Is offence objective or subjective: part II

I hadn’t planned to write any further on this. However, seeing as Dave Williams has attempted to answer some of my points to him, it seems right to reply. Specifically, I want to address what appears to be a misunderstanding of my position. You can see my original article, with links back to Dave’s initial post here.

In my article to Dave, I noted that many of the scenarios he painted suggested that offence is, indeed, subjective. I noted that someone from a different era, or a different place, would understand the problem very differently. I want to stress this was not my only argument, but it is the only one Dave has picked up and answered.

Dave comments:

Far from refuting my point, I would suggest that Stephen has ended up strengthening it here. You see, he has to argue far too much here. He has not simply argued that being offended at as gender or race issue but that the values we hold to have changed. Yet, I assume that he would not want to conclude that racism and genderism are really subjective issues. Our values may have changed but that means that in some cases we have moved closer to objective truth. We may also think of issues where we have moved in the opposite direction as a society where attitudes to the terminally ill and the unborn child that would have offended a previous generation to not offend us.

My point is this. When that Jamaican man was turned away from a room in 1950, the issue was not whether or not he felt offended, he may have been quite laid back, his upbringing may have meant he accepted a second class status as the norm, he may have felt deeply offended whilst I as a passing white guy might not. It does not change the fact that the sign was offensive. If Malala is offended at the attempt in some countries to stop girls going to school, the issue is not just that she feels offended but that the attitude shown is morally repugnant and offensive.

The problem here is that Dave has conflated two issues. There is the issue of objective moral values (which, as I stressed in my original post, definitely do exist) and there is the issue of subjective offence. The reason Dave denies that offence is subjective is that he conflates it with matters of objective morality. But, as I also pointed out in my original post, these things do not necessarily go hand in glove.

So, when Dave suggests I would not want to say racism is a subjective issue, he is quite right. But that has nothing to do with whether I am offended by it and everything to do with the fact that, by good and necessary consequence, scripture says such discrimination is sinful. Racism is a matter of objective moral values; our offence toward it is not a matter of objectivity but subjectivity.

Again, when Dave says our values have moved, I can obviously observe that is true along with him. When he says, on the issue of race, our values have moved closer to the objective truth of scripture I can also agree. But this does nothing to change the fact that some black people in the 1970s were not offended by those racist messages and segregation, despite it being wrong, and others were. Some black people today are not offended by such things and others are. Likewise, some white people were not offended by the in the 1970s and others were. Some white people today are not offended by those signs today and others are. The point here is not that the moral value of those signs is determined by the subjective offence taken or eschewed by any number of individuals – they were always morally objectively wrong because scripture clearly tells us it is so – but the offence, the feelings of upset or annoyance at those signs, varied enormously. It is this that proves the feeling of offence is subjective.

The problem is that Dave is trying to argue that objective moral values and offence are the same thing, or at least should go hand in glove. My point is simply that they are not the same and are often out of kilter. There are plenty of examples of things we can affirm as objectively morally wrong (think of anything that falls short of God’s glory; typically called sin) whilst not being offended by it. We may say something is, as an objective value, wrong; our offence is a feeling that we have toward it which, definitionally, changes from person to person.

The problem here is that Dave – so far as I can see – is using the word ‘offensive’ in a way that it is not commonly used. He is using the term to denote something that is objectively morally wrong. The problem is that this is not how the word ‘offensive’ is defined. Google dictionary defines ‘offensive’ this way:



adjective: offensive
  1. 1.
    causing someone to feel resentful, upset, or annoyed.
    “the allegations made are deeply offensive to us”
    synonyms: insulting, rude, derogatory, disrespectful, hurtful, wounding, abusive, objectionable, displeasing, annoying, exasperating, irritating, vexing, galling, provocative, provoking, humiliating, impertinent, impudent, insolent, personal, discourteous, uncivil, impolite, unmannerly, unacceptable, shocking, scandalous, outrageous; More
    antonyms: complimentary, polite
    • (of a sight or smell) disgusting; repulsive.

      “an offensive odour”

      synonyms: unpleasant, disagreeable, nasty, distasteful, displeasing, objectionable, off-putting, uninviting, awful, terrible, dreadful, frightful, obnoxious, abominable, disgusting, repulsive, repellent, repugnant, revolting, abhorrent, loathsome, hateful, detestable, execrable, odious, vile, foul, unsavoury, unpalatable, sickening, nauseating, nauseous, ugly, unsightly; More
      antonyms: pleasant, delightful

  2. 2.

    actively aggressive; attacking.

    “offensive operations against the insurgents”

    synonyms: hostile, attacking, aggressive, invading, incursive, combative, threatening, martial, warlike, belligerent, bellicose, antagonistic, on the attack

    “an offensive air action against another country”

    antonyms: defensive
    • (of a weapon) meant for use in attack.

      “he is also accused of possessing an offensive weapon


      relating to the team in possession of the ball or puck in a game.

      “Shell was an outstanding offensive tackle during his 15 years with the Raiders”

Clearly, here, we are discussing 1.1. There are large numbers of morally objective values that might be transgressed that do not cause us upset, resentment or annoyance. There may be some crossover with those things but it simply does not follow that objective moral values, which may or may not at times include our feelings, necessarily marry up with our propensity to be offended.

Dave may be wanting to argue that our offence ought to marry up entirely to absolute moral values. That is, we should be offended by things that transgress absolute moral values and we should not be offended by things that do not. But he hasn’t said that. Nor do I think that is necessarily true. There are times we may wish to not take offence even though something is objectively morally wrong. For example, we might choose to not take offence when someone fails to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and saviour. That position is objectively wrong on a Christian understanding; it doesn’t necessarily mean the position is (or should be) objectively offensive to us inasmuch as it causes us resentment and annoyance.

I can acknowledge happily that objective moral values and duties do exist. I do not think that means offence is objective. There is no reason to presume these two go hand in glove. The evidence suggests they don’t.