Seven Types of Objectification (part 2)

by Luke Muehlhauser on July 19, 2010 in Ethics

Look at that smug, sexist smile!

(series index)

Last time, I introduced Martha Nussbuam’s article on seven types of objectification. You’ll need to read that one first for this post to make any sense.

After giving her examples of objectification, Nussbaum distinguishes seven ways to treat a person as a thing – that is, to objectify them.

  1. Instrumentality. The objectifier treats the object as a tool of his or her purposes.
  2. Denial of autonomy. The objectifier treats the object as lacking in autonomy and self-determination.
  3. Inertness. The objectifier treats the object as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity.
  4. Fungibility. The objectifier treats the object as interchangeable (a) with other objects of the same type and/or (b) with objects of other types.
  5. Violability. The objectifier treats the object as lacking in boundary integrity, as something that it is permissible to break up, smash, break into.
  6. Ownership. The objectifier treats the object as something that is owned by another, can be bought or sold, etc.
  7. Denial of subjectivity. The objectifier treats the object as something whose experience and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.

Is each of these sufficient for objectification to occur? Or do we need several of them to obtain to identify objectification? Nussbaum prefers not to answer, though she discusses some possibilities for considering some features of objectification more critical than others. Objectification is a messy concept.

Real-life examples of objectification

Nussbaum first considers the relationship between parent and child. Here there is a denial of autonomy, and also some aspects of ownership, though not all. But the other features of objectification are usually not present – or when they are, they are condemned.

How about Marx’s account of workers being treated as objects? According to Marx, the autonomy and subjectivity of workers is mostly ignored, and certainly they are treated as instruments, and quite fungible. But they are not treated as inert or physically violable. Workers are “owned” only in a nominal sense.

Now, consider slavery. Here we see ownership, denial of autonomy, and instrumentality. Slaves are treated as largely fungible, but certainly not inert. There are often laws against physically violating slaves, but often not. The denial of subjectivity is a common but not universal feature of slavery.

Instrumentalization and sex

In some ways, instrumentalization seems to lead to the other features of objectification, though it does not entail them. When someone is used as a means rather than respect as having their own ends, it is easy to see how the denial of autonomy, fungibility, violability, the denial of subjectivity, and perhaps ownership would follow.

And yet, it does not seem that treating someone as an instrument is always wrong:

If I am lying around with my lover on the bed and use his stomach as a pillow, there seems to be nothing at all baneful about this, provided I do so with his consent (or, if he is asleep, with a reasonable belief that he would not mind), and without causing him unwanted pain, provided, as well, that I do so in the context of a relationship in which he is generally treated as more than a pillow.

So many what is wrong with treating someone as an instrument is treating them primarily or merely as an instrument. Thus, the full context of a relationship is important.

This is a very Kantian point, for Kant argued that (in Nussbaum’s words) “sexual desire is a very powerful force that conduces to the thing-like treatment of persons… the treatment of persons not as ends in themselves but as means or tools for the satisfaction of one’s own desires.

Why does Kant think this? He appears to think that sexual desire is so strong that it may drive from our mind our usual consideration for persons as people, often resulting in a lone urge to use the other for one’s own sexual gratification. Such extreme urges are glorified in love songs, but they may lead to a rather pure form of treating a person as an instrument for fulfilling one’s own desires. “At the same time, the keen interest both parties have in sexual satisfaction will lead them to permit themselves to be treated in this thing-like way by one another, indeed, to volunteer eagerly to be dehumanized in order that they can dehumanize the other in turn.”

Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin agree with Kant that:

  1. All human beings deserve respect.
  2. This respect is incompatible with treating humans as instruments (and with the denials of autonomy and subjectivity that follow).

But unlike Kant, they don’t think these problems are intrinsic to sexual desire. Lovemaking can, by choice, involve a voluntary and temporary surrender of autonomy (to increase sensitivity) “without instrumentalizing one another or becoming indifferent to one another’s needs.”

The problem, they say, is that society is “suffused with heirarchy and domination”:

Men learn to experience desire in connection with paradigm scenarios of domination and instrumentalization… Women learn to experience desire in connection with these same paradigm scenarios, which means that they learn to eroticize being dominated and being turned into objects. Thus objectification for MacKinnon and Dworkin is asymmetrical: On the one side the objectifier, on the other side, the volunteer for object status. And this means that it is only the female for whom sex entails a forfeiture of humanity, being turned into something rather than someone.

