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In morality

Objectification: What is It and Can We Know It?


By: McKenzie Hahn
The past few weeks on campus, and around Alberta, have been abuzz with Professor Tom Flanagan’s remarks[i] on child pornography while at a speaking engagement at the University of Lethbridge. I’m not writing to defend or condemn his statements on the legal issue of whether to send viewers of child porn to prison, but rather to examine the issue of objectification in general.
What makes, for example, child porn in all its forms – cartoon, video, or photograph – different from things like ogling your neighbour’s wife (a la Don Draper), or seeing the naked angelic cherubim on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. Mr. Flanagan’s recent interview with Maclean’s magazine[ii] alludes to this “moral panic” we seem to find ourselves in over the issue, and yet for all our concern there seems to be a fear of discussing it intellectually.
There seems to be many questions that are associated with this discussion. What does it mean to objectify someone? Can we mentally turn someone into an object? Can we mentally remove or ignore some intrinsic value or quality from someone? And, how does this relate to photography and pictures? We need to first outline what objectifying a fellow human being would look like. A possible place to start could be feminist philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s article ‘Objectification[iii], which tells us that there are at least seven ways to objectify people (three more added by Rae Langton[iv]):
1.Instrumentality. The objectifier treats the object as a tool of his or her purposes.
2.Denial of autonomy. The objectifier treats the object as lacking in autonomy and self-determination.
3.Inertness. The objectifier treats the object as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity.
4.Fungibility. The objectifier treats the object as interchangeable (a) with other objects of the same type and/or (b) with objects of other types.
5.Violability. The objectifier treats the object as lacking in boundary integrity, as something that it is permissible to break up, smash, break into.
6.Ownership. The objectifier treats the object as something that is owned by another, can be bought or sold, etc.
7.Denial of subjectivity. The objectifier treats the object as something whose experience and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.
8.Reduction to body. Treatment of a person as identified with their body, or body parts.
9.Reduction to appearance. Treatment of a person primarily in terms of how they look.
10. Silencing. The treatment of a person as if they lack the capacity to speak.
However, if we look at this list closely, we can see that there are some problems. For example, “instrumentality” seems a bit problematic: do I turn a store clerk into a means every time I buy something I want from them? I don’t particularly need to care about their experiences or feelings when I buy groceries, though I treat them with respect as a fellow human being. I may even grow a relationship with them over time, though certainly I’m not obligated to do this. Have I objectified the clerk here? Or, more to the point, have I objectified the clerk where there should be any public outrage? For the sake of length, I’ll leave these criticisms aside. There seems to be one more ingredient that must be added to this list before we are able to identify objectification. 
I Object or I, Object? Objectification and Child Pornography as a Case Study
Let’s consider the act of taking a picture of a child. I suggest we take into account three separate considerations in addition to Nussbaum’s list: 1. the child’s vulnerability, 2. the photographer, and 3. the viewer.
First, is the child vulnerable? It would seem that in any pornographic situation, yes, the child is always being taken advantage of and vulnerable (even if they or their guardians agree to it). It seems that the only possible way one would want to make a child this vulnerable is if one viewed the child as a commodity or worst. It is hard to imagine that one could have a high regard for the child’s humanity and still place the child in such a vulnerable situation.
Next, is the action of photography inherently wrong? Surely not, or Instagram and Pinterest would quickly go out of business. But perhaps there’s more at work here, and certain types of pictures – and how they are used – ought not be tolerated. It seems that the intent of the photographer is a fundamental aspect. Consider: not all nudes objectify (one thinks of the journalistic image of napalm-stricken Kim Phuc from Vietnam[v]) though some, of course, do (any number of recent shots from the royal family in the buff). But, certainly it seems that taking sexualized nude pictures of children objectify, due to the motivation behind the photographer.
Finally, the viewer. Demand creates supply, as several industry-minded thinkers have addressed the child pornography issue. Go after the viewers, they say, and no one will want to make the images desired. But, as Flanagan pointed out, what to do with people who view the images by accident or in a court of law where evidence of child pornography is being presented? Simply seeing child pornography does not necessarily mean that the viewer is objectifying children. So surely why someone views the images and the viewer’s intentions also matters.
As we’ve uncovered, there are many different ways to objectify humans. I have introduced a method to recognizing and locating cases of objectification. We have the list created by Nussbaum and Langton, and three additional considerations that I introduced. In my coming posts I’ll take a closer look at the whys behind objectification, and the implications of the principle that we ought not objectify people, but please feel free to comment below (just keep it on-topic and respectful, friends), and let me know your thoughts.