The Problem with Objectification

by Luke Muehlhauser on July 20, 2010 in Ethics

Look at that smug, sexist smile!

(series index)

Previously, I introduced Martha Nussbaum’s article on seven types of objectification: here and here. You’ll need to read those two posts for the rest of this to make sense.

At last we come to a consideration of some literary examples of objectification. We begin with one not mentioned in my first post, from Lady Chatterly:

“Let me see you!”

He dropped the shirt and stood still, looking towards her. The sun through the low window sent a beam that lit up his thighs and slim belly, and the erect phallus rising darkish and hot-looking from the little cloud of vivid gold-red hair. She was startled and afraid.

“How strange!” she said slowly. “How strange he stands there! So big! and so dark and cocksure! Is he like that?”

The man looked down the front of his slender white body, and laughed. Between the slim breasts the hair was dark, almost black. But at the root of the belly, where the phallus rose thick and arching, it was gold-red, vivid in a little cloud.

“So proud!” she murmured, uneasy. “And so lordly! Now I know why men are so overbearing. But he’s lovely, really, like another being! A bit terrifying! But lovely really! And he comes to me” She caught her lower lip between her teeth, in fear and excitement.

The man looked down in silence at his tense phallus, that did not change… “Cunt, that’s what tha’rt after. Tell lady Jane tha’ wants cunt. John Thomas, an’ th’ cunt o’ lady Jane!”

“Oh, don’t tease him,” said Connie, crawling on her knees on the bed towards him and putting her arms round his white slender loins, and drawing him to her so that her hanging swinging breasts touched the top of the stirring erect phallus, and caught the drop of moisture. She held the man fast.

Nussbaum comments:

Here there is a sense in which both parties put aside their individuality and become identified with their bodily organs. They see one another in terms of those organs… [But the] intense focusing of attention on the bodily parts seems an addition, rather than a subtraction, and the scene of passion… is rendered benign and loving, is rendered in fact liberating, by this very objectification.

Why does this objectification seem benign to us? Perhaps because it is symmetrical and practiced in a context of equality and mutual respect. Moreover, instrumentalization is not to be found here. As Nussbaum says, “the surrender of autonomy and even of agency and subjectivity are joyous, a kind of victorious achievement in the prison house of English respectability.” Even the fungibility of the bodily parts is avoided by giving personal names to them, later in the novel.

Contrast this with Molly Bloom in Ulysses, who considers Blazes Boylan nothing but a big penis. Her objectification of him does not involve ownership or inertness or instrumentalization or denial of autonomy, but only fungibility (another big cock would do) and denial of subjectivity (she does not care about Blazes’ feelings).

The Playboy Images

But let me turn now to the example in Nussbaum’s article most relevant to the controversial post that launched this investigation: my Sexy Scientists post, in which I shared the photos of 15 attractive female scientists without much comment.

Nussbaum writes:

The message given by [the Playboy] picture and caption is, “Whatever else this woman is and does, for us she is an object for sexual enjoyment.” Once again, the male reader is told, in effect, that he is the one with subjectivity and autonomy, and on the other side are things that look very sexy and are displayed out there for his consumption, like delicious pieces of fruit, existing only or primarily to satisfy his desire…

Playboy depicts a thoroughgoing fungibility and commodification of sex partners… Used as a masturbatory aid, it encourages the idea that an easy satisfaction can be had in this uncomplicated way, without the difficulties attendant on recognizing women’s subjectivity and autonomy in a more full-blooded way.

…what Playboy repeatedly says to its reader is, “Whoever this woman is and whatever she has achieved, for you she is cunt, all her pretensions vanish before your sexual power” … Playboy, I conclude, is a bad influence on men…

Thus, the Playboy images exhibit several features of objectification: instrumentalization, denial of autonomy, fungibility, and denial of subjectivity.

We might also consider three features of objectification added to Nussbaum’s list in 2009 by Rae Langton:

  • reduction to body: treatment of a person as identified with their body, or body parts
  • reduction to appearance: treatment of a person primarily in terms of how they look
  • silencing: the treatment of a person as if they lack the capacity to speak1

The Playboy images seem to exhibit these features of objectification, too.

The “Muddy People” Images

What shall we make of Nussbaum’s article? I am grateful to Nussbaum for clarifying the subject of objectification, and for exploring our moral intuitions. But has she given us good reason to think that objectification is wrong, and more specifically that objectification of the Playboy or Sexy Scientists type is wrong?

Alas, Nussbaum’s article cannot do this by itself, for the notion of objectification it discusses assumes an entire meta-ethical framework that must be defended elsewhere. In this case, it is a Kantian meta-ethics, which is one I cannot accept because I have never encountered good evidence for the reality of categorical imperatives or intrinsic duties.

But let us skip that problem for now and consider another.

Last year, popular photo blog The Big Picture did a post on “Our muddy world,” featuring images of people playing in mud, like this one:

Now, consider those who object to the Playboy images because these images objectify women as described above. Somehow I doubt these people would object to The Big Picture’s fun, harmless photos of people playing in mud. And yet the exact same features of objectification are at play.

For us, these people are nothing but objects of our entertainment and pleasure. We have instrumentalized them. Moreover, they are fungible. It does not matter to us which people are covered in mud and looking silly. And just as with the Playboy images, these photos involve a denial of autonomy. Indeed, it is doubtful the permission to publish their photos was obtained. Moreover, we are not much interested in the feelings of these people but only their role in entertaining us as we gaze upon their mud-caked bodies – a denial of subjectivity.

The photos even incorporate all three of Langton’s additional criteria. Often, nothing of these mud-covered people can be seen or known except their bodies – in many cases, only body parts, sticking every which way. This is the reduction to body. There is also clearly a reduction to appearance. Their mud-covered appearance is their only interest to us. In many cases, the emotions they might be having are totally obscured by the mud covering their faces. They are also, of course, silent to us.

If these features of objectification are apt to the Playboy images, they are apt to the “muddy people” images.

Of course, there are disanalogies to be found. The Playboy images (especially with the caption) involved sexuality, and the “muddy people” images do not particularly do so. But if this is the line of thought that leads us to condemn Playboy but not The Big Picture, then we are bringing in another concept outside of objectification.

For example, perhaps we want to say that Playboy‘s objectifications harm women by contributing to a culture of sexual prejudice, but The Big Picture’s objectifications do not cause any such harm. But then we are not appealing to this Kantian notion of objectification. Rather, we are appealing to, perhaps, utilitarian principles.

Thus it is not objectification itself, or even the specific features of objectification exemplified in Playboy and The Big Picture, that might explain why the Playboy photos should be condemned but not those from The Big Picture.2

So without further examination we may be left with no explanation for why objectification is wrong, or even why the Playboy images are wrong. We will either need to strengthen our case for the wrongness of particular types of objectification, or we will need to employ other moral principles to show the wrongness of the Playboy images and of the Sexy Scientists post.

The problem with objectification is not that the act of objectification is wrong, but that the concept of objectification fails to explain why something like Playboy is wrong.

  1. Sexual Solipcism, pp. 228-229. []
  2. Lina Papadaki points out similar problems with the notion of objectification in “Sexual Objectification: From Kant to Contemporary Feminism” (2007). []

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{ 87 comments… read them below or add one }

Jscottkill July 20, 2010 at 6:56 am

Not sure you should refer to Nussbaum as Kantian. She’s more of a Virtue Ethicist. See “Human Functioning and Social Justice: In Defense of Aristotelian Essentialism.”

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Haukur July 20, 2010 at 6:57 am

Good post.

We might ask: Under what circumstances would the mud-picture be problematic? Perhaps if there was a long history of an oppressed class of people who had to cover themselves with mud for the enjoyment of their masters?

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lukeprog July 20, 2010 at 7:03 am

Jscottkill,

I didn’t mean to call Nussbaum Kantian, but rather the feminist concept of objectification as discussed in her article. I’ll clarify the language, thanks.

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lukeprog July 20, 2010 at 7:05 am

Haukur,

Yes, but what I’m trying hard to figure out is why would that make it wrong? It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the objectification. That appears to be a judgment from a utilitarian perspective, though I suspect you could also defend it via contractarianism or virtue ethics.

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Haukur July 20, 2010 at 7:09 am

Luke,

Yes, but what I’m trying hard to figure out is why would that make it wrong?

Because my innate moral sense tells me it would be, that’s why! :D

In other words, you’ve got me.

