Sexy Scientists and Objectification

by Luke Muehlhauser on July 29, 2010 in Ethics

The ethical theory I currently defend is desirism. But I mostly write about moraltheory, so I rarely discuss the implications of desirism for everyday moral questions about global warming, free speech, politics, and so on. Today’s guest post applies desirism to one such everyday moral question. It is written by desirism’s first defender, Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)

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I promised last week that I would say something about objectification this week.

In his discussion on the “sexy scientist” post, Luke brought up an article by Martha Nussbaum on 7 types of objectification.

This article is representative of a significant portion of what counts as philosophy, where an author investigates some aspect of the world and attempts to come up with a number of fine distinctions. In value theory, this is often done in order to dig down to the essence of that which is being investigated in order to reveal its intrinsic goodness or badness.
In order to understand the intrinsic badness of objectification, we have to take objectification apart and identify all of its tiny bits. When we do this then we can see its wrongness.

Since I hold that intrinsic values do not exist, I hold that the project of taking some concept apart and examining its parts to reveal its intrinsic values is doomed to fail. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with objectification. Its wrongness rests in its relation to certain desires.

Similarly, when I see a long list of fine distinctions, I tend to look at them through a particular perspective. That perspective starts with the proposition, “Either these distinctions can be used in order to generate a number of useful experiments and research, or they cannot.”

If they can, then my next response to the author is to say, “Then, go ahead with the research and show me the results.” If not, then I do not see anything useful in that set of distinctions.

We could, if we were so inclined, come up with a separate name for every triplet, quadruplet, and quintuplet of atoms in the universe. We would end up adding countless words to our vocabulary, and every one of those terms would refer to something real.

The problem is, we have no use for those terms or for the distinctions captured by them. Our language is not built to identify things that exist. It is built to identify things that exist that we (think we) have reason to talk about efficiently.
So, we are not going to be able to dig down to the expose the intrinsic wrongness of objectification. Nor is it worthwhile to clutter up language with a list of fine distinctions that we have no particular reason to care about.

But what can we say about objectification?

Actually, and perhaps ironically, the place to go for a desirist understanding of objectification is the 17th century philosopher Immanual Kant. Kant asserted the moral principle that one should in all things treat others as an end, and not merely as a means.

Kant placed his objection to treating people as means in the context of categorical imperatives. Unfortunately, categorical imperatives do not exist.

However, desirists can come up with something quite close to the Kantian categorical imperative with respect to the subject of treating people as means only, or as mere objects. It is not intrinsically wrong in itself, but it involves a thwarting of desires that people generally have reason to inhibit.

I treat the computer that I write these posts on as a “mere” object. It has no desires – no interests – that are to be considered before using it in ways that satisfy my interests. Where that interest is in writing a post while I ride to work on the bus, I stuff the laptop into my backpack without seeking its consent, pull it out when I get on the bus, and use it to insert virtual english-language characters into a document that will become my post.

At no time do I consider what the computer wants – because the computer has no wants for me to consider. It is just an object – a “means only.”

To treat a person as a mere object is to ignore the fact that one is dealing with a thing that has desires.

Kant spoke of treating a person as a “means only” or also, at the same time, as an end. In fact, this is not an “either-or” distinction. An agent can respect all, some, or none of the interests of others. It is only the person who respects none of the desires or interests of others that treats that person as a “means only.” An agent who respects some, but not all, of the interests of others does not treat them as a means only. However, the agent still treats them more as an object and less as a person.

I want to repeat: There is nothing morally objectionable with treating somebody as an object. Asking another person to ‘hold the other end of this tape measure for me, please’ involves treating the other person as an object – as a tape-measure holder.

Face it, people are objects. They are things in the physical universe. However, they are objects with desires. These desires, for them, define a set of ends or objectives or goals. So, the morally useful distinction here is not a distinction between objects and non-objects, but between desire-driven objects and desireless objects.

Using the word ‘please’ and granting the option to refuse are ways we can respect the fact that the other person, while he is a tape-measure-end-holder, is not ‘merely’ a tape-measure-end-holder.

