a feel­ing of wrong­ness that ru­ins their en­tire day.

I think most de­cent peo­ple would be will­ing to go to some trou­ble to avoid tak­ing pic­tures of salmon if Bri­tish peo­ple po­litely asked this fa­vor of them. If some­one de­liber­ately took lots of salmon pho­tos and waved them in the Brits’ faces, I think it would be fair to say ey isn’t a nice per­son. And if the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment banned salmon pho­tog­ra­phy, and re­fused to al­low salmon pic­tures into the coun­try, well, maybe not ev­ery­one would agree but I think most peo­ple would at least be able to un­der­stand and sym­pa­thize with the rea­sons for such a law.

So why don’t most peo­ple ex­tend the same sym­pa­thy they would give Brits who don’t like pic­tures of salmon, to Mus­lims who don’t like pic­tures of Mo­hammed?


I first1 started think­ing along these lines when I heard about Every­body Draw Mo­hammed Day, and re­vis­ited the is­sue re­cently af­ter dis­cov­er­ing http://​​­​​r/​​mo­ham­mad­pics/​​.

I have to ad­mit, I find these funny. I want to like them. But my at­tempts to think of rea­sons why this is to­tally differ­ent from show­ing pic­tures of salmon to Bri­tish peo­ple fail:

• You could ar­gue Brits did not choose to have their ab­nor­mal sen­si­tivity to salmon while Mus­lims might be con­sid­ered to be choos­ing their sen­si­tivity to Mo­hammed. But this re­quires a liber­tar­ian free will. Fur­ther, I see lit­tle differ­ence be­tween how a Mus­lim “chooses” to get up­set at dis­re­spect to Mo­hammed, and how a Westerner might “choose” to get up­set if you called eir mother a whore. Even though the anger isn’t be­ing caused by alien tech­nol­ogy, it doesn’t feel like a “choice” and it’s more than just a pass­ing whim. And if to­mor­row I tried to “choose” to be­come an­gry ev­ery time some­one showed me a pic­ture of a salmon, I couldn’t do it—I could pre­tend to be an­gry, but I couldn’t make my­self feel gen­uine rage.

• Mus­lims’ sen­si­tivity to Mo­hammed is based on a false­hood; Is­lam is a false re­li­gion and Mo­hammed is too dead to care how any­one de­picts him. I agree with this state­ment, but I don’t think it li­censes me to cause psy­chic pain to Mus­lims. I couldn’t go around to mosques and punch Mus­lims in the face, shout­ing “Your re­li­gion is false, so you de­serve it!”.

• It is nec­es­sary to draw pic­tures of Mo­hammed to show Mus­lims that vi­o­lence and ter­ror­ism are in­ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponses. I think the logic here is that a few peo­ple drew pic­tures of Mo­hammed, some rad­i­cals sent out death threats and burned em­bassies, and now we need to draw more pic­tures of Mo­hammed to con­vince Mus­lims not to do this. But it sounds pretty stupid when you put it in ex­actly those words. Say a ran­dom Chris­tian kicked a Mus­lim in the face, and a few other Mus­lims got re­ally an­gry, blew the whole thing out of pro­por­tion, and kil­led him and his en­tire fam­ily. This would be an in­ap­pro­pri­ately strong re­sponse, and cer­tainly you could be up­set about it, but the proper re­sponse wouldn’t be to go kick­ing ran­dom Mus­lims in the face. They didn’t do it, and they prob­a­bly don’t even ap­prove. But draw­ing pic­tures of Mo­hammed offends many Mus­lims, not just the ones who send death threats.

• The slip­pery slope ar­gu­ment: if we al­low Mus­lims’ con­cerns to pre­vent us from draw­ing pic­tures of Mo­hammed, sooner or later we’ll have to ac­cept ev­ery two-bit group with a ridicu­lous su­per­sti­tion and we’ll never be able to get any­thing done. I take this more se­ri­ously than the pre­vi­ous three ar­gu­ments, but I’ve pre­vi­ously ar­gued that grant­ing large es­tab­lished re­li­gions spe­cial rights is rel­a­tively im­mune to slip­pery-slope. And any­way, draw­ing pic­tures of Mo­hammed is such an un­usual thing to do that we can stop do­ing it with­out giv­ing up our right to keep do­ing some­thing else that’s ac­tu­ally use­ful if the situ­a­tion comes up later.

