Earlier I said that it is objectifying to unfairly blame or praise people on the basis of identity prejudice as opposed to the person’s quality of will. When we blame people on the basis of negative social stereotypes, we don’t accurately gauge the person’s quality of will: we judge the person to be less trustworthy or morally worthy than she really is. This can be seen as a kind of objectification. In Strawson’s language, it can be viewed as an instance of “taking the objective attitude” toward the person, and treating her as an object of “policy, treatment,” or “control,” as opposed to an agent in her own right (1963). OA, as Strawson describes it, represents a complete suspension of the reactive attitudes, and a refusal to treat the other person as a member “of the moral community” (1963). This attitude is justified by perceived cognitive deficits that prevent the person from responding competently to moral address. (He admits, however, that this attitude can come in degrees, so we can either fully exclude, or merely marginalize, someone in our community practices).
If I am right, then in a climate of Epistemic Injustice (EI) we don’t just take OA toward people with severe cognitive deficits; we also sometimes take OA (whether consciously or not) toward neurotypical people, in case we judge them on the basis of non-will qualities such as implicit bias or explicit prejudice. When we do this, we treat the person as an object of prevailing systems of control and oppression. This isn’t exactly what Strawson meant by OA, of course, but these biased attitudes share OA’s primary functions as described by him, i.e., full or partial exclusion from the moral community, control, and enactment of policies that enforce these exclusions—though these biased attitudes are completely lacking in justification. Hence, they are perverse expressions of OA, which function to exclude and control competent moral interlocutors, and enforce policies that buoy oppressive power structures.
To illustrate with a concrete example, when someone is ‘slut-shamed’ or demeaned on the basis of sexist norms, the person is subjected to patriarchal structures of control that function to regulate and suppress the person’s will (especially her bodily autonomy), while simultaneously solidifying the patriarchal order. The slut-shaming attitude, which might superficially resemble an instance of blame (in its form and semantic content), is actually a perverse instance of OA, viz., an attitude that functions to control the target agent and push her to the margins of the moral community, denying her equal standing with men and women who abide by puritanical norms. This attitude matches what Strawson takes the primary functions of OA to be—i.e., to exclude, marginalize, and control people—but it has no justification in the agent’s cognitive structures (which is what makes it perverse). The slut-shaming attitude is assumed, not on the basis of the target’s quality of will, but on the basis of misconceptions about the person’s moral obligations, or else explicit and conscientious attempts to deny women the same privileges enjoyed by men.
I should note here that justified deployments of OA, on Strawson’s view, apply only to severely cognitively impaired or underdeveloped individuals, who are not capable of participating in the moral community: for example, very young children, and people in a coma. (These are moral patients, not moral agents). However, in a climate such as ours, it’s a reasonable conjecture that many people with morally-irrelevant cognitive deficits, or localized albeit morally-relevant cognitive deficits, are liable to be misperceived as apt targets of OA, even though they do have responsibility-constitutive capacities. Indeed, they may have higher net responsibility, across all of their responsibility-constitutive capacities, than the average person; but due to pervasive disablist stereotypes, together with zero-sum thinking about responsibility, they are liable to be mislabelled as exempt from praise and blame. In reality, very few individuals fall under the blanket exclusion category. While many people have localized deficits that may warrant specific accommodations, they are not by that token exempt from any moral appraisal.
If this is right, then in a climate high in EI we’re susceptible to perversely objectifying disadvantaged social groups. I think that this is a sensible way of thinking about objectification, but I also think that it’s an unorthodox usage within the philosophical tradition, in which many theorists (perhaps especially retributivists) have been concerned with a different source of objectification—the kind that allegedly takes place when we unjustifiable excuse someone by appealing to sociological factors to explain the person’s behaviour. The ‘sociological stance’ is supposed to be objectifying and disrespectful because it reduces people to mere nodes in the causal nexus, not uncaused causes, capable of forging our own paths.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, some people have no problem with the idea that we are causally determined. Marx, for instance, held that we’re all determined by the material conditions of our society, and he didn’t see this materialist analysis as disrespectful in the least. But Marx regarded capitalism as a special causal vector, which is distinctively objectifying, because it alienates workers from the objects of their labour, preventing them from either identifying with their labour as a source of value, or cultivating other value-conferring dimensions of their agency. In other words, capitalism reduces people to mere cogs in the capitalist machine.
