On the Distinction between Objectifying Attitudes and Objectifying Action

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By Charlotte Figueroa

In his Groundwork on the Metaphysics of Morals, Immanuel Kant formulates the Categorical Imperative as the claim that one ought to “act so that you use humanity as much in your own person as in the person of every other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as means.” It is the violation of this principle that constitutes objectification for Kant. Martha Nussbaum builds on this view and identifies seven features that are involved in treating a person as an object (257): instrumentality; denial of autonomy; inertness; fungibility; violability; ownership; and denial of subjectivity.  (Langton: reduction to body, reduction to appearance, and silencing.)

For Nussbaum, objectification is a ‘multiple’ concept—there are many complex connections between these features of objectification. Instead of offering necessary and sufficient conditions for objectification, she claims that it is a “relatively loose cluster- term.” We sometimes treat any one of these features as sufficient, though we typically consider objectification to involve a plurality of these features. Instead of giving a precise definition of how these features constitute objectification, Nussbaum emphasizes the importance of context in evaluating whether objectification is taking place, and whether it is occurring in a morally problematic way.

The main feature of Nussbaum’s account that I want to focus on is her separation of objectification into two types: (i) viewing a person as an object and (ii) treating or using a person as an object. Dividing the concept of objectification in this way raises a question of whether both types of objectification have the same ethical status. While Nussbaum does not fully address this issue, she claims that there can be cases of act objectification that are benign or even positive.

This is because Nussbaum claims that objectification is not harmful when it occurs within the realm of “equality, respect and consent.” She gives the example of lying with a lover in bed, and using his stomach as a pillow (so treating him as an object). She claims that there is nothing impermissible or harmful about this interaction, provided it is done with his consent. I’ll be endorsing Nussbaum’s account of objectification; my focus here will be to articulate and justify the distinction that she puts forth between act and attitude objectification.

However, Nussbaum’s account has faced various criticism from philosophers; one example of this is from Sally Haslanger (2002).  In her account of objectification, Haslanger discusses the phenomenon of projective belief, where people generalize from a belief about an individual having certain features to a belief that the individual has those features by nature. She uses this to link objectification (which she claims is the simultaneous viewing and treatment of people as objects) and objectivity, which she claims consists of both epistemic and practical neutrality, and absolute a-perspectivity. This means that an objective observer will consider observed regularities (e.g., in an individual’s behavior) as “genuine” regularities (i.e., part of the observed individual’s nature) just in case (a) the observations occur under normal circumstances, (b) the observations are not conditioned by the observer’s social position, and (c) the observer has not influenced the behavior of the items under observation (71). Using this notion of projective belief, an observer can go from a belief that women are submissive and object-like to a belief that women are submissive and object-like by nature; this then shapes the objectifier’s perception of women, as he believes this perspective to be objective.

Haslanger claims that a “successful objectifier attributes to something features that have been forced upon it, and he believes the object has these features ‘by nature’”. To support this, she claims that objectification is not “just in the head” (i.e., it requires both acts and attitudes simultaneously)—however, this claim rests on the assumption that objectification is a relation of domination where the objectifier also has the power to enforce their view.

Both this claim and assumption might be appropriate within the scope of Haslanger’s project, but this conjunctive definition of objectification (where both attitudes and acts are required) isn’t sufficiently motivated for a more general definition of objectification. This definition is based on both the idea (1) that objectification is a power relation where one person dominates the other and (2) that an objectifying view must be acted upon in order to constitute objectification. However, this first idea isn’t necessarily intuitive, like when we think of examples of benign objectification, such as Nussbaum’s example of treating a lover like a pillow. The second idea doesn’t address the question at hand, and I will show in this talk that purely objectifying attitudes actually should be thought of as objectification, even if they are not acted on.  Haslanger’s definition is also unable to accommodate purely objectifying acts, i.e., when they occur without an accompanying attitude.

So, Haslanger’s conjunctive definition of objectification doesn’t seem to be preferable to Nussbaum’s more permissible, disjunctive definition.  Therefore, I claim we should set aside Haslanger’s definition that both acts and attitudes must occur together to constitute objectification.

