Subjective vs. normative offensiveness

by casebash2 min read25th Sep 201586 comments


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Terms like offensive are often used in a manner that blurs the boundaries between two different, but related concepts. Let’s suppose that Alex send Billy an email that he finds offensive. We can say that the email is subjectively offensive if it causes Billy to feel offended. On the other hand, we can say that it is normatively offensive if Alex has taken an action that deserves to be criticised morally. The former does not prove the later. For example, Alex might tell Billy that he saw a recent Mets game and that he thought their pitcher didn’t play very well. Billy might be a huge Mets fan and find this offensive. Clearly the Alex was subjectively offensive (relative to Billy), but few people would say that he was normatively offensive. This requires something extra, such as if Alex had made a similar comment before and seen that it had upset Billy we might be more willing to conclude that Alex deserved the criticism.

Billy is entitled to feel an emotional reaction and feel offended (subjectively). It would be hard to argue that he isn’t as can be incredibly difficult or impossible to suppress such a reaction. However, he is not entitled to act like Alex was normatively offensive purely based on his subjective appraisal. He needs to consider the actual reasonableness of Alex’s actions and the broader social context. Sadly, this normally results in very messy conversations. One side will be arguing, “You shouldn’t be (normatively) offended”, with the other saying that they have every right to be (subjectively) offended.

At this point, I should clarify the greatest misunderstanding based upon feedback in the comments. Normative here simply refers to some kind of moral standard; to the making of claims that people should act in a particular way. It doesn't depend on the assumption that morality is objective; just that the person operates within some kind of moral framework that leaves their moral assertions open to challenge by others. In regard to culturally relativism, normative is being used to mean "locally normative"; normative within the particular cultural context; rather than "globally normative". Even if you believe that morality is purely personal, you probably have some meta-level beliefs that can be used to challenge or justify your object level beliefs.

I think that this discussion is well understood for the word offensive, but it is less well understood for the term creepy. Suppose there is a man who has unfortunately born to be incredibly ugly. People may find it subjectively creepy for him to just walk into the room. However, it isn’t normatively creepy for him to enter the room; you can’t criticise him merely for the action.

This is enough to resolve many discussions about creepiness. Someone’s age when they age you out or someone being unattractive may make them subjectively creepy. This is an emotional response and we can’t expect people to suppress all of their emotional responses. However, it requires extra work to prove that something is normatively creepy. In particular, there needs to be a reference to some kind of moral rule or social contract. Like if a 20 year old wanted to criticise a 40 year old for being normatively creepy for asking them out, they’d have to argue that they have broken some social or moral rule like, “Don’t ask someone out half your age”. They would then have to justify this rule; arguing purely from their own subjective point of view would be insufficient.

Many people will say that when they said that something was offensive that they only meant it was offensive from their own perspective. However, people are almost forced to respond as though it was meant in the normative sense. These words are used in a social environment and any such comment carries a significant chance that people will judge them as guilty in some normative sense, even if that wasn’t what you meant. If you really want to mean it in the subjective sense, then you need to add padding around it or it will be misunderstood. Scott Alexander wrote a good article on this about Weak Men, but I won’t link directly to it as it is likely to be very controversial.

Lastly, this relates strongly to Motte and Bailey doctrine. It can often be very convenient for someone to say that an action is offensive (with the assumption being that it is offensive in the normative sense) and then fall back down to saying that they were only personally offended when the other person tries to defend them self, then start talking about being offended in the normative sense again, right after. Please don’t do this.

The purpose of this article wasn’t just to draw this distinction, but to also provide terminology to make these distinctions as clear as possible. Please try to avoid argumentation in the comments about the actual object level issues as I have tried to avoid directly tackling the issue of who is or isn’t correct and to keep it at the level of how to generally approach these issues.


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I think that seeing offensiveness as a 2-place concept, with the elaboration that different sorts of judgments are more narrowly or broadly shared, or more or less important to enforce, is a cleaner distinction.

