We have seen a number of publications, ranging from Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten to France’s Charlie Hebdo, displaying cartoons that are offensive to Muslims.  Is it ethical for a publication in a Western country to do this?

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About John Hooker

T. Jerome Holleran Professor of Business Ethics and Social Responsibility Tepper School of Business Carnegie Mellon University

One response »

  1. John Hooker says:

    The issue posed here is not whether the publication has a legal right to run the cartoons. The question is whether it should print them. I will assume that doing so is legal, as it is in all Western countries I know about.

    The dilemma is actually fairly easy to resolve, as dilemmas go. The main criterion is utilitarian. Is it reasonable to believe that running the cartoon would do more good than harm? In most cases, the answer is no. It induces people to take violent retribution, and it incites riots in various places around the world, which sometimes result in death and injury. It also makes Muslims who live in the country feel unwelcome and resentful, justifiably or not. On any scale, this outweighs any benefit that would result from publishing a cartoon. This is not to say that offended people should retaliate by murdering cartoonists. Of course not. Nor is it to say that people should take to the street to protest cartoons, or that they should try to suppress free speech in a country with that tradition, or that they should feel unwelcome and resentful. The present issue doesn’t require us to take a position on these matters. It is only to say that people in fact react in these ways, and the utilitarian principle requires us to take this into account. Running the cartoons therefore violates the principle in most cases.

    One might argue, however, that suppressing controversial material to avoid backlash is not generalizable, at least in a Western country. The reason for suppression is presumably to avoid social disutility that results from the backlash. If publications always suppressed material in such cases, then arguably the tradition of free exchange of ideas would collapse, resulting in much more social disutility, at least in a Western society that is built on transparency. So generalizing the action is inconsistent with achieving its purpose, which is a violation of the generalization test. This means that suppressing the material should not be considered as an option for maximizing utility, and one should publish it despite the negative consequences.

    This argument might well be valid if a publication is actually suppressing the free exchange of ideas. In particular, it should allow frank discussion of religion, even if some readers strongly disagree and react violently. However, removing a cartoon does not seem to restrict the free exchange of ideas. The cartoon can be described in words. The recent negative reactions were generated by the pictoral representation, due to the historic abhorrence of idolatry in Abrahamic religions. If displaying the cartoon is absolutely essential to making one’s point, then we may have an argument for printing it, but in recent cases it is not.


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