Some people argue that prostitution involves treating women as mere objects – as commodities on a store shelf to be bought and sold.

This is not the case. There are reasons to object to prostitution, but this is not one of them.

Paying a prostitute, and negotiating with the prostitute in order to reach a mutually satisfactory contract, are acts that respect the fact that the prostitute is a person who has ends and is not simply a means.

Rape, on the other hand, treats the victim as a means only. It ignores the other person’s ends, goals, or interests and treats her as a mere object to be used for the pleasure of the rapist. However, prostitution treats the prostitute as somebody with ends who shall not be forced into a situation except when he or she agrees that her ends are going to be met.

Similarly, being coerced into prostitution, particularly where the payments go to a pimp and the prostitute is given no power to negotiate the terms of his or her own employment count as treating her as a means – as an object. The parent who sells or rents out a child commits the same moral violation.

In fact, the whole moral issue of consent is built on this idea of recognizing and respecting the idea that people have desires – that they have ends of their own. We have many and good reasons to promote a reliance to freely-agreed-upon contracts.

When two parties voluntarily enter into a contract, we can be reasonably sure that each party has consulted the most knowledgeable, least corruptable source around as to whether the act is compatible with their ends. It is difficult to find anything that speaks to the respect for the ends of others more than this devotion to negotiated consent.

The reason children and the mentally infirm are not to be considered capable of giving informed consent is because they do not, in fact, have the best knowledge of the relationship between certain states of affairs and the most and strongest of their desires. Thus, children are easily manipulated into agreeing to enter into agreements that are more desire-thwarting than desire-fulfilling, particularly over the long run. As a result, respect for children as ends and not means requires obtaining the permission of an adult who can speak to the future interests of the child.

There is a reason why consent – or obtaining permission (or the absence of obtaining permission) – became an issue in Luke’s posting. It is through the institution of consent that we show respect for the fact that others are ends (have desires of their own) and are not mere means (entities without desires) that we may use in ways that please us.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with treating people as objects. No matter how deep we dig into the concept, we will never find this intrinsic wrongness. However, each of us has many and strong reasons to create in others those desires that are consistent with taking our desires into consideration. Each being with desires has a reason to create in others an aversion to treating others as entities lacking desires – as mere objects.

These reasons give us reason to support an institution of consent. This is a desire to check with the most knowledgable and least corruptable source of information on whether a particular state will fulfill or thwart the desires of a given individual – the individual itself.

A cultural averson to non-consent helps each of us to better secure the fulfillment of our own desires by encouraging others to obtain our consent before acting in ways that may potentially thwart those desires. In addition, the good person’s desire to obtain consent, and his or her aversion to actions lacking consent, are fulfilled, not thwarted by this same practice.

This, then, is the objection to treating people as mere objects. To treat people as mere objects is to ignore the fact that they have desires. People who act in this way have a tendency to act so as to thwart those desires. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with treating people as objects. People are objects, and sometimes very useful objects. However, they are objects with desires.

In order to better fulfill our desires, we have reason to encourage in others (and they have reason to encourage in us) dispositions to seek permission for certain acts. We teach respect for the fact that other people have desires by teaching the virtuous use of “please” and “thank you” and recognizing the right to say “no”. We promote in others a preference for obtaining the consent of others, and an aversion to acts that intimately involve others without their consent.

- Alonzo Fyfe

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

DAM10N July 29, 2010 at 6:02 am

Photos are mere objects without desires. Luke used photos of people, rather than people themselves (as in the unfortunate rape analogy). Someone other than Luke used those people to create photos of them, under some set of circumstances that may or may not have invovled various levels of consent.

There are several possible kinds of consent lurking here.

- Consent to be photographed (from the scientist)

- Consent to publish the photograph online (ethically from the subject of the photo, but legally from the holder of copyright)

- Consent to republish the photograph in another context
(legally belonging to the holder of copyright)

Discuss.