(For offensive things in particular, it also allows an interesting test: if Alice says something Bob finds offensive, one can ask Alice not if they think it is 'offensive,' but whether they thought it was 'Bob-offensive' before they said it. This helps separate out intent, and fix ignorance when possible.)

I think there is a full spectrum of "normativeness" starting from one person, going to a small group (e.g. a family), then to a larger group (e.g. a tribe), yet larger (e.g. a culture), yet larger (e.g. a nation) until we get to all humans. Not sure where on that spectrum you draw the line between "subjective" and "normative".

If a father offer 20 goats for a bride for his son, is that normatively offensive?

-2casebash6yThis is a critique of cultural relativism more than anything else. I'm not a relativist, although my argument here was made in a relativism agnostic manner.
4VoiceOfRa6yNo it wasn't. Relativists have no non-subjective notion of "normativity", thus the subjective/normative distinction makes no sense to them. Edit: In practice of course, most relativists are willing to treat things like murder as if they are objectively wrong. However, this is a case of their System I protecting them from the consequences of their System II beliefs, similar to the way New Agers who don't believe in objective reality manage to avoid walking out of high story windows.
1pragmatist6yThis is not true of all relativists. There are relativists who believe in entirely objective agent-relative moral facts. In other words, they would say something like, "It is an objective moral truth that X is wrong for members of community Y". The normative force of "X is wrong" would apply even to members of community Y who don't believe that X is wrong (hence the objectivity), but it wouldn't apply to people outside community Y (hence the relativism).
0casebash6yExactly what I going to say. Thanks. Maybe a word other than normative would satisfy those relativists who don't believe in any kind of normative morality, but still believe that morality within a society is the closest thing we can have. Although, this appears to be more a terminology issue than anything else.
-1DanArmak6yI don't know if I count as a "relativist", so let's taboo the terms: I don't believe there is an objective morality existing independently of humans. I don't even believe the category "morality" exists independently of humans (and other animals). I am not a "moral objectivist". That doesn't stop me from treating murder as "wrong". The word "wrong" here unpacks here as follows: I profit most if neither I nor anyone else murders, so I support the social contract of not murdering, and I punish defectors. I also have evolved instincts that counteract me murdering and cause me to be upset when others are murdered. I (consciously) treat these the same as any other feelings and instincts: they don't have a special "moral" status, but I still reliably act on them; just as I like sex and sweets and dislike pain, I dislike murder. Because almost everyone agrees with me on this, I can act and talk as if it is "objectively" wrong to murder, even though it doesn't have the status of a physical or logical truth.
2entirelyuseless6yI would say this is error theory, because even if you mean something true when you say that "it is wrong to murder," you do not mean what ordinary people mean, and the thing that they mean, you believe to be false. If you explain your opinion clearly to ordinary people, I think they will believe that you accept error theory, and they will no longer trust you about anything except when they have a special reason to do so, e.g. if they think you like them personally.
0DanArmak6yIIUC, you're saying they would think that because I understand the evolutionary reasons for my instinct not to murder people, and I understand (and accept) the game-theoretical and expected-utility reasons for not murdering people, I am more likely to consciously override these reasons if I find a particular case where they don't apply. Whereas a deontologist makes a commitment not to murder even if it creates net benefit or saves the whole world (e.g. would you murder Hitler if that was the only way of stopping WW2?) That seems like it should generalize into an argument that utilitarians and/or rationalists will not be trusted by 'ordinary' people. And perhaps even by other rationalists; it may be related to the reasons why our kind can't cooperate []. Although I haven't observed anything like that in practice; have you?
0entirelyuseless6yI don't think most utilitarians and rationalists accept error theory, or at least most of them say that they don't, and consequently there won't be the same reason for distrusting them. For example, Eliezer calls himself a utilitarian but he still believes that "murder is wrong" is an objectively true statement about the relationship between murder and the abstract pattern which we call "right". And he agrees that it means neither "we don't like murder" nor "game theory doesn't recommend murder." It may well be true that some people do accept error theory, but don't admit it. In this way they will advance their goals by getting people to trust them. I would guess that you behave that way in ordinary life as well (in your previous comment you said that you can talk and act as if it is objectively wrong to murder.)
