The Journal of Ethics

, Volume 22, Issue 2, pp 113–146 | Cite as


  • J. Angelo CorlettEmail author


This essay provides a critical philosophical assessment of “offensiphobia,” which is the belief that higher educational academic freedom ought to be to some important extent censured because of the mere offensiveness of certain kinds of expressions, whether those expressions are perceived as being racist, sexist, etc., effectively holding that the offensiveness of such expressions is a sufficient condition to justify its prohibition. This paper concisely sets forth the general legal parameters of the United States constitutional First Amendment right to freedom of expression. Subsequently, it follows Joel Feinberg in distinguishing between harms and offenses and explains why the law should only protect against harms and not mere offenses (e.g., language which offends but does not harm). Following this, logical and moral considerations (some based on considerations of philosophy of language) are brought to bear in order to further assess the implicitly supporting view of offensiphobia that faculty and students in higher educational contexts have a claim right to not be offended correlated with a duty of others to not offend them. For example, the use-mention distinction is discussed in order to explain why linguistic intent is crucial for the determination of what genuinely counts as being racist, sexist or otherwise offensive discourse. In the end, there are a variety of reasons for thinking that there is no moral right to not be offended correlated with a moral duty of others to not offend in higher educational contexts and that the law and public policy ought to track this fact. Without a right to not be offended, those who seek to curtail higher educational academic freedom rights by way of censorship stand on unreasonable ethical grounds to do so, though the law seems to permit private institutions to delimit offensive expressions. Offensiphobia ought to be rejected as it is unsupported by the balance of reason.


Academic freedom Censorship Joel Feinberg Freedom of expression Harm versus offense Linguistic intent Offensiphobia Offensive language Racialism versus racism Rights Use-mention distinction 


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.SDSUSan DiegoUSA

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