Roger Ebert Posts Nude Photo of Playboy Model

by Luke Muehlhauser on November 12, 2010 in Ethics

Roger Ebert, in writing a post called To NSFW or not to NSFW, has given me an opportunity to revisit the Sexy Scientists brouhaha that occurred on this blog a few months ago.

Recap:

  1. As a bit of levity, I posted photos of some sexy female scientists, ending with a joke photo of P.Z. Myers.
  2. The atheist blogosphere descended upon me with much wrath and venom, saying my post was evil and “objectified” women and subjected them to “Male Gaze” and “Male Privilege.”
  3. I explained why I didn’t find these arguments compelling, and asked for better arguments. Mostly, I just got loud condemnation from people who had no interest in figuring out whether they were right or not.
  4. After a week, someone presented an argument for why I was wrong to post the photos that seemed somewhat compelling to me, so I took the photos down and apologized, saying I’d revisit the issue later.

Whereas I posted sexy but mostly clothed scientists for fun, and to remind people that women were scientists too, Mr. Ebert posted an actual nude. His blog is more popular than mine, but I got more criticism.

Moreover, Ebert doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with posting a nude woman to his site. He’s not worried it “objectifies women or any of that crap, and I’m not either. The only thing that concerned Ebert was how he should be considerate to his readers, who might be accused of sexual harassment for displaying it on their monitors at work. And in the end, that is what he sorta-kinda apologized for, just as I had sorta-kinda apologized for my Sexy Scientists post.

Sexy Scientists

Why did I sorta-kinda apologize for my Sexy Scientists post? Someone finally argued for the wrongness of my Sexy Scientists post from within a moral framework I find plausible.

What were the arguments that appealed to me?

Alonzo Fyfe argued that we have reasons for action to promote a certain cultural institution of consent for certain actions – perhaps, actions such as placing a photo of someone in a list of ‘sexy scientists.’ According to desirism’s definition of “morally wrong,” that could mean it was “morally wrong” to post the list of sexy scientists because I did not first ask consent from each listed woman. But this conclusion is far from obvious. Applied ethics if very complex when using desirism, which is why I almost never try to do applied ethics.

That’s why I “sorta kinda” apologized: I may have been wrong according to desirism, but it’s hard to have much confidence in that calculation.

Alonzo also argued that while the desire for sex is generally a good desire, it is probably “too strong” in men for everyone’s good. The high degree of sexual desire in men can lead to rape and sexual harassment and deception and other desire-thwarting acts. Contributing to a culture that of already oversexed media does not contribute that end. So maybe that, too, helps to explain what was morally wrong with my Sexy Scientists post according to desirism. But again, it’s really hard to even guess at these calculations, and I’m not convinced.

Alonzo’s third argument (in the same post) was that posting a woman’s photo in a sexual contest slightly increases the chances that a man with violent tendencies will see her and track her down. This is the argument with the lowest probability of demonstrating the wrongness of the Sexy Scientists post, I think, but again, it’s very hard to tell.

Implications

What if Alonzo is right about this? If he’s right, it would mean that people generally have reasons for action to condemn the ubiquitous sexing-up of our media. That would be a major change, to strip all the supersex from our movies, our TV programs, our advertisements, our blogs and websites. But if he’s right, people would generally be better off.

Such a conclusion is strongly against my intuitions, but I learned a few years ago that my intuitions are not to be trusted on such matters. What we need is for somebody to do the empirical research on the matter. But that is probably a long time away.

How about Professor Badass? Is it acceptable to post a photo of him? Don’t wet your panties, ladies…

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Reginald Selkirk November 12, 2010 at 6:38 am

This will surprise you. NSFW.

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Ralph November 12, 2010 at 7:33 am

I still think you shouldn’t have apologized and I have offered good arguments for it on the relevant threads which I will no longer rehash here. :D

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Garren November 12, 2010 at 7:34 am

Whereas I posted sexy but mostly clothed scientists for fun, and to remind people that women were scientists too, Mr. Ebert posted an actual nude. His blog is more popular than mine, but I got more criticism.