0username26yMost people do not think "murder is wrong. Period", they allow a few exceptions to that rule.
0entirelyuseless6yThis is probably true as you meant it, but most people don't call it murder in those circumstances.
0DanArmak6y(Emphasis mine.) That word we plays a crucial role. It's the same as my saying "wrong according to us". You might believe the sentiment "murder is wrong" is shared by all of humanity (although I would disagree, empirically), but that's not the same as saying it's "objective" in the same sense as logic or physics. Eliezer would agree that wrong!Human is not the same as wrong!Babyeater or wrong!Superhappies. I merely go one step further and point out that humans (across time and space and different cultures) don't really agree on morality nearly as much as we like to pretend. It's not as if I'm pretending to anything I don't believe. It's really wrong for me, according to me to murder; this is objectively true (for me!) and I behave accordingly. If anything, saying there are no universal laws that everyone actually follows should imply I should trust others less, not that others should trust me less. Put another way, my behavior is the same as that of an objective moralist who also happens to believe most people other than him follow partial or corrupted versions of the objectively true morality, or don't follow it at all. He and I will behave identically and make identical predictions; I merely remove the extra logical concept of 'objective morality' which is empirically undetectable and does no useful predictive work, just like a God who causes no miracles and is impossible to detect. I'm not sure if "error theory" is the correct term (it may be); I used to describe my position as "moral anti-realist", but let's not get hung up on words.
0entirelyuseless6yIf I say "2 and 2 make 4," that can't be true apart from the meanings of those words, but that doesn't make it subjective. Eliezer may be right or he may be wrong, but it is not obvious (even if it turns out to be true) that he is talking about something different from ordinary people. He thinks that he is simply developing what ordinary people mean, and maybe he is. But what you are saying clearly contrasts with what other people mean.
0DanArmak6yI do think what Eliezer is developing is different from what ordinary people mean. Ordinary people are, for the most part, moral objectivists in the strong sense - they think objectively true morals exist "out there" independently of humankind. This is usually tied into their religious or spiritual beliefs (which most 'ordinary' people have). Eliezer spends a lot of time in the sequences saying things like "there is not a grain of mercy or justice in the universe, it is cold and uncaring, morals are found in us, humans". This is exactly what most 'ordinary' people don't accept. Unfortunately, the issue is confused because Eliezer insists on using non-standard terminology. The whole ethics sequence can be seen as shoehorning the phrase "morals are objective" into actually meaning "human!morals are objective". He claims this is how we should unpack these words, but I don't believe 'ordinary' people would agree if asked. I also don't think the universal subset of human!morals is nontrivially large or useful.
0entirelyuseless6yEliezer says that what is signified by moral claims is something that would be true even if human beings did not exist, since he says it is basically like a mathematical statement. It is true that no one would make the statement in that situation, but no one would say that "2 and 2 make 4" in the same situation. He doesn't think that true morals exist "out there" in the same sense that he doesn't think that mathematics exists "out there". That is probably pretty similar to what most people think. Also, people I know who believe in angels do not think that angels have the same morality as human beings, and those are pretty ordinary people. So that lines up quite closely with what Eliezer thinks as well.
1VoiceOfRa6yWhat about a norm that it's OK to murder members of group X (where group X is a group you don't belong to)? That logic doesn't seem to apply in that case.
2DanArmak6yI could either support such a norm, or not support it. I would *treat it as wrong" (two-place word) iff I didn't support it. I would only call it "wrong" period, as shorthand for "wrong according to me and I'm treating it as wrong", if it was clear from the context what person or group I was referring to that held it to be wrong. In other words: Saying people believe something is "wrong" means they condemn or punish it, and support others doing so. For almost any act there's someone who doesn't agree it's wrong. Saying "it's wrong" is shorthand for "I think it's wrong", and/or "most everyone thinks it wrong", and (given game theory and human cognition) "I think others should think it's wrong, and will try to convince them and to punish those who don't punish defectors, etc". A group of people who think it's wrong (including myself) is always implied.
0VoiceOfRa6yThis is what is normally meant by calling something "subjective".
0DanArmak6yIt's subjective in the sense that when two people disagree about morals, there is no objective truth of the matter that could be determined empirically and settle the dispute, outside any formal ethical system they may use. It's as subjective as goals and values. Objectively I have goal X, but the goal is mine own, so it's subjective in that sense.