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lukeprog July 20, 2010 at 7:25 am

Haukur,

After many, many hours discussing this, my moral intuitions have changed and now tell me that my original post was wrong. But as you know, I don’t trust my moral intuitions! So I’m trying to figure what is wrong with my original Sexy Scientists post, if there is indeed something wrong with it. And the “something wrong with it” doesn’t appear to be objectification.

But if you come up with anything better than intuitions, let me know! I’m all ears. I’d very much like to figure out why I’m wrong so I can apologize and get this over with. :)

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Terry July 20, 2010 at 7:28 am

The comparison between the muddy images and the Playboy article or sexy scientist list is bogus.

There are no individuals listed by name or otherwise uniquely identifiable in the muddy images. In fact you can’t really even make out ethnicity (even gender is difficult). The “we’re all the same” message found in the muddy images tends to shrink the divide between us because they are inclusive, whereas your list is exclusive and does the opposite.

Also, do you not see a difference between individual objectification and the objectification in the muddy images? Your argument seems to be: Look, I’ve found an example of objectification that doesn’t necessarily offend women, therefore objectifying women is OK.

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Haukur July 20, 2010 at 7:32 am

Luke,

I’d like to know too. So far all I’ve got are a) my moral intuition and b) my principle not to gratuitously offend people.

I’m hoping if someone explains this clearly enough so that you’ll understand it then you’ll be able to explain it clearly enough so that I will understand it.

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Terry July 20, 2010 at 7:37 am

Hmm, I’ve reconsidered what I think your argument is: Here is an example of objectification that most people would agree is not “bad”, therefore objectification is not necessarily “bad”. Maybe that is more fair. I’ll have to think about that a little more – its a good point.

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lukeprog July 20, 2010 at 7:40 am

BTW, the conversation at P.Z.’s site has resumed. So far, nobody even cares about the arguments involved. All they want to do is “follow you gut” morality.

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MKandefer July 20, 2010 at 7:50 am

Terry,

I was about to point that out to you. I’m glad you discovered it on your own :)

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MKandefer July 20, 2010 at 7:52 am

Luke,

This is to be expected since most people don’t think about ethics, and I believe, P.Z. subscribes to moral relativism, or error theory.* Thus, it is natural that his opinion influences his readers.

* – To be honest I don’t know what the distinction is. Is moral relativism more of a property of moral theories, and error theory one such moral theory?

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Haukur July 20, 2010 at 8:11 am

Terry,

Here is an example of objectification that most people would agree is not “bad”, therefore objectification is not necessarily “bad”.

Yeah, exactly, you put it well. I visualize the train of thought like this:

1. Luke’s post is bad because of X.

2. Maybe X = objectification?

3. Hmm, Luke’s post clearly has objectification in spandrels. So far so good for this theory.

4. But it’s possible to come up with examples of objectification that don’t seem bad so objectification doesn’t seem to be the whole story.

5. Okay, maybe Luke’s post is bad because of objectification and Y.

6. Perhaps, but this is only progress if we know that Y is something simpler than X. This isn’t obvious. Are we back to square 1?

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demiurge July 20, 2010 at 8:36 am

The sexism and objectification charges rang hollow from the start. I do see a possible argument for privacy/permission problems with the original post.

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Eric July 20, 2010 at 8:36 am

I’m really impressed with how you have handled this. Some of the commenters over at PZs blog are terrible. It’s commendable that you’re able to continually engage with them considering all the thoughtless invective and shocking sanctimony they spew at you.

Consequently, I’ve learned a lot about this issue of tone that is a criticism of the “new” atheists. Even though PZ matches his harsh tone with well thought out reasoning, it seems that the harsh tone is all that some people take away from him.

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Terry July 20, 2010 at 9:10 am

demiurge:

“The sexism and objectification charges rang hollow from the start.”

I don’t think that’s the conclusion that can or is being drawn here. Just the opposite, Luke has agreed whole heartedly that his post objectified the women on the list (the sexist charge is less clear, I’ll give you that). The question now is, why is objectifying bad?

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clamat July 20, 2010 at 10:40 am

Knowing I’ll likely be taken to the woodshed for being all squishy…

@Luke

“I’d very much like to figure out why I’m wrong so I can apologize and get this over with.”

I propose the following: (1) In the context of adult human relationships, if one knows one has done something wrong, one apologizes for it. (2) Formally proving the precise philosophical nature of the “wrongness” should come a distant second. (These propositions likely are not part of any articulated moral or ethical system, but they should be, dangit!)

You’ve got your moral intuition that it was wrong. The concensus of moral intuitions seems to be that it was wrong. You’ve got a host of somewhat satisfactory moral/ethical arguments for why it was wrong. You haven’t got any arguments for why it wasn’t wrong (much less an argument for why it was right).

Consider applying Potter Stewartism in this single instance: We can’t define it, but we know it when we see it. Or, to echo a figure more commonly discussed on this site, can we accept that, just this once, it is enough to feel convinced that it must be wrong, and it’s not as important to find out precisely where the wrongness lies?

You’ve made a sincere attempt at understanding. You want to apologize and move on. I know it’s easy for me to say, but it seems pretty simple: Do it. If you apologize and move on, you have nothing to apologize for.

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lukeprog July 20, 2010 at 10:41 am

MKandefer,

Relativism and error theory are kept distinct by philosophers, but I think this is mostly because moral realists want to unfairly represent relativism. :)

There are so many varieties of relativism it’s hard to say. I suspect a few of them are basically identical to error theory.

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demiurge July 20, 2010 at 10:59 am

Terry

Sorry, that wasn’t very clear. I will have to agree that the initial post was objectifying in a manner. I am of the mind that it was probably done with good intentions having followed Luke’s blog for quite some time. What troubles me about this whole tempest in a teapot is the overreaction and lack of critical thinking demonstrated in many of the posts. Luke has bent over backwards to see his critics POV. That can’t be said for most of his detractors.

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Thrasymachus July 20, 2010 at 11:10 am

Luke:

(Pre-emptive apologies if I’ve pingback spammed you. I didn’t realize wordpress did this automatically!)

Firstly, I don’t think that the objectifying concerns failing to be exhaustive or sufficient really matter. Just take them as heuristics as to objectifying behaviour. Perhaps the ‘missing ingredient’ is something like ‘demeaning demarcation’. Being marked as someone who plays in mud isn’t an issue, being marked (or taken to have been marked) as a clueless sex-doll is.

I also don’t think we need to worry too much about meta-ethics (or even normative ethics) here. That isn’t because I’m a fan of ‘just go with your gut’ morality, but because the case against these sorts of objectifications (and your list in particular) can be made in a manner ecunumenical to meta-ethical principles, or even particular schools of applied theory (demeaning/objectifying people is wrong in virtue of the displeasure it causes, or in virtue of using means-as-ends, or in virtue curtailing their flourishing or whatever else.)

I’ve done my own blog post about it all here. Look on the bright side – at least all this moral kerfuffle has brought up something interesting!

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Haukur July 20, 2010 at 11:28 am

Thrasymachus,

Perhaps the ‘missing ingredient’ is something like ‘demeaning demarcation’.

But it isn’t obviously enough demeaning! I mean, I think it is probably demeaning, my moral intuition tells me it’s wrong, I’ve tried to convince Luke it is wrong – but we still lack a clear and coherent case for why the post is demeaning/wrong.

Being marked as someone who plays in mud isn’t an issue, being marked (or taken to have been marked) as a clueless sex-doll is.

But he didn’t say they were clueless! He said they were scientists, that implies anything but cluelessness. We still haven’t gotten from A to B here.

Also: I can much more easily visualize getting from ‘covered in mud’ to ‘demeaning’ than getting from ‘sexy’ to ‘demeaning’.

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MKandefer July 20, 2010 at 11:40 am

Luke,

After reading the back and forth over at P.Z.’s blog, here are some thoughts.

I think what you’re doing with this is useful for a number of reasons, probably up there is pointing out that people often adhere to certain ethical attitudes without convincing reason to do so. However, if you continue to make posts that refute certain avenues of why people think this was wrong, it’s going to look like you don’t think you were. Yes, this is a form of irrational thinking, but, it’s P.Z.’s blog. It’s rampant. I think you should first collect a bunch of sources and arguments, perhaps list what you intend to read so people don’t accuse you of backing down, read them, and then report what, if anything, was a rational reason for why you were wrong. Tying it to desirism would be excellent :)

On that note, I think the objectifying avenue wasn’t the best reason, in and of itself. Perhaps objectification in combination with the desires of women to have a secure working environment might be. It’s not special pleading if reasons are provided for the exception. Maybe this is a very special form of objectification.

