Res Publica

, Volume 17, Issue 1, pp 75–90

Religious Belief and Freedom of Expression: Is Offensiveness Really the Issue?


    • School of Geography, Politics and SociologyNewcastle University

DOI: 10.1007/s11158-011-9144-4

Cite this article as:
Jones, P. Res Publica (2011) 17: 75. doi:10.1007/s11158-011-9144-4


An objection frequently brought against critical or satirical expressions, especially when these target religions, is that they are ‘offensive’. In this article, I indicate why the existence of diverse and conflicting beliefs gives people an incentive to formulate their complaints in the language of offence. But I also cast doubt on whether people, in saying they are offended really mean to present that as the foundation of their complaint and, if they do, whether their complaint should weigh with us. These doubts do not apply to everything we might find offensive; in particular, they do not apply to simple cases of ‘sensory offence’; but they do apply to ‘belief-based offence’. Relying on offence also implies, inequitably, that different faiths should be differently protected depending on their susceptibility to offence; and the faithful themselves should worry about the flimsiness of claims based on ‘bare knowledge’ offence. I propose a principle of respect for beliefs as a differently grounded and more plausible reason for curbing our treatment of others’ beliefs. However, that principle has a limited compass and is hemmed in by the claims of free expression. It is also less suited to dictating the content of law than to influencing our conduct within the law.


Freedom of speechFreedom of expressionOffenceOffensivenessRespectRespect for beliefsDanish cartoonsJerry Springer: the Opera

My interest in this paper is in the offence that people feel, or claim to feel, when their beliefs are criticised or ridiculed and that they offer as a reason why others should desist from criticism and ridicule. My main interest is not so much in the large question of whether, all things considered, we should or should not criticise or ridicule others’ beliefs. Rather my concern is more specific: if there is good reason for not attacking, or for curbing the way in which we attack, a belief, does that ‘good reason’ consist in not causing offence to those who hold the belief?

The issue is well illustrated by the furore over a series of cartoons, caricaturing Mohammed, that came to a climax during February 2006. The cartoons were originally published by the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, on 30 September 2005, but it was only some months later that the controversy sparked by their publication became global in scope. The general features of that controversy are well known and I shall not recount them here.1 That affair was only one of a number of recent controversies that have raised much the same issues. Other prominent examples have been the controversies surrounding Jerry Springer: the Opera, Behzti (the play by a young Sikh woman, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, staged in Birmingham that upset other Sikhs), Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, and, of course, casting its long shadow over all of these, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. The Pope was the unlikely cause of a further episode when, during a lecture delivered at the University of Regensburg in September 2006, he quoted a fourteenth century Byzantine emperor, Manual II Paleologus, saying that the new things that Mohammed had brought to the world were ‘only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached’. Shortly afterwards, the Berlin Opera cancelled its production of Mozart’s Idomeneo, fearing the reaction of Muslims to a scene in which the King of Crete severed and held aloft the head of Mohammed along with those of Jesus, Buddha and Poseidon.

One issue raised by these cases is how they bear upon the proper content of law. Should law protect people from offence to which they are susceptible because of their beliefs? However, the larger question they raise is what constitutes acceptable conduct in the public domain. Public conduct that the law permits is still conduct that is open to critical appraisal and, nowadays, social norms governing acceptable expression are likely to be at least as significant as the letter of law.

I shall question the relevance of offence for cases such as the Danish cartoons. But my doing so does not imply that those who complained had nothing to complain about; rather it casts doubt on whether offence constitutes the proper ground of their complaint.

Offence and Belief

Why is offensiveness so readily cited as an objection to assaults upon people’s beliefs? The obvious answer is that people evidently dislike and object to attacks upon their beliefs. If we take the cases I have just cited, that is all too evident in the reactions they evoked. But the invocation of ‘offence’ in relation to beliefs is explained by more than just that. Consider the Danish cartoons again. If I am a Christian or an atheist, how can I recognise that the authors of the cartoons were wrong to draw them and that others were wrong to publish them? That cannot be because I agree with Muslims that the artists and the publishers wronged God’s Prophet, because I do not accept that Mohammed was God’s Prophet. If I am a Christian, I must regard Mohammed as a false prophet and, if I am an atheist, I must reject the very idea that anyone is, or has been, or might be, God’s prophet.

What I can recognise, however, is the offence caused to Muslims by the cartoons. I can also recognise that offence as a negative experience that, other things being equal, it is undesirable that anyone should suffer. Thus, even though I do not myself subscribe to Islam, I can still recognise the badness of the impact of the cartoons upon Muslims. Muslims can, in the same fashion, recognise and regret the offence caused to Christians, Jews or Hindus by assaults upon sacred aspects of their faiths. Thus, offensiveness can function as a common denominator amongst people who hold different and conflicting beliefs. Each group may reject the beliefs of others, but each can nevertheless recognise and deprecate the offence that another group suffers when its false but cherished beliefs are attacked. Each group can also recognise that the badness of causing offence gives it reason not to attack the beliefs of others, and gives others reason not to attack its beliefs.