So heirarchy and domination are the root problem. And marriage, “with its historical connotations of ownership and nonautonomy, is one of the structures that makes sexuality go bad.”

The discussion so far, I hope, provides a nice history of the perspective from which some famous feminist philosophers are coming, and some of the basic ideas in the study of objectification. Next time, I’ll discuss Nussbaum’s discussion of the examples of objectification presented in the first post.

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{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

Supersage400 July 19, 2010 at 4:07 am

In light of this, what do you think about your list? Unjust objectification or harmless fun? You might not have been intentionally treating the women in your list “primarily” as instruments for fulfilling your own desires, but it might have been easy for an outsider to interpret it that way. I’m curious on how this changes your outlook on the situation.

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Burk July 19, 2010 at 6:33 am

Thanks for bringing up denial of subjectivity. I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately, especially in connection with animal rights. The more you observe and know about animals, the more subjectivity they clearly have, putting us into quite a pickle, really.

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wriggles July 19, 2010 at 7:19 am

I’d just like to thank you for bringing this work to my attention. Being a fat person feels like all seven of these most of the time.

1/3/4/5 but for me especially 7 are as frustrating and tiresome as anything.

The fact that so many people think fat men are “feminised” by being fat, tells it’s own story.

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Tony Hoffman July 19, 2010 at 7:59 am

I’d like to go on record as saying that the photo of you is approximately half the problem. You seen like a reasonable enough fellow in print, but the picture of that dude makes him look like a total a-hole. I just have to glance at that guy and I can tell he’s about to objectify something.

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Terry July 19, 2010 at 8:35 am

So why not take the next logical step and do a little self diagnosis in light of Nussbaum’s article?

Since you didn’t, I’ll take a stab at it.

It seems to me that in posting this list, you were guilty of:
1. Instrumentality – it seems clear to me that you used these women as tools to advance your cause of breaking down stereotypes. Yes, the cause was probably noble, but that doesn’t change the objectification.
2. Denial of autonomy – we’ve already established that these women were not given the choice to be used as means to your end. And yes, I’m aware of the unfortunate wording here :)
4. Fungibility – It seems that you don’t know these women, or much about them other than they are pretty and scientists. Apparently, any “sexy scientist” will do.
5. Violability – Sheril’s stated boundaries were clearly violated, if not by the initial posting of the list (if ignorance of her boundaries is a valid excuse), then by the second post when you again called her a “sexy scientist”.
7. Denial of subjectivity – Several female commenters have stated that they would feel violated by such a list. It was predictable that some of the women on the list would feel violated. And the reasons they would feel this way have been explained in depth in the comment threads. Sheril explained why she felt violated by this type of thing. But to no affect – the list and the repeated labeling as “sexy scientists” continued.

5 out of 7 ain’t bad. Impressive actually.

But the original “am I sexist” question is not the same as the “did I objectify these women” question, although there is a significant overlap.

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lukeprog July 19, 2010 at 9:11 am

Burk,

Yup.

For me, it’s going to be interesting to figure out precisely what is wrong with objectification, because most feminists seem to be writing from a Kantian perspective, and I’m not a Kantian.

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lukeprog July 19, 2010 at 9:15 am

Terry,

Be patient. I’m getting there.

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Rick B July 19, 2010 at 9:54 am

Luke,

Be patient. I’m getting there.

It’s comforting to know that you, too, can use the excuse of procrastination to avoid doing the right thing. That’s certainly not what happened when the SCOTUS ruled in Brown v. Board, to dismantle segregation “with all deliberate speed.” And we certainly didn’t see any ill effects from that delay, did we?

You have, by your own admission, very good and very clear reasons why your post can be seen as objectifying women; you’re also very aware now that objectification is a key step in the sexualization and marginalization of women, and that it’s a definitive sexist act. Also, you’ve stated multiple times that you’ve found no reason to support your current position.

Remind me again why you think leaving your sexist and misogynist post up is justified. Or why at a bare minimum Ms. Kirshenbaum’s photo is still listed, against her consent. What the fuck is wrong with you, that you haven’t at least put a blurb on the original post saying that you know your actions might be wrong?

Why have you taken no action? You know a problem exists. You’re unsure of your role in it. You’re even unsure how to define the problem. But you know you’re part of it.

Reading and arguing and demanding philosophically-phrased arguments is not fixing the issue of your sexist blog posts and the hostile environment they produce for your diminishing female readership. It is not, furthermore, action.

