Research On the Distinction between Objectifying Attitudes and Objectifying Action

On the Distinction between Objectifying Attitudes and Objectifying Action

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By Charlotte Figueroa

In his Groundwork on the Metaphysics of Morals, Immanuel Kant formulates the Categorical Imperative as the claim that one ought to “act so that you use humanity as much in your own person as in the person of every other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as means.” It is the violation of this principle that constitutes objectification for Kant. Martha Nussbaum builds on this view and identifies seven features that are involved in treating a person as an object (257): instrumentality; denial of autonomy; inertness; fungibility; violability; ownership; and denial of subjectivity.  (Langton: reduction to body, reduction to appearance, and silencing.)

For Nussbaum, objectification is a ‘multiple’ concept—there are many complex connections between these features of objectification. Instead of offering necessary and sufficient conditions for objectification, she claims that it is a “relatively loose cluster- term.” We sometimes treat any one of these features as sufficient, though we typically consider objectification to involve a plurality of these features. Instead of giving a precise definition of how these features constitute objectification, Nussbaum emphasizes the importance of context in evaluating whether objectification is taking place, and whether it is occurring in a morally problematic way.

The main feature of Nussbaum’s account that I want to focus on is her separation of objectification into two types: (i) viewing a person as an object and (ii) treating or using a person as an object. Dividing the concept of objectification in this way raises a question of whether both types of objectification have the same ethical status. While Nussbaum does not fully address this issue, she claims that there can be cases of act objectification that are benign or even positive.

This is because Nussbaum claims that objectification is not harmful when it occurs within the realm of “equality, respect and consent.” She gives the example of lying with a lover in bed, and using his stomach as a pillow (so treating him as an object). She claims that there is nothing impermissible or harmful about this interaction, provided it is done with his consent. I’ll be endorsing Nussbaum’s account of objectification; my focus here will be to articulate and justify the distinction that she puts forth between act and attitude objectification.

However, Nussbaum’s account has faced various criticism from philosophers; one example of this is from Sally Haslanger (2002).  In her account of objectification, Haslanger discusses the phenomenon of projective belief, where people generalize from a belief about an individual having certain features to a belief that the individual has those features by nature. She uses this to link objectification (which she claims is the simultaneous viewing and treatment of people as objects) and objectivity, which she claims consists of both epistemic and practical neutrality, and absolute a-perspectivity. This means that an objective observer will consider observed regularities (e.g., in an individual’s behavior) as “genuine” regularities (i.e., part of the observed individual’s nature) just in case (a) the observations occur under normal circumstances, (b) the observations are not conditioned by the observer’s social position, and (c) the observer has not influenced the behavior of the items under observation (71). Using this notion of projective belief, an observer can go from a belief that women are submissive and object-like to a belief that women are submissive and object-like by nature; this then shapes the objectifier’s perception of women, as he believes this perspective to be objective.

Haslanger claims that a “successful objectifier attributes to something features that have been forced upon it, and he believes the object has these features ‘by nature’”. To support this, she claims that objectification is not “just in the head” (i.e., it requires both acts and attitudes simultaneously)—however, this claim rests on the assumption that objectification is a relation of domination where the objectifier also has the power to enforce their view.

Both this claim and assumption might be appropriate within the scope of Haslanger’s project, but this conjunctive definition of objectification (where both attitudes and acts are required) isn’t sufficiently motivated for a more general definition of objectification. This definition is based on both the idea (1) that objectification is a power relation where one person dominates the other and (2) that an objectifying view must be acted upon in order to constitute objectification. However, this first idea isn’t necessarily intuitive, like when we think of examples of benign objectification, such as Nussbaum’s example of treating a lover like a pillow. The second idea doesn’t address the question at hand, and I will show in this talk that purely objectifying attitudes actually should be thought of as objectification, even if they are not acted on.  Haslanger’s definition is also unable to accommodate purely objectifying acts, i.e., when they occur without an accompanying attitude.

So, Haslanger’s conjunctive definition of objectification doesn’t seem to be preferable to Nussbaum’s more permissible, disjunctive definition.  Therefore, I claim we should set aside Haslanger’s definition that both acts and attitudes must occur together to constitute objectification.

Another critique of Nussbaum’s account comes from Raj Halwani (2008, 2010).  Halwani criticizes Nussbaum’s definition of objectification on two counts: he claims that her account is too broad to be useful, and builds off this to argue that her account is too “cluttered.”  His solution is to eliminate attitudes from our understanding of objectification.