I think that the truth lies somewhere between these extremes. It’s true that we can disrespect people by underestimating their agency, and this is what happens when society depicts people with morally-irrelevant and localized disabilities as exempt from praise and blame. Yet the reason this attitude is objectifying is not that it takes a sociological stance toward the person, but rather, that it perceives the person through a biased lens. What we ought to do is be better sociologists and take proper account of the role that social structures play in both our material opportunities and our moral perceptions. These factors can constrain our choices or influence our perceptions in morally-relevant ways—ways that can excuse us or inculpate us depending on the particularities of the case. We need to be conscientious of these factors.
On the other side, Marx was right that capitalism is a salient source of objectification, insofar as it causes worker alienation. We can add to this assessment that capitalism gives rise to classist ideologies that oppress the poor, denying them responsibility-enhancing resources and social roles, and excluding them from discursive spaces. That is, capitalism impairs relational responsibility. Capitalism, however, isn’t the only source of perverse objectification in our lives—and it may not even be the primary source. Other sources of systemic objectification include patriarchy, racism, heterosexism, and transphobia (to name just a few). How we are affected by these social vectors will depend on our intersectionalities and life experiences, but they are all objectifying by their very nature, because they all rest on false hierarchies that elevate some people above others for no good (rational) reason.
What I am proposing here is that when we take OA toward another person on the basis of any of these oppressive power structures, we perversely objectify the person. This is true whether we neglect the role of social factors in the person’s life, or we neglect the expectable role of bias in our perceptions of people’s qualities of will.
The practical upshot is that if we wish to be responsible moral interlocutors—responsible ‘adressors’ and ‘accounters,’ as McKenna puts it—we need to take these sociological considerations into account when appraising a person’s quality of will. That is, we need to exercise due diligence as moral conversants. Yet, as we saw earlier, even due diligence can’t insulate us against the warrant-undermining effects of EI. Thus, we often have cause to blame and praise people with an attitude of epistemic modesty and caution, being inquisitive rather than assertive—especially if a person is being accused of a stereotypical infraction (where bias is likely to play a role, and the response is likely to be punitive). In this connection, McKenna says that “moral inquiry could be added to the [three-stage conversational] model” (2013: 99), though he doesn’t officially include it. But if EI affects our recognitional capacities in such a way as to systematically undermine the epistemic warrant of our moral attitudes, then moral inquiry is quite indispensable. Specifically, we should, at least initially, approach the target in the interrogative mood as opposed to the declarative mood, inquiring as to whether our intuitive impression of the situation is right; and we should be sensitive to proffered justifications and explanations that might contradict our preconceived notions. This inquisitiveness and sensitivity is demanded by epistemic justice. In practice, this means that if we suspect someone of morally appraisable behaviour—especially if that behaviour is stereotypical in the context—we should (1) question, interrogate, accuse, or ask for an explanation, (2) consider the person’s response, and (3) express the fitting reactive attitude in light of all relevant information, in that order.
This might seem obvious—and indeed, we often do preface blame and praise with moral inquiry—but placing this stage at the heart of moral conversation is a proposed revision to MacKenna’s view, which situates it at the periphery.
Now, earlier I said that the notion of objectification that I am proposing here does not fit with the sense of ‘objectification' that interested many classic philosophers. But my sense of the word does cohere with a familiar equivalent in ethical theory: the sense defended by Kant. Kant described objectification as treating someone as a mere means, not an end in herself. He had in mind things like murdering someone, lying, and (weirdly) masturbating. But aside from some bizarre examples, the idea that objectification is an action or practice that uses someone as an inert prop in someone else’s projects is very intuitively compelling. And this is precisely what perverse expressions of OA do: they treat the target agent as a mere means of sustaining oppressive social hierarchies, and they exclude, marginalize, and/or control the target agent. This is the opposite of treating someone as an end in herself. To treat someone as an end, we would have to evaluate her quality of will fairly in light of relevant social considerations—and doing this requires epistemic virtue.
These instances of OA, once again, are not explicitly discussed by Strawson, but they can be seen as extensions of his notion of OA, since they serve the same essential functions as that attitude, though they lack its characteristic justification. Strawson was not in a position to address these applications because he saw moral responsibility as an intimate interpersonal exchange, and did not look farther afield at the systemic factors that inform our more local interactions.