I’m growing tired of your excuses, exercise of privilege and your sense of entitlement. I’m really growing tired of your intellectual diarrhea which you think resembles intelligent thought. Do something about the problem to show a bare minimum of compassion and wit, and then we can talk about what the issues are.

But don’t ask the world to wait while you decide if there’s an issue.

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Terry July 19, 2010 at 10:03 am

Yeah, this feels more and more like an exercise in controversy for the sake of driving blog traffic. There is more than enough information at hand to make a preliminary judgement and remedy the immediate situation. Then we’ll have decades to continue the discussion if required.

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lukeprog July 19, 2010 at 10:13 am

Terry,

You’re just going to have to be patient. I work a job and have other concerns in life and don’t have time to work my way through a major paradigm shift in 3 days.

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Haukur July 19, 2010 at 10:14 am

I’ve criticized Luke a lot but I think it’s a bit churlish to rush him into a conclusion here. He isn’t just reading this paper, he’s responding to more critical comments than I would have thought possible. That’s an emotionally draining task (at least it would be for me but maybe Luke is Superman – he sure looks the part).

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Terry July 19, 2010 at 10:19 am

Alright, I’ll be patient. This isn’t the first time I’ve been accused of being impatient or churlish :-)

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clamat July 19, 2010 at 12:02 pm

Luke,

First, I understand you don’t plan to spend additional time on the Pharyngula thread, but didn’t see that post until after I had written (most of) the following. I post it here for your consideration.

Second, I admire and appreciate the effort you are making to truly and comprehensively understand the issues. Given the general excellence of Common Sense Atheism, I would expect no less.

That said…

From you, on the Pharyngula thread, several times: “Where did I deny that my post contributes to the culture of gender inequality? Where did I deny that my post discourages women from becoming more visible or active as atheists? I did not.”

This is too slippery, Luke, and beneath you. Try this: “My post contributes to the culture of gender inequality. My post discourages women from becoming more visible or active as atheists.”

Can you own these active, affirmative statements? If so, then it seems to me you should simply and sincerely apologize, and stop there. (I admittedly have not read all of your posts on all blogs – if I missed such an apology, I apologize in turn.) What possible argument could there be for such actions?

Instead, you maintain “agnosticism,” focus on an abstract “sexism,” demand it be examined through the lenses of philosophy and sociology, and insist you can’t be convicted of anything – or even be asked to change your mind – without formally sound arguments, arguments, arguments, arguments.

But this brouhaha does not have its origin in an “argument” about “sexism.” Rather, it’s about whether you did something that displayed poor judgment, and how your actions made people, particularly women, FEEL. All of this insistence on “argument” is a retreat from personal responsibility. Of course, it also is totally understandable and human: It’s called being defensive.

I love CSA. You are one of the most knowledgeable, thoughtful and moderate atheists out there, your blog is a great resource, and I am proud you are in our camp. But surely before you posted your list you considered the potential negative impact, i.e., it might contribute to the culture of gender inequality and discourage women from becoming more visible or active as atheists? (And if you didn’t, you should have.) These would seem pretty serious negative consequences for the progressive atheist blogger, no?

If you considered these negatives, you must have found them outweighed by potential positives. What could these possibly have been? The only one I’ve seen articulated (again, I’ve admittedly not read all of your posts on all blogs) is along the lines of “to show that brains aren’t incompatible with beauty.” True, but decidedly old news. At this point, this point is inane.

So I’m left to conclude that you posted because you like pictures of pretty girls. Absolutely nothing wrong with this; I’m decidedly of a like mind. But it was disappointing to find on CSA. Even more disappointing is that your foremost concern seems to be with the soundness of your arguments, and not that you pissed off, alienated and hurt a bunch potential allies.

If you recognize that your post was likely to do more harm than good, but you posted anyway, and consequently hurt many of the people you hope to attract, maybe you should simply apologize for being thoughtless, pledge to try and do better, and stop ARGUING about it.

(Finally, to the extent any of this is wisdom, it was hard won, and all credit for it is due my wife! This may be illustrative, I think. :-))

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Silas July 19, 2010 at 12:35 pm

and stop ARGUING about it

What a stupid thing to say, really. Haven’t you read CSA at all? Just because some people are pissed off doesn’t mean they are right. Your response is no more reasonable than the Christian trying to convince an atheist that God exists than he “feels” it is so.

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clamat July 19, 2010 at 1:41 pm

@Silas

Did you read my post at all? Did you notice that it was written in response to a thread on Pharyngula? Have you read that thread? Have you read Pharyngula at all?