The readiness with which people now register complaints of offence may be impelled by more than the logic I have just described. Sometimes it may be explained by embarrassment. In a context of diverse beliefs and cultures, people are often reluctant to insist upon the rightness and superior wisdom of their own beliefs. Such insistence, they fear, might seem arrogant and at odds with the equal status that they should accord others who think differently. One way in which they can avoid the embarrassment of seeming arrogant and disrespectful is to subjectivise their complaint. If they complain only that others’ conduct has offended them, they avoid asserting that their uniquely right beliefs should count for more than the benighted beliefs of others. They simply make a statement about themselves. They report only that the conduct of others has caused them to undergo a disagreeable experience. They are then able to offer the authors of the objectionable conduct a reason to desist from that conduct while avoiding questions concerning the status of the beliefs at issue. To that extent, there is an association between the relativism that people often feel impelled to concede in a context of diversity, and their readiness to formulate their complaints in the subjectively-oriented language of offence.

Use of the language of offence in relation to religious beliefs therefore depends for much of its appeal upon a distinction between the experience of offence and the beliefs upon which that experience depends. Generally, in a society characterised by different and conflicting beliefs, especially different and conflicting religious beliefs, people will find it unacceptable that beliefs should be imposed upon them that they do not share. Moreover, in so far as they regard others’ beliefs as false, they will lack reason to give weight to those beliefs. But the reality and unpleasantness of offence can be distinguished from the truth of the beliefs upon which it depends. We therefore have reason to take account of belief-based offence, even though we reject the beliefs upon which it is based. Muslims may complain about the wrongness of the cartoons rather than about the offence that the cartoons cause them to feel. But non-Muslims can and should take account of the offence that Muslims feel rather than the wrongness of which Muslims complain.

Four Paths not Taken

My main purpose in this article is to challenge the position that I have just described. However, there are a number of ways in which the relevance or significance of offence can be challenged upon which my own argument will not depend.
  1. 1.

    Perhaps the most common reason given for setting aside complaints of offence is that offence is too slight and trivial an experience to ground a claim that it should be taken seriously. Thus, for example, those who embrace the harm principle often exclude offence from its ambit because it is too slight an injury to count as harm. That is not an objection upon which I shall rely. There is clearly an element of arbitrariness about the tightness or generosity with which we define ‘harm’ and the issue of whether offence should figure in our moral and legal calculations should not be settled by mere definition. Offence is, by its very nature, disutile and that seems to provide good prima facie reason for its figuring in our assessment of what we should and should not do. It is true, of course, that the slightness of offence means that it will be frequently outweighed by competing considerations, especially in the area of speech and expression. But to say that offence will be frequently outweighed is not to say that it has or should have no weight at all.

  2. 2.

    A second possible objection to giving weight to offence is that, although we may be able to separate offence from beliefs, the practical effect of responding to offence will be just the same as imposing beliefs. Islam will offend Christians and Christianity will offend Muslims. If we respond to the offence of each, we shall find ourselves vetoing Christianity for the sake of Muslims, and Islam for the sake of Christians. So, while we may be able to distinguish offended sensibilities from the beliefs upon which they are based, the practical effect of preventing offence is likely to be no different from privileging and imposing the beliefs of the offended. On this issue, I would bet with J. S. Mill: ‘there is no parity between the feeling of a person for his own opinion and the feeling of another who is offended at his holding it, no more than between the desire of a thief to take a purse, and the desire of the right owner to keep it’ (1974, p. 151). The interest that Christians and Muslims have in being free to pursue their own faiths outweighs any interest they have in vetoing one another’s faiths. It is unlikely to be true therefore that, if we take account of offence, we shall find ourselves instituting exactly the same measures as if we were imposing beliefs.

  3. 3.

    But there is another, more fundamental, way in which the attempt to separate offence from belief might be challenged. Are the offended feelings that we experience when we witness wrongful conduct separable from the belief that generates those feelings? Is not our propensity to experience those feelings integral to our believing that the relevant conduct is wrong? Can we believe a particular act to be wrong and yet remain utterly unmoved by it, utterly bereft of any feeling of distress, anger or indignation? If not, it might be suggested that a belief and the feelings of offence associated with it are really parts of a single whole. We cannot treat them as separable phenomena such that we can take account of one but not the other. To recognise and to give weight to belief-based offence is to recognise and give weight to the belief that is integral to that offence (Ellis 1984).