Perhaps people think you’re more easily bullied into compliance than Ebert. I mean, he’s Ebert!

But, yeah, if I had to take a stab at what principle is being violated in some people’s minds it would be that a Playboy model has chosen to be looked at in sexual terms whereas the “sexy scientists” may not have. (Though I would consider that criterion fulfilled if you used photos they released which had similar intent, even clothed; I never saw the posting so I don’t know.)

As for the Desirism reasoning, I don’t see how it can be valid given the current form of Desirism. Alonzo could have pointed out that you yourself have desires which are best fulfilled by not posting sexy scientists…or you could have gained such a desire solely by caving to people criticizing you no matter what their reasons, but I keep hearing that desire satisfaction across a population is not a reason for action for an individual.

…unless an individual has the desire to maximize desire fulfillment in the world. Is that it? It sure sounds like Alonzo pointed out that avoiding a sexy scientist post is a better way to bring about greater desire fulfillment in the world, and you were motivated by it.

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Luke Muehlhauser November 12, 2010 at 7:36 am

Reginald,

That thing never loads for me. What is it?

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Michael November 12, 2010 at 8:04 am

I didn’t find out about CSA until after this “incident” was over. I read only a couple oblique references to it. My reaction was and is: “you’re kidding, right?”

Not having read those arguments, I expect that (almost) all of them would reach to condemning you, a male, for thinking of some women sexually. For an unhealthy minority, sexual desire (and its spinoffs) of others ought to be repressed or restricted to politically correct categories. While almost all of us would impose broad ethical limits on sexual behavior (consent), the vast majority of us would demand broad freedoms for individual sexuality. It is just the fringes of stupidity, left and right, that want to fetter others’ sexuality to justify their own neuroses.

There is nothing objectionable about public deliberation of the sexiest scientists, male or female. I married the perfect woman for me: ridiculously intelligent, beautiful, degrees in English and Chemistry, and pragmatic. She occasionally objectifies me and I appreciate her still doing so after all these years. Those who insist that morality requires Victorian sensual repression or that “sexuality” requires a GLBT license are secular twists of religious oppressors.

My advice to the fascists is to read less Andrea Dworkin and spend more time at the gym. You’ll feel better about yourself and so will we.

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Reginald Selkirk November 12, 2010 at 8:27 am

NSFW.org is the site for the National School Films week. NSFW is SFW. I have no idea why you would have trouble loading it.

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dan November 12, 2010 at 8:48 am

Why do atheists need morality please?

Christians have morality due to the bible. Atheists have no moral governing body, they can do and say waht they want. They can define their morality. It seems like oxymoron.

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Michael November 12, 2010 at 8:58 am

dan…

If God spoke to you tomorrow and told you that the Bible is a Satanic trick and that you are free to do as you choose, would you then think that cannibalism of children for fun or that eating shellfish was ok?

If God appeared and commanded you and everyone else to kill 1/3 of all male children and 1/2 of all female children, would you do it?

God murdered 240,000 persons in early December 2004 with a giant tsunami that he created and could have prevented with but a flick of God-thought. Was that wrong or bad of him? Why shouldn’t any serial killer use the excuse you are making for your imaginary magical buddy mass murderer?

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Hermes November 12, 2010 at 9:07 am

Dan, I find that Christians claim to see the Bible and/or the supernatural entities in it as a source of morality, but their morals are no different from other people except that if they refer to the Christian Bible at all — and most don’t — they judge that some parts of the Bible are ignored, emphasized, or modified based on their own sense of morality.

Morality tends to be driven by personality and personal needs more than anything else. An example of that is in-group bias and out-group bigotry.

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bossmanham November 12, 2010 at 9:10 am

Michael, why pester Dan with the red herrings? I think the question is interesting. Why would all these atheists get mad at Luke for posting something like that? What are they basing their consternation on?

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Hermes November 12, 2010 at 9:19 am

Bossmanham, I just addressed that.

