What is “objectification,” and what’s wrong with it?

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.

34 Responses to What is “objectification,” and what’s wrong with it?

  1. I’m reminded of a line from Vicky in the Woody Allen film “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”: “C’mon, let’s not get into another one of those turgid categorical-imperative arguments.” In fact, I think that line was interrupting a discussion of three-party relationships (one man, two women). And I’m sure there’s enough material to fill five blog posts about Woody Allen and objectification of women 😀

  2. Odysseus Galanis says:

    I’m reminded of this scene from the Simpsons: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=52Gqlf-5GjU

    • Max says:

      I prefer the one where Marge’s liberal professor deconstructs Homer’s note to her.
      “I miss you.” “I” is the subject, and “you” is the object. You are his object.
      Here’s the video, but it’s in Spanish.

  3. Max says:

    When a woman is interested in a man for financial security and children, is that objectification?

  4. Julia,

    What if we change the criterion for being objectified from being treated as a means to an end to being treated as a MERE means to an end. It seems then that if you were to treat your barista as a mere means to an end you would be doing something wrong, because you would be treating him/her as something that they are not. Agents are essentially ends in themselves, so your act would be one of perversion.

    What do you think about that?


    • Julia Galef says:

      Well, I was pretty much using “means to an end” to mean “MERE means to an end.”

      It’s true that when I order coffee, I’m treating the guy behind the counter “merely” as a barista. And it’s true that he’s certainly plenty of other things too (a poet! an activist! a lover of ice cream! etc.) But I don’t see any reason why it’s wrong for me to ignore those other aspects of him while I’m getting my coffee.

      … Though I’ll just warn you now, for future reference, you’re going to have a hard time convincing me that something’s wrong if you can’t make the case that it might cause harm to at least one sentient being.

      (*Also, obligatory disclaimer: When I say “wrong” I’m not using it in the moral realist sense.)

      • Kira says:

        I think there’s a difference between treating someone as a “merely” a barista and a lot of the dehumanization which comes with objectification. If I order a coffee, I’m polite, thank the person, and drink my coffee. If there’s a problem, I bring it to their attention and request a solution. There are some people who snap at waitstaff and, if their coffee is wrong, will verbally abuse or even throw the coffee back at them. I would argue that’s objectification – ignoring that someone is a person and focusing only on their “role” in your life – to get your your coffee.

        So you may be ignoring that your barista is a “lover of ice cream”, but you’re not ignoring that your barista is a person. My argument is that the removal of respect and courtesy in favor of utilitarianism is “objectifiying”: turning someone into an object.

      • When you say ‘wrong’ in what sense would you be using it? If it is in some emotivist sense what would the purpose of your argument be?

        “It’s true that when I order coffee, I’m treating the guy behind the counter “merely” as a barista. And it’s true that he’s certainly plenty of other things too (a poet! an activist! a lover of ice cream! etc.) But I don’t see any reason why it’s wrong for me to ignore those other aspects of him while I’m getting my coffee.”

        Are you really ignoring the fact that he is an agent? Would you be treating him as if he were no more that a machine that dispenses coffee? Or is it that in your interaction the properties constitutive of his identity as an agent don’t play an important role, so it’s not that you are neglecting them (which would be treating him as a MERE means to an end) but rather engaging with him in some sort of economic or societal role as a coffee maker? If you were acting in the former way then there certainly seems to be something wrong with your action because you are treating the barista as something he is not. In some way you are misidentifying him (which to me seems to be irrational). In the second way you come into the interaction respecting or recognizing him as an agent with the understanding that he has given himself the role of providing others with coffee, so you use him not as a mere means to an end (like come mechanical coffee dispenser) but as a means to your end of getting coffee. Here you treat him not only as a means to your end of getting coffee but also as an end in and of himself.

        There is a distinct difference between when I say that the barista IS an agent and when you say he IS a lover of ice cream, or IS an activist, etc. I am picking out some feature constitutive of the identity of your barista whereas the attributions you have picked out are merely contingent facts irrelevant to what he is. They may be roles he takes on or questions about his taste but they are not facts about his identity as a thing in this world.

        In the same way if one treat a lover merely as if they were nothing more than a dildo (or whatever the relevant equivalent would be) in a sexual they are behaving in a way that seems to be patently irrational. They are not treating the other person as what they are. They are misidentifying them.

