Why Sexual Desire Is Objectifying – and Hence Morally Wrong
Once desire becomes suspect, sex is never far behind.
The 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that human beings tend to be evil. He wasn’t talking about some guy rubbing his hands and crowing with glee at the prospect of torturing an enemy. He was thinking about the basic human tendency to succumb to what we want to do instead of what we ought to do, to heed the siren-song of our desires instead of the call of duty. For Kant, morality is the force that closes this gap, and holds us back from our darker, desiring selves.
Once desire becomes suspect, sex is never far behind. Kant implicitly acknowledged the unusual power of sexual urges and their capacity to divert us from doing what is right. He claimed that sex was particularly morally condemnable, because lust focuses on the body, not the agency, of those we sexually desire, and so reduces them to mere things. It makes us see the objects of our longing as just that – objects. In so doing, we see them as mere tools for our own satisfaction.
Treating people as objects can mean many things. It could include beating them, tearing into them, and violating them. But there are other, less violent ways of objectifying people. We might treat someone as only a means to our sexual pleasure, to satisfy our lust on that person, to use a somewhat archaic expression. The fact that the other person consents does not get rid of the objectification; two people can agree to use one another for purely sexual purposes.
But don’t we use each other all the time? Many of us have jobs – as cleaners, gardeners, teachers, singers. Does the beneficiary of the service objectify the service provider, and does the service provider objectify the recipient by taking their money? These relationships don’t seem to provoke the same moral qualms. Either they do not involve objectification, or the objectification is somehow neutered.
Kant said that these scenarios weren’t really a problem. He draws a distinction between mere use – the basis of objectification – and more-than-mere use. While we might employ people to do jobs, and accept payment for our work, we don’t treat the person on the other side of the transaction as a mere tool; we still recognise that person’s fundamental humanity.
Sex, though, is different. When I hire someone to sing, according to Kant, my desire is for his or her talent – for the voice-in-action. But when I sexually desire someone, I desire his or her body, not the person’s services or talents or intellectual capabilities, although any of these could enhance the desire. So, when we desire the person’s body, we often focus during sex on its individual parts: the buttocks, the penis, the clitoris, the thighs, the lips. What we desire to do with those parts differs, of course. Some like to touch them with the hand, others with the lips, others with the tongue; for others still, the desire is just to look. This does not mean that I would settle for a human corpse: our desire for human bodies is directed at them as living, much like my desire for a cellphone is directed at a functioning one.
But, one might object, don’t we do sexual things because we love our partners, and want them to feel pleasure? Of course we do. But if we did so when we didn’t want to in the first place, then we do not do it out of sexual desire. And if we don’t do it out of sexual desire, then the problem of objectification does not present itself. We can enjoy sexually pleasing someone else. But you can think of the other person as a sophisticated instrument: to give the maximum pleasure, we have to please it. Just because I have to oil and maintain my car for it to work does not mean it is any less of an instrument.
Sex doesn’t just make you objectify your partner. It also makes you objectify yourself. When I am in the grip of sexual desire, I also allow another person to reduce me to my body, to use me as a tool. Kant saw this process of self-objectification as an equally, if not more, serious moral problem than objectification directed outwards. I have duties to others to promote their happiness, but I also have a duty to morally perfect myself. Allowing myself to be objectified opposes this precept, according to Kant.
But really, what’s the big deal? Yes, we objectify each other in sex and let ourselves be objectified. Worse things have happened and will happen. At least with sex there is pleasure (if all goes well) and lots of it (if all goes really well). Whatever is wrong with sexual objectification can’t be that bad, surely?
But there’s a snag. The capacity to reason is what makes people ends in themselves, worthy of moral respect, according to Kant. And what’s objectifying about sexual desire is its ability to numb a person to reason, both in themselves and in others. Its power is such that it makes our reason its servant: our rationality becomes the means to satisfy its goals. It has been the downfall of kings and leaders; the ruination of relationships; the seedbed of lies in the pursuit of getting laid (‘Me too! I love atonal music!’). In my pursuit to fulfil it, I cheat, I deceive, I pretend to be not who I am – and not just to the other person, but to myself, too. I set aside the other’s rationality, and in doing so, set aside their humanity. That is not my concern; his or her body is.
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. Not even love can fix it. When the desire is high, when the sexual act is in full swing, my beloved is a piece of flesh. (Though love does lead to occasional cuddling, which is nice.)
I agree with Kant that sexual desire and objectification are inseparable, and a force that morality must reckon with. Sex is like any good dessert: delicious but with a price.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
What do we see from watching birds move across the country?
- A total of eight billion birds migrate across the U.S. in the fall.
- The birds who migrate to the tropics fair better than the birds who winter in the U.S.
- Conservationists can arguably use these numbers to encourage the development of better habitats in the U.S., especially if temperatures begin to vary in the south.
The migration of birds — and we didn't even used to know that birds migrated; we assumed they hibernated; the modern understanding of bird migration was established when a white stork landed in a German village with an arrow from Central Africa through its neck in 1822 — draws us in the direction of having an understanding of the world. A bird is here and then travels somewhere else. Where does it go? It's a variation on the poetic refrain from The Catcher in the Rye. Where do the ducks go? How many are out there? What might it encounter along the way?
While there is a yearly bird count conducted every Christmas by amateur bird watchers across the country done in conjunction with The Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently released the results of a study that actually go some way towards answering heretofore abstract questions: every fall, as per cloud computing and 143 weather radar stations, four billion birds migrate into the United States from Canada and four billion more head south to the tropics.
"In the spring," the lead author Adriaan Dokter noted, "3.5 billion birds cross back into the U.S. from points south, and 2.6 billion birds return to Canada across the northern U.S. border."
In other words: the birds who went three to four times further than the birds staying in the U.S. faired better than the birds who stayed in the U.S. Why?
Part of the answer could be very well be what you might hear from a conservationist — only with numbers to back it up: the U.S. isn't built for birds. As Ken Rosenberg, the other co-author of the study, notes: "Birds wintering in the U.S. may have more habitat disturbances and more buildings to crash into, and they might not be adapted for that."
The other option is that birds lay more offspring in the U.S. than those who fly south for the winter.
What does observing eight billion birds mean in practice? To give myself a counterpoint to those numbers, I drove out to the Joppa Flats Education Center in Northern Massachusetts. The Center is a building that sits at the entrance to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and overlooks the Merrimack River, which is what I climbed the stairs up to the observation deck to see.
Once there, I paused. I took a breath. I listened. I looked out into the distance. Tiny flecks Of Bonaparte's Gulls drew small white lines across the length of the river and the wave of the grass toward a nearby city. What appeared to be flecks of double-crested cormorants made their way to the sea. A telescope downstairs enabled me to watch small gull-like birds make their way along the edges of the river, quietly pecking away at food just beneath the surface of the water. This was the experience of watching maybe half a dozen birds over fifteen-to-twenty minutes, which only served to drive home the scale of birds studied.
Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.
- Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
- Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
- Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
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