2VoiceOfRa6yIn particular, it's not objective in the sense that physics or mathematics is.
1Good_Burning_Plastic6yWhy would members of group X want to subscribe to such a social contract? For example, let X = "everybody except DanAmark"...
1VoiceOfRa6yWhy would murderers what to subscribe to the "no murder" social contract? The whole point of having objective ethics (in any sense worth the name) is that it applies to people whether they want it to or not. Edit: Just saw this, did you add it? How about let X be some minority for which we can come up with a plausible reason to hate them.
2DanArmak6yGame-theoretically, because it's usually better to forgo killing your enemies in exchange for not being killed yourself, unless you're in a position of relative power. Evolutionarily, because we're executing the adaptation of not murdering members of the in-group without a valid reason our friends would accept, and modern culture is conductive to very large in-groups. Your question also mixes up things a bit. Being a murderer is not a personal quality, it's a fact about a past action. A person who subscribes to the "no murder" contract doesn't murder, so they aren't a murderer. A murderer obviously found a reason not to subscribe to the contract, although they may want to re-subscribe to it, may regret their actions, may find excuses, etc. Similarly, the whole point of having an objective religion is that God judges people whether they want Him to or not. But this isn't an argument for such a God in fact existing. Ethics is always consensual. What does it mean to say that a theory of ethics "applies" to me if I don't believe in it and don't act accordingly? What objective test will reveal a theory of ethics to be true, if no person in the world believes in it?
2Good_Burning_Plastic6yWell, if you use a rigid-designator based definition of "ethical" like e.g. EY does, then "murder is not ethical, even when committed by a pebblesorter []" is like "a nine-pebble heap does not contain a prime number of pebbles, even when made by a human" -- they are both technically true, but (in absence of enforcement systems using ethics or primality as their Schelling points) not particularly useful for either predicting or affecting pebblesorters' or humans' actions respectively.
0DanArmak6yI've always felt that EY's wording ends up using words like "ethical" and "objective" in a different sense from most everyone else, which invariably confuses discussions more than it helps. The sentence "murder is not ethical, even when committed by a pebblesorter" has two implicit assumptions. First, that "ethical" means "human!ethical", which causes confusion because other people (not just me) would naively read the sentence as a claim of moral realism, which is a different thing. And secondly, that "human!ethics" is a nontrivial set that contains such statements as "do not murder" - which is effectively a claim that all possible human cultures in the past or future (a hugely varied set!) share much the same ethics, or else that people who don't are "not human". I disagree with this empirical claim, and find the latter normative one pointless.
0VoiceOfRa6yHow's this distinction relevant here. So if I don't consent to your no murder rule, it doesn't apply to me and I can murder whoever I want?
2Good_Burning_Plastic6yYes, though the police "can" arrest you after you do so, people "can" stop associating with you once you've announced you don't consent to that rule, and so on.
0Lumifer6ySure. Such people are called "outside of the law" and the usual approach is to kill them first.
0VoiceOfRa6yWould you apply the same to logic to the social contract I mentioned here [] ?
0Lumifer6yDo you have something specific in mind? Generally speaking, yes, I would.
0VoiceOfRa6ySay we're talking about Nazi Germany so it's required to report Jews. If someone refuses to follow the rule does that make him an outlaw? Would you say he should follow the law? If he doesn't, in what sense is he different from my "I can murder whoever I want" example?
3Lumifer6yYes, of course. Not sure why my personal opinion is relevant, but he has the option of following the law or not. At sufficiently high levels of abstraction he is not different. Once you descend to breathable altitudes, other interesting concepts like "harm" and "autonomy" come into play.
-1DanArmak6yYou say, "why would murderers subscribe to the no-murder social contract"? I reply, this is tautological: to call them murderers means they have murdered; at the time they did so, they did not follow the contract. A better question is why would anyone subscribe to the contract (which I answered), and why would anyone choose not to subscribe, and murder someone. By consensual I mean that a person only follows an ethical or moral rule if they choose to. Morality and ethics involves choices and decisions. True laws of nature or of mathematics are amoral. I, like others, hold that it's wrong for everyone to murder, and I act accordingly. You can decide differently and murder whoever you want: this is a fact of physics, not of morality. (Up to determinism, imperfect knowledge, etc.)