I appreciate what you’re doing. I’ve had very little exposure to ethical arguments, and it was one of those areas I took for granted before reading your blog. It’s great that we have people willing to scrutinize ethical positions at more than a “gut feeling” level.

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Robert Gressis July 20, 2010 at 11:43 am

Relativism is the view that whether x is right or wrong depends on something like who is saying it, or which culture it occurs in, or which species does it, etc. An individualist relativist would say something like, “whether it’s true that x is right or wrong depends on whether the individual who committed x thinks it’s right or wrong.” Cultural relativism is the view that whether it’s true that x is right or wrong depends on the culture in which x is committed. So: in American culture it’s true that it would be permissible for a woman to wear a burka. In Afghani culture, it would be true that it’s obligatory for a woman to wear a burka.

Error theory: all moral statements (as opposed to statements about morality) are false. Thus if I say, “it’s sexist to post pictures of sexy scientists”, it’s false to say that it’s wrong and it’s false to say that it’s right (i.e., permissible or obligatory).

I suspect that P.Z. and most of his comments are error theorists, which makes it highly amusing and confusing that they’re going on about what is and isn’t sexist.

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clamat July 20, 2010 at 11:52 am

@Thrasymachus

“Being marked as someone who plays in the mud isn’t an issue, being marked (or taken to have been marked) as a clueless sex-doll is.”

This brings up a fact that I haven’t seen addressed. If I remember correctly, the List was preceded by a standard, professional soft-core shot: Hot young girl in lingerie, lipstick pout, on her elbows, boobs down, ass up. Clearly, the “message” of this picture is “Do me.” Posting it suggests the response “I’d sure like to!” Prefacing a “Sexy” (which more often than not is equivalent to “I’d like to have sex with”) Scientist List this way suggests the same messages and responses apply to the pictures of the Fifteen. It suggests an intent to reduce these women to sex objects, and an intent to encourage others to do the same. Worse, it suggests that, because the first picture was obviously consensual, all women who post pictures tacitly consent to them being used this way. Isn’t that demeaning?

Tangential, maybe, and it doesn’t demonstrate that reducing women to sex objects is philosophically “wrong,” but it’s certainly suggestive (pun intended).

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MKandefer July 20, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Robert,

Thanks for the clarification. Yes, I think error theory does describe P.Z. based on this post:

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/05/sam_harris_v_sean_carroll.php

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thecos July 20, 2010 at 12:30 pm

@clamat

Interestingly, I had the same reaction to the shot of the hot girl preceding the list. The other thing I was suspicious about was the picture of Serena Kamber, the “Hospital Scientist”. What the heck is a hospital scientist? She sure looked like a professional model, so I googled her and found this:

http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/showbiz/bizarre/article1211985.ece

So, it turns out that the sultry shot of a hot chick in lingerie IS not only a genuine female scientist, but one of the ones of the list.

I do agree though that microscope aside, those photos of her are depicting her as Serena Kamber, lingerie model, and not Serena Kamber, fully qualified bio-medical scientist, which is a big part of why I found the original list to be somewhat distasteful (although I still wouldn’t call it sexist). I just found it somewhat uncomfortable to have a number of female scientist’s regular photos in the list with two shots of a very sexy, scantily clad model, even if said model happens to also be a scientist.

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clamat July 20, 2010 at 12:48 pm

@thecos

Thanks for doing the legwork on that. For the sake of domestic harmony, I will trust you on the contents of the link. I’ll have to consider the full significance of the “scientist/model.”

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clamat July 20, 2010 at 1:02 pm

All right, I’ll stick my chin out further…

With regard to “from the gut” morality, it concerns me that some seem to think they can –indeed should — be morally convinced of anything without their gut.

I am overcome by a desire to kick a random person in the shin. No reason, I just feel like it. I ask myself “would it be wrong?” If I answer myself “Well, if solipsism is correct, random person doesn’t even exist. I have deeply considered solipsim, and haven’t seen a convincing argument to disprove it, so kick away.” Is this reasonable?

This is terribly simplistic, of course. But it is just to say that one objection we “gut people” have to favoring a strict philosophical approach to real world situations is it seems that only through philosophy can somebody rationally convince themselves that kicking a random person in the shin may not be wrong.

Elsewhere, it has been argued that relying on moral intuition is objectionable because throughout history moral intuitions have supported immoral institutions, such as slavery. True, but if relying on moral intuition is objectionable, does that mean the unlettered slave was unjustified in saying “my gut tells me slavery is wrong”? (I know, I know – “my gut tells me there is a God.” I don’t have time to go into it, but I think there are good reasons for thinking the two are not analogous.)

This is not to say people shouldn’t think about moral issues. Of course they should, and hard.

But if I have a “moral intuition,” explore the moral/ethical arguments to the best of my abilities (and available time), but ultimately can’t “prove” my moral intuition is “right,” eventually don’t I have to rely on it anyway? What other choice do I have? How much research, reading and thinking is enough? Until somebody comes up with a mathematical formula to truly “prove” morality, does anyone have any choice but to adopt the (carefully considered) moral/ethical system that simply “feels” best to them?

I welcome, but don’t expect, detailed responses. As I’ve acknowledged elsewhere, I’m a relative neophyte: If this is all too elementary, and someone cares to recommended reading on this issue, whether posts or publications, that’d be great, too. (On ethics generally, Aristotle and Kant have already been suggested, though I’m sure there’s lot in between those two!)

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MKandefer July 20, 2010 at 1:18 pm

Clamat said,

“I am overcome by a desire to kick a random person in the shin. No reason, I just feel like it. I ask myself “would it be wrong?” If I answer myself “Well, if solipsism is correct, random person doesn’t even exist. I have deeply considered solipsim, and haven’t seen a convincing argument to disprove it, so kick away.” Is this reasonable?

This is terribly simplistic, of course. But it is just to say that one objection we “gut people” have to favoring a strict philosophical approach to real world situations is it seems that only through philosophy can somebody rationally convince themselves that kicking a random person in the shin may not be wrong.”

Both of the positions you describe are philosophy, in a sense. One is justifying the moral belief, and subsequent action, using the flawed reasoning of one individual. The second, is based on gut feeling. Do you think the whole of ethics boils down to a choice between poor reasoning and “gut feelings”? Or do you acknowledge the alternative, that many thinkers have thought about ethics over the years, and that maybe there are moral systems that do not utilize anything resembling the two processes you’ve described here? For example, cultural relativism (described above) does not follow either of these two methods.

Furthermore, the argument was not through “any old philosophy” can one justify moral actions. Soundness, consistency, and usefulness come into play as well. Nor was the argument made that moral systems must expunge subjective states from their consideration, which I presume you include among “gut feelings”. For example, desire utilitarianism, from what I understand of it, requires that one evaluate desires. Desires are subjective in the sense that they are mental states individuals have, but objective in that we have means of observing people’s desires through their behaviors and subjective reports.

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Robert Gressis July 20, 2010 at 1:41 pm

@MKandefer,

The post you linked to by Myers doesn’t seem to be one where he’s endorsing nihilism, and in it he explicitly rules out relativism. He says merely that there isn’t a scientific basis for morality, but he thinks certain goals are good ones to have. If you pushed him on what it means when he says that “goal X is one we should have”, I suspect he’d justify it via an emotion or desire. He’d say something like, “well, this goals seems worth pursuing to me–I have a pro-attitude to it–so I think we should pursue it.” (I can’t ask him these questions directly because I suspect he (or, more likely, his commenters) would give me an answer that’s ambiguous, I’d ask for clarification, explaining why that answer could mean more than one thing, and then I’d get yelled out for supposedly willfully ignoring the obvious. If I persisted, I’d be told that I’m a f***wit.)

Assuming I’m right about Myers, then this would mean that if people have different basic desires, he’d think that there’s no reasoning with them, and this leads me to suspect that he thinks all morality, at the end of the day, is based on how one reacts emotionally to certain goals. This would make him an expressivist, and would probably mean that he thinks no moral statement is true or false, but is really just a disguised expression of emotion.

Alternatively, he could take the view that he thinks certain things really are right and wrong, regardless of whether people disagree, and that this can’t be cashed out scientifically, but that there must be some sense, a non-scientific one, in which moral claims are objective; he just doesn’t know what it is. I suspect, though, that this would go against his whole, “people should be willing to admit the possibility of mystery when it comes to science, but in philosophy the answers are all obvious” schtick.

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clamat July 20, 2010 at 1:57 pm

@MKandefer

Thanks, this is helpful.

