The Dangers of Objectification

The Dangers of Objectification

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The Dangers of Objectification


Consider for a moment the course typically taken in a class discussion. A person states that he is an egoist, or a relativist, or an absolutist. These various terms are used to classify an individual according to his moral philosophy. Nietzsche has an important objection to these simplistic definitions. "Shall we still speak this way today? May we do so?" (Nietzsche 463) There are difficulties in this simplistic approach to classifying an individual. The first is that an individual is not so easily crammed into a verbal box. Sartre would say that this is a way of objectifying the person under consideration. To say that I am an egoist, or that another student is an altruist, is to imply that egoism or altruism is the essential nature of the person, and that other considerations fade into the background and become unimportant under this veil of the person's ethical philosophy. It is to equate me with egoism, or to equate the other student with relativism.


But I am more than Bob the egoist; I am also Bob the philosopher, I am Bob the student, I am Bob the coffee drinker. The name " Bob" points to a definition that is, of necessity, abbreviated. When a stranger asks me who I am, it is not possible for me to provide a complete description. But when I describe a few opinions, actions, and relationships, I do so hoping that she may view me beyond the narrow limits imposed by what I can tell her quickly.


It may be convenient to say, "But for this discussion we consider only your ethical theory." But besides objectifying the individual, this is overly simplistic because it ignores the subtle shades of meaning which exist among these philosophies. I think of myself as an egoist because I believe that the very nature of an individual grants him certain rights and that these rights do not include claims on the rights of another. But to say that I am an egoist is to imply that I agree, completely or mostly, with the ethical theories of Hobbes, Rand, and every other egoist who has ever philosophized--none of which is overwhelmingly true, since I differ with all of the egoists I am acquainted with. For example, the popular conception of egoism implies that I think it is morally acceptable to perform any action to achieve my ends, regardless of the effect on others.

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My moral philosophy, however, is not a philosophy of "Screw you, Jack, I got mine," as Stephen King wrote in The Dead Zone. To assert that it is my right to deny others those rights that they have is a conceptual absurdity. At the same time, this does not imply that I am primarily concerned with other people's welfare.


For me to equate Linda with a specific doctrine, such as relativism, is also to deny Linda, in my own mind, her own capacity for becoming that which she is not yet. Every individual's "isness" is constantly changing--in great ways or small. I am not the same person I was when I began this paper, since the ideas I have explored in writing it have become a part of who I am. I am not even the same person I was when I began writing this sentence. I am certainly very much the same, but it is impossible that I am completely the same. For you to conceptualize me in terms of egoism is to mean that there is a possibility that in the future my own process of becoming will make your conception of me vastly incorrect. In my own case, it is quite likely that anyone's definition of me will be invalidated at some point in the future if it does not change, given the number of viewpoints I have accepted and rejected over the course of my life.


To state that a person is an adherent of a doctrine, then, is not only undesirable, but intellectually dangerous. It encourages objectification. It lumps him into a broad category; it assumes that he shares opinions with other thinkers that he may or may not share with them. It also promotes, in the mind of the objectifier, the stagnation of the objectified and the denial of the possibility of becoming that is so essential to humanity. "Ismism," the scheme of defining a person in terms of an "ism," is a misguided mental shortcut that becomes more dangerous the more completely it is done.



King, Stephen. The Dead Zone. Signet: New York, 1980.

MacKinnon, Barbara, ed. "Egoism." Ethics: Theory and Contemporary Issues, Second Edition. Belmont: Wadsworth, 1998.

Nietzsche, Frederich. Twilight of the Idols in The Portable Nietzsche. Ed. Walter Kaufmann. Viking Press: New York, 1954.
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