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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A piece on moral authoritarianism and "objectification"

This should be compulsory reading at school, college, university - as an antidote for all the poorly reasoned ideology relating to so-called "objectification" that so many people get brainwashed into.

If there is a deplorable action of "objectifying" people, it has to be something much more  than merely having regard to the physicality and beauty of their bodies. Human bodies are, indeed, physical things, and can be considered "objects" in that sense. As objects, they are endlessly fascinating, often beautiful - appropriate subjects (!) for art, for admiration, for eroticism. We only objectify people, in a deplorable sense, when we treat them as objects in a different sense of that word - as things with no interests of their own that we ought to take into account, or as solely means to our ends.

And this will only make sense in circumstances where taking into account their interests is relevant (it may not be very relevant, or relevant at all, in a vast range of circumstances where my actions have no particular effect on someone else's interests).

I propose that, whenever it is relevant, we always treat people with kindness and consideration, taking into account their interests and wishes as well as our own. If we do that, we are not objectifying them. But we might also stop shouting "Objectification!" at the drop of a hat. This sort of language just plays into the hands of moral conservatives, who will use their (naive) concept of objectification to try to prevent all sorts of positive, joyful things.

H/T Jennifer Wilson


1watersprite said...

I love it!

Anonymous said...

You are such a Kantian!

Russell Blackford said...

I'm not that much of a Kantian, but being objectified in the Kantian sense of being treated solely as a means to someone else's ends is surely something that no one wants to experience from others around them. Surely we can agree that that is a bad way to treat others, and that a person who treats others like that is a bad person. (And nothing transcendent is meant by "bad" here - it's intended to be no more than a reasonable, non-arbitrary evaluation.)

Kant, alas, manipulated similar concepts in various ways that I don't actually approve of.

Lee said...

"The charge of objectification is a serious one. It should not be trivialized to serve a moral agenda."

Hear, hear!

englreadingandwriting said...

This reminds me of Martin Buber's "I and Thou." Most people that we run into we see for only a few moments--the checkout clerk in the grocery store, for example. That's a minimal interaction and would clog the queue if we tried to make it more. In addition, human beings are enjoyable as objects. The key is to remember that they're more than that and have their own right to regard us in the same manner.

Russell Blackford said...

Yes, the checkout clerk example is good one (actually, it's the sort of example I used to give to my students). The interaction is likely to be quite minimal, and people in such positions are interchangeable for our immediate purpose of buying our groceries.

On the other hand, that brief interaction can be (and often is) conducted in a kind and friendly way. Even these brief interactions are often full of small indications of mutual goodwill.

And if one of us - me or the person at the checkout - suddenly had, say, a heart attack or an asthma attack, I'm sure the other would try to do something about it. I think that's a good indication that we are not treating each other solely as means to each others' ends. We stand prepared to show whatever kindness and concern is relevant.

Notung said...

Yes, I've always thought there is a difference between seeing people as objects and seeing them as mere objects.

I suspect that there are many times when a complaint about objectification is concerned with seeing a person as an object, while not forgetting that they are also a rational agent. When we ask ourselves why 'objectification' is bad, we justify it by thinking about why seeing people as merely objects is bad. The justification in the latter case does not also justify thinking that the former is bad.

As you say, if we keep in mind this distinction we allow for a more liberal outlook.

Russell Blackford said...

Kant has a lot to answer for, y'know. His official position was to the effect of "Always treat others not solely as means to your own ends but always also as ends in themselves."

Sometimes the relationship or transaction will be so fleeting or remote that it's not terribly relevant advice. Generally speaking, though, I'm fine with it.

Sure, take into account the interests, feelings, desires, etc., of others. Treat others with kindess, concern, respect for their wishes (even if you find those wishes strange), etc. Surely this is how we all want to be treated - kindly, but not paternalistically - so let's all agree to treat each other in this way. That is, in fact, how I try to treat other people.

Fine so far. But Kant goes on to apply this in a bizarre manner once anything to do with sex is involved. He doesn't seem to be aware that treating each other with mutual kindness, attempting to provide as well as receive pleasure, attempting to cooperate in the experience, being open to the wishes and desires of the other person, etc., is exactly how lovers treat each other when actually having loving, or even mutually good-willed, sex.

Kant assumes that in having sex with someone I am treating her as a mere object ... and that she is doing the same with me. As a result, he ties himself up in knots in his discussion of sex and marriage (and of how even marital sex can be morally permissible).

There are some nice insights in Kant's moral philosophy, but whenever I read it I get the impression of someone going through bizarre contortions to justify the moral norms of his day, using a theory that is not especially well-equipped for that purpose. If he'd used it for a rigorous critique of, say, the institution of heterosexual monogamy, or, say, the proscription of suicide, it would have been far more impressive.

Unfortunately, moral philosophers often continue the tradition of tying themselves in knots attempting to rationalise and justify rather dubious behavioural norms that they happen to have been socialised into - especially anti-sex norms of various kinds.

Jeremy Stangroom said...

The phenomenological sociologist, Alfred Schutz (not very well known, but quite significant in certain sociological circles) analysed what he called the "we-relation" in a huge amount of detail in order to capture both the subject-subject and the subject-object dimensions of the interactions between people.

It's way to complicated to summarise, plus it's a long time since I read it all, but this will give you a flavor of his approach.

The social actor’s experience of his fellow-man in the we-relation “stands in a multiple context of meaning: it is experience of a human being, it is experience of a typical actor on the social scene, it is experience of this particular fellow-man, and it is experience of this particular fellow-man in this particular situation, Here and Now".

Sartre is also very interesting on this whole issue, because, of course, he believed that we can never properly experience the other as a "being for-itself" or subject (and we can't experience ourselves as a "being in-itself" in the same way as another person can).

So there's a lot of cool stuff in "Being and Nothingness" about the "gaze", etc, which is well worth reading.

So yeah, all this is way more complicated than Kant's simple don't treat others solely as a means to an end (albeit I think that's mostly a pretty good rule of thumb).

Anonymous said...

Is Jeremy Bentham and his utilitarianism better than Kant?