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lukeprog July 29, 2010 at 7:00 am

Yes, I’ll have to think over this post by Alonzo for a while…

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G'DIsraeli July 29, 2010 at 8:43 am

You could be interested in this:
http://translate.google.com/translate?js=y&prev=_t&hl=en&ie=UTF-8&layout=1&eotf=1&u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.hayadan.org.il%2Fwp%2Fjessus-didnt-want-to-open-new-religion-2907108%2F&sl=auto&tl=en
“Study: Jesus was not really intended to found a new religion”, which reminds me of “Life of Brian” :)

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Ralph July 29, 2010 at 8:51 am

For me, the fact that the women themselves (I assume) posted these pictures over the internet, there is an implied consent that these same pictures can be linked to, used, and even sometimes reproduced. Unless they just crawled out of a rock, feigning naivete will not work. With today’s technology, I don’t know how they couldn’t have known the consequences of posting their own photos. This is the same reason why I DON’T POST PHOTOS over the internet. (and the fact that I’m not easy to look at) :D

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DAM10N July 29, 2010 at 11:30 am

@Ralph – I think it is correct to assume that many purveyors of content on the web have an attitude of embed first and ask questions later. I assume that anything I post may well be reposted, reused, or remixed in any number of ways, unless I take steps to secure it from public viewing.

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to share files within a carefully circumscribed social circle. For example, members of Oklahoma Atheists can share photos of group events on our meetup site (or our private Facebook group) without fear of those photos being published on websites which are accessible by the public at large.

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Adito July 29, 2010 at 2:15 pm

I think Ralph hit this one on the head. If a picture is uploaded to a public site without restrictions then this is implied consent by the uploader for the picture to be viewed by anyone who happens by. Unless someone has reason to believe that the one pictured does not want it shown then there is no reason to exclude it from a list like Luke’s. As far as I know all the pictures he found were from the womens websites and this shows very clear implied consent. The fact that several of them supported his list further demonstrates that consent was implied.

There’s also nothing about a picture (of any sort) that automatically implies that a must viewer treat the one pictured as an object. For any given instance it’s entirely within the control of the one viewing whether or not the person pictured is valued. If you are so inclined to look at a pretty women and consider her an object then that’s simply who you are and you’re not going to change just because people stop uploading pictures of attractive women to the internet. If on the other hand, you understand a little more of human nature and appreciated every life as precious then you’ll admire the beauty of the women and realize that you know nothing about who they are.

I’m curious what conclusions about actions you are making here, Alonzo. Should we avoid looking at a beautiful woman unless we ask permission first? It seems to me that we’d be better off qualifying beauty as a trait certain people have that does not reflect their worth either positively or negatively. The other alternative seems to end in the impossible (to enforce) conclusion that we should not admire women.

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Márcio July 29, 2010 at 8:00 pm

“There is nothing intrinsically wrong with treating people as objects. No matter how deep we dig into the concept, we will never find this intrinsic wrongness.”

That is why people dislike atheists so much.

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lukeprog July 29, 2010 at 11:16 pm

Marcio,

Because we don’t want to believe in stuff for which there’s no evidence?

Yeah, that’s really annoying.

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other eric July 30, 2010 at 6:41 am

Ralph: “there is an implied consent that these same pictures can be linked to, used, and even sometimes reproduced.”

this statement seems to be more about legality and less about morality. whether they were aware or not that the pictures they posted could be used towards a wide variety of ends does not imply that they desired their pictures to be used in any way beyond the one they chose. when you reproduce their picture and put it in a different context without seeking their consent you are being discourteous. and by ignoring their desires in your decision to act you are being immoral.

certainly using people’s photographs in ways they would likely not appreciate would seem acceptable as long as you are causing them harm in order to achieve a greater good. such as publicly chastising an immoral person in order to get them to change their ways.

it strikes me as hilarious and pathetic that in a world jam-packed with phallocentric pornography of every possible type, when one instance comes up where people say, “No. These particular “sexy” pictures are not acceptable.” men instantly begin whining about how they’re not allowed to admire pretty ladies anymore.
(this last part is not directed at any one person in particular, just some general comments that i’ve seen during this little scandal.)