      • James Croft says:

        I think summatheoblogica makes an important distinction – that to objectify someone is inherently to deny their existence as a subject in the encounter under investigation. So to say you are treating the person serving you coffee merely as a means to an end is to say you feel no responsibility whatsoever toward them as a human being with their own goals etc, not merely that you don’t call to mind those other factors at the time. I.e. it is to treat the individual as you would treat a machine, and to feel no compunction doing so.

        This is the case with much sexual objectification in advertisements, in which women are portrayed simply as objects of sexual desire for men, with no other qualities whatsoever. But it is also the case that sometimes characters are sexualized without be objectified, and I think sometimes critics are too quick to cry “objectification” when in fact sexualization would be a more accurate descriptor.

      • James Croft says:

        And now I am wondering, if in fact “objectification” is more something that can exist in greater or lesser amounts rather than a binary property. I.e. we might say “X is objectifying Y to Z degree”, and make judgments regarding acceptable amounts of objectification.

  5. Julia Galef says:

    @Max — There’s obviously no hard-and-fast criterion for “using someone as a means to an end.” Taking it loosely, you could say that to the extent that we get anything out of another person, we can be said to be “using” them.

    I think what makes the difference for most people is whether or not someone is aware of the other person’s preferences, feelings, etc (or at least of the fact that the other person *has* preferences, feelings, etc). So if the woman in your example were unconcerned with the man’s preferences, feelings, etc., then yeah, maybe that would qualify as objectification according to the typical definition.

    But I was really hoping this discussion could stay away from questions about whether men’s treatment of women is “worse” than women’s treatment of men. (Not sure if that was your point, but nevertheless.) Those are reasonable discussions to have, but not that relevant to the thrust of my post, which is just trying to make sense of the concept of objectification and whether it causes harm.

    • Max says:

      I just never heard it called objectification, so I thought I’m missing something in the definition.
      What about having children so they’ll take care of you when you’re old?

  6. Andrew T says:

    I take a (probably too) simplistic additive approach to those “drop in the ocean of society” issues – your level of “wrongness” is the fraction by which you contribute to the overall wrongness in society. It’s minuscule but it’s there. And if there’s a threshold at which point it becomes a problem in society, then your personal threshold for the amount you allow yourself that behavior should be a fraction of that as well.

  7. Max says:

    This is like the economic mode vs. social mode. It’s ok to see the barista as just a means to get coffee, but it’s not ok to see your friend as just a means to get coffee. When the two modes mix, it gets awkward.

    • Julia Galef says:

      I think that accounts for some of the indignation over “objectification,” but certainly not all of it. A stripper’s a professional being paid to arouse customers, so we shouldn’t be in social mode, yet many people complain that strip clubs objectify women (and that this is bad).

      • Max says:

        Is it different from, say, basketball objectifying tall people? Seems that sexual objectification is special.

      • Keith Burgun says:

        Excellent post, Julia. But yes, I do think both your post, and the one you linked to in the first paragraph, are missing a really huge element, which is our society’s childish fear of sex. This is why objectification seems to only be objectification when it comes to sexual matters.

    • Max says:

      Oh yeah, and mixing different economic modes is awkward too. It’s not ok to see your boss as a means to get coffee.

  8. Jacob V says:

    In the market place there are buisnesses, advertisers, and the creators of media content who constantly objectify women; and it seems to me that the actions of a few are having a negative impact on the many in this curcumstance. Also the perpetuation of gender stereotypes could also be seen as objectifying women. Here’s some research on the topic.

  9. Michael Fisher says:

    In middle age I’m only just getting my head around the terminology of the debate. So no big insights from me, but I have a nagging feeling that the terms “objectification” & “privilege” are used in debate too much ~ a one-size-fits-all weapon (a club) to shut down other viewpoints.

    You have given me much to think about here & I have to decide if my feelings about this is a failing in me. I’m going to try your utilitarian ethics approach & see if that (along with evidence) clears the fog away for me.

