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Emily McTernan (UCL): “Taking offence: An emotion reconsidered”

22 January, 4:30 pm6:00 pm

Abstract: A stranger in the pub bumps into you spilling your drink everywhere, and then doesn’t apologise, or someone pushes you out of the way to grab a seat on the train. A colleague makes a dismissive remark about your work in front of your boss. A man cat-calls a woman on the street, or wears a T-shirt declaring, ‘keep calm, watch lesbians’. One reaction to slights like these is to take offence. Philosophers have said a great deal about causing offence, especially whether we should punish or prevent it — but less about what is to take offence, let alone whether we should take offence, or within what limits we should do so. Hitherto the focus of moral and legal philosophy has tended to be the offender, not the offended.

In this talk, I offer an analysis of what it is to take offence and what doing so is like. On this analysis, a more nuanced, even positive appraisal of this emotion becomes possible, as compared to its popular reputation. First, then, I survey the shortfalls of the limited amount that philosophers have said about taking offence and offer my alternative account. Second, I distinguish offence from nearby other-condemning emotions, of anger, disgust, and contempt. Third, I turn to the implications for not only for how we conceptualise offence but what we think about those who take it. On my account, offence tends to be a smaller-scale and more everyday emotion than those who make claims about its threats to society suppose. While offence may appear excessive that is most likely, only in limited cases: those requiring symbolic withdrawal or proxy forms of estrangement.


Emily McTernan is a political philosopher and an Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science, University College London. Her research defends the fundamental and pervasive significance of social norms and social practices for political philosophy, which are often overlooked in favour of considering laws and formal institutions.


22 January
4:30 pm – 6:00 pm
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Lakatos Building
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