Another critique of Nussbaum’s account comes from Raj Halwani (2008, 2010).  Halwani criticizes Nussbaum’s definition of objectification on two counts: he claims that her account is too broad to be useful, and builds off this to argue that her account is too “cluttered.”  His solution is to eliminate attitudes from our understanding of objectification.

Under Nussbaum’s account of objectification, many of our ordinary social interactions would be considered objectifying. For example, nearly all our economic transactions involve treating others as a means to achieving our goals. Some thinkers have criticized this aspect of Nussbaum’s account, claiming that her definition inappropriately includes “nearly all of the ways we ordinarily see and treat each other and ourselves in our daily lives” (Papadaki). While I agree that Nussbaum’s account generates many examples of objectification, I’ll show this is not a serious problem for her account by drawing on a notion put forth by Alan Soble (2002a) and Leslie Green: i.e., that people are, first and foremost, objects.

Soble (2002a) argues that objectification is not inappropriate, because everybody is already an object in some sense, and being an object is not necessarily a bad thing. Similarly, Leslie Green (2000) argues that it is permissible to treat people as objects, because people are embodied, extended in space and time, and subject to natural laws.

Both Green and Soble emphasize an important thought: people exist primarily (or first and foremost) as objects. When we revisit Halwani’s objection, with this understanding in hand, it shouldn’t be remarkable that most our social interactions, where we encounter both ourselves and other people primarily as objects, display some level of objectification.

One reason this objection might initially gain traction is based on the nature of the discussion. Lina Papadaki claims that calling these everyday interactions ‘objectification’ seems too broad, and gives the example of considering catching a taxi, which involves treating the taxi driver as an object (28- 29). It might seem like over generalization to think of these examples as objectifying because they appear in a discussion that primarily focuses on sexual objectification, where it is much more difficult to contrive these trivial, everyday examples of objectification. Additionally, this example (and most everyday cases of objectification) involve benign objectification—when we use the term ‘objectification,’ we usually use it to express the wrongness of an action, and so, in this sense, the application of the term might seem inappropriate—but this isn’t in and of itself sufficient to show that it’s actually a misapplication of the term.  Furthermore, Nussbaum actually accepts that ordinary transactions can be objectifying; e.g., she cites Marx’s account of the object-like treatment of workers under capitalism, and claims that being (instrumentally) valued for their labor crucially involves multiple features of objectification.

Halwani also says that an ideal definition of objectification would include “only treatment or behavior towards someone.” According to this view, if someone just views or perceives another in an instrumentalizing manner, no actual objectification takes place. Halwani claims that this kind of definition “more accurately reflects the problem with objectification: its impact on the objectified (often thought as victims).” I’m now going to address this concern by defining and establishing the significance of attitude objectification.

An objectifying attitude is primarily based in theoretical intentional attitudes (beliefs or perceptions); however, these theoretical intentional attitudes can be used to support objectifying practical intentional attitudes (intentions or desires).  For example, if a man is sexually objectifying a woman in the way that he sees her, then he is holding certain beliefs or perceptions about her; e.g., he may believe her to be violable and inert. Here, the objectifying attitude is a theoretical intentional attitude towards an individual which takes them to the status of an object.

These beliefs and perceptions can also be used to support practical intentional attitudes. If a man believes that a woman is violable and inert, that belief may be used to justify his intention or desire to treat her in a sexually objectifying manner.  However, I want to draw a sharp distinction between the intention or desire to treat someone in a sexually objectifying way, and the actual act of treating them in this way. When discussing attitude objectification, I am only referring to the theoretical and practical intentional attitudes associated with viewing someone as an object, and not the actual treatment.

So, in response to Halwani’s criticism, what is the value of including attitudes in our definition of objectification?  One benefit of including attitudes in our definition is the capacity to explain the ‘male gaze.’  John Berger argues that women are depicted differently from men, “because the ‘ideal’ spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him.”  This is the key notion of the male gaze: women are depicted and viewed as objects of attraction, such that the viewer is placed in a “masculine” position in order to appreciate the image. Laura Mulvey claims that women are assigned the passive status of being looked-at, whereas men are the active subjects who look.  Images of women play to and signify male desire, and represented women are displayed and perceived “as sexual objects.”

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