1VoiceOfRa6yA person also only believes in something if they choose to. Nevertheless, someone who chooses to believe that 2+2=3 is objectively wrong. Would you say the same thing about someone who chooses not to consent to the no murder rule?
1DanArmak6yNo, I wouldn't. 2+2=3 is a statement based on explicit shared assumptions (definitions, axioms), so there's a sense in which it's objectively wrong independent of whoever makes it. Not murdering is not an empirical or mathematical statement; it is a description or prescription of behavior. The only objective way to be wrong about it is to say "DanArmak doesn't consent to the no-murder rule"; that is objectively wrong. The rule itself isn't right or wrong any more than any other goal or value. Similarly, preferring a trip to the sea instead of climbing mountains isn't objectively right or wrong; it can only be wrong in respect to someone's goals, values, etc.
0VoiceOfRa6ySo you don't believe in any concept of the normative independent of individual subjective preferences?
5DanArmak6yI don't, and I feel I might not even understand the question or the position of those who disagree with me. There's no way I could "believe" in such a concept; it's not an empirical or mathematical claim which could turn out to be true. What kind of evidence would you count for or against such a concept? Normative rules or preferences "exist" in the same way that values do. For instance, "don't murder" is a normative preference. "Maximize the number of paperclips" is another. Neither of them has any special or privileged status of itself. No normative preference is inherently special or interesting or "true". We're only interested in the normative preferences we happen to hold, and hold in common with other people. This disagreement (or possibly misunderstanding) feels like it might be a kind of joy in the merely real []. I realize there are no objectively true ethics or morals, but that doesn't mean I believe my own ethics and morals any less strongly than the average human, or that they are extremely unusual.
-2Lumifer6yNo, it's not a critique of cultural relativism. It's an observation that I don't know where the boundary is and that your "normative offense" can be gamed by picking a suitable position on the small-group - large-group spectrum. You assume that everyone agrees on which offenses are "normative". That is not the case.
1VoiceOfRa6yNot everyone agrees on what things are true either. That doesn't mean truth doesn't exist.
0casebash6yThis exact critique is used against single-level (standard) cultural relativism. My analysis is agnostic between objective morality and single-level cultural relativism. It doesn't cover multi-level cultural relativism. That said, it handles this case fairly well. If someone wants to argue that something is family-level offensive or country-level offensive, they can't just equate this with being individual-level offensive. Echoing VoiceOfRa, none of my analysis is contingent on people agreeing which offenses are normative. If you disagree, I'd love to know which part depends on this assumption.
0Lumifer6yIf there is no established standard, I can equate anything with anything. What's going to stop me from calling my personal offense "normative"? I'm sure there are some people somewhere who will be just as offended as I am. Of course it is. If people do not agree on which offenses are normative, the word "normative" loses its meaning and becomes nothing more than "I want some support for being offended so I'll call the offense 'normative' ". The whole concept of "normative offenses" relies on a large number of people agreeing that the behavior in question is, indeed, offensive. And by the way, I'm still interested: 20 goats for a bride, offensive or not?
0casebash6yI was merely explaining that my analysis was robust enough to be applied within a multi-level relativism framework. However, in retrospect, that does not appear to be the framework that you are using. What conception of morality are you critiquing my analysis from?
0Lumifer6yRelative. If you accept objective morality then the point becomes moot -- there is no "normative" or "subjective", there is just right and wrong. How about them goats?
0casebash6yWell, as we're currently assuming a relativist framework, I'd say not offensive within certain cultural contexts. "Normative" doesn't mean "globally normative" here. It can also mean "culturally normative". Cultures don't just take positions on object-level positions, they also take meta-level positions that can be used to justify these object-level positions.
0Lumifer6ySo, did we already reach the point where it's all relative and culture-dependent, and subculture-relevant, etc. and the difference between normative offense and subjective offense disappears into indistinguishability? :-)
0casebash6yI was using subjectively offensive to mean personally offensive; that is subjectively offensive relative to a person. Normatively offensive here means offensive relative to a group. So they are distinct. Does this clear it up? I'm getting quite confused here: are you a cultural relativist or do you believe that morality is individual?
0Lumifer6yI don't fit into pigeonholes well :-)
0VoiceOfRa6yExcept most people claiming offense are capable of finding or defining some group in whose name to claim offense.