    Contrary to these claims, it does seem both possible and reasonable to distinguish the disagreeable experience caused by the contravention of a belief from the belief itself. The thinking behind giving significance to offence seems to be essentially utilitarian in character. Putting it crudely, offence is bad because it is unpleasant, and the more unpleasant it feels the worse it is. That is not to say that only comprehensive utilitarians can give significance to offence. It is to say only that, in so far as we take account of offence in the sorts of context that are my concern, we do so because of its disutile character. If, when people’s beliefs are attacked or contravened, they experience hurt or pain or distress, it is the disutility, the painfulness, the disagreeable nature, of that experience that makes offence a relevant consideration. We can therefore give weight to the disutility people experience because of the beliefs they hold, even though we give no weight to their beliefs as truth-claims.

  4. 4.

    A more compelling claim is that we should subject claims of offence to a test of reasonableness. People take offence as well as give it and we can ask therefore whether they reasonably take offence—which is to ask whether they have good or adequate reason to be offended. If someone takes offence unreasonably, we may think their offence has no claim to be taken seriously, even though we do not doubt the reality and the unpleasantness of the offence they feel.

    Two tests of reasonableness are potentially relevant to belief-based offence:
    1. (a)

      Given that I believe x, is it reasonable for me to be offended by y, and reasonable that I should be offended by y to the extent that I am or claim to be?

    2. (b)

      Is my belief in x reasonable? If it is not, do others have reason to take my offence seriously? Arguably, belief-based offence should not count if the belief upon which it depends is unreasonable.


    Since one person’s offence is not readily accessible to another, we may often need to use test (a) to gauge the reality and degree of offence that we can suppose a person actually feels, rather than merely as a test of the offence they have good reason to feel. In other words, we may need to use it as an empirical, or a presumptively empirical, test as well as an evaluative one. The appeal of test (b) is tempered by its obviously problematic character: where people have different and conflicting beliefs, they are likely to have different and conflicting views on what constitutes a reasonable belief. Use of the test may therefore mean that offence ceases to be a common denominator for those who hold different and conflicting beliefs.

    The appeal to reasonableness gets closer to my concerns since it begins to shift the focus towards the reason for the claimed offence. Nevertheless, an appeal to the idea of reasonable offence still supposes that offence provides the burden of the argument. It is still offence that lends weight to the claim, even though that will be only offence that passes a test of reasonableness.


Two Basic Features of Offence

For my purposes, two elementary features of offence are particularly significant. First, it constitutes a negative experience. To experience offence is to suffer a disutility. It is only because and insofar as offence is a ‘bad’ that it has any claim to be factored into our moral and legal thinking. That is not to say that offence need always be bad all things considered. If I challenge your beliefs robustly, I may cause you offence but I may also cause you to rethink your beliefs and to develop different, more soundly based, beliefs. In that case, we might both accept that the offence was a price worth paying. But that is consistent with holding that offence itself should rank as a negative and, other things being equal, ought to be avoided.

Secondly, offence describes a mental state. To be offended is to undergo not just a negative experience but also a negative experience. In that sense, offence is a subjective phenomenon. Typically, we say that it is a person’s feelings or sensibilities that are offended. We sometimes speak as though the offensive character of an act has a more objective quality. So, for example, rather than saying that x ‘offends me’, I might say that x ‘is offensive’, which may suggest that ‘offensiveness’ describes a property of x itself rather than the effect x has on me. That is a very natural phraseology to use given that the members of a community are likely to be offended by the same things. Because they have shared reactions, any particular member of the community can say, ‘x is offensive’ rather than ‘x offends me’. Indeed, the fact that the generality of people are offended by x may enable me to say, ‘x is offensive’, even though I myself do not actually experience x as offensive. But there is still here an essential reference to a mental state—the mental state that x induces in most people or in the typical person.

Of course, people are not always precise in their use of language and they may, on occasion, use ‘offensive’ simply to mean ‘wrong’. So, for example, if I describe a colleague’s machiavellian conduct as ‘offensive’, I might mean only that it is wrong and unacceptable—and wrong and unacceptable not because it causes me or others offence but wrong and unacceptable as such. As the language of offence has become more ubiquitous, so it seems people have become more inclined to use ‘offensive’ to mean ‘wrong’. I want to resist that extended usage because it confuses two quite different sorts of claim. In particular, offence cannot function as a common denominator amongst people who have different and conflicting beliefs if it comes to mean precisely the kind of thing over which they differ and disagree.