    PS I hope you are making a good recovery from the chip fat thing Julia. I like your writing ~ it is clear & ‘unbaggaged’

  10. I don’t think Luke or Julia are defining objectification correctly. If you’re just using someone “as a means to an end”, that is more of a tool, not an object. Men tend to be tools while women are objects. You don’t even have to look at “the media”, just observe the behaviors of people around you. Objectification implies that you are valued for your body and not your mind and when vocal women express their discomfort over “objectification”, that is what they are almost always talking about, not that men are just using them for sex. In fact, the object doesn’t have a problem “giving” sex to a tool that only wants sex, provided the tool is everything the object wants it to be…though the object may be in denial about said tool’s motives.

    Is fighting against objectification a moral stance? No. It’s an expression of insecurity and is related to sexual jealousy, not a concern about right and wrong. One of the things that makes humans unique among animals is our ability to have feelings about things that are just ideas (feeling upset when a fictional character gets killed in a movie for example), which is why a woman can feel threatened by an ideal girl that only exists in a guy’s head and vice versa.

    So why would one hide their insecurity by pointing a finger at the opposite gender and saying “what you’re doing is wrong?” Because there is comfort in believing that someone is drawn to you just because you are you, regardless of what you look like and what you do. The idea that someone is sexually attracted to you because you possess the attributes that they desire from your gender scares people. It takes away our uniqueness and sense of security we have in our connectedness with those people. This is true of toolizing people too and if one objects to one but not the other, then that person is working out of complete self interest and therefore has a badly thought out sense of right and wrong.

    I should also point out that these are just my opinions, as any psychology classes I’ve taken have barely scratched the surface on topics like this, plus the professors would probably be too scared of offending powerful people if they did.

    • Jeffrey Soreff says:

      “Objectification implies that you are valued for your body and not your mind”
      Hmm – I wonder how my blood bank views me… Blood and veins and bone marrow? 🙂
      Am I just a type-A, Rh-positive to them? If I were unique they couldn’t use me…

  11. I could see one of the main issues that one takes with it being the fact that a woman (or for that matter a man) would be valued for their physical attractiveness and not for things which they probably themselves value more and would want their image to be based on. Most would probably want to be thought of for their intellect, creativity, knowledge, eloquence etc etc etc.

    If a woman is debating or talking about something important and the response is “Oh, I’d totally pork her,” that seems to completely diminish the actual point she is making and write her off as something else. It’s cheapening and disrespectful.

    Of course, it depends on the circumstance. Being objectifying in general and toward most is not good and causes thee problems and focusing on appearance is disrespectful and low in an intellectual setting. However, there are circumstances where two partners can honestly agree that they both only want the other for sex.

    In most circumstances people tend to be known for one thing and if their body is what they’re known for it could move focus from their other positive qualities and I think there is some objection there.

  12. Vesuvium says:

    This was a very good discussion of objectification. I am inclined to think that the only way to show that objectification is wrong is to show that it has negative consequences. It is, as you point out, not inherently wrong to regard another as a means to one’s end. It may be wrong to regard them as a ‘mere means’, but it is difficult to interpret this phrase, and even more difficult to show that paradigm cases of objectification involve something like this. What needs to be shown is that exposure to objectifying material has long-lasting (negative!) impacts on peoples’ perceptions of those who are objectified, or that it otherwise makes a difference in the real world. Anything else is really just moralistic bs. I don’t really know the psych literature here, but I did read this recent article in SciAmMind: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-sunny-side-of-smut . I do suspect that this article is quite one-sided.

  13. GapsInTheMind says:

    Sometimes you (and other skeptics) puzzle me with the pedantic understanding of terms. It is important to parse what words mean, but I get the feeling that you’re trying to oversimplify a term like objectification as a binary on off sort of label, and yet, it can be complex, and yes some people do overuse the severity of the term, but that doesn’t make it meaningless or all that hard to understand. I don’t at all mean to be insulting towards you, it’s more a curiosity I’ve noticed with how you approach problems, sometimes for good… sometimes, I’m scratching my head a little.

    Without looking up any definitions to back up what I think objectification means, and to go right ahead and attempt to oversimplify, something I just criticized you for, I think of objectification as denying the “personhood” of someone, not so much as using them as a means to and end per se, though of course that’s usually wrapped up in the equation.

    Also, I put personhood in quotes, because we most certainly can consider the personhood of nonhuman animals, though I know that some people won’t want to go there. No, animals aren’t people, but there is a person or being behind those eyes, inside those bodies, most any pet owner perceives this.

