Warning: this is an intensely philosophical post that most of you may wish to skip.
A couple of recent articles have touched on the issue of "sexual objectification." The philosophy around right sexuality is something that I've had an interest in for decades, ever since I first encountered Catholic theological arguments in a Comparative Religious Philosophy class. They're very interesting, well-reasoned, but from the beginning they struck me as missing something. This concept of "objectification" has also bothered me for a long time, as it also seems to be missing something.
Before I get into my new thoughts on the matter, let me put the articles in front of you. First, and most important, here is a brief account of Kant's theory of objectification (which goes way beyond sexuality, to embrace the entirety of moral philosophy). It's a longer piece, but I can't usefully excerpt it as the whole argument is needed for the following discussion.
Second, here is an account by Dennis Prager on why sexual objectification is perfectly normal in human males.
It's really the Kantian argument I'm concerned with here, but I think it has much broader application.
So, Kant makes exactly one exception to sex as being morally wrong -- and not just wrong, but intensely wicked because it leads to the objectification of the self as well as the other. That one exception is marriage. Here's the argument on why marriage is permissable:
I think at this point that we would find this argument totally implausible, but especially the conclusions that:
A) In granting sexual rights to a person, you must necessarily grant rights to yourself as an absolute unity (meaning to your whole person, for your whole life), and,
B) This requires granting a thing-like property status to yourself that would permit your spouse to force you to return to them should you leave, and vice versa.
Kant treats all this as a set of iron laws of right, which no human government could alter or abolish. But if objectification is so wicked in general, and requires you to grant slave-like property rights to yourself even in the condition of marriage, why permit marriage at all? The force of this problem is what convinces Professor Raja Halwani, in the first linked article, to decide that sexual attraction is per se morally wrong.
But there is a reason why some sort of exception has to be made, and it is obvious: if no one has sex, human life and all civilization ends.
Objectification as a concern leads to all sorts of absurd philosophical conclusions, including the conclusion that sexual desire is morally wrong in and of itself. (Two more come from Halwani's article: "Is it possible to have sex without objectification? Of course. Prostitutes do it all the time. So do many long-term couples. They have sex with people whom they do not desire. And with no desire, there is no objectification." That implies that prostitution and loveless long-married sex are both morally better than sex between a loving couple, surprising conclusions indeed.)
Let me propose a natural theological alternative position: God would not condition the survival of the human race on a moral evil. If objectification is indeed necessary to sexual desire, and sexual desire necessary to the survival of the human race, then we must not think that it is wicked. I suspect that Kant's entire moral analysis -- the whole of Kantian ethics, and not just his sexual ethics -- could perish on this rock.
But not everyone is inclined to natural theology, or to theology at all. So let me give a Neoplatonic version of this argument. A point that Plotinus makes is that it is impossible to think about the self without objectification: in order for me to think about myself, I have to divide myself into a thinker, and the thought-about. The thought-about part is severed from the thinker, who notices what the thought-about part is doing as if they were separate things. This is exactly what we would call a subject/object distinction.
In thinking about anyone else, then, I must (and you must) make them an object of thought. Objectification is therefore not merely necessary to the survival of the human species, it is necessary to thought.
Can't you think of them as an object that is also a subject? Remember that the force of Plotinus' argument is that you can't even do that in the strict sense when you are thinking about yourself, when you obviously know that you're thinking about an object that is a subject. Creating an object of thought freezes it, for a moment, as it was when you assembled all of the information you have and fused it into a single object of knowledge to consider. If we must do that to think about ourselves, a fortiori we must do it to think about another. Thus, objectification in this strict sense is necessary to thinking about anything -- to thought itself, in other words.
If it is necessary to thought, it is necessary to the kind of reasoning we do in order to do moral philosophy or ethics at all. Another way to say that is: Without objectification in this sense, there is no moral philosophy, and without moral philosophy there is nothing that could declare objectification to be wrong.
Kantian ethics declares rationality to be the source of morality. A bar on objectification of persons -- and especially of the self -- means disabling the necessary condition for legislation of the moral law. Nothing could be worse, for Kant, than to see the moral law abolished. Thus, objectification of the self and others in at least some senses is not only not immoral, it is a necessary condition for morality.
Is it the same sense? Philosophers love to split hairs like that, and maybe some will feel inclined to do so here. Yet it does not seem to me that hair-splitting is worthwhile here: it is the other, and a part of the self, as an object of thought is intensely focused-on and experienced.
This kind of objectification cannot be wrong, as avoiding it would disable a necessary condition for knowing that anything was wrong (because it would make it impossible to think about the other, or even the self). It also cannot be wrong, as the survival of the species depends up on it.
Prager's much less philosophical analysis ends up being the more sensible and humane, even though I don't think he grasps why the argument against objectification must be wrong. He is able to see that it is wrong, though, from its consequences: "If your husband denies these assertions, he is lying to you because he is afraid that you will react angrily or that he will hurt your feelings. He may also be lying to himself -- after all, he, too, went to college and reads liberal opinion pieces on misogyny; and he wants to be an 'enlightened' male."
Certainly holding to an assertion that forces us to lie to ourselves (and our spouses) entails a contradiction on Kant's terms, and such contradictions are proof of an immoral maxim for Kant. But there is a much deeper problem with that. The real issue is the idea that objectification as an act of thought is wrong, when in fact it is necessary to thinking at all.
Now, many philosophers (especially feminist philosophers) who use the word do so in a different sense than Kant or Plotinus. They think they are expanding on Kant's language, I believe, saying something that is in a way original but in a way an outgrowth of his basic ideals of respect for all rational beings. Doing so is itself a fallacy; it would be better to make an argument against the actual behavior that is problematic. There are no problems with coming up with arguments against sexual assault, harassment, and the like without falling back on the concept of objectification. If the objectification theory is as flawed as I believe it to be, arguments that use its language end up weakening the program against these abuses. This is because they give rise to counterarguments (against the objectification language) that could give the impression that the whole ethical argument has been defeated. In fact, defeating the objectification argument does nothing to show that (for example) the rights-based argument against sexual assault is invalid.
Well, I am proposing a serious rejection of a major part of Modern ethical thought here. I suppose that's enough for one day.