Objectification is a catch-all term for a variety of practices, though it can be summarized as the reduction of individuals to objects. By reduction, I refer to the removal of a human’s unique identity or autonomy.
The concept of objectification is most often used in the discussion of gender equality as the objectification of women remains a common occurrence. Objectification is seen as problematic for a variety of reasons, the most worrying of which being that it takes away a key part of a human being (their autonomy).
On its face this may seem to be a black and white issue, objectification it seems, must be morally wrong. But the problem is much more complex than that and many philosophers posit situations in which objectification could be acceptable. Examples include situations where compliments or comments that ignore the autonomy of the individual are desired by the person being objectified. That is to say, there are situations in which people may wish to be objectified or at the very least not be opposed to the notion. Another famous example of this is “the lover pillow”, in which we are asked to imagine two partners, one of whom lies on top as the other uses them as a pillow. In such a situation the person being lay upon is technically being objectified, they are literally being used as an object with no consideration for their autonomy or individuality. This example may seem bizarre or hyperbolic but it is actually cited quite often in various works of philosophy as a potential example of benign objectification.
This is normally the point at which I would introduce an opposing philosopher’s or group’s thoughts to juxtapose the rather bold claim made above. In regards to this point, however, I have developed my own criticism which, in typical philosophical style, creates more confusion than it dispels. Regardless of whether or not the act of objectification in question is considered objectionable, the fact remains that a core aspect of it involves the (at least partial) dehumanization of another.
Let us consider what I deem to be a parallel case, that of racism. We as a society don’t absolve racists if their victim is complicit, so why extend the privilege to acts of objectification? Racism is after all, a form of objectification, the reduction of an individual to their ethnic background – an act of dehumanization.
Much like the cases above on objectification, it is possible to foresee situations in which individuals receiving racist remarks may not object and indeed could possibly choose to invite racist comments, deeming them harmless or deriving some derogatory pleasure from them. In such situations, are we to nod our heads and approve of racism? Whatever the answer may be, it seems fair to apply a similar standard to acts of objectification at large. It could be argued that unlike racism the more typically discussed forms of objectification are focused on individuals, not groups, therefore they should not be judged by the same standard. This seems unsatisfactory to me as it avoids the crux of the question: who gets to decide what is acceptable for an individual.
For more established issues like racism, it seems hard to utilize consent as a justification. But when the issue is more gender based, as objectification tends to be, suddenly there is a rush to declare that the lines are blurred.
I don’t claim to bring any clarity to the topic through my example, but I do contend that we cannot simply leave real world matters such as objectification to a blurry, philosophical debate.