Like if a 20 year old wanted to criticise a 40 year old for being normatively creepy for asking them out, they’d have to argue that they have broken some social or moral rule like, “Don’t ask someone out half your age”.

I think the related social rule is that you only ask out people who have given signals that indicate that they might be interested.

0casebash6yMaybe there were signals, but they were just friendly signals. Regardless, this isn't relevant to the question. You're ignoring the hypothetical.
2ChristianKl6yI'm not really. Being creepy isn't about violating a straightforward rule such as that 40 year olds shouldn't ask out 20 year olds. It's about not reading the signals in an interaction and as a result having a bad model of the other person and engaging in actions that make them uncomfortable as a result. A person purposefully sending friendly signals might still say no when asked out, but they generally don't get creeped out.
-2VoiceOfRa6yCan you give a description of these signals and which signals imply what? Without that, this rule is so vague as to be useless.
4ChristianKl6yNo, it's not. If you get repeatibly the result that you creep out woman then you are by definition bad at reading the signals that lead up to doing something that creeps out the woman. You calibrate your results based on empiric reality and not on what you read online about what certain signals mean. If you frequently freak out woman with asking them out then you reduce the intensity of what you ask women. You might instead ask a woman whether she has a boyfriend. Not calibrating based on empiric reality but based on trying to guess based on rules that you read online is bad. If the empiric reality is that your actions creep out women than you change your actions instead of trying to rationalize your behavior with saying that you didn't violate a clear social rule.
-2VoiceOfRa6ySo your actual rule is, "people who are bad at reading subtle signals should never ask women out"? If there existed signals that were reliable indicators, you'd expect numerous people to have posted them online. The fact that you have to explicitly disclaim them is evidence that such signals don't really exist, or are unreliable. Here's another theory, a woman freaking out has more to do with how you ask and who's doing the asking, specifically whether you are perceived as a high status "alpha", a low status "gamma", or somewhere in between. In particular "If you frequently freak out woman with asking them out then you reduce the intensity of what you ask women" is horrible advise since it will make you be perceived as lower status.
4gjm6yThat isn't "another theory", because what ChristianKI was saying wasn't a theory about what determines whether people freak out when approached (but yours is), and it was a theory about how to adjust your expectations concerning freakouts (but yours isn't). How frequently you make romantic/sexual overtures to women (and how "intense" they are) is not a thing that others can readily observe unless they're with you all the time, and making such overtures and getting turned down flat because you creep the women out is ... not obviously higher-status-looking than leaving them alone. Even if it turns out that making such overtures, freaking their recipient out, and getting turned down flat is a small overall status gain for you, it still doesn't follow that you should do it -- unless you simply don't care about the women involved except as pawns in your status game. I would guess that being freaked out is an unpleasant experience for most women, and that consequently not freaking women out is a goal for most not-perfectly-selfish men. (It won't and shouldn't be the only goal, of course.)
0VoiceOfRa6yHow intense a romantic overtone is can be readily observed while it is being made.
0gjm6yYes, but unless your associates are following you around all the time and looking over your shoulder whenever you talk to a woman, none of them is going to see enough examples to get much idea of exactly what you're doing.
2ChristianKl6yThe question is not "what should people do" but "what is being creepy about". Being creepy is quite often about not being good at understanding other people and acting badly as a result. If you are bad at reading subtle sign the straightforward way is to learn to get better at it. For that it's helpful to do bodywork and train to perceive was your own body is doing. It's also helpful to go to workshops with people who give you honest and direct feedback. Even textbook PUA has it's compliance tests to get information about whether a woman is likely to say 'yes'.
2ChristianKl6yIf you frequently get turned down in a way that freaks out the woman, that means that you have a lower status. If the woman then tells other people about how you are creepy you will lose a lot more status. On the other hand asking a woman whether she has is single is in many cases not inherently a low status move. Various forms of flirting are no low status moves. Even if don't really care about the woman, when a male friends acts in a very uncalibrated way and asks a woman out in a way that freaks her out, he loses status in my eyes. The same is not true with male friends who are calibrated and flirt in a way that the woman could turn down.
0ChristianKl6yOnly if the signals could be written down in a straightforward way. Any article would give you system II knowledge while the important skill is a system I skill.
0VoiceOfRa6yAnd yet, you're sure that the signals exist and they're reliable indicators.
0ChristianKl6yQuite a lot of signal reading I do on a daily basis are system one skills. It's quite hard to give someone a step by step process to feel his own heartbeat. At the same time it's an ability that you can reliably develop if you spend enough time meditating.
0username26yIt's so funny when people try to invoke canine social structure to predict how modern human courtship will play out. If a man asks a woman out in the forest and there is nobody around to ascribe status to him, can the woman still form judgments as to his attractiveness?