I certainly didn’t mean to suggest ethics or morality are an “either/or” proposition, or that I think the whole of ethics “boils down to a choice between poor reasoning and ‘gut feelings’.”

Rather, my aim was to suggest that it appears that even the best ethical reasoning (“best” in the sense of being the most sound, most consistent, and most useful) ultimately cannot be divorced from gut feelings. Your explication of desire utilitarianism makes me think I’m not too far off the mark.

But can we go further? I suspect what we feel be important or right ultimately is exactly what defines what is important or right. Hypothetical: If nobody, slave or master, ever had a gut feeling that slavery was wrong, would it be wrong? Many of the philosophical arguments against slavery would still obtain, wouldn’t they? But if no person personally cared about it, so what?

Nor did I intend to suggest that anybody was arguing that “any old philosophy” can justify moral actions. Rather, I was expressing a sentiment as to why I think many people are suspicious of the discipline of philosophy: If you give enough smart people enough time and pages, they can convincingly argue that there may not be enough “reason” to believe that something is wrong, even if our gut screams it sure the hell is.

Put it this way: If I don’t have the mental horsepower or the time to fully demonstrate the validity or invalidity of desire utilitarianism (not to mention every other competing philosophy), am I justified – in a philosophical sense – to say “I’ve thought about it, and “X” feels right”?

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Haukur July 20, 2010 at 2:00 pm

Those are some really unpleasant people over on the Myers blog. I’d forgotten why CSA is the only atheist blog I read – now I remember.

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Terry July 20, 2010 at 2:08 pm

clamat:

I think you raise some valid points. I would state is like this:

A purely academic philosophical ethics debate is necessary and useful. However, explicitly analyzing each ethical decision we make during the course of every day life is impractical. So we must rely somewhat on “by your gut” ethics.

At the same time, hopefully, and with some disciplined effort, our guts will gradually be more informed by rationally justified ethical philosophy. But it takes time and effort to internalize these things.

In addition, until a universally agreed upon and proven ethical philosophy emerges, we must accept the possibility that our current ethical philosophy may be imperfect. And therefore we must leave room for some “on the fly” adjustment when things seem to be going off the rails. I submit it is our “by the gut” ethical sense that provides the impetus for these adjustments.

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clamat July 20, 2010 at 2:43 pm

@Terry

This all sounds very reasonable. Thanks for your thoughts. The education continues.

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al friedlander July 20, 2010 at 2:58 pm

There definitely are more astute objections from erudite/considerate individuals, but in many other cases, you’re the ‘easy target’ and many enjoy watching you (ironically) burn at the stake.

I second Eric’s comment. Luke, you have insane endurance/patience. A % of the comments directed at you are obviously ‘cathartic-purges’ from people with preexisting, underlying issues.

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Sal Bro July 20, 2010 at 2:59 pm

Actually, the commenters at PZ’s blog gave several well reasoned arguments about how this instance of objectification was probably harmful. Over and over again, commenters pointed out that the problem isn’t objectification per se, because harmless examples of objectification can be easily found. I’m glad you seem to have realized this. They then went on to explain that, in this instance, a long history of objectification of women that is rooted in sexism is what makes your particular act of objectification harmful. Because of its high potential to cause these specific women (and female scientists, in general) harm, and because of its low potential to serve women any good, many commenters concluded that the objectification in your post was of the harmful variety.

In short, the answer to your question about why your instance of objectification was “wrong”: It occurred within the context of pervasive sexism in our society, in which young, female scientists are already struggling to have successful careers on par with equally qualified male scientists. You may not have objectified these women for sexist reasons, but you’ve made it easy for other, more overtly sexist persons to do so. And you did this without the permission of the female scientists involved.

The fact that PZ was included in your list just highlights the argument that context matters. PZ’s inclusion in your list was “lighthearted and fun”, as you intended, because PZ, as a white, older male, will probably not be negatively affected by being included on your list. In all likelihood (through increased hits to his blog), he may have received a net positive effect. He’d be a control for any potential experiments examining the effects on list members of being objectified.

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Sal Bro July 20, 2010 at 3:20 pm

al friedlander:

A % of the comments directed at you are obviously ‘cathartic-purges’ from people with preexisting, underlying issues.

Another type of context matters in this example: The “issue” is that blogs have histories, and the community of people that regularly participate in blogs have cultures. In the very recent past, PZ and his regulars have rather painfully* examined issues related to feminism, many of which are directly related to this topic. Given that (as Luke is discovering) there is already a large body of literature about objectification, and that many members of Pharyngula have recently and repeatedly reviewed arguments contained in this literature, Luke may have appeared ignorant (for not recognizing that these topics have recently been covered in depth, or for not recognizing that such literature exists) or lazy (for requesting that other people take the time [again] to summarize this large body of literature).

Luke may have found it to be more helpful for his purposes — and he may have been more politely received by the Pharyngula crowd — if he had done relevant reading first and then returned with specific questions.

*I do mean “painful”. These discussions have resulted in several nasty arguments among regulars who consider one another to be friends. It hasn’t been a pleasant exercise for many regulars involved.

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mkandefer July 20, 2010 at 3:24 pm

Clamat,

I think practicality enters the picture in ethics much as it does in science. In science we understand that our theories are probable, not certain. That we haven’t explored all of the universe doesn’t prevent us from accepting statements like, “We know that planets (probably) follow elliptical orbits.” I put “probably” in parentheses as even that is left out most of the time. We accept as knowledge the results of scientific inquiry, even though we simultaneously acknowledge the provisional nature of this knowledge.

Ethical systems might be the same way. Though this isn’t an area I’m well versed in, I speculate we can accept as the case some moral theory so long as it is better (whatever that might mean) than a competing moral theory. I would identify one criteria as important, consistency with what we know. If a moral theory relies on entities that can’t be observed, or are known not to exist, a moral theory that doesn’t is probably better. For example, moral realist theories that require an intrinsically good god. Other than this, I echo what Terry has said about practicality.

I do not think personal feelings need to enter the picture, in the sense that what one believes to be ethical is needed in establishing what’s ethical. To the contrary, utilitarian systems would not consider what any one individual believes, but rather whether or not the action improves the aggregate of some property (e.g., happiness, pleasure, desire). In such a system, even an adherent may find that what they believe to be a moral act is not.

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Justfinethanks July 20, 2010 at 3:27 pm

Some of the commenters over at PZs blog are terrible.

That’s an understatement. They seem to be insulting Luke for trying to think out an immensely complex issue rather than just falling to his knees and reciting forty rosaries for being such a naughty, naughty sexist.

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oxmax July 20, 2010 at 3:48 pm

I’m confused… so is jerking off to playboy or a fantasy sexist now?

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Thrasymachus July 20, 2010 at 4:19 pm

Haukur:

I don’t see the problem in not having some rigorous argument as to why some manner of portrayal is demeaning. If we wanted to carefully plot it out, we’d argue something like:

1) The idiom and behaviour of making a sexy scientists list stands within a tradition of sexist abuse (whether Luke intended it to or not). Certius paribus, you shouldn’t do this.

2) The act of ripping someones private photos to use to advertise someone’s sexuality without their consent, and further to invite others into a one-way lascivious relationship is wrong on it’s own merits.

Why are we trying to carefully Chrisholm this out? 2) seems clearly true in a context-free manner. 1) is context dependent, but so what? In other worlds where sexy never had these connotations, it wouldn’t be a problem. But it does. It might be interesting to work out exactly in virtue of what these things are wrong, but that isn’t needed to reach the fairly easy conclusion that they are.

Fine-graining this out makes it clearer. Mud and dirt might be generally demeaning, but playing in mud (a bit like Holi or that Tomato-throwing thing) isn’t. Yet calling random people ‘sexy’ off the cyber-street is. This simply isn’t a case where basal intuitions need to be challenged.

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Moh July 20, 2010 at 4:28 pm

from luke’s post in pzmyers blog:
“Your vitriol and insults have probably contributed, at least, to winning my intuitions over to your side, as my intuitions now tell me the original post was wrong. I’m not immune to my emotions. I just don’t confuse my emotions with epistemic justification. That way lies religion.”

The vitriol and insults shouldn’t have won your intuitions over. Assholes are assholes luke – ignore them.