Types of Offence

‘Offence’, then, describes a negative mental state and the ‘badness’ of being offended consists in the disutile nature of that mental state. I now want to consider how well that conception of offence maps onto the various cases to which the noun ‘offence’ and the adjective ‘offensive’ are commonly applied. In fact, those terms are used in conjunction with a wide variety of conditions.2 Rather than attempt to review all of those here, I shall consider only three broad types of offence: sensory offence, convention-based offence, and belief-based offence.

Sensory Offence

The most uncomplicated instances of offence are those in which our senses are assaulted. Some odours are foul, some sights are unpleasant, and some sounds set our teeth on edge. Often the offence that we experience in these sorts of case seems to be the direct product of a stimulus to our senses that we experience immediately as unpleasant. It is these instances of direct sensory offence that conform most straightforwardly to the conception of offence as a negative experience.

There are, however, instances of sensory offence in which belief plays a mediating role. Joel Feinberg (1985, p. 15) notes that ‘the smell of freshly baked macaroni and cheese smells very little different from that of much human vomit’. Clearly how offensive we find that smell, and perhaps whether we find it offensive at all, is likely to be affected by which of these—macaroni cheese or vomit—we believe ourselves to be smelling. We are likely to find the smell of rotting flesh of any sort unpleasant, but we are likely to find it even more unpleasant if we believe it to be, or know it to be, the odour of rotting human flesh rather than the rotting flesh of some other animal.

Even so, the role of belief in sensory offence is different from its role in what I describe as belief-based offence. In the case of sensory offence, the belief that makes a difference is a belief about what we are experiencing. In the case of belief-based offence, the belief has its effect not merely by making us think that, as matter of fact, something is taking place, but by identifying an act or a state of affairs as wrong. We might mark this difference by distinguishing between ‘belief-informed’ offence and ‘belief-based’ offence. In belief-based cases, it is the perceived wrongness of the conduct that the belief identifies as wrong that is critical to the experience of offence. That is not true of offence that is merely belief-informed, and sensory offence, even when it is belief-informed, continues to map fairly straightforwardly onto the general conception of offence as a negative mental state.

Of course, issues of right and wrong can arise in relation to sensory offence. If I identify your pig farm as the source of the disgusting smell I have to endure, I may complain that you are wrong to engage in a form of farming that imposes a negative externality upon me that significantly diminishes my quality of life. But that alleged wrong is external to the offensiveness of the smell itself: the alleged wrong plays no part in causing me to experience the smell as offensive. Rather it concerns where responsibility lies for the unpleasant experience I undergo. So, for example, whether I can really claim to be a victim of the farmer is likely to be affected by whether I chose to buy a house next to an already-existing pig farm or whether the farmer chose to establish his pig farm next to my already-existing home. But, even if I acknowledge that the farmer is blameless, that will not transform the odour of his pigs’ dung into the smell of sweet violets.

Convention-Based Offence

I use this term to encompass the sorts of offensive conduct normally associated with indecency. The paradigm cases are public nudity, public sex and public defecation. Whether this sort of offence is genuinely distinct from belief-based offence is rather less clear than in cases of sensory offence. First, there is considerable disagreement over whether indecent conduct is objectionable only because it is offensive or because it is thought wrong in a way that is not wholly reducible to its offensiveness. Those who take the latter view usually go on to claim that the capacity of indecent conduct to offend depends upon its being found wrongful (e.g. Simester and von Hirsch 2002). If we adopt that view, we have scope for a further disagreement: is the ‘wrong’ of indecency a wrong of a sort that is the same as, or different from, the wrong that figures in cases of belief-based offence?

Here I shall not attempt to resolve either issue. But it may be that there is no issue to resolve in that different people will object to conventionally indecent acts for different reasons. For some, public sex and public nudity may be objectionable only because they are distasteful or embarrassing. In other words, they are objectionable only because they cause awkward and undesirable mental states in those who, unwillingly, observe them. Amongst those who object to indecent acts as ‘wrong’, some may use that term only in a weak moral sense or perhaps in no moral sense at all. That is, they might concede that indecent conduct contravenes social norms that define conduct that is conventionally ‘proper’ but deny that the relevant ‘right conduct’ is ‘right’ in a more profound sense. They would accept that, if another society has different conventions according to which public nudity and public sex are unexceptionable, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with that society. On that view, the capacity of conventionally indecent conduct to cause awkwardness, embarrassment or other unpleasant reactions—in other words, its capacity to cause offence—can still play a significant part in explaining why people should refrain from indecent conduct. For others, however, indecent conduct might be thought wrong in a more profound sense. Take, for example, the injunction shared by many Muslims that one should present oneself modestly. That has the character of a more deeply based obligation and it does imply that a society is in error if its members see nothing wrong in freely displaying their genitalia. For people who have this deeply moral conception of decency, indecent conduct—if it is characterised in the language of offence—will fall within the category of belief-based offence rather than mere convention-based offence.

