Two Notions of Objectification

Article excerpt

This essay aims to compare two notions of objectification: on the one hand, Buber's distinction between I-thou relations (which he models on the appropriate treatment of humans) and I-it relations (which he models on the treatment of objects),1 and on the other hand, the contemporary notion of objectification. When discussing Buber's notion of objectification one can rely, of course, on Buber's work. Notwithstanding the common use of the contemporary notion, however, it has received relatively little scholarly attention and analysis till now. I will mostly rely here on Martha Nussbaum's seminal and pioneering "Objectification," where she suggests a very helpful analysis of the notion and its uses.2

Perhaps the most noticeable difference between the notions has to do with their basic features. Nussbaum presents "seven distinct ways of behaving introduced by the term": (1) Instrumentality-using others as a means; (2) Denial of autonomy; (3) Inertness-treating others as lacking agency or activity; (4) Fungibility-treating others as interchangeable; (5) Violability-treating others as lacking boundary integrity, or as such that it is allowed to break or harm; (6) Ownership-treating others as such that can belong to one; and (7) Denial of subjectivity.3 Nussbaum does not consider this list exhaustive,4 and I believe that at least two more features should be added. The first is denial of rationality: people are frequently distinguished from objects by the ability to think. The second is worth: people are usually taken to have certain a priori worth or importance simply by virtue of their being human. This is not so with objects, which are viewed as less important than human beings.

Buber's list of features is similar to the modern one in some aspects. Thus, he too discusses instrumentality5 and denial of autonomy.6 However, he does not mention the treatment of others as inert, as fungible, as violable, as owned and as lacking subjectivity, rationality and importance. On the other hand, he mentions other features that do not appear in the contemporary list: non-reciprocity;7 relating through the past rather than the present;8 acting through rules, laws, and set procedures and norms rather than spontaneously;9 and relating to others with only part (rather than the whole) of one's being.10

Part of the difference between these two lists is not coincidental. Buber's orientation is primarily spiritual-emotional, and he calls for a connected, spontaneous, dynamic, and open attitude to the world and its beings. The contemporary account, on the other hand, is primarily moved by ethical-legalistic concerns, and hence mainly demands from individuals not to harm each other, and not much more than that. Moreover, highly informed by liberal presuppositions, it is atomistic and individualist in nature. Hence, relating to others through the past rather than the future, or with part rather than the whole of one's being, or through rules, laws, and set procedures, would not be considered objectifying in the modern account. For Buber, in contrast, relating to others through set laws and procedures, or with only part of one's being, or through the past rather than the future, may hinder the open, connective and spontaneous spiritual relation that he is aiming for. On the other hand, relating to others as lacking in rationality, which is more likely to lead to harm in a modern transactional world, will be objectifying for the contemporary account, but not for Buber's.

Another significant difference between the two accounts is that the contemporary one poses a much lighter challenge to those who wish to refrain from objectifying than does Buber's. According to the contemporary notion, treating people as people does not mean that they will not be treated, to a certain extent, also as objects. For example, we can use others as instruments to a certain extent without objectifying them. They should not be treated as a means only, but treating them instrumentally to a certain degree need not objectify them. …