After hundreds of posts at that site, Luke acknowledged that there are numerous reasons to think that his initial post indeed, in his words, “contributes to the culture of gender inequality…and discourages women from becoming more visible or active as atheists.” I suggested that he would be better served at this point by acknowledging this, making a sincere apology, and moving on.

Your post is a prime example of the problem I identified. I did not make any argument, yet you are incapable of resisting the urge to argue. Or do you think that contributing to the culture of gender inequality and discouraging women from becoming more visible and active as atheists does not warrant an apology?

Let me see if I understand: I suggest that, after hundreds of posts, which he acknowledges likely will lead him to admit he was wrong, it would be more productive, honest and respectful of the sentiments of the women he “pissed off” to simply admit cop to questionable judgment and stop spinning arguments.

And you think this is equivalent to a theistic argument from personal experience?

What a stupid thing to say. Really.

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RedKing July 19, 2010 at 2:01 pm

“Your response is no more reasonable than the Christian trying to convince an atheist that God exists than he ‘feels’ it is so.”

This seems like an unfair comparison. Many of Luke’s critics seem to be saying, “Your post was needlessly offensive to me and/or others.” In this case, personal feelings actually are the issue. No one seems to be arguing from their feelings to an incorporeal, transcendent, personal being.

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Robert Gressis July 19, 2010 at 2:14 pm

clamat wrote,

“From you, on the Pharyngula thread, several times: ‘Where did I deny that my post contributes to the culture of gender inequality? Where did I deny that my post discourages women from becoming more visible or active as atheists? I did not.’

“This is too slippery, Luke, and beneath you. Try this: ‘My post contributes to the culture of gender inequality. My post discourages women from becoming more visible or active as atheists.’”

As you noticed, there is a difference between the two sets of statements. The first one does not deny his sexism [this is not a particularly apt phrase, but it's far less bulky than the alternative]. The second one affirms his sexism. But given the difference, and given that Luke has repeatedly expressed the sentiment that he is, so far, agnostic about these issues, why insist that he affirm his sexism rather than not deny, or better, suspend judgment about his sexism? Your writing his script for him also gives the feel of wanting him to sign a forced confession. Let him come to his own conclusions and phrase things how he likes, especially when he’s being repeatedly and coruscatingly raked over the coals for his earlier post.

“What possible argument could there be for such actions?”

There’s this argument for his actions (I’m not saying I accept this argument, but there’s this argument): it’s morally permissible. If it’s morally permissible, then you need no argument other than, “it’s OK to do, and I want to do it.” All Luke needs to do to establish that it’s morally permissible is defend against the accusations that it’s immoral.

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Astronomer July 19, 2010 at 2:17 pm

Silas, I agree that a Christian arguing that God exists simply because she FEELS it to be so is not convincing. However, that is not the situation we’re dealing with here. We are not trying to prove that Luke’s post of women is sexist by pointing at the feelings of the people it offended as evidence. In fact, I agree with clamat in that this whole academic discussion about sexism is a distraction from the heart of the problem.

The problem is this: For reasons discussed at LONG length both here and at Pharyngula, Luke’s post has the potential to make women in science feel insulted, alienated, marginalized, objectified, and/or threatened (yes, I know not all women feel this way). Unless you believe that the women who weighed in on this discussion are WRONG to feel this way, surely you can see that causing these feelings is counter-productive to the goal of making science a welcoming space for women. That is why people are so up-in-arms about this.

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clamat July 19, 2010 at 3:31 pm

@Robert Gressis–

Given Luke’s almost saintly (!) willingness to take abuse from both fans and non-, and his extensive efforts at enlightenment, acknowledged that my further piling on might have been unnecessary.

But RedKing above hit the nail on the head: In this instance, in my opinion, personal feelings really should be the issue, and as a fan, I hoped to tweak Luke’s perspective on the whole thing, to suggest sometimes resolutely trying to Win the Argument can result in a Pyrrhic victory. Given that his recent posts suggest that he probably realizes he pulled a boner (quasi-pun definitely intended), it might serve him and his larger purposes better to put the Argument second, and the Sentiment first: “Sorry, I totally get why people are upset/disappointed/whatever. My bad. Won’t happen again.”

To be clear, though, it’s Luke’s blog, and he can do whatever the hell he wants with it. If he genuinely concludes “Hey everybody should freakin’ relax. I don’t think posting pics makes me an incorrigible sexist, and I’m going to keep posting them. Go someplace else if you don’t like it” that would be reasonable. And I’d probably be back.

