Bioethics Blogs

On Swearing (lecture by Rebecca Roache)

Last Thursday’s Special Ethics Seminar at St Cross College was booked out very quickly, and the audience’s high expectations were fully justified. Rebecca Roache returned from Royal Holloway to Oxford to give a fascinating lecture on the nature and ethics of swearing. Roache has two initial questions: ‘Is there anything wrong with this fucking question?’, and ‘Is this one any f***ing better?’. (Her answers turn out to be, essentially, ‘No’ to both.)

Roache begins by distinguishing swear words from slurs, noting that merely mentioning swear words (as I did above) is seen as more acceptable than using them. She then moves to the questions of whether and why swearing might be thought offensive, and if so what we should do about it. First, she points out that we may think swearing should be permitted by law, even if it’s morally wrong (as the law allows us, say, to betray our friends). She then goes on to consider reasons why people might think swearing morally wrong in so far as it is offensive: harm; impoliteness; aggression; and linguistic impoverishment.

None of these reasons impresses Roache. There’s no evidence that swearing is actually harmful (e.g. by corrupting the young), and it can be beneficial in various ways (e.g. by being cathartic). And swearing isn’t always impolite, aggressive, or linguistically deficient.

But, granting that it is sometimes offensive, we might then ask whether using asterisks is any better. Here Roache discusses a broad range of ways in which we might claim that asterisks are different from actually mentioning or using the words themselves, and is again unimpressed by any attempt to use these claims in support of the conclusion that using asterisks is less offensive.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.