Objectification and Empathy

Two of the biggest assumptions in our current culture are these:

1) Objectification of people is what allows you to treat them badly.

2) Empathy is the answer, as it prevents this objectification.

Both of these assumptions are certainly wrong as simple statements. Objectification is absolutely necessary to the process of thought; you can't consider another person even as a presumptive subject without making them an object of your conscious thought. As the article under the first link explores, there are a number of other ways in which objectification is either not bad, proper, or sometimes simply non-problematic. The real issue is more fundamental. If rationality leads to better solutions, well, objectification is a necessary condition for rational thought. You can feel about someone without objectifying them only because the feelings are really your own: you aren't feeling what they feel, but what you feel. If you are going to think about them, you're going to have to freeze them in your mind as an object for analysis.

Meanwhile, as the author goes on to point out, frequently cruelty doesn't arise from objectification at all: it is just because the other is recognized as a human capable of suffering humiliation or pain that the wrong is done to them. If only the evildoer saw them as merely an object, without subjective capacity, there would be no point to the cruelty.

Empathy, as the second link explores, is not an unalloyed good. Being empathetic means experiencing an emotional response, which may not be entirely coherent with applying reason to a problem. For example, feeling a strong sense of empathy for the victim of a crime may make you less rational about administering punishment in vengeance for that crime. It is important to be rational there, though, if only to be sure that the person you think you've caught is really the guilty party.

Good to see these basic assumptions beginning to be challenged. Both of them preference feelings over reason in moral decision-making, a preference at odds with all of the great moral philosophy.


Cassandra said...

We've disagreed on this before, so I imagine my comments won't be new to you :) But I read the New Yorker article and found the underpinnings of the author's argument thoroughly unconvincing.

As I recall, the author argued that the point of treating Jews as less than human was to inflict suffering on them that was essentially human in nature. You could insult or strike a box, but the box wouldn't feel pain. Of course if you strike a dog (not human) the dog feels pain. And dogs do experience other emotions - shame, for instance. So once again, not a terribly compelling argument from the author unless you don't believe animals have emotions or feel pain too!

I always thought the point of treating 'disfavored groups' as less than human was to say, in effect, "I don't have to treat Jews with the same consideration as other humans because they aren't really people at all, at least they aren't people like you or me". IOW, the point was to normalize cruelty by suggesting that the normal rules don't apply because Jews aren't fully human (they're inferior beings, like cattle or dogs or insects).

Secondly, objectification doesn't refer to making a person the object of your thoughts. I can think about you without objectifying you in the least - all I have to do in my thoughts is recognize that you are a human being, just as I am.

Objectification refers to ignoring the person's humanity, generally by behaving as though that the person exists for your use, just like any personal possession. Their feelings don't matter. You may not even be aware that they exist at all, so unimportant are they to you.

So a man or woman who uses someone of the opposite sex callously for personal gain (sex, or money) - with no consideration for their feelings and no recognition that they are dealing with another person who has thoughts and feelings that deserve consideration is "objectifying" another human -- treating a person as a thing to be used and discarded.

FWIW, I agree that empathy isn't an unalloyed good, though :p People can treat me well without empathizing with me (or liking me). And they can empathize with me, yet harm me if their feelings lead them to do things that hurt more than help me.

Cassandra said...

The "point to the cruelty" is to convince others that it's acceptable (even desirable) to show contempt for your inferiors. If you're a member of the Master Race, it's your destiny to rule inferior beings. You have to remind them who's in charge, and who's not.

And if you're a member of the Master Race, that presupposes Underlings, who must be crushed early, and often. That way you can steal their cornflakes and shtump their womenfolk.

Durnitall, Grim - as an evil, oppressive cis-gendered white male (but I repeat my ownself), it pains me to have to remind you of this.

/running away :)

Grim said...

You're right, you'd think that as an oppressive cis-gendered white male I would be up on all the mechanisms of oppression.

Some of this has to do with whether we're equivocating on different definitions of "objectification." There's a sense in which you can't be the subject of my consciousness; even I can't be the subject of my consciousness. In order to think about myself, even, I have to divide myself into subject (thinker) and object (thing thought about). This is an argument we get in Plotinus to significant metaphysical effect; I buy his argument, but here I just want to raise it in the simple sense without the big metaphysical consequences. It's necessary to objectify in order to think, and rational thought is linked (we hope, and philosophy usually maintains) to better moral outcomes than other avenues.

I think that the dog example strengthens rather than weakens the author's argument, so I'm not quite sure where you're going with it. It's in recognizing that the dog is a kind-of subject that he becomes worth kicking, if I'm the sort of person who kicks dogs to feel better about myself. It's in recognizing that the Jew can experience suffering and humiliation to an even keener degree that they become worthy not simply of extermination, like rats, but of humiliation and shaming.

Or so the Anti-semite might feel; obviously not you or I. But in discussing their moral universe, we recognize that they have one. Nevertheless, they're the object of our thought, the object of our discussion, and can't (in Plotinus' sense) be the subject of your thought or my thought. The subject is the thinker, not the thing thought about, and if you are thinking then perforce that must be you yourself.

Cass said...

You're right, you'd think that as an oppressive cis-gendered white male I would be up on all the mechanisms of oppression.

Exactly. There are standards to uphold, you know.

/off to make you a sandwich, you big brute! :)

Grim said...


douglas said...

Yes, but if you make the dog do tricks, is it humiliated? No. Making Jewish Doctors scrub the streets pointlessly is not like striking a dog.

" at least they aren't people like you or me"." Now this is definitely true- classic "othering". That is something that's almost always present when people are cruel to strangers, in one form or another. It does seem an important distinction between 'not human' to 'not as human as us'.

"- treating a person as a thing to be used and discarded."
This is ultimately the issue at hand- the ability to see someone else as 'less than' you- less deserving of respect, less than human, less good. Sociopathy, to some degree. This is why the fundamental equality of mankind as children of God is so important- it is something not of our nature, but rather something that lifts us beyond it.