As for the “morally permissible” argument: Sheesh, that’s an awfully low bar, isn’t it? “It may be insensitive, counter-productive, piggish and insulting, but it’s not immoral, so f*** y’all.” This may be philosophically satisfying, I don’t know, but I doubt it would be emotionally satisfying for anyone on the receiving end. Which is just my main point put differently.

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noen July 19, 2010 at 3:33 pm

How do you tell when you are being sexist? When a woman tells you so. How do you tell when you are being racist? When a persona of color tells you so. How do you tell when you are being antisemitic? When a Jew tells you you are.
—————

Denial of Subjectivity
Here is the center, the axis around which a great deal revolves. The general complaint about the New Atheists also revolves around denial of subjectivity. The New Atheists don’t just say that they disagree with theists. They deny the theist their right to their own subjective experience. Even their very right to exist. Christians, Jews and Muslims are not simply wrong, they should be exterminated.

So it comes as little surprise to me that you cannot wrap your head around giving another minority class such as women even a sliver of their humanity.

You’re no progressive Luke, you’re a fucking monster.

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icee July 19, 2010 at 3:36 pm

Hi Luke,

I’ve read a lot of the posts/threads (including Pharyngula) about your list but haven’t commented. I just want to offer you my perspective to consider, because it seems like you might be at the place where you’re receptive to listening to such things.

I am a PhD student who changed fields recently. When I attended a conference to present my first poster in my new field of research, everyone was polite to me and professional and I was feeling encouraged about being there (I am bright but easily intimidated). I was especially bolstered by the kind interest of a well-known and distinguished scientist I had just met that day.

That evening at dinner, he sought me out, groped me and made a sexual comment to me. It literally made me sick. I wanted to quit. Were it not for the witnesses, I may have even doubted that it actually happened, because I was so shocked. I’m not naive either, and usually pick up on pervy vibes just fine. I am a married mother, so perhaps I’m insulated from this stuff more than younger/single women are because when I go out, I’m usually with my family. I am a grownup, and anyone who knows me would tell you that – but he made me feel so small and insignificant and lots of other yucky things. I knew HE was wrong, but he made ME feel wrong, just for existing, and doing my work, and coming to a conference.

I didn’t feel good at all about being there after that, even though no one else had treated me that way. Everyone else had been great, but when the old asshole (who later assaulted me) was initially talking to me about my research, I had no clue that he was primarily leering at my body, my work being a secondary attraction (if at all). My creep-meter didn’t even budge at the time. So in retrospect, maybe there were other men leering at me (but didn’t grope me) and I mistook their ogling for scientific interest. Maybe my work really isn’t interesting. Maybe I don’t belong in science. I just wanted to go home. My husband was irate.

It took me so long to sort out my thoughts and feelings that I never even confronted the asshole (didn’t see him after that night). I still don’t know what I will say to him the next time I see him. I have my career (and my advisor’s) to consider here. (BTW, that’s not a request for advice on what I should say to him. I’m leaning toward public humiliation.)

If he’d have made a list like yours, apparently I’d have been on it. I’m not saying you would have groped anyone, but can you see how finding out that a man thinks I’m a sexy scientist did not feel like a compliment to me? Does it make sense to you that if my photo from my flickr page or my department’s webpage would have made it onto your list that I would have been devastated, and not flattered? I am already worried about how some old lecher’s unwanted attention is going to play out in my future career, and I can’t imagine how yucky I’d feel if I was on someone’s sexy scientist blog list. I have enough to deal with being a grad student mom, I don’t need to deal with being someone’s wank-image. I have never been on facebook because it feels so vaguely unsettling to me to put my life on display like that. I am becoming more and more convinced of the validity of those feelings every day.

I am just asking you to PLEASE try putting yourself in my shoes (and other people’s too) and think about how I would have felt to be the object of unsolicited sexual attention. This may give you some perspective into why many people responded to your list the way that they did. I have never been raped, or even close to it (that I know of). Imagine how more ugly and complicated my feelings would have been had I been a survivor of sexual abuse, as so many women are. The only way I could be more privileged is if I were male, and people who lack the privileges I do (white, educated, slim, hetero, etc) have endless stories of much worse experiences. Please listen to them and learn something from them. You are at a turning point, and there is a right way to turn, and I’m hoping you’re heading that way. You will be a much richer person for it. I think that you’re capable of it, and I’m looking forward to hearing the results of what you learn. Thanks for listening.