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Márcio July 30, 2010 at 7:48 am

luke,

My problem is that atheists are the only ones that need some sort of evidence to understand that people are not objects.

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lukeprog July 30, 2010 at 7:56 am

Marcio,

Yes, we require evidence. We don’t just trust our guts. (Or at least, that’s how I think we should approach things.) The racist’s gut tells him the mixing of the races is evil. The sexist’s gut tells him that women are inferior beings who need to be commanded by men.

Also, people are objects.

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al friedlander July 30, 2010 at 11:12 am

“My problem is that atheists are the only ones that need some sort of evidence to understand that people are not objects.”

I think you’re misunderstanding the way they’re using the term ‘object’. This does -not- mean that we treat people like possessions. Being an atheist in no way entails treating others like disposable beings of which one manipulates for their own selfish reasons.

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Erika July 30, 2010 at 3:29 pm

If a picture is uploaded to a public site without restrictions then this is implied consent by the uploader for the picture to be viewed by anyone who happens by. Unless someone has reason to believe that the one pictured does not want it shown then there is no reason to exclude it from a list like Luke’s.

This is neither legally or morally true. Legally, although copyright on the internet is still a grey area, it is most certainly the case that “accessible on the public internet” implies “can be used in other contexts”.

Morally, these may be “just” pictures without desires, but pictures are representations, fairly concrete and unique representations of individuals who do have desires. In particular, a picture posted on a professional page is part of the image of self that the individual chooses to project.

The pictures are acting as representations of the individuals, thus, if you accept Alonzo’s argument that consent is the important factor here, it applies even though Luke is using pictures and not the individuals. (To argue anything else seems to give priority to a person’s physical body over their self concept.)

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lukeprog July 30, 2010 at 4:39 pm

This topic just keeps getting more complicated all the time. Maybe that’s why I prefer meta-ethics to applied ethics. Meta-ethics is relatively simple! :)

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Ralph July 30, 2010 at 5:50 pm

other eric: “this statement seems to be more about legality and less about morality. whether they were aware or not that the pictures they posted could be used towards at wide variety of ends does not imply that they desired their pictures to be used in any way beyond the one they chose. when you reproduce their picture and put it in a different context without seeking their consent you are being discourteous. and by ignoring their desires in your decision to act you are being immoral.”

It is about morality when the only other issue at hand is whether permission should have been asked. We have pretty much dealt with the use lukeprog has made of these pictures and have come to the conclusion that they are neither sexist nor has it been shown that objectification whether intentional or not is by itself immoral. I see no discourtesy in the way lukeprog has made use of the said pictures (given that he was merely giving his aesthetic evaluations of the scientists) and if any of the women objected to the posting, I am certain that lukeprog would have taken them down.

Erika:”This is neither legally or morally true. Legally, although copyright on the internet is still a grey area, it is most certainly the case that “accessible on the public internet” implies “can be used in other contexts”.

You are right but you are missing the point. The context under which these pictures were used were harmless (unless you can show that it was harmful). It was not as if the list degraded these women in any way. The intention in creating the list were harmless and were meant to show that scientists are not necessarily aesthetically challenged (as some might think).

More important, anyone can be represented in a way that does not conform to one’s own desires and this can be done with or without pictures. Now think about that for a minute. If you think that lukeprog should have asked permission to post what is primarily public content, are you saying that he should also ask permission to write about any person and that this has the force of a moral obligation? That’s clearly absurd.

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Mo July 30, 2010 at 6:39 pm

The prototype of the rapist treating his/her victim as an object is questionable. The desire of the rapist is to abuse his power by forcing another human being to unwillingly submit. The rapist does not treat his victim merely as an object because he is well aware of the victim’s desire not to be raped. He is totally aware that his victim has desires contrary to his actions and acts precisely on behalf of this awareness. The rapist does not treat the victim as an object because he knows the victim is a human being (a sentient object) with feelings and desires. For examples, if one is caught having sex with an insentient object, such as a watermelon, one is not considered a rapist, but a pervert perhaps.

