April 4, 2014 12:17 pm

Is it OK to objectify people?

‘It’s fine to treat people as means to an end as long as we don’t reduce them to just that’

The Shrink

One of our readers wonders if it’s OK to objectify people. While the term usually occurs in the context of the sexual objectification of women, there is also a broader sense in which it refers to treating anyone as an object in some way. People sometimes complain of being “used” by another person – not only for sex but also for favours or for listening: the mother-in-law becomes an unpaid childminder, the friend an informal counsellor.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with asking a favour of a friend or bending their ear about a thorny issue. There may even be times in our lives when circumstances lead us to over-rely on other people’s help, and we should be aware of the danger of allowing that to persist.

But objectification seems to refer to a more comprehensive pattern of cold-heartedly reducing individuals to a function, ignoring the fact that they have their own lives to live, feelings and projects. It’s fine to ask things of people as long as we make sure we don’t forget this – and as long as the favour-giving goes both ways. I’m happy to provide a listening ear if I know that I’m not just an ear for you, and that you will do the same for me.

It’s also a question of matching. You could argue that it’s OK for two people to have a relationship based only on sexual exchange but there is definitely a problem when one person desires a loving partnership and the other is just after pleasure. Or take networking, which can work fine as a purely functional kind of interaction so long as no one is under the illusion they are forming genuine friendships.

And let’s not forget that we can also objectify ourselves, not only when we judge ourselves by our looks and sexual attractiveness but any time we reduce ourselves to a role. It’s worth remembering we are always more than our roles, and ensuring we pay attention to our whole complex selves.

. . .

The Sage

“A human being is not a thing,” wrote the great Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant, “something that can be used merely as means but must in all his actions always be regarded as an end in itself.” Kant placed this principle at the heart of his moral philosophy, so it’s no exaggeration to say that he saw the objectification of people as the root of wrongdoing.

It’s a powerfully persuasive idea. After all, who could possibly approve of treating people as mere things? But it’s not always easy to cash out exactly what this maxim demands. Kant himself believed that ending one’s own life was never permissible, since: “If he destroys himself in order to escape from a trying condition, he makes use of a person merely as a means to maintain a tolerable condition up to the end of life.” In other words, to take quality of life to be the key consideration is to deny the value of a person’s life as an end in itself.

On a day-to-day basis, we might also find that to some extent we all treat people as means to ends. For example, do you always interact with shop cashiers as autonomous individuals with desires, projects and interests beyond the till? At the bar, do you sometimes just place your order and pay?

The word “merely” might provide a way out. Perhaps it’s fine to treat people as means to an end as long as we don’t reduce them to just that, like the rude guest at a function who simply takes drinks and canapés off trays without even acknowledging the waiting staff. But as long as we’re polite and respectful, we’re at least acknowledging the humanity in others and not treating them as though they are machines.

That does, however, reduce the imperative not to treat people as objects as a minimal requirement of civility rather than the foundation of all ethics. So be it. Try to make the idea more robust, and you may end up with a principle that is neither as obvious nor as wholly benign as it first seems.

The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email shrinkandsage@shrinkandsage.com

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