Belief-Based Offence

By belief-based offence I mean offence that presupposes and stems from the holding of a belief. In this sort of offence, the fact that an act is perceived as wrongful by the offendees is crucial to their finding it offensive. That was obviously so in the case of the Danish cartoons. Clearly, in the eyes of Muslims, the artists who drew the cartoons of Mohammed, and the newspaper editors who published them, were guilty of a wrong. It was that wrong that was the source of the offence they experienced. If what the cartoonists had done had been morally innocent in the eyes of Muslims, their protests would have been unintelligible. The same applies to Christians who objected to the way in which Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was portrayed in Jerry Springer: the Opera.

In the case of this putative form of offence, the principal question I want to ask is whether our focus should really be upon offence. What were Muslims and Christians complaining about? It was not the mental state that they were caused to have by the cartoons or the opera; rather it was the wrongful treatment of a figure sacred to their faith. That might be acknowledged but thought irrelevant. It may be that their offended condition did not matter most, or at all, to Muslims in the case of the cartoons or to Christians in the case of Jerry Springer; but, for reasons I explained earlier, the offence experienced by each might still be others’ proper concern, and properly their only concern. Yet, there is something decidedly odd about that. When a group complains, there is something odd about sidelining what they actually complain about, and attending to something that they do not complain about. But I’ll pass over that for the moment.

I want to dig further into the nature of the offence that Muslims and Christians were supposed to have suffered. What kind of mental state were they caused to undergo?

That is not easy to answer and the answer might have been different for different believers. One set of emotions might have been hurt and distress and those sorts of emotions stay closest to the disutile experience that is crucial to the idea of offence. But another set of emotions that seem to have been even more evident were anger, indignation and outrage. Let’s think of it in those terms. Suppose I feel anger at your conduct. Should your conduct be constrained because it causes me to experience anger?

The first thing to be said about these emotional responses is that anger, indignation and outrage do not fit the simple model of a disutile experience. Is anger painful? Does indignation hurt? Is the experience of outrage like the experience of an unpleasant smell or a disagreeable sight? None of these equivalences seems persuasive. Yet the appeal of offence as a ground of complaint relies on its being disutile, painful, hurtful. Thus, once we starting unpacking the different responses that ‘offence’ or ‘offended’ is used to encompass, we shall find that it is not all of piece and we might want to say very different things about its different variants.

A second point is that the mere fact of my anger is not normally adequate reason for my preventing, or for others preventing, the conduct that makes me angry. At the very least, we would want to distinguish between justified and unjustified anger and to discount the claims of unjustified anger. But that may seem to do little to damage the claims of belief-based offence, since we previously saw that we can distinguish between reasonable and unreasonable offence and give weight only to offence that is reasonable. So, let’s stick with a case of justified anger.

Even in that case, it is not my anger itself that is likely to be the focus of my objection but the act that causes the anger. Suppose I am angry with you because you keep stealing plants from my garden. What matters is not the anger I am caused to feel by your wrongful act but the wrongfulness of the act that that causes me to feel anger. Your wrong consists in what you do, rather than in how your act makes me feel. That applies both for myself as victim and for any third party I might expect to intervene on my behalf. In a similar fashion, if we look to the emotional experience of Muslims and Christians as the proper focus of our concern—their anger, outrage and indignation—we are likely to be looking in the wrong place. We ought to be looking at what they are angry about, rather than at some negative mental state they are allegedly caused to undergo.

My claims here are partly empirical. When people describe irreverent and disrespectful treatments of sacred aspects of their faith as ‘offensive’, they need not be understood as meaning that the wrongness of those irreverent and disrespectful acts consists in their causing an offended mental state. Rather, the description ‘offensive’ can be merely a way of marking an act as wrongful, just as phrases such as ‘it makes me angry’ and ‘it makes me sick’ mark an objection without articulating what that objection is. Indeed, as I noted earlier, the language of offence has become so fashionable and so ubiquitous, that people now sometimes use ‘offensive’ merely as a synonym for ‘wrong’, so that the focus shifts entirely from their mental state to the quality of the act they condemn. But, if we make that shift, ‘offensiveness’ ceases to contribute anything to an explanation of why the act is wrong.

