What is “objectification,” and what’s wrong with it?
October 20, 2011 33 Comments
I was pleased to discover that one of my favorite bloggers, Luke Muehlhauser, had recently tackled a topic that’s been on my mind too: what do people mean when they talk about men “objectifying” women, and why exactly is it a bad thing? As per usual with Luke’s posts, it’s a clear-headed and thoughtful analysis, and it’s obvious that he isn’t trying to attack anyone — just genuinely trying to parse the concept and determine the degree to which it makes sense.
Luke lists several typical ways people define “objectification,” most of which center around the idea of treating another person as a means to an end, without being conscious of their feelings and goals and preferences. I’ve always felt this is an odd definition for two reasons, both of which Luke raises: First, it seems like an incomplete definition, in that there are many cases that match that definition perfectly but which no one would call instances of objectification (Luke has a clever photographic example).
And second, if objectification is “using someone as a means to an end,” it isn’t clear why objectification is inherently bad, even though the word typically carries a strong connotation of condemnation. After all, we all use each other as means to an end all the time! When I buy a cup of coffee, I’m treating the barista as a means to the end of getting a cup of coffee. I’m not really thinking about his feelings or goals — and I don’t think he expects or particularly wants me to be.
Of course, if not-thinking about someone’s feelings means that you harm him (like if I were rude to the barista) then it’s easy to see why that’s bad. But the proper conclusion from that fact is “harming people is bad,” not “objectification is bad.” It’s certainly possible to use someone as a means to an end without harming him, and so it’s still not clear why objectification per se is bad.
At least, that’s the form my argument typically took until yesterday. I thought about it a bit more after reading Luke’s analysis, and concluded that I had been missing part of the picture. So to the extent that I’m now sympathetic to arguments against objectification, it’s for this reason:
Objectification’s not necessarily a problem at the individual level. When Person A uses Person B as a means to an end, as long as B’s not being harmed, then it’s ethically unproblematic (at least for us utilitarian-minded folks). The tricky thing is that when you have a lot of A’s systematically treating a lot of B’s as a means to an end in the same kind of way, it can start to become a problem. Because at that scale, it can affect the way A’s and B’s think about each other — people’s attitudes are influenced by the way the people around them think and act. So it can have this self-reinforcing ripple effect that ends up stifling other kinds of interactions and relationships that many A’s and B’s would’ve found fulfilling.
So, that’s my current theory. It’s the best I can do at reconciling the facts that (1) I’m not at all bothered by the idea of a particular man being interested in a particular woman only for sex, and (2) I hate the idea of a society in which most men are only interested in women for sex (and I think such a society would be seriously sub-optimal for both men and women).*
I think this is a very under-appreciated aspect of the objectification debate. I also think it poses interesting problems for utilitarian ethics; how do you assign blame in situations where any single person doing X is harmless, but many people doing X is harmful? It’s somewhat akin to problems like pollution, where each individual actor can truthfully argue, “Given that everyone else is polluting, it’s not going to make any difference if I do it too.”
And with objectification, not only do you have the fact that no single person’s actions are going to measurably change the overall culture, you also have the fact that the overall culture is partly to blame for each individual’s actions. And all of the individuals’ actions, in turn, are to blame for the overall culture. The circularity makes it especially tricky to figure out the degree to which any individual actor deserves blame for his actions.
*Of course, men objectifying women isn’t the only kind of objectification; you could fill in any gender in place of either “men” or “women.” I just used that pairing because it’s the typical one in these discussions, but my argument isn’t actually gender-dependent.