The Law has some answers for when human relations fail. It might ask: "Would a Reasonable Person find the e-mail offensive?"

-2Lumifer6ySo tell me about Charlie Hebdo.
2WhyAsk6yWhat specifically would you like to know?
-2Lumifer6yYou said What are the answers for the cartoons which Charlie Hebdo published?
4WhyAsk6yA reasonable person might say that a group being ridiculed deserved that ridicule for a number of reasons, or that the ridiculer is off base. So, two "no answers", two different reasons. Most people or groups don't "know themselves" so outside information about yourself or the entity that you belong to is almost always valuable.

Unfortunately the only opinions you're gonna get on what should be instituted as a norm are subjective ones. So... Take the average? What if not everyone thinks that's a good idea? Etc, etc, it's basically the same problem as all of ethics.

Drawing that distinction between normative and subjective offensiveness still seems useful.

[-][anonymous]6y 0

Was there a specific incident that motivated this post? I'm having trouble without any examples of seeing a case that's unambigously normative vs. subjective... It seems like what's normative in one small subculture is subjective in another.

0casebash6yThis is based off a discussion that happened in the LessWrong SlackChat. I can't remember the specific article I saw that started this conversation, but I'll provide examples here. Example of normatively offensive: Mein Kampf (the book Hitler wrote about Nazi ideology) is a pretty unambiguous example Example of only subjectively offensive: The Mets example given in the main post. These terms aren't exclusive, indeed, people will generally find the normatively offensive to be subjectively offensive. Whether or not normative offensiveness can be defined objectively or only in a manner that is culture bound isn't crucial to this analysis. The point is that additional work is required to move from being subjectively offended to being normatively offended.
-2[anonymous]6yI don't think the distinction you're making is all that useful in the contexts you're trying to use it. I think most examples of what you're calling "subjective offensiveness" just normative defensiveness from a different culture. I can't think of anybody I know who has a completely different sensibility for what offends them than what their culture imparted. There are certainly people who are more or less sensitive to these norms... but offensiveness seems to be almost an exclusively normative phenomenon to me.
-2casebash6yPeople argue about what is and isn't offensive all the time. One of the most common arguments is, "I (or my subgroup) was offended, therefore it is offensive". People don't state it that, obviously, but that is how they operate.
-1Lumifer6ySure, but it's really arguments about status and power.
-2[anonymous]6yHmmm, so was the point of the post to say "there's no such thing as objective offensiveness"? I would agree with that, but I disagree with the "subjective/normative" distinction... it seems like almost all offensiveness is both. Saying "this is offensive to my subgroup" is obviously normatively offensive within that subgroup, and subjectively offensive within the group where people are saying "that's not offensive".
-2casebash6yNo, the point was to simply argue that people often leave out the important step of going from them being subjectively offended to them having a right to act as though the comment was objectively offensive. Here's another example. Suppose I'm a grammar Nazi, and someone uses where instead of we're. I might be personally (or subjectively offended), but that wasn't objectively offensive. If I wrote a long angry rant at that person, most people would think that I was in the wrong.