The issue here is, however, not only empirical. It also concerns what constitutes a good reason or any reason at all. If ‘offensive’ retains its meaning of inducing a negative mental state, reporting that I find something offensive is not very different from reporting that I do not like it or that I find it objectionable. In the case of a sensory offence, such as a foul smell, my not liking it or my finding it objectionable may count as a reason against it; indeed, there may be little else that I can say. But in the more complex cases that arise from the interface of belief, action and expression, we are unlikely to accept ‘I don’t like it’ or ‘I find it objectionable’ as a self-sufficient reason. We shall want to know why the objector does not like it or objects to it, and we shall think we have reason to take account of the objector’s complaint only if he gives us a reasonable explanation. If the objector can say no more than ‘I just don’t like it’ or ‘I experience it as objectionable’, that provides us with little or no reason to defer to the objector and to curb our conduct.

Two Further Considerations

That is the primary way in which I want to question the relevance of offence in cases like the Danish cartoons and Jerry Springer, but, before proposing an alternative, I want to mention two rather different points concerning offence that push in the same direction.

Stoicism and Sensitivity

Suppose there are two different religious faiths, A and B. The adherents of faith A have had to get used to living in secular contexts and have become accustomed to criticisms of, and attacks upon, their beliefs including attacks that take a mocking and satirical form. Because they have had to experience those attacks over a long period of time, they have become in some measure inured to them. The adherents of faith B are not, in the same measure, used to that form of criticism and attack. Thus, when the two faiths are attacked in similar fashions, the adherents of faith B become much more upset and protest much more loudly than those of faith A. Does that provide good reason for giving the adherents of faith B greater protection than those of faith A? If our concern is with the offence people experience, with the disutility of the mental state they undergo, it would certainly seem to. Yet surely, if two faiths are attacked in equivalent ways, the adherents of each faith have equal ground for complaint and, if they have equal ground for complaint, that ground must consist in something other than their respective mental states.

‘Bare Knowledge’ Offence and Reasonable Avoidability

Amongst those who take the claims of offence seriously, there is one sort of offence to which even they are reluctant to give much, if any, significance. That is offence caused by ‘bare knowledge’. If, for example, a couple has sex in public such that it is forced on the attention of unwilling observers, we may think that the offence of those observers is both real and reasonable and that it provides good reason for prohibition. Similarly, if someone were to decide to become a latter-day Diogenes of Sinope and to masturbate and defecate in public, we may think that those who have these activities forced upon their attention have reasonable ground for complaint. But suppose now that someone says they are offended by the bare knowledge, or the bare belief, that people are having sex or masturbating or defecating in private, we are likely to regard their claimed offence very differently.

Indeed, there seems to be a widely shared consensus amongst people who write on this subject that bare knowledge offence should be disregarded. Different sorts of reason can be, and have been, given for discounting this sort of offence.
  1. 1.

    Sometimes, the reason is that an act’s being performed in public or in front of unwilling observers is essential to its being offensive, as in the case of public sex and public defecation.

  2. 2.

    Sometimes, it is because those who claim bare knowledge offence are thought to possess abnormal sensibilities and the abnormality of their sensibilities provides reason for discounting them.

  3. 3.

    Sometimes, the empirical conjecture is made that, even when bare knowledge offence is real, it will be too slight, too lacking in intensity, to have any significant claim to our consideration.

  4. 4.

    And sometimes this sort of offence is discounted out of concern for individual liberty. In a well known passage, H. L. A. Hart insisted, ‘To punish people for causing this form of distress [distress occasioned by bare knowledge] would be tantamount to punishing them simply because others object to what they do; and the only liberty that could coexist with this extension of the utilitarian principle is liberty to do those things to which no one seriously objects. Such liberty plainly is quite nugatory’ (1963, p. 47).


But consider now the offence that was at issue in the cartoons case. For the vast majority of the millions of Muslims who protested against the cartoons, that offence was occasioned by ‘bare knowledge’. Certainly, the cartoons were published initially in a Danish newspaper and, subsequently, in newspapers in other European countries. But Muslims in the Middle East, Pakistan and Indonesia were at no risk of confronting the images in those European newspapers. Even in countries in which the cartoons were published, Muslims could easily avoid them by not buying or not reading the newspapers in which they appeared. The cartoons were made available on the internet but, again, they were easily avoided by anyone who wished not to see them. Similarly, Christians who objected to Jerry Springer: the Opera could, without difficulty, have refrained from attending performances of the opera and could easily have avoided it when the opera was screened by the BBC.

So in both of these cases the vast majority of believers either had never seen the source of their offence or, if they had seen it, had sought it out and seen what they could easily have avoided. If they had not seen the cartoons or the opera, their offence was bare knowledge offence, which, if it were to be regarded as bare knowledge offence is normally regarded, would have no claim to be taken seriously. If they had sought out and seen the cartoons or the opera, they had done so wilfully and willingly and, to that extent, were the authors of their own offence and so had no reasonable ground for complaint.