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Burk July 19, 2010 at 3:40 pm

Hi, Noen-

I think you are a bit off-base here. The new atheists are not for extermination as far as I have heard. They don’t even worry about recognizing the subjective experience of theists. No problem!

They just think that the said subjective experience shouldn’t be dressed up as “philosophy” and taught at public schools as philosophy, quoted as certainty, as secret communications with the founder of the universe, or otherwise dignified as anything other than the subjective experience it began as.

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clamat July 19, 2010 at 4:04 pm

@noen

Whoa, ease up there!

I basically agree that if a woman accuses a man of sexist behavior, if he is reasonably enlightened he will feel obliged to seriously entertain the possibility.

Which is exactly what Luke has done. If nothing else, his efforts demonstrate that he certainly is a progressive (whatever that means, exactly). He’s also, obviously, somebody who lives for the argument, which I think is causing him more grief than good right now.

Claiming he is a “monster” for this, however, is ridiculous hyperbole. As is the assertion that atheists want to “exterminate” all believers.

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Silas July 19, 2010 at 4:11 pm

I’m sorry for my aggressive comment, but I do feel that the whole situation is a bit… lame. Yes, Luke has upset some people, but that isn’t necessarily wrong. It isn’t evident that he should immediately apologize. Why is it? When Christians use personal experience as evidence for God, they think it is perfectly reasonable to just trust their intuitions about it. But it isn’t. And considering this is such a great forum for philosophical discussions (and I would argue the main purpose of the blog), it surprises me that everyone just blindly promotes their socially inherited ways of responding to these situations.

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Robert Gressis July 19, 2010 at 4:23 pm

Hi clamat,

First, you wrote, “acknowledged that my further piling on might have been unnecessary”. I don’t know if you meant to say, “I acknowledged …” or “I acknowledge…”. If the former, sorry, I didn’t see where you said that. If the latter, then OK.

“I hoped to tweak Luke’s perspective on the whole thing, to suggest sometimes resolutely trying to Win the Argument can result in a Pyrrhic victory.”

I don’t think he’s resolutely trying to *win* the argument. Instead, I think he’s trying to figure out whether he should care about the offense he generated. Remember, Luke supports “draw a cartoon of Muhammed” day, a day that no doubt will offend many people. It’s just that Luke thinks their offense doesn’t matter (or shouldn’t exist, or is irrational…something along those lines)–in Luke’s mind, that’s a case where offense stifles speech, and we’d be better off if Muslims became less sensitive about offending people, even though the offense they feel is very real.

“Sheesh, that’s an awfully low bar, isn’t it? “It may be insensitive, counter-productive, piggish and insulting, but it’s not immoral, so f*** y’all.” This may be philosophically satisfying, I don’t know, but I doubt it would be emotionally satisfying for anyone on the receiving end. Which is just my main point put differently.”

Whether it’s a low bar depends on your moral theory. On some moral theories, it’s indeed a pretty low bar. On others (e.g., utilitarianism) it’s an incredibly high bar that almost none of us reach, ever. But you’re right that on the moral theory I endorse (Kantianism), it’s possible to do something that’s morally permissible but that doesn’t reflect virtue. So perhaps it would be better to say: if Luke can demonstrate that what he did is morally permissible and also not conducive to vice, then he’s in the clear. It’s almost certainly the case, I think, that what he did was conducive to virtue, but it would be a quite demanding moral theory that said that we should try to avoid doing anything that doesn’t conduce to virtue.

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Silas July 19, 2010 at 4:29 pm

Instead, I think he’s trying to figure out whether he should care about the offense he generated.

I think this reflects my own thoughts quite well.

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clamat July 19, 2010 at 4:31 pm

@Silas

No worries about the aggressiveness – but I’ll always bristle at being called stupid! :-)

I think the disconnect lies in the fact that many folks think this is an issue subject to “proof.” As you say, this shouldn’t be surprising on a blog dedicated largely to analytic philosophy.

But I don’t see it as an issue subject to proof. I see icee’s post above and similar ones as examples that, for the people who have the biggest stake in the game, this case isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a question of logical, philosophical proof. Rather, it’s about how Luke’s post made (or had the potential to make) many readers feel rotten. It seems that Luke and others are spending a lot of time trying to persuade people that they shouldn’t feel this way. But to paraphrase the eminent philosopher Milhouse Van Houten: Feelings can’t be wrong!

