Moral Harm vs. Sense of Offense

This post relates to my Dec. 27 post in which I introduced the notion of moral harm. Moral harm is the status of the violator of a moral law which results simply by violating the moral law over and above any other consequences of the violation. Here I want to distinguish moral harm from any sense of offense, including guilt, resulting from what we judge to be an immoral act or way of being.
Our moral instincts also include a capacity to feel offended by acts and ways of being.

Our sense of offense is not the kind of moral harm about which I am talking. A sense of offense by itself is not a reliable guide to what is wrong. A moral instinct gives rise to the sense of offense and the normative thought that the act is wrong. The normative thought tells us what the moral harm is. The moral harm is acting contrary to the norm expressed in the instinct. The sense of offense provides a stimulus to think more carefully about what if anything is wrong. However, the sense of offense is not the harm because the sense of offense may diminish after repeated exposure to the wrong act while the instinctive judgment of wrong remains. The harm is derived from the judgment of wrong. An example illustrates distinguishing moral harm from moral offense.

The Target corporation has a “gay friendly” employment policy. Such a policy offends me but after due thought and deliberation I judge it to be morally permissible. Once when I was returning a defective camera the appearance of the courteous and competent young man who served me at a Target service desk highly offended me. Lip-stick and pinkish red fingernails made me avoid eye contact. Still, I do not think that his dressing as he did was immoral. I did not judge hastily by assigning high probability to a suspicion that he engaged in homosexual acts when off-duty. I judge that those acts are morally wrong. The moral judgment flashed through my mind without any sense of offense. Perhaps if I had to witness some of those acts, I would have a sense of offense. However, if I happen to witness the paradigmatically morally proper sexual intercourse of a recently married young couple, I might feel offended or negatively disturbed in some hard to describe way.


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