Under Nussbaum’s account of objectification, many of our ordinary social interactions would be considered objectifying. For example, nearly all our economic transactions involve treating others as a means to achieving our goals. Some thinkers have criticized this aspect of Nussbaum’s account, claiming that her definition inappropriately includes “nearly all of the ways we ordinarily see and treat each other and ourselves in our daily lives” (Papadaki). While I agree that Nussbaum’s account generates many examples of objectification, I’ll show this is not a serious problem for her account by drawing on a notion put forth by Alan Soble (2002a) and Leslie Green: i.e., that people are, first and foremost, objects.

Soble (2002a) argues that objectification is not inappropriate, because everybody is already an object in some sense, and being an object is not necessarily a bad thing. Similarly, Leslie Green (2000) argues that it is permissible to treat people as objects, because people are embodied, extended in space and time, and subject to natural laws.

Both Green and Soble emphasize an important thought: people exist primarily (or first and foremost) as objects. When we revisit Halwani’s objection, with this understanding in hand, it shouldn’t be remarkable that most our social interactions, where we encounter both ourselves and other people primarily as objects, display some level of objectification.

One reason this objection might initially gain traction is based on the nature of the discussion. Lina Papadaki claims that calling these everyday interactions ‘objectification’ seems too broad, and gives the example of considering catching a taxi, which involves treating the taxi driver as an object (28- 29). It might seem like over generalization to think of these examples as objectifying because they appear in a discussion that primarily focuses on sexual objectification, where it is much more difficult to contrive these trivial, everyday examples of objectification. Additionally, this example (and most everyday cases of objectification) involve benign objectification—when we use the term ‘objectification,’ we usually use it to express the wrongness of an action, and so, in this sense, the application of the term might seem inappropriate—but this isn’t in and of itself sufficient to show that it’s actually a misapplication of the term.  Furthermore, Nussbaum actually accepts that ordinary transactions can be objectifying; e.g., she cites Marx’s account of the object-like treatment of workers under capitalism, and claims that being (instrumentally) valued for their labor crucially involves multiple features of objectification.

Halwani also says that an ideal definition of objectification would include “only treatment or behavior towards someone.” According to this view, if someone just views or perceives another in an instrumentalizing manner, no actual objectification takes place. Halwani claims that this kind of definition “more accurately reflects the problem with objectification: its impact on the objectified (often thought as victims).” I’m now going to address this concern by defining and establishing the significance of attitude objectification.

An objectifying attitude is primarily based in theoretical intentional attitudes (beliefs or perceptions); however, these theoretical intentional attitudes can be used to support objectifying practical intentional attitudes (intentions or desires).  For example, if a man is sexually objectifying a woman in the way that he sees her, then he is holding certain beliefs or perceptions about her; e.g., he may believe her to be violable and inert. Here, the objectifying attitude is a theoretical intentional attitude towards an individual which takes them to the status of an object.

These beliefs and perceptions can also be used to support practical intentional attitudes. If a man believes that a woman is violable and inert, that belief may be used to justify his intention or desire to treat her in a sexually objectifying manner.  However, I want to draw a sharp distinction between the intention or desire to treat someone in a sexually objectifying way, and the actual act of treating them in this way. When discussing attitude objectification, I am only referring to the theoretical and practical intentional attitudes associated with viewing someone as an object, and not the actual treatment.

So, in response to Halwani’s criticism, what is the value of including attitudes in our definition of objectification?  One benefit of including attitudes in our definition is the capacity to explain the ‘male gaze.’  John Berger argues that women are depicted differently from men, “because the ‘ideal’ spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him.”  This is the key notion of the male gaze: women are depicted and viewed as objects of attraction, such that the viewer is placed in a “masculine” position in order to appreciate the image. Laura Mulvey claims that women are assigned the passive status of being looked-at, whereas men are the active subjects who look.  Images of women play to and signify male desire, and represented women are displayed and perceived “as sexual objects.”

Another benefit of having a definition of objectification that includes attitudes is the ability to account for mental objectification involved in fantasy.  Stoltenberg claims that “a man’s conjuring up a mental image of a woman, her body, or its various parts, is to view her as an object, as a thing.”  This point may be more controversial: Soble claims that this kind of masturbatory fantasy is “structurally too sophisticated to be called objectification.” My point in bringing in this discussion of Stoltenberg is to simply make the conditional claim that if we accept that fantasy involves some sort of mental objectification, we can’t explain this form of objectification in terms of actions alone.

With my definition of attitude objectification, we can account for significant cases of objectification that are based purely on attitudes, like the phenomenon of the ‘male gaze.’ This is significant because it shows that we already talk about attitude objectification all the time in the literature on the male gaze and fantasy, so the concept makes sense to us and is useful.