To me, this one time it should be less about the argument, and more about the relationship. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to argue my wife out of her feelings when I’ve done something stupid or insensitive. You can probably guess, however, exactly how many times I’ve succeeded.

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Silas July 19, 2010 at 4:42 pm

But I don’t see it as an issue subject to proof. I see icee’s post above and similar ones as examples that, for the people who have the biggest stake in the game, this case isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a question of logical, philosophical proof. Rather, it’s about how Luke’s post made (or had the potential to make) many readers feel rotten. It seems that Luke and others are spending a lot of time trying to persuade people that they shouldn’t feel this way. But to paraphrase the eminent philosopher Milhouse Van Houten: Feelings can’t be wrong!

Yes, that is really how I personally feel as well, though I guess I feel a little bummed out about there being so much space dedicated to discussing such worldly affairs. Trouble in philosophical paradise, I guess.

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Erika July 19, 2010 at 5:07 pm

I guess I feel a little bummed out about there being so much space dedicated to discussing such worldly affairs.

Silas, I think a lot of the commenters feel that way, whether they think posting the list or the follow-up was right or wrong.

But I also respect Luke’s desire to really work through the issue, even if it is, depending on your point of view, intellectually and emotionally draining or pointless and boring for those of us watching.

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clamat July 19, 2010 at 5:10 pm

@Robert Gressis

My writing sometimes slips into shorthand: By “Acknowledged that” I meant “I acknowledge.” My apologies for the imprecision.

I don’t really think Luke’s trying to “win” the argument any more, either. Again, based on prior posts, I suspect he realizes he’ll eventually have to admit he’s lost it. But I think he’s actually avoiding doing something much harder, namely, admitting that there may be “non-philosophical” things for which amends are due.

I don’t think the Draw Mohammed analogy is apt, because I don’t think Luke wants or expects the support, or even reasonable consideration, of Muslims who might be offended by it. On the other hand, I suspect that he very strongly wants and expects the support of female scientists. Especially sexy ones! Encouraging people to draw Mohammed likely won’t be counterproductive to his larger agenda. Posting pics of sexy scientists poses a real risk of that, obviously, and of unintended offense to peolple he really doesn’t want to offend. To my mind, he should care very much care about this.

Second, Draw Mohammed is directed at, and is potentially offensive to, a group, i.e., Muslims, not individuals. The sexy scientist list identified very specific, individual women, some of whom apparently did not appreciate the attention. The situation is closer to Luke finding random pictures of individual Muslims (not public figures), and posting a list of the Top 15 Illogical, Superstitious, Free-Speech-Hating Muslims – With Pics, of Course! If Luke’s purpose had been to say “Hey, ladies! Lighten up!” I’d agree the situation would be more analogous.

Man, how did I know you were going to throw Kant at me?! Not that I can claim to know Kant; precisely the opposite. For years I felt that “show me the evidence!” was enough to justify my atheism, and that I could safely ignore the rarified ruminations of philosophy. Then I stumbled on this site, and quickly realized that, if I hoped to claim any sort of intellectual honesty, I’d have to dive into it, at least to some degree. All this is to say, now I have to go read Kant, too?! Crap!

But on one of your points: Putting aside more precise definitions of “virtue” for the moment (and to the extent that this won’t render the discussion incoherent), are “not conducive to vice” and “conducive to virtue” equivalent? Are vice and virtue zero-sum, or are there virtue-neutral actions? Because if the question is actually whether Luke’s actions are conducive to virtue, and not “not conducive to vice,” my instinct is to question exactly how posting pics of sexy scientists is conducive to virtue.

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clamat July 19, 2010 at 5:22 pm

@Silas and Erika

I share Erika’s respect of Luke’s sincere desire to work through the issue, and this sincerity prompted my own posts.

But I certainly understand your feelings, and apologize for my part in co-opting the blogspace to address “boring” worldly affairs for a while! I’ve basically said my peace (or piece! whichever!), and hopefully the end of my last post to Robert Gressis will begin to return us to our normal programming (Provided Mr. Gressis gets to say his piece (!), too.)

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Scott July 19, 2010 at 5:34 pm

How long is this going to last? This is one of the most philosophically literate sites I’ve found, and it’s been all about whether the writer is sexist. I’m not saying we should sweep sexism under the rug, but rather, this is a site about philosophy of religion, and I want it to stay that way. This tangent is far less interesting…

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Justfinethanks July 19, 2010 at 5:47 pm

This tangent is far less interesting…

Testify, brother.