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other eric July 20, 2010 at 4:31 pm

Luke: “we are not much interested in the feelings of these people but only their role in entertaining us as we gaze upon their mud-caked bodies”

i don’t get your interpretation of this muddy people image at all. the image only carries interest when we DO take interest in their feelings, as in:

“whoa! i wonder what it would feel like to be in a giant muddy mass of people. that would be crazy.”

this first response to that muddy image is empathy. whereas the first response to the playboy image, for a straight male, is to mentally eliminate all content but those with sexual interest. at no point do you think,”huh, i wonder what it feels like to be a tennis player.”

this element of empathy and the intent of “sexy” pictures to directly stimulate people seem kind of important.
maybe you also need to involve a reading on how people view and respond to images.

as far as moral arguments go… maybe something about your desire to compile collections of images of sexy women and then share them on the innernets being more malleable than those of millions of women desiring not to be publicly sexually objectified without their permission…? or something?

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Mark July 20, 2010 at 4:51 pm

1) The idiom and behaviour of making a sexy scientists list stands within a tradition of sexist abuse (whether Luke intended it to or not). Certius paribus, you shouldn’t do this.

This seems way too vague to serve as a useful criterion for anything. Which sexual behaviors cannot be said to “stand within a tradition of sexual abuse” somehow?

2) The act of ripping someones private photos to use to advertise someone’s sexuality without their consent, and further to invite others into a one-way lascivious relationship is wrong on it’s own merits.

Agreed, maybe, but only because of your use of the word “private.” There’s plenty of room to deny that the photos in question were private in the relevant way.

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Thrasymachus July 20, 2010 at 8:24 pm

Mark:

This seems way too vague to serve as a useful criterion for anything. Which sexual behaviors cannot be said to “stand within a tradition of sexual abuse” somehow?

Few, so you’re contextually sensitive and use community standards. There’s perhaps a continuum of words you can and can’t use (consider slut, slapper, etc.) Yet I don’t see the problem with it being vague – it’s unsurprising, and, anyway, given the storm of moral criticism, it seemed pretty clear to most of us.

Agreed, maybe, but only because of your use of the word “private.” There’s plenty of room to deny that the photos in question were private in the relevant way.”

What room? With perhaps one exception, all of these photos weren’t intended to be co-opted for sexualized portrayal. Why think it’s okay to do it anyway?

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oarobin July 20, 2010 at 9:07 pm

interesting discussion so far but apart from the ethical discussions so far i would like to explore an empirical one. there seems to be the implicit assumption that photos of seminude/nude women displayed in a public manner cause,strengthen,perpetuate or in some way contribute to sexist attitude and behaviours in men. but this seems to be a mistake on my very superficial understanding ( haven’t read the literature, discuss the matter with any experts just asking for pointers) because it would imply that sexism should be on the rise over the last 60 years as televison, internet, magazine content has exploded with such imagery. has this been the case? and do we know how the viewing leads to the attitude?

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Mark July 20, 2010 at 9:09 pm

Few, so you’re contextually sensitive and use community standards.

Again, I don’t see how this helps. Which sexual behaviors under which contexts cannot be said to stand within a tradition of sexual abuse? As I understand them, feminists like Dworkin have argued that nearly all heterosexual relationships as typically conceived in our culture stand within such a tradition, and historically speaking I think there’s much to be said for their case. Do you, like Dworkin, bite the bullet here and accept that, ceteris paribus, one shouldn’t enter into a heterosexual relationship?

There’s perhaps a continuum of words you can and can’t use (consider slut, slapper, etc.) Yet I don’t see the problem with it being vague – it’s unsurprising, and, anyway, given the storm of moral criticism, it seemed pretty clear to most of us.

It’s definitely clear how Luke publicly ogling accomplished women can be framed as continuous with male historical disregard for female identity. That’s not vague. What’s unclear is how we can base any serious moral principle on what’s “frameable.”

What room? With perhaps one exception, all of these photos weren’t intended to be co-opted for sexualized portrayal. Why think it’s okay to do it anyway?

What is “sexualized portrayal” here? Being called sexy by someone? In that case, I don’t think anyone has moral rights over how his or her consensually public photo should be portrayed. Thomas Kinkaide probably doesn’t intend for his paintings to be “portrayed” as hideous schmaltz; is it then wrong of me to create a “Top Fifteen Worst Paintings” blog post with a picture from Kinkaide’s website on it?

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Mark July 20, 2010 at 9:11 pm

Do you, like Dworkin, bite the bullet here and accept that, ceteris paribus, one shouldn’t enter into a heterosexual relationship?

Actually, the “like Dworkin” bit would be disingenuous to her actual views (or what I understand them to be).

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lukeprog July 20, 2010 at 9:55 pm

Moh,

I know. I’m trying. I like to think it was the hints at various arguments that swayed my intuitions. But I’m not Superman.

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Mark July 20, 2010 at 11:05 pm

I know. I’m trying. I like to think it was the hints at various arguments that swayed my intuitions. But I’m not Superman.

I sometimes feel that, for better or for worse, scorn is in fact the only way we really change each other’s moral intuitions.

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Haukur July 21, 2010 at 1:24 am

Thrasymachus,

I agree on the privacy issue. Like I said in an earlier thread:

Lots of people are touchy about how their pictures are used. Let’s say someone took my picture from here and reposted it in some weird (but at least prima facie complimentary) context. Let’s say, “Top 10 linguistics PhD candidates with awesome hats!” I would not be entirely comfortable with this and I know a lot of people who are more private than me about such things.

What I’m still trying to figure out is the specifically feminist/sexist angle. For that I’ve been considering the hypothetical case where Luke made the same post but got permission from every relevant person. My moral intuition tells me the post would still have been wrong (though considerably less so than the actual post) and I’d like to be able to clearly articulate why that is so.

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Zeb July 21, 2010 at 3:14 am

Luke, isn’t this how desirism is supposed to work? Whether or not your beliefs change, your desire to post sexy scientist posts has been changed to am aversion. Between desrism’s emphasis on malleable desires, and desirists’ emphasis on true beliefs, I’m not sure whether you should be trying to reason out whether your action was wrong or if you should just be letting the community of desirers have their effect on your own desires.

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Haukur July 21, 2010 at 3:31 am

Zeb,

But there’s more than one knob to tune – Perhaps Luke’s “desire to post sexy!pix” has been turned down but maybe it would have been more optimal to turn down other people’s “desire not to have sexy!pix posted”.

That’s the way every discussion about desirism seems to go anyway. Luke’s critics suggest turning one knob but Luke suggests it would be better to turn another.

It should be called knobism, not desirism. Stubid knobs.

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Silas July 21, 2010 at 4:46 am

Zeb,

Not really. Maybe he has an aversion to posting such lists now, but that doesn’t mean that he has good desires. Yes, desirism says that that is how we form our desires, but not whether those specific desires are good.

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other eric July 21, 2010 at 6:15 am

it’s disconcerting how luke, who is so intellectually invested in the idea of ethics, seems totally ethically paralyzed in this case. meanwhile the original post is still up, continuing to do harm. there seem to be enough factors – your own gut, the guts of the vast majority of those expressing opinions on the matter, the objections of the direct victims (women on the list), and the objections of the indirect victims (women in general) – to warrant making a call in this case and perhaps questioning and philosophically investigating it afterward to see what the arguments really are.

does this mean that those who investigate ethics become so wrapped up in theory that they are unable to act ethically in real life situations?

or does it mean that those who investigate ethics simply have more tools with which to try to justify their own nefarious actions/desires?

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lukeprog July 21, 2010 at 6:58 am

Eric,

Seriously? It’s been five days. Yeah, it sometimes takes that long to progress through a paradigm shift. I’m a very busy guy. I think you overestimate the damage being done by my one little list. You will have to be patient. I can’t flip a switch and figure this out all at once. I’m doing the bare minimum of research on the topic, as quickly as I can, and if that’s not good enough for you, too bad. I’m working on it. It’s not an oil spill killing hundreds of creatures by the hour.

does this mean that those who investigate ethics become so wrapped up in theory that they are unable to act ethically in real life situations?

Good question. See here.

or does it mean that those who investigate ethics simply have more tools with which to try to justify their own nefarious actions/desires?

Almost certainly. This is a very general truth about human beings. Because our biases are so deep, increasing our knowledge does not necessarily increase our ability to adopt true beliefs. It just gives us more ammo to argue against those who disagree with us. William Lane Craig is a superb example. Even gaining knowledge of cognitive biases may (I suspect) only reinforce our biases, because they serve as extra tools to see biases in our opponents and only on occasion within ourselves.

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MKandefer July 21, 2010 at 7:00 am
Haukur July 21, 2010 at 7:00 am

luke, who is so intellectually invested in the idea of ethics, seems totally ethically paralyzed in this case. meanwhile the original post is still up, continuing to do harm.

