This essay discusses objectification from the three dominant ethical philosophies in our society: Kantian duty, utilitarianism, and Aristotle’s virtue ethics. Except that’s actually a lie, because objectification means to treat someone as though they have no ability to make decisions on their own, but this essay uses it to instead mean to use someone else as a means towards an end. These are obviously related, but the essay early on declares that Final Fantasy VIII protagonist Squall willingly allowing himself to be flung back in time to further the (pro-social, world-saving) agenda of Ellone is an example of objectification that would be moral according to Kantian ethics (contrasted with another example where Kantian ethics would oppose an act of objectification). But if Squall exercised agency, then he was not objectified. Although initially used as a tool without knowing what the Hell was going on, the essay claims that this is moral only because (and presumably, starting from when) he started going along with it willingly. At that point, his will is no longer being subverted, he’s not being objectified anymore, he just agreed to help someone.
For Kant, things like “don’t objectify people” are moral imperatives, inviolate laws which are always wrong, regardless of circumstance. Kant is someone who, when Nazis come to your house asking if you’re sheltering Jews, it’s immoral to say “yes, they’re in the basement” because being an accessory to murder is wrong, but it’s also immoral to say “no” because lying is wrong, so you have to say “I’m not helping your campaign of genocide” right to the Gestapo’s face and hope that turns out well not just for you, but also for the Jews, who now face a higher chance of capture because you’ve drawn so much attention to your house, specifically, as a place where they might be hiding. To Kant, the much higher chance that the Nazis successfully murder a few more innocent people doesn’t matter. What matters is that you, personally, kept the moral imperatives against both dishonesty and murder.
There’s obviously some room to argue with that, but there’s no actual conflict within Kantian ethics on the issue of objectification. If one person decides, for their own reasons, to act in the interests of another, that’s not objectification. That’s just cooperation. Even if Squall is behaving exactly as Ellone would want him to if Ellone were to use him as a tool, if Squall is doing it of his own volition, then he’s not being objectified. It’s just super convenient for Ellone that he has decided to help her.
In the next section, after claiming to have demonstrated Kant’s incapability to resolve objectification (but not actually doing that), the essay claims to demonstrate utilitarianism’s inability to resolve objectification (but doesn’t actually do that). It does land closer on the mark this time, in that it hits upon the common objection to utilitarianism that it theoretically demands that people sacrifice their lives or well-being for the greater good, whether or not they want to. I’m not surprised that people first encountering utilitarianism frequently raise this objection to it. I am surprised that academia hasn’t followed that thought experiment to its obvious conclusion: Demanding that people sacrifice themselves (either by literally dying or by giving up their own happiness so a greater number of people can benefit) requires a coercive organization of some kind to force the sacrifice, even if you somehow managed to guarantee that organization was always and forever operated only by solemn utilitarian martyrs who used it solely in situations where those who benefited genuinely outnumbered those who were harmed, people would still live their lives in constant fear of being the next target of that organization, which would be a constant downward pressure on utility that the organization couldn’t realistically outpace, which means it ultimately creates negative utility which means utilitarianism is opposed to the creation of such an organization.
Some anti-utilitarians are clever enough not to point out that their alleged knock-out punch against utilitarianism is a thought experiment in which a bunch of utilitarians go around decreasing utility, i.e. doing the one thing their philosophy tells people not to do. Robert Arp and Sarah Fisk are not this clever:
Although mandatory self – sacrifice would create a tremendous amount of happiness for some people, the amount of misery for the widows, the families, and the friends of the departed would be just as substantial. Such a system would induce paranoia, undermine security, and destroy humanity as we know it, thereby making it worse.
If you admit that this scheme would ultimately result in negative utility, why do you insist that utilitarians are compelled by their philosophy to pursue it?
The essay’s ultimate goal is to establish virtue ethics as superior to moral imperatives or utilitarianism. The essay claims that Aristotle’s virtue ethics oppose objectification because they are actions of someone with a vicious (i.e. characteristic of vice rather than virtue) character, which is tautological. Aristotle’s virtue ethics doesn’t actually oppose objectification at all. Aristotle was explicitly in favor of slavery. Now, virtue ethics is inherently tautological, in that its fundamental statement is “the right thing to do is whatever a virtuous person would do,” which is synonymous with “the right thing to do is whatever a person who does the right thing would do.” For any specific virtue ethicist philosophy to be valid, it must first define and defend some specific virtues. Aristotle did this, but as mentioned, that set of virtues was totally okay with slavery. You can argue in favor of a different set of virtues, but then you have to lay out what specific virtues you’re defending. Without an actual list of virtues, virtue ethics is a hollow shell with nothing to say on any subject. When someone mentions “virtue ethics” it’s usually safe to assume they specifically mean Aristotle’s virtues, but again, Aristotle believed that some people were naturally fit only to be slaves, so it is difficult to imagine how an essay could get the issue more wrong than by saying that he’s the one who got the issue of objectification exactly right.
The essay does acknowledge other virtue systems than Aristotle’s. Specifically, it recognizes Nietzsche’s:
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) advocated a form of virtue ethics that was very different from that of Aristotle. Nietzsche believed that power was the ultimate virtue, and that we all must express power if we are powerful. Society consists of domineering master – slave relationships.
This is a technically true but extremely misleading summation of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Nietzsche saw “master morality” and “slave morality” as opposed ideologies locked in eternal struggle with one another, and didn’t really endorse either of them (although his philosophy was closer to master morality). Nietzsche’s historical perspective is wrong – “master morality” and “slave morality” crop up as situationally useful ideologies that people and nations tend to rapidly and hypocritically bounce back and forth between based on which is presently more useful to them, not declare their allegiance to permanently and use as banners around which a battle for society is fought – but his ultimate philosophy is one of individualism, of not letting other people tell you what to do whether through sheer power or by trying to convince you that it is immoral. He frequently expressed this as some variation on “imposing your own power on the world,” but saying “Nietzsche believed that power was the ultimate virtue” as the introduction to the concept is not helpful to getting people to understand his philosophy.
It gets better, though:
For example, the character of Cloud in Final Fantasy VIII is attracted to being in control, whereas his nemesis, Seifer, is prone to being controlled.
For those unfamiliar with the games, Cloud is the protagonist of Final Fantasy Seven, Seifer is a villain from Final Fantasy Eight. This is not a case of putting the wrong number of Is on the end of the Roman numeral. This is either getting the names of the protagonists of two different games confused or getting the games themselves confused with each other. How did neither the original essay writers nor the compilers of the book catch this in editing?
Ultimately, this is an essay about how great virtue ethics is that mainly just expresses an inability to understand how moral imperatives or utilitarianism actually work.