Does that mean that Muslims had no reason to protest about the cartoons—or no reason that could count as a reason for non-Muslims? Were Christian complaints about Jerry Springer so completely lacking in substance? If the yardstick of offence enables us to dismiss their complaints quite so peremptorily, we have reason to reconsider whether it is offence that is only or primarily at stake.

Respecting Beliefs

If offence should not be our primary concern in the treatment we mete out to others’ beliefs, what should? Can we have any other sort of concern for beliefs we do not share? There are, of course considerations such as incitement to hatred, social cohesion and public order, but I want to conclude by briefly considering an alternative that is closer to the concern with offended sensibilities but that is categorically distinct from it: the principle of ‘respect for beliefs’.3 The phrase ‘respect for beliefs’ is really a short-hand way of expressing what is really respect for people as holders of beliefs. It draws upon the general idea of persons as proper objects of respect. That general idea of respecting persons is closely allied to the principle that we should accord them the right to embrace whatever beliefs seem most compelling to them and the right to live their lives in accordance with the beliefs they embrace. The idea of respect for beliefs is, in turn, an extension of that idea. If we take seriously the idea of respecting people as the bearers of beliefs, we have reason, ceteris paribus, not to subject their most cherished beliefs to vilification and ridicule.

Now, even if we accept this idea of respect for beliefs, there is reason to interpret its demands parsimoniously and I shall say something in a moment about how far we should allow it to limit free expression. But, before taking up that issue, I shall indicate how respecting beliefs differs from abstaining from causing offence.

The principal difference is that respecting beliefs is not about causing or avoiding certain mental states in others. It is about treating people in a right or wrong way, and the rightness or wrongness of that treatment turns upon the character of the treatment itself rather upon the mental state it induces in people. Consider the case of insult. An insult is likely to cause offence to the insulted person and we are likely to accept that it is both reasonable and appropriate for the victim to be offended by the insult. But neither the idea of an insult nor its wrongfulness is reducible to the idea of offence. The insult consists in the negative characterisation it presents of the insulted person and its wrongfulness (if it is wrongful) resides in that negative characterisation. Offended feelings are epiphenomena of the insult rather than essential to its being either an insult or wrongful. In the same way, disrespecting someone’s beliefs may cause offence, but we can distinguish the disrespectful character of the act from its capacity to offend and we can locate the wrongness of the act in its disrespectful character rather than in any offence it may or may not occasion.

If we operate with the idea of respect for beliefs, rather than with that of offended sensibilities, we no longer have to suppose that the wrong of treating people’s beliefs disrespectfully consists in their being caused to ‘feel funny inside’ or to undergo some other unpleasant mental state. We do not have to assimilate it to noisome smells or grating sounds, nor even to the embarrassment or distaste caused by public nudity or public sex, or the revulsion caused by public defecation.

In addition, we do not have to worry about the inaccessibility of the offended feelings of others and how we are to determine how offended their feelings really are. Nor do we have to worry about giving people an incentive to pretend to be deeply offended in order to put a stop to something that they actually object to on other grounds.

Respect for beliefs also gives us reason to treat different groups of believers in an even-handed fashion, rather than give greater consideration to some groups simply because they are more susceptible to offence or more readily take offence.

We can appreciate too the irrelevance of whether offence is occasioned by direct witnessing, or by ‘bare knowledge’, of the offending conduct. In general, the wrongfulness of an act is unaffected by whether or not we witness its commission. We have no less reason to deprecate acts of murder, rape and fraud simply because we were not present at the scene when they were committed. If Muslims conceive the caricaturing of Mohammed as wrongful and if Christians conceive the lampooning of Jesus as wrongful, there is no reason why that should weigh with us only if they have directly witnessed, or cannot avoid directly witnessing, those wrongs.

I previously suggested that, when people complain of a wrong rather than of offence stimulated by the wrong, it is odd to ignore what they complain of and to focus on something else. The same observation might be made in relation to respect for beliefs. What concerned Muslims about the Danish cartoons was the wrong done to the Prophet rather than the disrespect for Muslim beliefs manifested by the cartoonists. What concerned Christians about Jerry Springer was the opera’s disrespectful treatment of Jesus rather than of themselves. So, if we focus on respect for beliefs, are we just as removed from the real concerns of believers as if we focus on their offended sensibilities?

In fact, respect for beliefs does seem to have been an immediate concern in the cartoons affair, in that many Muslims saw the cartoons as a calculated act of disrespect, a calculated insult, directed at Muslims themselves (Laegaard 2007b). But let’s put that to one side and suppose that the primary concern of Muslims was the disrespect shown to Mohammed rather than to themselves. Respect for beliefs is still arguably closer than offended sensibilities to that concern. People’s beliefs about what is wrong matter to them because it matters to them that wrong should not be done. We recognise that when we accept that there is something peculiarly bad about compelling people to commit acts that they conscientiously believe to be wrong. Think, for example, of making conscientious objectors fight in wartime, or requiring Christians to denounce Christ, or compelling Muslims to defile the Koran. But it matters to people not merely that they should not do wrong but also that wrong should not be done.