It’s probably done most of the harm it was ever going to do already and the eventual apology will be more effective (at harm reduction and other things) if it is more solidly thought out.

the guts of the vast majority of those expressing opinions on the matter

A majority but hardly the vast majority.

or does it mean that those who investigate ethics simply have more tools with which to try to justify their own nefarious actions/desires?

A valid concern. Something similar has been demonstrated in other contexts.

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other eric July 21, 2010 at 8:18 am

i wasn’t asking for a sudden paradigm shift (though it doesn’t seem like that big of a shift since you’ve already accepted that it’s likely that you’re implicitly sexist just as many of us are implicit racists), i explicitly stated that the investigation should continue after the cordial action of taking down the list has occurred.

isn’t the high probability that the list is doing more harm (admittedly marginal) than good enough reason to act?

is it ethically correct to continue an action which an almost but not quite vast majority finds harmful and you yourself are agnostic about?

is it ethically correct to continue an action which is likely causing harm while you investigate the arguments for and against? and for how long?
does this time change depending on the level of harm?

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Sal Bro July 21, 2010 at 8:42 am

It’s probably done most of the harm it was ever going to do already

I disagree. The main risk of harm does not come from readers of this blog, but through internet searches conducted by (potential) colleagues, or by people reading their papers/attending their talks and looking to make contact to discuss academic interests. The risk of this happening probably actually increases over time as the article becomes more discussed and linked to.

and the eventual apology will be more effective (at harm reduction and other things) if it is more solidly thought out.

The apology will be effective at reducing harm to Luke, not to the women on this list or to female scientists, in general.

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Sal Bro July 21, 2010 at 9:15 am

As a thought exercise, say one of the women on Teh Sexy List is an upcoming speaker at my institution. I want a picture of her to use in my promotional materials.

I do a Google search of “<her name> <her field> pic”.

Actually, I went ahead and did searches like this for the top 5 women on the list. For ALL of them, the Sexy Scientist list came up on the first page of results.

See for yourself (I’m leaving out their names here as to not add weight to this site, but each link includes results from the actual Google search; my results are based on a Google search done today at 1 PM):

Scientist #1
Scientist #2
Scientist #3 (Teh List is the #1 result)
Scientist #4 (Teh List is #3)
Scientist #5 (Teh List is #2)

Now, is it difficult to imagine that a small portion of attendees at these women’s talks, or upcoming students, or prospective employers might do a similar search and stumble on this list? And that, as a result, such persons might be more inclined to consider the women’s sexiness upon meeting them?

For me, this is reason enough for Luke to remove the list before he’s concluded his exercise in understanding whether or not it was wrong to begin with.

(Incidentally, a similar search for the sole male entry didn’t bring up the Sexy List for at least the first 13 pages of results, so it would be difficult to compare relative impact of the list on the professional lives of the man vs. the 13 women.)

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Polymeron July 21, 2010 at 10:06 am

I’m afraid I didn’t yet have pause to read every comment to this post yet, so I apologize in advance if what I say has already been echoed before. But if so then at least it can be a convergence of independent conclusions, which might be telling.

Luke, I found your comparative analysis of the two pictures fairly strange, and off. First of all, I don’t see why you assume the denial of subjectivity and autonomy in The Big Picture, especially subjectivity. The first things that grabbed my attention in the picture was “what are they thinking? Why are they doing this?”. My eye was drawn to trace where their eyes were, how their hands were in relation to each other – basically, how they were reacting to each other. If anything, I’d say that subjectivity is the most interesting part of the picture. This picture is interesting because what they are doing is *unusual*, not because it is physical.
Likewise, I don’t see why autonomy is stripped. Clearly these people chose to do something strange publicly, and their choice to do it is central to the picture (which is not the case in the Playboy picture – being exposed to the public is presented there as a clear side-effect).
Fungibility might also still be there. One of the things I wondered was whether they were doing it as part of a religious or cultural identity, which differentiates them from “people in the mud”. One might claim that putting them in a series of muddy people pictures strips this, but it is equally valid to claim that the series calls on the viewer to compare very different circumstances for an unusual situation – people getting dirty. In fact, these people are unique among the other pictures presented as they have their own set of circumstances and reasons for the behavior, some of which are left as an exercise to the reader.

In short, it’s not about sex. It’s that I don’t think this picture is objectifying them as much as you claim, and certainly not on par with the Playboy caption (more than the picture!) which clearly *aims* to objectify. I’ve looked further into the context on The Big Picture and nothing there points to these types of objectification you’ve pointed out. The arguments you’ve presented for it are very weak.

Do you have another example? Would you like to revisit the comparison? I think there are many and good reasons to differentiate between the two you’ve brought up as equivalent.

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Polymeron July 21, 2010 at 10:13 am

Forgot to mention – instrumentalization is again dubious. The viewer takes it as a restriction of the medium that they will gain information through a picture. If anything, we have instrumentalized the *picture* of the people, not the people themselves. Nowhere is it implied that the people are presented for us to derive anything from them (you claimed it was entertainment – why not education? Or curiosity?). Indeed, different people will doubtlessly see different things in the picture. The Playboy caption, in contrast, makes it clear that there is a specific purpose we will have this person fill for us, thus instrumentalizing them.

Really Luke, after the enlightening previous post where you managed to express so coherently that the full context is more important than the mere presence of objectification, I’d think you’d give the full context more weight. The Playboy pictures without the caption and NOT in Playboy would possibly not be a big deal for me either – depending on what they convey.

Keep in context ;)

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Silas July 21, 2010 at 10:15 am

Sal Bro,

My gut tells my that posting pictures of sexy scientists is a virtue. It is demanded of everyone that has access to the internet. And the majority of men would seem to agree – after all, who doesn’t jack off to sexy pictures of ladies?

So, the thing that Luke did was good. He should be praised for it. My inner, moral intuition tells me so, and who would deny that?

Or?

Well, you see, you can’t just assume that Luke has done anything wrong. You can’t just say “but don’t wait until you’ve concluded that it is wrong or right, do something now you douche!!!”

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Terry July 21, 2010 at 10:28 am

At this point, the continued existence of the list seems to be interfering with the intended debate. A good portion of the debate is now centered on what should be done about the list and when, rather than the ethics of posting the list in the first place. Maybe this is OK, I don’t know. Not being impatient Luke, just noticing what is happening.

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lukeprog July 21, 2010 at 10:35 am

Polymeron,

But those same responses to The Big Picture images can be raised about the Playboy images. You could very well respond “What was she thinking?” or consider her emotions, and consider this the most interesting part of the picture. You could also consider their autonomy. So what I was saying is that if these qualities are possessed by the Playboy images, they also seem to be possessed by The Big Picture images.

Your conclusion that, “in short, [The Big Picture images are] not about sex” I think is most revealing. Yes, that’s correct. That is an obvious difference between the two. What I’m missing is the inferential logic from “A is about sex and B is not” to the conclusion that “A is morally wrong and B is acceptable.”

As for the context: Yes, it’s different. That’s not the issue. The issue is whether an argument can be made for why some contexts imply the wrongness of objectification and others do not. To make such an argument, it looks like you need to involve additional moral principles – perhaps utilitarian ones. But I suspect that starting and ending with utilitarian ideas is going to make a stronger argument than starting with Kantian moral principles and trying to fit them together with utilitarian ones.

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Polymeron July 21, 2010 at 10:46 am

Luke,

First a much needed correction before we proceed.
You have completely misconstrued my use of the sentence “it is not about sex”, and thus you find it revealing – to a wrong conclusion (attributing me an inference I did not make and do not defend).

You interpreted it as “[The Big Picture images are] not about sex”

It should be read: “[The difference between the two cases] is not about sex”.
Thank you and please don’t make assumptions. If a sentence is ambiguous I will gladly clarify it.

“But those same responses to The Big Picture images can be raised about the Playboy images.”
Not in context with the caption and publication. It builds intent on the author’s behalf that is not present in The Big Picture.

I think context is important, in that the question can be raised whether the overall context is objectifying or not. I find the one case much more purposely (and/or recklessly) objectifying than the second. You don’t need further moral values involved in a discussion of this sort.

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Sal Bro July 21, 2010 at 11:02 am

Silas,

My inner, moral intuition tells me so, and who would deny that?

My “inner, moral intuition” is based on my a body of research that suggests that objectification of women in media sources negatively affects men’s opinions of, and behavior toward, women (as examples, two studies looking at objectification in advertisements and video).

I could not find research suggesting that objectification helps women, but if you can supply that, that would be helpful.

