Earlier in these posts, Justicar asked me some questions about what I meant by saying that certain comments were hurtful. It is a very helpful question, which I said I would reply to. Please place an unwritten ‘in my opinion’ before anything that sounds like I am asserting a fact.
Justicar wrote: “This sounds to me as though you are saying that either (1) there is something about those statements which is inherently harmful, or (2) to whatever extent that one thinks whether or not the harm perceived is entirely subjective, it remains the case that the subjective feelings of whoever takes greatest exception are the feelings which are privileged to displace everyone else’s subjective feelings.”
As a small point, I used the word hurtful rather than harmful, as I was talking about emotional and psychological harm, but either word will do.
With regard to (1): a statement is hurtful if it causes hurt. Is a specific statement inherently hurtful? I think some statements can be, and I will outline my thinking on that in the next section.
With regard to (2): Nobody’s subjective feelings can displace everyone else’s subjective feelings. People feel whatever they feel, independently of what other people feel.
Justicar wrote: “If you’re saying (1), then it should be a rather trivial affair to figure out that almost all people will agree on the proposition they’re inherently, objectively harmful statements. Like being burned in a fire, say; I’m aware of no one who disputes that being set afire is anything other than inherently, objectively harmful. But nothing like almost all people will agree that a given insult/joke is inherently, objectively harmful. Thus, (1) cannot be the right answer.”
Some statements can be inherently, objectively hurtful (or to be more precise, the act of making some statements can be inherently, objectively hurtful). For example, if you make a statement in the presence of a person who you know will be hurt by hearing it, then that is inherently, objectively hurtful.
If you make a statement in a public or semi-public environment, where it is reasonably foreseeable as a consequence that the statement will be heard by some people who who will be hurt by it and some people who will not, is that statement (or the act of making it) hurtful? I suggest that it is, because a statement does not have to be hurtful to everybody in order to be hurtful.
To use your fire analogy, if I light a fire in a crowded room, with a reasonably foreseeable consequence that some people will be burned and others will be unharmed, then I suggest that the fire (and my setting of it) was inherently, objectively harmful even though some people were not harmed by it.
A person making such a hurtful statement may believe that they are justified in causing the hurt, or may believe that the statement overall causes more good than hurt, or they may not care about the hurt that the statement causes. But the act of making such a statement remains (maybe with delayed effect) an inherently, objectively hurtful act. In my opinion.
Justicar wrote: “If (2) is the case, then this has some obvious implications: conversation will be the hostage of anyone who claims to find offense or perceive harm in a given statement. In so granting this proposition, one thereby allows for the most sensitive person to be the arbiter of who is a bad person and the like. And if this be the case, then I see no grounds on which you’d be able to escape having to accept that you’re a bad person if someone claims to be harmed by, for instance, reading this article… but for your (and others) granting yourself (themselves) the right to dismiss such a claim.”
Your (2) is close to my version of your (1), but it does not mean that every conversation is held hostage by the most sensitive person.
For example, I am opposed to and actively campaign against laws that forbid blasphemy, because I believe that the benefits of criticizing ideas is more important than the unattainable ideal of never causing anybody any hurt. However, I generally try not to make hurtful comments about the individual people who hold those ideas.
Also, making a hurtful statement does not make you a bad person. I don’t believe anybody is ‘a good person’ or ‘a bad person’. Although I sometimes use the phrase ‘good person’ as a benign shorthand for people who generally try to behave ethically, I generally try not to use the phrase ‘bad person’ as a malign shorthand.
Justicar wrote: “And if you’re free to grant yourself the right to dismiss such a claim as unreasonable (perhaps because the person is unreasonably sensitive or some such) thereby evading having to accept that you’re an immoral person, on what grounds do you deny others an equivalent right to dismiss a claim of harm arising from one saying, “[example of a statement]”?”
I don’t see it as dismissing a claim that harm (or hurt) happened. I see it as observing whether harm (or hurt) actually happened, and evaluating whether on balance it was justified in that instance. Each situation has to be taken on its own merits, and there will obviously be a lot of subjectivity involved in that evaluation.
However we each define good and bad, they must be related to the impact of our behaviour on the suffering or wellbeing of other sentient beings, and I like Sam Harris’s idea that the worst possible world is a world where all conscious beings suffer to the maximal extent all of the time, and that, in principle, moving towards that is bad and moving away from it is good.
Justicar wrote: “While it’s true many people would not like such a comment, it’s far from clear to me that just speaking/writing those words inherently creates an injury (as is the case were it said to me). So, that leaves me with leaning towards your meaning being something like (2). And now it’s merely a matter of noting that since it isn’t inherently, objectively harmful, the extent to which it might cause harm depends on who [in this case: scouring the internet to find the words in the first place] decides to take it that way. In turn this implies that whether one is a good or bad person now hinges on the happenstance of who happens to (a) hear/read the words and (b) decide they’ve been hurt.”
With the proviso that I don’t see the difference between your (1) and (2) as distinctly as you do, I agree that the extent of the hurt that is caused depends on who hears it that is susceptible to being hurt by it.
I don’t think that’s relevant to the idea of whether the person who made the statement is a good or bad person.
And I don’t think the person who is hurt ‘decides’ to be hurt. The neurophysiological processes that are triggered by hearing a statement are no more ‘choosable’ than are the neurophysiological processes triggered by being hit in the face.
How we respond to that feeling of being hurt is the part that we should focus on, because that is more under our control. Assuming, that is, for the sake of having this discussion, that we do actually have free will and are not merely noticing what our brain is causing to happen.
Justicar wrote: “Or is there a (3) that I just entirely fail to see?”
I think it is more nuances on (1) and (2) than a (3), but other people may have other ideas. I am open to changing my mind on anything I have written here.
Justicar has posted this video response.