None of these ex­cuses re­ally does it for me. So my pro­vi­sional con­clu­sion is that yes, peo­ple who draw pic­tures of Mo­hammed where Mus­lims can see them are bad peo­ple in the same way that peo­ple who go around show­ing pho­tos of salmon to Brits are bad peo­ple.

So the big ques­tion is: why is this so con­tro­ver­sial in the Mo­hammed ex­am­ple, when it seems so ob­vi­ous in the salmon ex­am­ple?


I think sev­eral fea­tures of the salmon ex­am­ple trig­ger con­se­quen­tial­ist moral rea­son­ing, in which the goal is to figure out how to satisfy as many peo­ple’s prefer­ences as pos­si­ble; sev­eral con­trast­ing fea­tures of the Mo­hammed case trig­ger de­on­tolog­i­cal moral rea­son­ing, in which the goal is to figure out who is a good per­son or a bad per­son and to as­sign sta­tus and blame ap­pro­pri­ately. Th­ese two forms of rea­son­ing give differ­ent re­sults in the two differ­ent cases.

The word that comes up a lot in dis­cus­sions of this sort of is­sue is “offen­sive”. When some­one draws Mo­hammed, it is con­sid­ered offen­sive to Mus­lims. When some­one writes a story where all the sym­pa­thetic and in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ters are male, it is con­sid­ered offen­sive to women.

For me, the word “offen­sive” brings up con­no­ta­tions of “It was morally wrong to say this, and you are ei­ther in­ex­cus­ably ig­no­rant of this fact or de­liber­ately mal­i­cious. You must im­me­di­ately apol­o­gize, and it is up to the group you have offended to de­cide whether they ac­cept your apol­ogy or whether they want to pun­ish you in some well-de­served way.”

This means that ever ad­mit­ting you were offen­sive is a huge sta­tus hit im­ply­ing you are some com­bi­na­tion of cal­lous, ig­no­rant, and racist. Some­times peo­ple may be will­ing to take this sta­tus hit, es­pe­cially if upon re­flec­tion they be­lieve they re­ally were in the wrong, but since most peo­ple’s ac­tions seem rea­son­able to them­selves they will not be will­ing to ac­cept a nar­ra­tive where they’re the villain.

More likely, they will try to ad­vance an al­ter­na­tive in­ter­pre­ta­tion, in which their ac­tions were not le­gi­t­i­mately offen­sive or in which they have the “right” to take such ac­tions. Such an in­ter­pre­ta­tion may cast the offended party as a villain, try­ing to gain power and con­trol by pre­tend­ing to be offended, or un­duly re­strict­ing the free speech of oth­ers.

The con­tro­versy over draw­ing Mo­hammed has sev­eral fac­tors that pre­dis­pose to this sort of in­ter­pre­ta­tion. There is already a his­tory of mi­s­un­der­stand­ing and some en­mity be­tween Mus­lims and non-Mus­lims. Mus­lims’ sta­tus as a minor­ity makes ideas of “poli­ti­cal cor­rect­ness” read­ily primed and available, mak­ing peo­ple likely to miss the trees for the for­est. Mus­lims are of­ten of a differ­ent race than Chris­ti­ans, so con­flicts with them risk tar­ring a per­son with the deeply in­sult­ing la­bel of “racist”. And be­cause there are re­ports of Mus­lims ri­ot­ing and hurt­ing other peo­ple be­cause of Mo­hammed draw­ings, they are easy to villainize.

This risks em­broiling ev­ery­one in an un­pro­duc­tive ar­gu­ment about whether an ac­tion was “le­gi­t­i­mately offen­sive” or not, with much sta­tus rid­ing on the re­sult.


The Bri­tish salmon ex­am­ple, on the other hand, was de­signed to avoid the idea of “offense” and trig­ger con­se­quen­tial­ist no­tions of harm min­i­miza­tion2.