And the majority of men would seem to agree – after all, who doesn’t jack off to sexy pictures of ladies?

The opinions and actions of “the majority of men” is exactly what is at issue in discussions about sexism and has nothing to do with what is morally acceptable. Also, your suggestion that women should be grateful if men jack off to pictures of them is offensive.

You can’t just say “but don’t wait until you’ve concluded that it is wrong or right, do something now you douche!!!”

My language here has been civil, and I haven’t called anyone names. My suggestion that he remove the list until he reaches a conclusion is based on the argument that the list likely harms women more than it helps them, and Luke has stated an interest in not harming women.

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Silas July 21, 2010 at 11:28 am

My “inner, moral intuition” is based on my a body of research that suggests that objectification of women in media sources negatively affects men’s opinions of, and behavior toward, women (as examples, two studies looking at objectification in advertisements and video).

Sorry, I thought you lacked a belief in objective morality. If that’s not the case, my point doesn’t apply to you. Some commentors seem to think that, even before Luke has investigated this further, he should take the post down, because their moral intuition tells them that is was wrong.

The opinions and actions of “the majority of men” is exactly what is at issue in discussions about sexism and has nothing to do with what is morally acceptable. Also, your suggestion that women should be grateful if men jack off to pictures of them is offensive.

If morality is about what your gut tells you (and this includes “I’ve read a lot of research, but I don’t believe in objective morality”), then the gut feeling of the majority of men certainly has something to do with what is morally acceptable (or do you think that because you have read about the topic that you get to decide what is morally good or bad?). Again, if you don’t think that this applies to you, then my comment was misdirected.

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Sal Bro July 21, 2010 at 1:28 pm

What I’m missing is the inferential logic from “A is about sex and B is not” to the conclusion that “A is morally wrong and B is acceptable.”…The issue is whether an argument can be made for why some contexts imply the wrongness of objectification and others do not.

Okay, here’s one attempt: Objectification is harmful when it reinforces stereotypes that are then used to oppress people. If Luke had removed objectification (by including detailed bios about each person, or possibly by including a more diverse array of subjects, so that it would be difficult to condense the important characteristics of 13 people down to 2-3 descriptors), or if the stereotype (that “sexy” is mutually exclusive with “capable scientist”) didn’t exist, or if this stereotype weren’t used to make it more difficult for young, attractive women to have successful careers in science — if any of these factors didn’t exist, then it would be difficult to make the case that this type of objectification was harmful. (“Harmful”, here, is my basis for “morally wrong”.)

Further, the strength of each of these components (objectification, stereotype, oppression — individually and in sum) is positively associated with the degree of harm, and moral wrongness, produced.

Applying this to each of the examples from Luke’s post:
The Big Picture does not support stereotypes that are used to oppress a group of people, and subjects in the photo appear to be part of a group that has not been historically oppressed: Most of the people are white and not physically disabled; people from male and female sexes are represented; and their behavior does not suggest a particular creed or ideology. Further, the context in which is the photo presented on the blog is “people playing in mud is fun”, which does not suggest a stereotype and does not offer a lot of opportunity for oppression (as we do not exist in a society where groups of people are typically oppressed for having played in mud). So this example is weak on objectification (by making it hard to reduce subjects to only a few descriptors), stereotypes, and oppression.

Also of note, it is difficult to identify specific persons in the photo, meaning that individuals will likely not experience negative effects of appearing in the photo and, so, any effects are largely borne by the group of predominantly white, abled tourists who play in the mud.

The Playboy picture (and, importantly, its caption) reinforces the stereotype that female athletes (and possibly females, in general) are valued primarily as eye candy: The caption’s lack of comment about the woman’s athletic talent does not provide a counterbalance to her portrayal as a sexual object. In our society, female athletes’ worth as eye candy is often emphasized over their athletic skill and hard work — a stereotype that this picture/caption supports. So, this example seems to be more wrong due to its degree of objectification, playing into existing stereotypes, and existing within a history of oppression (of women and, more specifically, female athletes).

The fact that the woman is identified by name further suggests that she, specifically, is valued more for her looks than for her talents and increases the probability that she will be directly negatively impacted by this photo’s appearance in Playboy.

Luke’s list of Sexy Scientists takes neutral to sexually suggestive photos of female* scientists and groups them together under the label of “sexy scientists”. There is not a lot of other information to counterbalance their portrayal as “sexy” (objectification), which has been shown to negatively affect people’s opinions about them being capable “scientists” (the stereotype). Thus, this conglomeration of photos reinforces stereotypes that female scientists are valued more for their appearance than for their ability as scientists, and such stereotypes are still a large reason why female scientists have a difficult time — relative to equally qualified male scientists — building a successful career.

* PZ’s inclusion weakens the ability to distill the entire group down to only a few descriptors (female, sexy, scientist), but not by much, as the group is only 1/15 male.

Also, the fact that they are individually identified makes it more likely that they will individually experience direct effects of being grouped into a list of “sexy scientists”, for the reasons I explained above.

This explanation also addresses why a list of sexy male scientists probably wouldn’t cause harm (because men aren’t an oppressed group).

Counterexamples that don’t fit this explanation are welcome.

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Haukur July 21, 2010 at 1:44 pm

Sal Bro,

You may very well be on to something but it still feels like a weirdly byzantine argument to me. Do you feel you would you be able to express it any less clearly without using the concept ‘objectification’?

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lukeprog July 21, 2010 at 2:09 pm

Polymeron,

Oh, okay. I misunderstood you.

So… I’m confused, then. Are you saying that the two cases (Playboy images and Big Picture ‘muddh people’ images) are both examples of objectification, but one is bad objectification and the other is acceptable objectification? Or do you still disagree with my claim that if one is objectification then the other is, too, at least according to the criteria listed by Nussbaum and Langton?

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lukeprog July 21, 2010 at 2:13 pm

Sal Bro,

Cool, we may be on to something here. But I think my original point stands: objectification has nothing to do with it.

How about this? An act is harmful when it reinforces stereotypes that are used to oppress people. I don’t see how the ‘objectificatoin’ part plays any role in the argument because objectification can be just fine (as in the muddy people photos) unless it also reinforces stereotypes that are used to oppress people. But if something is wrong just because it reinforces stereotypes that are used to oppress people, then this notion of objectification plays no role.

Right?

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Polymeron July 21, 2010 at 4:07 pm

Luke,

My position was (and is) that these two cases provide very different degrees of objectification, with The Big Picture being very borderline insofar as it objectifies at all, and benign in the way it does because its larger context does not include objectification. Unlike the Playboy case.

I found Sal Bro’s explanation to be very coherent :)
I also like Luke’s attempt to further distill this. And I think I may have an answer for you.

Yes, it is the harm and oppression (or support of oppression) that are the moral issue here. The reason objectification is coming up at all in this debate is because objectification has been instrumental to the mindset that perpetuated this particular oppression for so long. As such, it is relevant – but not as something intrinsically bad in all situations. Rather, it plays a role in perpetuating harm and oppression in this particular case (and potentially in others – in which case it would be relevant to the moral debate; but only then).

Fair enough? :)

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Sal Bro July 21, 2010 at 4:10 pm

Luke’s distillation sounds good to me. I agree that the real issue revolves around stereotypes. I was trying to frame it within the existing discussion of objectification, but that wasn’t really necessary. I’m glad we’ve made some progress!

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lukeprog July 21, 2010 at 4:31 pm

Polymeron,

It’s hard for me to get a handle on this, though. If I’m right about the objectificationist (but not moral) parity between the Playboy examples and the muddy people examples, then it would seem objectification is just a very natural thing. Almost every image of a person brings up several features of objectification. So to say that objectification helps perpetuate oppression of women is like saying that brain chemistry helps perpetuate oppression of women or language helps perpetuate oppression of women. Well yeah; because all these things are unavoidable to how humans function in nearly all domains.

What do you think?

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other eric July 21, 2010 at 4:55 pm

“An act is harmful when it reinforces stereotypes that are used to oppress people.”

so, is this a paradigm shift? or a paradigm shift averted?
and will you be rephrasing this in desirist language?

and why the hell hasn’t greta christina chimed in on this? isn’t she our atheist/feminist/sex-positive/sexpert?

also, what if the act is to study a certain oppressive stereotype that is revealed through the study to be true? is this act harmful? should this act be avoided?

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Polymeron July 21, 2010 at 5:08 pm

Ah, I think we’re on the same page. And this is an interesting subject :)

Objectification is, indeed, very natural; and an important part of human interaction, which is very much founded on comparing dominance status all the time. I can provide lots of examples most people don’t think about.

