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On Taking Offence

Emily McTernan

Publication Date - 26 May 2023

ISBN: 9780197613108

208 pages
6 1/8 x 9 1/4 inches


Someone fails to shake your outstretched hand, puts you down in front of others, or makes a joke in poor taste. Should we take offence? Wouldn't it be better if we didn't? In the face of popular criticism of people taking offence too easily, and the social problems that creates, Emily McTernan defends taking offence as often morally appropriate and socially valuable. Within societies marred by inequality, taking offence can resist the day-to-day patterning of social hierarchies.

This book defends the significance of details of our social interactions. Cumulatively, small acts, and the social norms underlying these, can express and reinforce social hierarchies. But by taking offence, we mark an act as an affront to our social standing. We also often communicate our rejection of that affront to others. At times, taking offence can be a way to renegotiate the shared social norms around what counts as respectful treatment. Rather than a mere expression of hurt feelings then, to take offence can be to stand up for one's standing.

When taken by those deemed to have less social standing, to take offence can be a direct act of insubordination against a social hierarchy. Taking offence can resist everyday inequalities. In unequal societies, the inclination to take offence at the right things, and to the right degree, may even be a civic virtue. These right things at which to take offence include many of the very instances that the opponents of a culture of taking offence find most objectionable: apparently trivial and small-scale details of our social interactions.


  • Presents a book-length treatment of taking offence
  • Defends taking offence as, under the right conditions, morally appropriate and politically significant
  • Offers an account of the social dimension of relational equality

About the Author(s)

Emily McTernan is an Associate Professor at University College London. She works on political and social philosophy. She has published work on social norms, equality, civic virtue, infertility, and microaggressions.


"In On Taking Offence, Emily McTernan develops a new, subtle, and compelling account of what it is to take offence and why taking offence is sometimes, but not always, morally justified. McTernan's admirably clear and judicious style, many vivid and timely examples, and significant moral sensitivity make this book a 'must read' for those who are interested in the nature and value of respect and, more generally, in central aspects of the moral life beyond rights and duties" -- Adam Cureton, Professor of Philosophy, University of Tennessee

"Emily McTernan offers an analysis of taking offence that insightfully gets past the troubling public rhetoric around this emotion. McTernan provides a sorely needed repositioning of this emotion that encourages long overdue philosophical attention to social standing and status. She lucidly details how offence can serve both to defend and destabilize social status arrangements and suggests how each of these may stimulate important moral progress." -- Amy Olberding, Presidential Professor of Philosophy, University of Oklahoma

"Taking offence - how it feels, when it's appropriate, and when steps should be taken to make it less likely to happen - are familiar components of day-to-day moral and political interactions. Yet political philosophers have tip-toed around the subject, rarely engaging beyond questions of legal regulation. In her nuanced, entertaining, clear sighted and highly original analysis Emily McTernan relates taking offence to the idea of social standing and demonstrates that it should attract the attention of anyone concerned with questions of equality." -- Jonathan Wolff, Alfred Landecker Professor of Values and Public Policy, Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford

Table of Contents



    1. Taking offence: An emotion reconsidered
    1.1. Philosophers on taking offence
    1.2. An analysis of taking offence
    1.3. Distinguishing offence
    1.4. Rethinking offence: Domestic, not catastrophic
    1.5. The limits of offence
    1.6. Towards a defence: From victimhood to social standing

    2. What taking offence does
    2.1. Social standing and the role of social norms
    2.2. Taking offence and reinforcing norms
    2.3. Taking offence and renegotiating norms
    2.4. In defence of negotiating social norms
    2.5. On negotiating through offence

    3. Do sweat the small stuff: The nature and significance of social standing
    3.1. Between excess and deficiency
    3.2. Social standing as an equal part I: Why the 'small stuff' matters
    3.3. Social standing as an equal part II: The power to set the terms
    3.4. In defence of the significance of affronts
    3.5. Resisting by taking offence

    4. The limits of justified offence: On anger, intent, and uptake
    4.1. Anger, offence, and the act
    4.2. Contesting offence
    4.3. 'But I didn't mean it': On intention and blame
    4.4. 'But that's not offensive': Disagreement and the offensive
    4.5. When offence lacks uptake

    5. Only joking!: On the offensiveness of humour
    5.1. Theories of humour and the offensive
    5.2. Some linguistics of jokes
    5.3. How offensive jokes function
    5.4. The riskiness of humour

    6. A corrective civic virtue: Weighing the costs and benefits of offence
    6.1. Offence as a civic virtue: Arguments from equality and civility
    6.2. The costs of offence to the offending party
    6.3. Justifying the costs of offence
    6.4. Burdens on the offended

    7. A social approach, our lives online, and the social emotions
    7.1. A regulatory turn
    7.2. Taking offence online
    7.3. The social emotions beyond offence


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