The ex­am­ple speci­fi­cally refers to the dis­plea­sure that salmon cause the Bri­tish as “psy­chic pain”, prim­ing ideas about whether it is ac­cept­able to cause pain to an­other per­son. The Bri­tish are de­scribed as po­litely ask­ing us to avoid salmon pho­tog­ra­phy as a fa­vor to them, putting them­selves in a low sta­tus po­si­tion rather than de­mand­ing we re­spect their sta­tus. Bri­tish are white and first world, so it’s hard to think of this as a poli­ti­cal cor­rect­ness is­sue and wade into that par­tic­u­lar quag­mire. And be­cause the whole salmon prob­lem is the re­sult of an alien prankster, there’s no eas­ily available nar­ra­tive in which the Bri­tish are at fault.

A con­se­quen­tial­ist rea­soner would con­sider how much di­su­til­ity it causes not to be able to use pic­tures of salmon where the Bri­tish might see them, then con­sider how much di­su­til­ity it causes the Bri­tish to see pic­tures of salmon, and if the lat­ter out­weighed the former, they’d stop with the salmon pic­tures. There’s an ar­gu­ment to be made about slip­pery slope, but in this case the slope doesn’t seem too slip­pery and other cases can be eval­u­ated on their mer­its.

And a con­se­quen­tial­ist Bri­tish per­son, when con­sid­er­ing how to con­vince a for­eigner to stop us­ing pic­tures of salmon, would try to phrase eir re­quest in a way that min­i­mizes the chances that the for­eigner gets up­set and con­fronta­tional, and max­i­mizes the chances that they ac­tu­ally stop with the salmon.

If the for­eigner re­fused to stop with the salmon pic­tures, the Bri­tish per­son would try to shame and dis­credit the for­eigner into do­ing so only if ey thought it would work bet­ter than any less con­fronta­tional method, and only if the chance of it suc­cess­fully stop­ping the offend­ing be­hav­ior was great enough that it out­weighted the amount of bad feel­ings and con­fronta­tion it would cause.

This is a healthier and po­ten­tially more suc­cess­ful method of re­solv­ing offen­sive ac­tions.


I post on a fo­rum where a bunch of reg­u­lars re­cently de­nounced the cul­ture of ver­bal abuse. The abusers, for their part, said that the vic­tims were mak­ing moun­tains out of mole­hills: ex­ag­ger­at­ing some good-na­tured teas­ing in or­der to look holier-than-thou.

I was friends with some of vic­tims and with some abusers; nei­ther side were ma­jor­ity bad peo­ple, and it sur­prised me that peo­ple would view re­quests to stop ver­bal abuse as a Machi­avel­lian ploy.

Not to say that ask­ing for ver­bal abuse to stop can’t be a Machi­avel­lian ploy. In fact, as far as Machi­avel­lian ploys go, it’s a pretty good one—take some­thing your poli­ti­cal en­e­mies do, pre­tend to be deeply offended by it, and then act up­set un­til your en­e­mies are forced to stop, in­con­ve­nienc­ing them and gain­ing you sym­pa­thy. A con­spir­acy such is this is not im­pos­si­ble, but why is it so of­ten the first pos­si­bil­ity peo­ple jump to?

I think it has to do with some­thing I heard one of the abusers say: “I would never get up­set over some­thing lit­tle like that.”

I know him and he is tel­ling the truth. When some­one is ver­bally con­fronta­tional with him, he takes it in stride or laughs it off, be­cause that’s the kind of guy he is.

I am of Jewish back­ground. I’ve had some­one use an anti-Semitic slur on me ex­actly once. My re­ac­tion was the same mix of con­fu­sion and amuse­ment I’d feel if some­one tried a vin­tage Shake­spearean in­sult. And yet I also know of Jews who have been dev­as­tated by anti-Semitic slurs, to the point where they’ve stopped go­ing to school be­cause some­one in school taunted them. Th­ese peo­ple may differ from me in terms of Jewish iden­tity, ex­traver­sion, de­mo­graph­ics, so­cial sta­tus, anx­iety, neu­ro­ge­net­ics, and some hard-to-define fac­tor we might as well just call “thin skin”.