0Dagon6yI'm confused by the phrase: What right is this? What specific act is allowed in reaction to "objectively offensive" communications that's not allowed for "subjectively offensive"?
-2casebash6yIf something is objectively offensive, you have much more of a right to shout at them and demand an apology, while if it is only subjectively offensive, people will often think you should grin and bear it.
-2Dagon6yHmm. that's not a right I recognize. This doesn't sound like objective vs subjective, but rather "which groups support the victim and which support the offender". It's all subjective, but an excuse to practice in/out group politics.
0casebash6ySuppose a really ugly person walks into the room and people start heckling them purely based on their physical characteristics. Doesn't the person who is being harassed have a right to respond strongly to being treated horribly? This is because the harassers are acting offensively.
-1Dagon6yIf someone walks into a room and others heckle them, the heckling victim has a right to react (sometimes by leaving, sometimes by calling police, sometimes by changing to better fit the social norm in that room). Those choices don't indicate anything about what type of offensiveness the hecklers or the heckle victim have committed. Those choices only indicate who has power and what various groups of humans are willing to encourage or punish. There's nothing objective involved. Flip it around. An unpopular person walks into a room, gets heckled, and apologizes and leaves. Was the unpopular person objectively offensive in injecting themselves where they weren't wanted? I say no.
-2[anonymous]6yUnless of course you're an English teacher at a grammar convention. Correct me if I'm wrong but to rephrase your point (which I now think I get) - You have the right to be offended at anything, but you can't complain about it if that offense is within the norms of the groups where you feel offended. So your point about "normative" offensive wasn't "absolute normative offensiveness" but "normative in the context of where you were offended".
-2casebash6yMy argument was agnostic to the relativism debate. Regardless of whether you are considering an "absolute normative offensiveness" or a contextual normative offensiveness, this will typically differ in certain cases from one's own personal, subjective standard of offensiveness.

The very word "offensive" asks to be interpreted subjectively, therefore it is not very good for anything that is supposed to not be subjective. People do use etymologies to determine what words mean and derive "offensiveness" from "taking offense" which is inherently subjective. There are other words that are much better for these cases, for example, "impolite" covers mostly the same territory as "normative offensiveness" and it also nudges people to think about exactly which social norms, which norms of p... (read more)

0casebash6yI agree that a rationalist taboo [] would also work. But you can't always rely on people being willing to taboo their words. It is also best to avoid infer that someone is doing something majorly wrong. By arguing, "You've proven offensive-1, but you need do extra work to prove offensive-2" we allow people to save more face. What's nice is that instead of trying to get someone to retreat from their previously held position, you've extended the goal so that the onus is on them to find a way to bridge the gap. I need to do more experimentation with both techniques though, to determine which one is more effective.