I want to now look at the moral implications of the distinction between act and attitude objectification. Nussbaum claims that not all types of objectification are equally objectionable, as there can be examples of act objectification that are benign or even positive (256). This form of objectification is not harmful when it occurs within the realm of “equality, respect and consent” (251).  To put it more formally, act objectification is morally impermissible when it occurs as the non-consensual treatment of a person as an object, insofar as this nonconsensual treatment denies the humanity of the objectified individual.  That is to say, there can be certain cases where non-problematic objectifying treatment occurs in a non-consensual way: e.g., parents occasionally treat their children in benignly objectifying ways, despite the inability of the child to consent.  However, this, as well as other consensual examples of objectification, is permissible, so long as it does not harm the objectified individual’s humanity.

Because Nussbaum does not fully explain her understanding of attitude objectification, it isn’t clear what its ethical status would be within her account. However, as she bases her understanding of objectification on Kant, I will now articulate a Kantian position for the permissibility of attitude objectification that is compatible with her account.

In his Lectures on Ethics, Kant argues that when two people have sex, each treats the other as a mere means to sexual satisfaction. He writes that, “as soon as the person is possessed, and the appetite sated, they are thrown away, as one throws away a lemon after sucking the juice from it.” However, each person also objectifies themselves as a mere means to sexual pleasure. Because the individuals are being treated as mere means, Kant claims that any non-marital sex is morally impermissible. Nussbaum relaxes this claim slightly by showing it’s possible to affirm another’s humanity through sexual objectification; however, setting aside this difference, I’ll show that Kant makes some relevant remarks on the moral status of attitudes.

Within Kant’s account, there is a question: is Kant objecting to sexual activity or to sexual desires (i.e., attitudes)? There’s textual evidence to show he’s only talking about sexual activity. In his Lectures on Anthropology, Kant claims that it is “moral fantasy . . . to consider sexual desire as improper” and that “it is no heroism to want to rid oneself completely of sexual inclination.” In his Lectures on Ethics, he argues that a person’s humanity is harmed when it is used as the instrument to satisfy a sexual desire, asking: “To what extent is anyone entitled to make use of their sexual impulse, without impairing their humanity?”

These remarks suggest that Kant wouldn’t say that we’re morally culpable for our desires and attitudes. This is for two reasons: first off, he believes that we don’t choose our attitudes, so we cannot be held responsible for them. Kant writes that people are not necessitated by either their inclinations or their instincts, and claims that the “ground of evil” cannot be placed in either “the sensuous nature of the human being” nor in the “natural inclinations originating from it.” Secondly, Kant claims that, as rational agents with free choice, we have the capacity to resist acting on attitudes. If someone acts on an attitude in a way that violates the moral law, the problem is not the attitude; instead, the problem is the individual’s decision to act on this attitude, as well as the action itself. For Kant, these attitudes and inclinations merely “give the occasion” for an individual to demonstrate their virtue and integrity. This suggests that, while we can be morally responsible for treating someone as an object, we are not morally responsible for viewing someone as an object. So, attitude objectification is always permissible.

This position is congruent with remarks made by Nussbaum on objectifying attitudes. She discusses a sex scene from D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, claiming that both people are viewing each other in terms of their sexual organs, and yet they are not “reducing one another to their bodily parts.”  Nussbaum says that the scene is “rendered benign and loving, is rendered in fact liberating, by this very objectification” (275). She contrasts this with a rape scene from Laurence St. Clair, where she describes the rapist’s attitude as a desire “to violate . . . to desecrate, destroy” (280- 281). For D.H. Lawrence, these attitudes lead to “a permission to expand the sphere of one’s activity and fulfillment,” while for St. Clair, the attitudes lead to treatment of an individual as “something whose experiences don’t matter at all.”  This suggests that for Nussbaum, as in Kant, the morally significant component of objectification can be found in act objectification.

In conclusion, I articulated the distinction Nussbaum draws between seeing and treating a person as an object.  In doing so, I defended her account from thinkers like Haslanger and Halwani.  I spelled out what it means to ‘see’ someone as an object, and argued for the value of a definition of objectification which includes these attitudes.  Finally, I discussed the ethical status of these two types of objectification and claimed, with Nussbaum, that act objectification is impermissible if it occurs in a way that harms the humanity of the objectified person.  I then built a position, based on work from Kant, for the moral permissibility of attitude objectification which is compatible with Nussbaum’s account.


Charlotte Figueroa is a second-year BPhil at University of Oxford. She works primarily in philosophy of language, aesthetics, and feminist philosophy. If you would like to see the full version of this paper, you can contact Charlotte here.