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Silas November 12, 2010 at 9:26 am

Why would all these atheists get mad at Luke for posting something like that? What are they basing their consternation on?

Yeah, I also posed that question in the original post. Why is it “wrong” if you don’t believe that there is objective morality?

The answer is that people get… annoyed and angry. They’re just pissed off at Luke for posting those pictures. There is no moral calculation going on there.

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Hermes November 12, 2010 at 9:28 am
Michael November 12, 2010 at 9:40 am

Boss…

Not red herrings at all. Those questions point to what I take to be excellent responses to Dan’s post. Which had multiple elements, not just atheist morality.

The first questions whether Dan really does base his ethics on the Bible. If dan no longer had the Bible to found ethics would he really have no ethics? The shellfish dig pokes whether or not dan really bases his ethics on the Bible or not. You know…

Leviticus 11: 10-12 “And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you:
They shall be even an abomination unto you; ye shall not eat of their flesh, but ye shall have their carcases in abomination.
Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you.”

and a bit later on…

Leviticus 20:13 “And if a man lie with mankind, as with womankind, both of them have committed abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.”

Does dan really use the Bible to define his ethics? Do you?

The second question gets at one of the favorite theistic solutions to the problem of evil. It also points to whether a command ethics is really ethics or not. Wanna answer the question? The Bible answers it in the affirmative: God ordered mass slaughters several times and morality conssited of obeying the master. Would you? If not, then you have an ethics apart from God’s Word, just like atheists do.

The third question gets at the problem of evil. Many atheists think your God is an evil mass murderer. If I fail to ground ethics satisfactorily, I would prefer even nihilism to enacting the will of an evil alien blackmailer and tyrant.

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Patrick November 12, 2010 at 9:43 am

Many women might want to have some degree of control over the time, place, and manner in which other people discuss and/or fantasize about how much they want to fuck them.

There are several possible responses to this.

1. I accept this, and while I acknowledge that no one has COMPLETE control over whether their sexual attractiveness is publicly analyzed, I feel that my actions were beyond the pale.
2. I accept this, but given that no one has COMPLETE control over this, do not feel that my actions in holding these women up for analysis of their sexual attractiveness were beyond what was reasonable.
3. I accept that women may feel this way, but deny the legitimacy of this feeling.
4. I accept that women may feel this way, but feel that my desire to publicly discuss their sexual attractiveness outweighs their desire to not have their sexual attractiveness publicly discussed.
5. I deny that women have this attitude.

There are probably some more.

5 is probably false.
4 probably makes you a self centered jerk.
3 also makes you a self centered jerk, but in a slightly different moral framework

1 and 2 are both reasonable conclusions, at least to me, except for one thing: I personally wouldn’t feel comfortable making this moral judgment call without any involvement from the people affected.

And hence consent matters. At least to me.

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Reginald Selkirk November 12, 2010 at 9:45 am

dan: Why do atheists need morality please?

Dan, everyone who doesn’t live alone on a desert island needs morality. Morality is the necessary rules of engagement for people interacting in a society. Try to formulate a better question.

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Michael November 12, 2010 at 10:32 am
Michael November 12, 2010 at 10:58 am

@Patrick…

I have no doubt that many men and women want to have the right to decide who thinks about them and how. I sure wish I could decide what, when, and how anyone and everyone thought about me. SCORE!

I shouldn’t get that right at all and I should only get proscribed and well-articulated rights over how I am publically depicted. The law in the US does a pretty good job there, I think: the laws of libel and slander and rights to fair use of our images work for me. I doubt that there is any chance that Luke violated any of those laws.

I just don’t think expanding “consent” to include thoughts or depictions is wise. I don’t think Karen Owens’s “Fuck List,” for example, required even an apology. No doubt most of the young men mentioned were embarrassed and she was unkind and perhaps even mean-spirited towards several of them, but certainly not unethical or immoral. That’s because we shouldn’t have any rights over how others think of us and should have only narrowly proscribed rights over how we are depicted publically. In case you missed that controversy… ( http://deadspin.com/5652280/the-full-duke-university-fuck-list-thesis-from-a-former-female-student/gallery/ )

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Luke Muehlhauser November 12, 2010 at 11:10 am

Michael,

That is a great link, thanks!