    But, moving away from that aspect, the example of using a barrister as a means to an end, a cup of coffee, isn’t a very good example. Of course there’s a certain level of using people in any labor. But we understand that there are a few caveats involved. Are people working willingly? Are they coerced or in some sort of slave position? Are they being duly compensated and are their personal needs being met i.e. limited work hours, breaks, etc.? Again, there is no black of white here; we argue about that sort of thing all the time, like are poor people coerced by society to voluntarily enlist in the armed forced due to lack of opportunity? I’m getting a little off track here, but it’s still relevant.

    I though Luke’s example of the photo was a poor one as well. I’m not going to argue specifically whether one photo is objectification or not, but there most certainly is a context to consider of the photo in Playboy and the photo of people in mud that we just can’t ignore. As the saying that goes for pornography, there is no hard and fast rule, we know it when we see it. A photo of a nude woman in a museum isn’t the same context as a nude woman in a men’s magazine though technically, they may be depicting the same thing. But just because these distinctions can be tricky, this doesn’t mean that we cannot make any distinctions whatsoever.

    If we try to be hyper-rational and naïve of human interaction, like Data from Star Trek, than yes, this is truly puzzling, but we are not emotionless androids, so this shouldn’t be so obtuse.

    Oh, and basing all philosophical inquiry against off or what Kant or utilitarianism says, is boring and I’ll say it, wrong-headed. They are good tools of analaysis, but they aren’t there to try to box everything into.

    Luke said, “We all use each other as means to an end, or as objects of one kind or another, all the time. And we can do so while respecting their autonomy.”

    Yes, that’s right, and that’s not the problem that the term objectification is addressing when people use it. The problem is when we don’t respect personhood, or worse, we don’t believe or refuse to acknowledge that it exists in certain groups.

    Julia said, “I’m not at all bothered by the idea of a particular man being interested in a particular woman only for sex”

    But what kind of character would this man have. I don’t mean this in the puritanical idea that sex is bad, but if you really did knew someone who objectified a women as merely sex things (and I say women, because it he does it to one, it’s likely he would do it to all) what would that say about him? Would he think that say fat women don’t hold any value as well since maybe he doesn’t find them as sexy. What about black people, they aren’t good for much than picking cotton and making hip-hop music? The negative aspects of objectification easily gets bundled with negative stereotyping , racisms, sexism, and other forms of oppression, and to take a hyper-rational point of view, sure, there’s nothing “wrong” with racism or sexism (etc), an individual person is within his rights to hate or objectify or treat as inferior anyone he or she wants to. However, as clever primates that crave social justice and equality for its own sake (and for ours), something that nature or science proofs don’t give a damn about; we do (or we hopefully should) value improving ourselves and our society to overcome such biases.
    Calling out objectification is attempting to combat the “tyranny of the discontinuous mind,” a term Dawkin’s uses in slightly different context, but I don’t think he would disapprove of me borrowing the term here. A discontinuous mind makes poor decisions based on lacking a holistic view. It oversimplifies complexity, ignores continuity, it jumps to assumptions based on sterotyping, it objectifies. But persons are more than their perceived value to someone else as a resource to be exploited, whatever that may be, whether sex recourse, labor resource, entertainment resource, the list goes on.

    Maybe I’m dipping in to Massimo’s brand of virtue ethics, but I don’t think that moral choices can be exclusively determined on whether or not harm is done, at some point it has to be about more than actions that should be avoided, and about actions or directions of thoughts that should be pursued and promoted to better one’s self and hopefully to attempt to spread ideas that better society.

    • Andrew T says:

      You’re taking a pretty big leap with your assumptions about the man interested in a woman only for sex. I know of several guys in just my own personal life who took part in the “hookup culture” without caring much about who the girl “really” was at one time or another, but had female friends (fat female friends, even) at the same time, and went on to have more meaningful long term relationships. The rest of your argument seems to be about how context and nuance matters, but then you smash that with such a broad generalization about male-female attitudes (“it’s likely he would do it to all”).

    • Jesse M. says:

      If we try to be hyper-rational and naïve of human interaction, like Data from Star Trek, than yes, this is truly puzzling, but we are not emotionless androids, so this shouldn’t be so obtuse.

      I think you’re projecting a bit here, there was nothing I saw in Julia’s post that suggested she would disagree there are plenty of nuances to what constitutes “objectification” and what doesn’t, or degrees of it, nor that she would say these questions could be settled in a hyper-rational way just by appealing to some logical definition rather than using intuitions from experience.