The bottom line is, objectification is the reduction of a person to something less, thus establishing dominance – unless one cedes equal or greater ground in the process (the examples of mutual objectification are good examples).

now, in human interaction, we keep testing boundaries. If we’re hitting on someone, we may be more rude, invasive of personal space etc. than to someone we know well, because their reaction to that lets us know whether they’re interested in us. Similarly, we make small, not very intrusive objectifications of people around us all the time, and observe the reaction. They may lash back, but if they do we are mostly safe because we only stretched the boundary, rather than broke it. We can easily explain away our actions or apologize, and dominance is established with minimum conflict. Or the person may accept the objectification, which tells us they are comfortable with the degree of dominance we have asserted over them, which may lead to further testing of the boundary. Lastly, they may be uncomfortable, which signals it’s the place to stop.

But what if we don’t stop? We push onward, until the person either surrenders to the dominance asserted over them, avoids us, or destroys our ability to assert it. That constitutes oppressive behavior. And if that’s our intent, then why bother with small steps? Blatantly objectify away over multiple levels, unsubtly. Make it clear that the other person’s position in this hierarchy is to be dominated.

THAT is the difference here. Treating someone in this way encourages others to dominate and oppress them. Whereas the gentle testing of boundaries, or utilitarian objectification, have a much smaller effect that can be taken back at any time if the line is crossed. It is the difference between showing someone the door and trying to push them through.

I hope all this made sense… It’s sort of 4am here right now and I may not be as coherent as might be desired :)

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Polymeron July 21, 2010 at 5:12 pm

To put this in fewer words and in direct answer to your question: Blatant objectification encourages oppression. Subtle, retractable objectification is normal and has little influence to that effect, especially when not done in the context of overt dominance play.

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Polymeron July 21, 2010 at 5:23 pm

I’d like to add – because although somewhat tangential it probably was not made clear in my earlier post – that accepting objectification (or any other kind of accepting intrusive behavior) is not necessarily submissive, at all. Often it is done exactly as a sign of strength and dominance (“it doesn’t bother me, why should I care?”). But this again is usually more prevalent with subtle dominance tests. It is usually assumed that if someone puts up with blatant intrusion they are too weak to try and resist it (either don’t believe they can, or the risk/cost is too high – either way it’s weakness).

Our brains are wired to make these sort of analyses on the fly.

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lukeprog July 21, 2010 at 8:37 pm

other eric,

No, I was proposing that as a principle to illustrate a point.

Anyway, it is curious that Greta Christina hasn’t chimed in yet. Maybe she will, yet.

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Terry July 21, 2010 at 9:50 pm

Warning: sarcasm dead ahead.

An act is harmful when it reinforces stereotypes that are used to oppress people.

So now we’ve removed both sexism and objectification from the equation. Why stop there? What about stereotypes? This article attempts to make the case that sometimes stereotypes can help us understand another’s point of view. If we accept such a possibility (and why wouldn’t we – this argument smells of the “objectification isn’t necessarily bad” argument – could we conceive of finding an example of a stereotype that most people would agree isn’t harmful?), that leaves us with something like An act is harmful when it causes oppression.

But wait, is oppression the only way to cause harm? Obviously not, unless you define any harm as a form of oppression. Either way, we can generalize that away too. Which leaves us with: An act is harmful if it causes harm.

Not exactly a useful ethical principle.

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lukeprog July 21, 2010 at 9:55 pm

Hey! How come nobody told me there was a grammar-typo in my second sentence?? :)

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Terry July 21, 2010 at 10:24 pm

Luke, I’m not sure where to make these suggestions, so I’ll make this one here. Have you considered numbering the comments? It would make it easier to refer to a specific comment when responding. Just a thought.

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Hambydammit July 22, 2010 at 10:58 am

Maybe I’ve missed the memo, but I’ve yet to see a quantitative correlation between three categories:

1) Objectification of the *representation* of someone. (That is, we “use” a picture of someone who exists only in our head for our own ends)
2) Objectification of the person themselves.
3) Objectification of all persons in that class.

To put it another way, I’ve met my share of celebrities, some of whom were celebrities for their bodies. Most of the time, the person in front of me was incredibly difficult to connect with the image I’d seen. They were two different compartments in my brain.

Admittedly, we treat celebrities differently even when we haven’t seen their naughty bits on film, but the point is that a person in front of me is a different epistemological class of entity than a photo on the internet, and the connection between the two isn’t nearly as concrete as some would lead us to believe.

So… we need to make the leap from {Archetypal Representations of Idealized Womanhood on TV/Internet} to {Coworkers of the same sex as ARoIWoTI} to {All persons of the same sex…}

It sounds good on paper, but I’m a stickler for science, and I can’t find the real world connection between certain classes of objectification and the denial of personhood to an entirely different class of objects.

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Thrasymachus July 22, 2010 at 4:15 pm

Hey up. Sorry for falling behind in the discussion.

Haukur:

What I’m still trying to figure out is the specifically feminist/sexist angle. For that I’ve been considering the hypothetical case where Luke made the same post but got permission from every relevant person. My moral intuition tells me the post would still have been wrong (though considerably less so than the actual post) and I’d like to be able to clearly articulate why that is so.

Yeah, I’ve thought about the same (it’s one of the footnotes to my post on the issue). It may have been wrong in a ‘hurting the cause of feminism’ sense, but it would have been much less blameworthy. The women would have consented freely, so aren’t being harmed or exploited. It may have been mistaken to do it, but I’m unsure there’s much of a ‘should-have-known-better’ness around the act.

Mark:

Again, I don’t see how this helps. Which sexual behaviors under which contexts cannot be said to stand within a tradition of sexual abuse? As I understand them, feminists like Dworkin have argued that nearly all heterosexual relationships as typically conceived in our culture stand within such a tradition, and historically speaking I think there’s much to be said for their case. Do you, like Dworkin, bite the bullet here and accept that, ceteris paribus, one shouldn’t enter into a heterosexual relationship?

I would need to read Dworkin’s et al’s arguments more before passing judgement, but you’re correct in my intuition is clearly that some (many?) heterosexual relationships are just fine. I’d want to say the act of calling someone sexy of the street stands more closely within that tradition than ‘just’ having heterosexual sex. My intuition is that these sorts of vague distinctions have some heft.

Ultimately though, biting the bullet doesn’t seem to bad – I just point to other outweighing goods for sex that don’t apply to calling someone sexy. It is a move I’d rather not have to make, though.

It’s definitely clear how Luke publicly ogling accomplished women can be framed as continuous with male historical disregard for female identity. That’s not vague. What’s unclear is how we can base any serious moral principle on what’s “frameable.”

If we can ‘frame’ Luke’s act in this tradition (in a manner that won’t lead to us including sexual relationships in general and so on) I don’t think this step will prove problematic. I think there’s good moral reason to be aware of the contexts within which you speak, and you should know better than to speak in a manner that can be taken as supportive of some nasty tradition or whatever. I return to my diagnosis of using ‘nigger’. If I (white) call a black man nigger because I honestly think ‘nigger’ is now an entirely acceptable word to use, I’ve still done wrong – not out of malice, but because I should have known better about how my speech-act can be taken. I think a similar principle applies to using words like sexy.

What is “sexualized portrayal” here? Being called sexy by someone? In that case, I don’t think anyone has moral rights over how his or her consensually public photo should be portrayed. Thomas Kinkaide probably doesn’t intend for his paintings to be “portrayed” as hideous schmaltz; is it then wrong of me to create a “Top Fifteen Worst Paintings” blog post with a picture from Kinkaide’s website on it?

I think people do have some moral rights (at least, moral expectations) about how their publicly available image is being used. I’m pretty sure I’d be in the wrong (and outrageously in the wrong) if I took one of those pictures and masturbated over it, for example.

The difference in your painting example is there’s the potential for easily outweighing goods for you expressing criticism – prospects that seem hard to find in a ‘sexy’ list. Also criticising paintings or being strongly opinionated about art aren’t (so far as I know) traditions for abusing and demeaning artists (even if they turn up as targets for the criticism and opinions). Not so calling a bunch of women sexy.

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A. January 27, 2011 at 3:25 pm

This is, beyond doubt, the best and most articulate piece of sexism- and objectification-apologia I have had the pleasure to read.

I particularly commend the author’s inability to differentiate between different funcions, cultural implications and intentions of a photo that depicts people larking about in mud and a photo of a naked woman used for masturbatory purposes.

Bravo!

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