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Robert Gressis July 19, 2010 at 6:05 pm

@clamat,

Your reasons for considering the Muhammed analogy inapt seem to be good ones. I’ll have to think about them more to see whether I think they’re right at the end of the day, though I gather that people are rather exhausted by this topic, so I might not get back to you.

Don’t worry about Kant. Well, I mean, worry about him, but he’s far from the first think you should get to for this discussion.

Lastly, you wrote, “are “not conducive to vice” and “conducive to virtue” equivalent? Are vice and virtue zero-sum, or are there virtue-neutral actions?”

Although there may be some theories of virtue according to which everything that is not conducive to virtue is conducive to vice, that wasn’t the theory I was operating with. On Kant’s theory of virtue, for example (and really, I just refer to him because he’s the feller I know best), virtue is strength of will in resisting one’s non-moral inclinations. Some non-moral inclinations, however, don’t have to be resisted. For instance, eating with a spoon instead of a spork seems to be the kind of thing that has nothing to do with strength of will. Same with, to use Kant’s own example, giving alms with your left hand instead of your right.

Kant’s theory of virtue is pretty unique, though. On most theories of virtue–Aristotle’s, most famously–, virtues are character traits that are conducive to your own flourishing. Vice are character traits that positively hinder your own flourishing. There are several traits, however, that seem to be irrelevant to your flourishing. For example, whether you tend to enjoy games like sudoku, or whether you’re left-handed, etc. It could be that Luke’s love of ranking things (let’s suppose that’s what this is; I have no idea if he has such a love and frankly I feel weird talking about him in this detached manner) is what motivated this list, and if the offense taken at it is at the end of the day unwarranted, then Luke’s propensity to make such lists does not tend to hinder his own flourishing.

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Moh July 19, 2010 at 6:51 pm

Clamat,

“Second, Draw Mohammed is directed at, and is potentially offensive to, a group, i.e., Muslims, not individuals. The sexy scientist list identified very specific, individual women, some of whom apparently did not appreciate the attention.”

If luke had posted sexy scientist halloween costumes, would that have been fine?

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lukeprog July 19, 2010 at 8:00 pm

Scott,

This is also a blog about ethics.

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clamat July 19, 2010 at 8:07 pm

@Scott, and Justfinethanks

Considering the blog owner directly posed the question “Am I Sexist?” to his readers, and has devoted a series of entries and posts to the question, it seems somewhat unfair to complain that people are trying to answer it. Although my previous posts should show that I basically agree with you, it seems to me it’s for the blog owner to declare “enough already.”

So one last one…

@Moh

“If luke had posted sexy scientist halloween costumes, would that have been fine?”

Sorry, I don’t understand. I tried to demonstrate that Robert Gressis’ analogy was inapt. Do you disagree? To the extent I detect a different thrust to your question, I refer you to my previous posts: It would be “fine” if the intent was to make a point about feminist hyper-sensitivity. Would it be “fine” in the sense of not being potentially sexist at all? Probably not, but it would be much less objectionable than pictures of specific individuals.

I welcome your response, but considering the general sentiment on the board, I, like Mr. Gressis, likely will not respond in turn.

@Robert Gressis

Thanks for your thoughts and the overview of Kant. I will mull. And maybe pick up Kant. Maybe.

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demiurge July 19, 2010 at 8:47 pm
Eneasz July 19, 2010 at 11:10 pm

Perhaps Dan Savage could be of help? He’s the least sexist sex-advice columnist I know, and I read his stuff daily.

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corn walker July 20, 2010 at 9:22 am

It appears from many of the comments, it’s not sufficient for Luke to apologize, he must internalize another person’s view, specifically that his post was sexist and that he is a sexist. But wait, even that’s not sufficient – he must adopt their definition of sexist and if he should challenge them to explain why he should accept their definition, well, that’s just more proof of how sexist he is.

Look, I categorically reject the notion that if a woman calls me sexist that I am sexist. Were I to accept that reasoning it would mean that I, as a person of some color or another, could hereby declare all of you racist and you would just have to accept that.

Have we solved anything? Come to any shared understanding? Made any process in combatting sexism and racism? I submit that this type of thinking leads us precisely nowhere.

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al friedlander July 20, 2010 at 12:32 pm

“Look, I categorically reject the notion that if a woman calls me sexist that I am sexist. Were I to accept that reasoning it would mean that I, as a person of some color or another, could hereby declare all of you racist and you would just have to accept that.”

I’m so lost with regards to everything that is happening; but I just want to go on record saying that I agree with this statement..

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