Considering consent as a necessary and sufficient condition in ethical evaluations of actions is questionable, too. Consider Armin Meiwes, the German cannibal who found a willing participant who consented to being murdered and eaten by Meiwes. Because there was consent is it okay? Both men fulfilled each others’ “desires.”

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Mo July 31, 2010 at 8:03 am

Is that Barbie supposed to be Angela Merkel?

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lukeprog July 31, 2010 at 9:45 am

The original filename says yes. :)

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Jeff H July 31, 2010 at 12:53 pm

Mo,

In the case of a rapist and his victim, it doesn’t seem to be a matter of not understanding or being aware that the victim has desires. That sort of thing might only be applicable to people with severe autism and perhaps young children. The point is that the rapist is aware of the victim’s desires, but is choosing to ignore them to treat the person as if their desires did not exist. Thus, they treat them “as an object”.

Then again, reading what you’ve written in another way, you might be suggesting that the rapist is specifically acting contrary to the victim’s desires, rather than just ignoring the desires. I suppose this is a possibility, but I would want to see some psych. research to back that one up.

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Mo August 2, 2010 at 9:07 am

Jeff H.,

Yes, I’m suggesting that the rapist is specifically acting contrary to the victim’s desires and that this is what drives the rapist to rape. Actively and knowingly thwarting another person’s desire not to be raped is a way of acknowledging that he/she in fact has desires; that he/she is a human being, not an object. There are a lot of different circumstances in rape cases and I don’t want to generalize, but I think it’s safe to say that in most instances the rapist is driven by power and control of another (unwilling) human being. If it were purely sexual desire that the rapist was acting upon then he would have the option of hiring a sex partner, so as not to forcibly harm anyone while he satisfies his needs. There must be something beyond sexual objectification that the rapist commits.
The two claims that the rapist either ignores or actively denies the victim’s desires are very similar in that they are both inner motivations of a separate consciousness that are not provable by simple discussion. If one requires research, so should the other. Either way, the argument I’m trying to make is subtle and possibly purely semantic.

One more thing, Kant’s discussion of objectification in “Lectures on Ethics: Duties Toward the Body in Respect of Sexual Impulse” is a really interesting read, especially in comparison with Nussbaum’s essay on objectification.

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cl August 2, 2010 at 10:55 am

Luke,

To Márcio, you imply that there is no evidence for “intrinsic wrong.” I don’t think anything that you or Fyfe has written here can justify such a bold implication. You say, “The racist’s gut tells him the mixing of the races is evil. The sexist’s gut tells him that women are inferior beings who need to be commanded by men.”

Likewise, Alonzo Fyfe’s gut tell him that middle-aged men humping teen boys is wrong, and I’m convinced that is why he claims that the Greeks were “probably wrong” concerning pederasty. It’s certainly not an assertion supported with any argument or evidence, save for a vague appeal to an unspecified subset of venereal diseases that would seemingly make all forms of non-monogamous sex also wrong. That you swallow contradiction that deep is a major problem for me. You pay all this homage to evidence and rationality, then let Fyfe get away with intellectual recklessness like that. Really, that’s just one of many available examples. Let’s cut to the chase and face the music here.

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lukeprog August 2, 2010 at 1:33 pm

cl,

Regarding your second post. Yup, that’s a blatant contradiction and not the position I actually defend, but it sure did sound like I defended this contradiction in the podcast.

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cl August 4, 2010 at 3:35 pm

Luke,

I’m getting the feeling you misunderstood. When I say that you “swallow contradiction,” I’m implying that you’re defending Fyfe’s apparent contradiction by refusing to challenge it yourself.

In your case, there’s no specific contradiction here [in this post or in this thread]. Although you do deny intrinsic value, I haven’t really heard an argument from you that seems founded on intrinsic value. In Fyfe’s case, this is different. It appears to me that his position on pederasty is in direct response to an intrinsic value / moral intuition / gut feeling of his own. It’s certainly not the result of a well-reasoned argument, at least not that I’ve seen.

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