Insults, free speech and offensiveness

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    This article examines what is wrong with some expressive acts, ‘insults’. Their putative wrongfulness is distinguished from the causing of indirect harms, aggregated harms, contextual harms, and damaging misrepresentations. The article clarifies what insults are, making use of work by Neu and Austin, and argues that their wrongfulness cannot lie in the hurt that is caused to those at whom such acts are directed. Rather it must lie in what they seek to do, namely to denigrate the other. The causing of offence is at most evidence that an insult has been communicated; it is not independent grounds of proscription or constraint. The victim of an insult may know that she has been insulted but not accept or agree with the insult, and thereby submit to the insulter. Hence insults need not, as Waldron argues they do, occasion dignitary harms. They do not of themselves subvert their victims' equal moral status. The claim that hateful speech endorses inequality should not be conflated with a claim that such speech directly subverts equality.

    Thus, ‘wounding words’ should not unduly trouble the liberal defender of free speech either on the grounds of preventing offence or on those of avoiding dignitary harms.


    Original languageEnglish
    Number of pages15
    Pages (from-to)127-141
    JournalJournal of Applied Philosophy
    Journal publication date01 May 2014
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - 01 May 2014

    ID: 13101055