      Luke said, “We all use each other as means to an end, or as objects of one kind or another, all the time. And we can do so while respecting their autonomy.”

      Yes, that’s right, and that’s not the problem that the term objectification is addressing when people use it. The problem is when we don’t respect personhood, or worse, we don’t believe or refuse to acknowledge that it exists in certain groups.

      I don’t think “objectification” necessarily means that, one can “objectify” in a context-dependent way that doesn’t harm the person, like a man objectifying women when looking at porn or in certain types of casual consensual sex, but treating them in a non-objectifying way in other contexts. And I think that type of context-dependent objectification was what Julia didn’t have much of a problem with, I can’t imagine she’d be too cool with a man who treated all women as sex objects at all times and thus didn’t respect their feelings or their ideas.

  14. qldps says:

    There is a saying that goes “Good looks for a woman are what wealth is for a man”. I think Objectification is real, but only women find it to be a cause of suffering on the receiving end. This suggests (to me) objectification only exists in relation to sexual contexts.

  15. Katja Grace says:

    “…how do you assign blame in situations where any single person doing X is harmless, but many people doing X is harmful?”


  16. James Croft says:

    Very interesting that you point to the Less Wrong article, which itself links to a Nussbaum piece on the topic. It seems like the Less Wrong poster may not have read the Nussbaum piece carefully, because they fail to take into account the fact that Nussbaum makes it very clear that the effects of objectification are context-dependent:

    “In the matter of objectification, context is everything. MacKinnon and Dworkin grant this when they insist, correctly, that we assess male-female relations in the light of the larger social context and history of female subordination, and insist on differentiating the meaning of objectification
    in these contexts from its meaning in either male-male or female-female relations.” (p. 271).

    This is a critical realization. What may be a negatively-objectifying comment by A to B may be perceived neutrally or even positively when made by C to D. I see this all the time among my gay friends – we objectify each other all the time (“reduction to appearance”, “reduction to body”), and because of the peculiar social context of homophobia that becomes a positive expression of our autonomy and resistance rather than a display of dominance.

  17. Huruma says:

    1) It may be true that thinking of people as ‘sex objects’ will indirectly have a negative effect on how you treat them in general but this still doesn’t show that objectification is inherently bad.

    2) If men being interested in women only for sex is a problem, it’s the lack of their general interest in them that’s problematic and not their being interested in them for sex. A man could have no interest in a woman, sexually or otherwise, and it would be equally as problematic as a man being interested in a woman only for sex would be.

    3) If objectification involves disregarding another person’s state of mind, then what people consider to be sexual objectification is not only not objectifying but the very opposite. People who view others in a hyper-sexual context are less likely to ascribe them with agency (a sense of their being self-determining beings with plans and agendas) but more likely to ascribe them with a capacity for feeling. The capacity of objectified women to feel pain, pleasure and desire is highlighted, not downplayed, by objectification. Research has shown this. Men are typically aroused when women express sexual pleasure, they don’t consider the emotions of the bread they eat for breakfast.

    4) With the pollution example, it isn’t possible for an individual’s behavior or contribution to something to have a negligible effect if a million individuals doing the exact same thing has a significant overall effect. ‘Negligibility’ is just disregarding a small amount of or small contribution to something for *convenience* but the only negligible amount of or contribution to something is 0. If the contribution of a single individual is 0, then at what number of individuals, 2, 3, 4,5, or when, do we go from 0 to 1? If many people doing X is harmful then the behavior of only one of those individual contributors has to be *somewhat* harmful.

  18. Andreas says:

    “(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).*”

    Im one of the few lucky guys that see lots of women sexually. It took time to get em, and a lot of confidence and scary approaches and dates ofcourse. Many men dont have that confidence.

    To have this abundance ofcourse enables me to use women for other things than sex, but most men dont have this abundance at all, but a strong sex-drive.

    Porn might help, but as a woman it might be good concidering how few males you actually are attracted too, and wonder what those other guys do, do they have any sex partners, etc etc.

    That guys often think of women for sex, is because they currently arent satisfied. Its just due to situational circumstance, its not that they couldnt think of women for other uses than sex, its just that they currently have sex on the mind because its missing.

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