  1. With all due respect to the writer: I confess that I do not always follow the subtle nuances of this argument, and I may not be reading carefully enough. But I wonder if the distinction between psychological (attitude) objectification and physical (act(ual)) objectification—like the whole notion of ‘objectification’ itself—is not caught up in the false subject/object mind/body spirit/flesh etc. dichotomy of Western (Cartesian/Kantian) metaphysics? And I would also ask if a strict distinction can really be drawn between the psychological (mental) attitude of one person toward another—whether hostility, hatred, anger, and violence, or compassion, sympathy, charity, and love etc.—and the physical or non-physical (psychological, emotional etc.) acts that result from that attitude, which either cause suffering and pain, or pleasure and satisfaction, in the other person? Or, in more complicated terms, I might finally ask if there is really a strict distinction between ‘subjectification’ and ‘objectification,’ and if they are not really just two sides of the same thing?

    Stepping out of the Cartesian/Kantian metaphysical framework: If human beings are not spirits or minds trapped in bodies, but biological (physical) bodies whose biochemical and neuro-physiological (extra-physical) processes create a bio-magnetic field (called ‘consciousness’ or ‘mind”: e.g. the electromagnetic affect of the synchronous firing of neurons in a physical body) within and around (inside and outside) the bio-physical body, then the question to be asked, I think, is not whether somebody ‘objectifies’ another person, since, after all, we are all always already physical objects, i.e., bodies, with a certain extra-physical component called spirit or mind. The question is whether one person projects hostility and hatred—negative (violent) bio-magnetic affect, sometimes called ‘bad vibes’—toward another person to dominate them and cause them suffering, or whether that person projects compassionate and sympathetic feelings—positive bio-magnetic affect, called ‘good vibes’—toward another person to cause them satisfaction, pleasure, happiness and other good feelings, through both psychological and physical attitudes/acts. That simple distinction would then support a Post-Kantian ethics consistent with the good old categorical imperative: Always act so as to make the other person feel the good vibes you’d like to feel yourself, so that your psychological or physical act could be taken as a universal principle of good vibes for everybody, everywhere, all the time, no exceptions…

    The distinction, then, I think in my admittedly rather simple-minded way, is not between ‘subjectifying’ and ‘objectifying’ or ‘non-objectifying’ attitudes or actions, but between bullying, domineering, or sadistic actions, and compassionate and sympathetic attitudes/actions, although I would admit that this distinction does not obviate the problem posed by a certain version of ‘objectification,’ whereby a bullying or domineering person attempts to deprive another person of ‘subjectivity’ (spirit or mind) by depriving the other person of their bio-magnetic affect (their consciousness or mind). This extreme ‘objectifying’ effect can be achieved through projecting both physical violence and/or extremely hostile feelings (negative affect) at the ‘subjectified/objectified’ person over an extended period of time, causing severe psychological and physical trauma and post-traumatic effects and resulting in the dependence of the submissive person (‘the slave’) on the bullying domineering person (‘the master’). But that’s a more difficult subject than I can tackle, at the moment…

    Stepping out of the Cartesian/Kantian metaphysical world-view that says we are spirits or minds trapped in bodies, then, we would recognize that, instead, we are biological (physical) bodies with a certain bio-magnetic (non-physical) sentience (consciousness or mind) which is not strictly confined within the physical body, and that we therefore also exist in constant psychological and physical interaction with each other within the biophysical or bio-magnetic field of the whole sentient cosmos, which contemporary astrophysics is just beginning to be able to describe. And we are therefore all ethically and morally responsible for the good or bad vibes we project toward each other, psychologically or physically, since, after all, we all inhabit the selfsame bio-physical cosmos, and we are all constantly in interaction with each other, self-consciously or subconsciously, whether we like it or not…

    Finally: There can’t be any strict distinction between ‘subjectifying’ or ‘objectifying’ attitudes/acts, because there’s no strict distinction between spirit and flesh, mind and body, subject and object, and so on. There’s only a distinction between bullying, hostile, violent attitudes/acts, and compassionate, sympathetic, caring attitudes or acts, which is a distinction I think we all recognize clearly enough, even if we don’t always embody it or live it in our everyday lives.

    Or so I think, here in my own simple-minded, non-metaphysical cosmos. But I welcome whatever more sophisticated, complicated, metaphysical response anybody would care to make, even if I don’t always understand it. And thanks to the writer for spurring these simple-minded thoughts…

  2. In today’s political correctness saturated social environment there’s a lot of attention put on what somebody else is doing. In a great many cases it seems this is not the most logical place to put the focus.