There are, of course, instances of people who seem concerned only that their own hands should be clean. But that exclusive concern with personal purity is narcissistically self-obsessed, deeply unattractive and, for most moralities, thoroughly reprehensible. It is hard to understand how anyone can take the idea of wrongful conduct seriously and be morally oblivious to anything but their own purity. One of the imperatives behind respect for beliefs is recognition that it matters to people not merely that they should not do wrong, but also that there should not be wrong in the world. In that way, respect for beliefs stays close to the concerns of believers themselves.

This turn in my argument will no doubt set off alarm bells, and so it should. If we allow people’s beliefs, particularly their religious beliefs, to dictate not only their own conduct but also the conduct of others, we seem to have a recipe for repression. So let me now make clear that I think we can give only limited weight and scope to the idea of respect for beliefs. The very circumstances that make that idea relevant—a society, or a world, in which there is a plurality of different and conflicting beliefs, religious and irreligious—severely limit what it might justify.

First, in a plural society and a plural world, people’s beliefs are conflicting as well as different. The Christian’s belief is, of necessity, critical of the Muslim’s belief, and the Muslim’s belief is, of necessity, critical of the Christian’s belief. And that will be true across the whole range of beliefs, including atheism and agnosticism. So it would make no sense, in these circumstances, to say that respect for beliefs demands that no-one should criticise or attack anyone else’s belief.

Secondly, there are limits to what we can reasonably describe as disrespectful treatment. If I give serious critical attention to a belief, it is hard to see how that could count as disrespectful to those who hold the belief, even though they may not welcome my critical attention and even though my critique will do much more to undermine their belief than any exercise in ridicule or irreverence.

Thirdly, the panoply of well-known arguments for freedom of expression must weigh very heavily in the balance and against the propensity of ‘respect’ to curtail that freedom. Thus, the scope of the principle of respect for beliefs will be set by considerations external to the principle as well as by those implicit in the principle itself.

Fourthly, even if we concede that there is some force in the idea of respect for beliefs, we might still insist that there are some beliefs that have no claim to be respected. Some beliefs may be so absurd, so depraved, so evil, so outrageous, that they do not deserve our respect; indeed, they may deserve our disrespect. And it is worth noting that those who insist most vehemently on this possibility are likely to include those who hold the strongest and most uncompromising religious beliefs.

The sum of all this is that respect for beliefs is likely to count for most when assaults on people’s beliefs are merely gratuitous, that is when they have no serious purpose or no purpose that justifies their not giving countervailing weight to what matters to others. The difficulty is, of course, that whether an act is merely gratuitous is often disputed between its perpetrators and objectors. Consider the case of the Danish cartoons again. For protesting Muslims, the cartoons did have the character of a gratuitous assault. But for the cartoonists and their publishers, the cartoons were a rejection of self-censorship, a studied assertion that they would not allow themselves to be bullied or intimidated into treating Islam with greater reserve than other systems of belief. In some measure, the reaction to the cartoons made their point for them. However, my concern in this paper has been not to arrive at a verdict on the Danish cartoons or any of the other episodes I have mentioned, but rather to tease out what is and what is not relevant to reaching a verdict in cases of that sort.

The idea of respect for beliefs deserves to be taken seriously, but it is an idea that has to compete with many other important concerns, particularly in the spheres of speech and expression. In practical terms, there is good reason to fight shy of mobilising law on behalf of respect for beliefs. There is too great a risk that that clumsy instrument will silence what ought not to be silenced, and that it will be used for the underhand purposes of opportunist politicians. But I began by saying that our public concerns relate not only to law but also to how we should treat one another as citizens within the law. It is within the law that the idea of respect for beliefs should figure in our calculus of what constitutes acceptable conduct.


For critical discussions of the issues raised by the Danish cartoons that relate to the concerns of this article, see Cram (2009), Keane (2008), Laegaard (2007a, b), Rostbøll (2009). See also the following special journal issues: ‘The Danish cartoon affair: free speech, racism, Islamism and integration’, International Migration, 44/5 (2006); ‘The Mohammed cartoons controversy in comparative perspective’, Ethnicities, 9/3 (2009).


For a lengthy catalogue, see Feinberg (1985, 10–13).


I previously proposed the idea of respect for beliefs in Jones (1990). Here I press the idea somewhat harder.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011