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Mo November 12, 2010 at 12:21 pm

Maybe it would be better to approach the “wrongness” of your Sexy Scientists post from a virtue ethics point of view instead of looking to moral systems to derive moral “calculations” that determine if it was wrong or not. That is to ask, “What kind of person would do that?” From a virtue ethics perspective, our actions flow from different states of character. Maybe your Sexy Scientists post could be associated with a temperate (or not so temperate) state of character. Instead of trying to figure out if the action, or the post, “itself” is morally wrong, consider what it says about the character of a person that would post a ranking of women scientists based on their sex appeal, as well as Ebert’s post of a nude lady. I don’t want to construct an argument for this here, just a thought.
We just read this article by Thomas Hill in my ethics class. It’s pretty interesting to think about ethics in this way….. you should read it, Luke, if you haven’t already.
http://www.umweltethik.at/download.php?id=403

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Patrick November 12, 2010 at 12:49 pm

Michael- Congratulations. You’ve managed to take all three of the following

1. What legal rights you have to stop how people think about and/or discuss you,
2. What moral obligations we have to not discuss people in particular ways, and
3. What countervailing obligations or interests might be in opposition to the obligations in (2),

and mix them into a useless jumble in which (3) is given absolute weight, and (2) is treated as if it were (1).

Thanks.

You probably don’t recognize this because you probably didn’t think about what you wrote very hard, but the logic you used can be used to defend screaming obscenities at, I dunno, lets say Luke, every time he appears in public. First, redefine the question of whether its APPROPRIATE for you to scream obscenities at Luke as instead being the question of whether its proper to LEGALLY PROHIBIT you from screaming obscenities at Luke, or if you’ve got serious chutzpah, as the question of whether its proper to legally prohibit from holding the negative opinions that you are expressing in terms of obscenities. Then approach matters from a legal rights perspective, weighing your interests in doing as you please as absolute, while not even noting Luke’s interests in not having obscenities screamed at him. Once you’ve made sure that the conversation is taking place from a legal rights based perspective, this elision will probably go unchallenged, even though its obviously just a red herring if we’re talking about ethics… which we were.

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Steven November 12, 2010 at 4:11 pm

I’m with Michael on this. If Alonzo is right, a further implication is that even perceiving someone as sexy can have serious “desire thwarting” repercussions. Why not enforce a heavy dress code so that no one sees a “sexy woman” or penalize men for even looking at a woman to see if she is sexually appealing? In fact, all talk revolving around sexual tastes–or all your own thoughts about sex appeal–would also be wrong. I really strongly disagree. To me, this is like violent imagery. It all depends on how the individual takes it, and to argue that one individual can take something the wrong way is to, in effect, argue against all sorts of things that can be taken out of context, misconstrued, or twisted into something which most of us would find morally objectionable, but which origins are more innocent.

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Steven November 12, 2010 at 4:26 pm

Why do atheists need morality please?Christians have morality due to the bible.Atheists have no moral governing body, they can do and say waht they want.They can define their morality.It seems like oxymoron.  

You do realize that the same thing applies to your God, don’t you? If God is omnipotent, then he must be the one defining morality. He can just make it up however he pleases and I would argue that God must exist outside of his made-up morality if he is to remain a superior being.

Furthermore, people need some guideline as to how they interact with others (my view is that this stems from rational self-interest, as the way we interact with each other can be detrimental or very helpful to fulfilling our interests and goals [or, as Luke would say, desires]). Even I, who have come to question the [objective] reality of morals, have no doubt in my mind that some sort of morality must be had in order for society and any social interaction to ensue.

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Chris November 12, 2010 at 9:33 pm

You do realize that the same thing applies to your God, don’t you? If God is omnipotent, then he must be the one defining morality. He can just make it up however he pleases…

A-fucking-men. Shout it from the rooftops. I don’t get how people don’t get this.

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