    If I put the focus on what other people are saying to me I’ve made myself subject to the whims of a endless number of other people over whom I have little to no control.

    If on the other hand I put the focus on how I’m receiving the insults, now there is only one brain to manage, and it happens to be the one I have the most access to.

    So, which is more logical? Try to manage every inconvenient person on Earth? Or try to manage myself?

  3. I apologize, Mister Tanny, for interrupting the solipsistic monologue. But it appears to me that if somebody, like a teacher or coach or counselor, was paying attention to the disturbed thoughts in the mind of Nicholas Cruz, and asking where those thoughts came from (not just from his own mind…), and getting him the help he obviously needed to deal with them, 17 Florida students would not be dead. And if somebody asked why the American public school system appears to constantly create a bullying, violent environment where disturbed adolescents strike back at the students and teachers they believe, rightly or wrongly, are bullying and harassing them, maybe these shootings could be prevented. I agree that self-discipline is a good thing, and should be taught in schools along with English and math, or maybe even before English and math. I wish somebody would have taught self-discipline to me, instead of what they did (or didn’t…) teach me. But I also know, for example, that a 16-year-old student I tutored in Albuquerque NM who grew up in a Mexican drug cartel environment (check out Juarez, Mexico, where US meth comes from…) who came to tutoring stoned out of his mind everyday, and who showed me pictures on his phone of recently murdered drug-cartel victims still bleeding to death, was not likely to benefit from self-righteous lectures about self-discipline. He needed help, which the US school system didn’t give him, about how to handle the terror and violence that was put into his mind by his childhood environment, and how to handle the deadly drugs that were put into his body by the dangerous, violent people around him, and about how to stop the drugs and violence from taking him over and making him another just drug cartel victim or skid-row junky. Or maybe just another drug cartel assassin or school shooter…

  4. Hi Eric,

    Well, that’s all very dramatic, and thankfully relatively rare in comparison to the routines of daily life, which is what I was referring to.

  5. Hello Phil Tanny,

    I ask you to try googling ‘school shootings’ and see what you get.

    But I agree, melodrama doesn’t help. And neither does blaming it on the NRA, the Republicans, or Trump. And especially not blaming it on the students who are the victims of it. I suggest, based upon evidence and experience, that there is something endemic to the American public school system that creates a painful and abusive environment for certain scapegoated or stigmatized students, that encourages bullying and harassment of students and engenders violent responses, and that makes these tragic events predictable but also preventable, if we only acknowledge the problem. The problem is with the dysfunctional system that creates these situations, and not with either the students who become perpetrators or those who become victims, because the problem is bigger than them. It’s as big as all of us, since we’re all part of it. But it is a problem.

    I would therefore argue that coaches teachers and counselors who refuse to recognize the problem, or contribute to it by encouraging bullying and harassment of students, should stop blaming the Democrats the Republicans Hillary Clinton Donald Trump the NRA Planned Parenthood or the students, and consider their own responsibility for creating the problem, since, after all, it is coaches teachers and counselors who are directly involved with the problem on an everyday basis, and who therefore should become part of the solution, not part of the problem. If not the problem itself…

    Anybody have any better theories? Always glad to hear them…


    Eric D. Meyer

    After Sandy Hook, More Than 400 People Have Been Shot
    in Over 200 School Shootings By JUGAL K. PATEL FEB. 15, 2018

    290 School Shootings In America Since 2013

    Since 2013, there have been nearly 300 school shootings in America — an average of about one a week.

    The San Bernardino attack is the 12th school shooting of 2017 — and the second in a week

    And so on.

  6. What are school shooters if not examples of people who are blaming the state of their own mind on everybody else? They are a very exaggerated example of a very common fantasy victim syndrome.

    Somebody calls me a name. Where is the logical place to put my focus?

    If I put the focus on the other person I have a small chance of controlling their behavior, and even if I were to succeed, that doesn’t accomplish much because there are thousands of jerks ready to take their place. This is a fool’s errand which never ends. This is what society is so busy attempting, trying to control every word that comes out of anybody’s mouth. This is illogical.

    If I put the focus on myself, I have only one brain to control, the brain I have the best hope of managing. Disturbance in my brain is my problem, and my job to clean up. This is what we should be teaching. This is the logical choice.

    If somebody punches me in the nose, if is is a physical attack and not just a verbal attack, that’s a different matter. It’s not logical to ignore the potential for real physical harm.

    The article above, and much of the discussion across our society, reflects on what it means to see someone as an object. Never mind about that. If someone is seeing me as an object that is their problem.

    It’s not rational to make their problem my problem. That is, after all, exactly what the verbal attacker is attempting to accomplish, right?


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