The point is, if I use my own re­ac­tions to model theirs, I will fail, mis­er­ably. I will try to con­nect their re­ac­tion to the most plau­si­ble situ­a­tion in which my mind would gen­er­ate the same re­ac­tion in the same situ­a­tion—in which I am not re­ally up­set but am pre­tend­ing to be so for Machi­avel­lian mo­tives.

In the case of anti-Semitism, it’s easy to see fac­tors—like a his­tory of suffer­ing from past prej­u­dice—that make other peo­ple’s re­sponses differ from mine. It’s less ob­vi­ous why some­one else might differ in their re­sponse to be­ing called ugly, or stupid, or just be­ing told to fuck off—but if these differ­ences re­ally ex­ist, they might ex­plain why peo­ple just can’t agree about offen­sive ac­tions.

A thick-skinned per­son just can’t model a per­son with thin­ner skin all that well. And so when the lat­ter gets up­set over some in­sult, the thick-skinned per­son calls them “un­rea­son­able”, or as­sumes that they’re mak­ing it up in or­der to gain sym­pa­thy. My friends in the on­line fo­rum couldn’t be­lieve any­one could re­ally be so sen­si­tive as to find their com­ments abu­sive, and so they ended up do­ing some se­ri­ous men­tal dam­age.


Con­se­quen­tial­ism sug­gests a spe­cific course of ac­tion for both vic­tims of offense and peo­ple perform­ing po­ten­tially offen­sive ac­tions. The vic­tim should judge whether ey be­lieves the offense causes more pain to em than it does benefit to the offen­der; if so, ey should non­judg­men­tally re­quest the offen­der stop while ap­ply­ing the Prin­ci­ple of Char­ity to the offen­der, and if ey wants the max­i­mum chance of the offense stop­ping, ey should re­sist the urge to de­mand an apol­ogy or do any­thing else that could po­ten­tially turn it into a sta­tus game.

The offen­der, for eir part, should stop offend­ing as soon as ey re­al­izes that the amount of pain eir ac­tions cause is greater than the amount of an­noy­ance it would take to avoid the offend­ing ac­tion, even if ey can’t un­der­stand why it would cause any pain at all. If ey wishes, ey may choose to apol­o­gize even though no apol­ogy was de­manded.

If the offen­der re­fuses, the vic­tim should only then con­sider “pun­ish­ment” by try­ing to shame the offen­der and make em ap­pear low sta­tus, and only if ey thinks this has a real chance of stop­ping the offend­ing be­hav­ior ei­ther in this case or in the fu­ture. Like all at­tempts to de­liber­ately harm an­other per­son, this course of ac­tion re­quires of the vic­tim ex­cep­tional cer­tainty that ey is in the right.

Although peo­ple pre­tend­ing to be offended for per­sonal gain is a real prob­lem, it is less com­mon in re­al­ity than it is in peo­ple’s imag­i­na­tions. If a per­son ap­pears to suffer from an ac­tion of yours which you find com­pletely in­nocu­ous, you should con­sider the pos­si­bil­ity that eir mind is differ­ent from yours be­fore re­ject­ing eir suffer­ing as feigned.


1) Thanks to Kaj So­tala, Vladimir Nesov, and ko­vacsa-whose-LW-name-I-don’t-know for origi­nally en­courag­ing me to turn the origi­nal es­say into an LW post.

2) The de­on­tolog­i­cal no­tion of offense doesn’t re­ally su­per­vene on an idea of pain to other peo­ple. If two white peo­ple, talk­ing where no black peo­ple could pos­si­bly over­hear them, make a racist joke about black peo­ple, that is still “offen­sive”, be­cause racism is wrong no mat­ter what. A con­se­quen­tial­ist no­tion of offense could bet­ter ground such ex­am­ples by the­o­riz­ing that whites tel­ling racist jokes to other whites cre­ates a cli­mate in which racism is con­sid­ered ac­cept­able, which even­tu­ally will end up hurt­ing some­one di­rectly. Or it could de­cide not to, if it de­cided the link was too ten­u­ous and hokey—but now any dis­agree­ment on the mat­ter is hon­est dis­agree­ment about em­piri­cal facts and not philo­soph­i­cal dis­agree­ment about who’s a bad per­son.