With Trump’s election, an increasingly common argument you will hear is “I voted for Trump, but not his racism.”1 I will not examine the accuracy of this claim. Instead, I will argue this can be understood as an appeal to the doctrine of double effect.

The doctrine of double effect is often used to justify actions which are foreseen to harm innocents, e.g. bombing military targets or abortion, but are intended to produce some good. In this case, it is used to justify voting for someone who has promised to enact policies that will harm Muslims, blacks, homosexuals, and countless others.

To justify an action by the doctrine of double effect four conditions must be met:

1. The action itself cannot be bad.
2. The actor intends the good, not the bad, effect.
3. The bad effect is not a means to achieve the good effect.
4. There must be a good reason one permits the bad effect.

One quickly sees that the first three conditions are met by our imaginary Trump voter. The action, voting, is not a bad act in itself. Ex hypothesi the voter was intending the good, not the bad, effects, e.g. “draining the swamp.”2 The bad effect is not a means to the good effect–it is the result of the same action (voting for Trump) which produces the good effect. What is debatable is the fourth condition: that the good achieved is significant enough to permit the bad.

At first, one might think that no good effect is good enough to permit the racism. But that seems unlikely. As Ira Katznelson shows in When Affirmative Action was White, racism was inextricably tied up with policies like Social Security and the GI Bill that are often celebrated. In fact, many blacks supported those policies even while knowing they were racist. Thus the predicament of voting for someone despite obvious racism is hardly unique to our hypothetical Trump voter: for most of US history, presidential candidates have catered to racism in one way or another.

I will not attempt to argue that a plausible case can be made that there is good reason to vote for Trump despite his racism. All that is argued is that the doctrine of double can be used to make a moral case for voting for Trump.

But that isn’t quite all that I want to argue. Because frankly there is little good about Trump and certainly whatever good there is does not justify voting for him. More interestingly, to me at least, is that more difficult cases existed in the past, cases that the doctrine of double effect more plausibly justifies. I do not know if anyone in the past used the doctrine of double effect to justify voting, say, for LBJ but one could have.

Finally, given how any person one votes will have obvious flaws–supposed or otherwise–the doctrine of double effect is an argument that can still be used to help voters justify their vote. The main difficulty, of course, being ensuring there is a good reason to permit the bad effects.


1. At least I hope it will become increasingly more common. Presently folk mostly seem to argue obvious racism is not racism.

2. For the purpose of this argument, what matters is that the voter believes Trump’s victory will produce some good effect(s). Put in different terms: I want to show if the argument is valid, not if it is sound.


Brief Note on True Love

When speaking of true love, two ideas generally spring to mind: first, that the love is genuine, that when the lovers say “I love you” it corresponds with how they feel and second, that they are soulmates and have found who they truly belong with.

There is, however, another way of understanding true love. That is to take it is as love based on trust. This trust is of two types.

First, one must trust one’s beloved. This means one needn’t know everything they do, one needn’t be involved in every aspect of their life. As Proust shows in Remembrance of Things Past, the attempt to know everything about one’s beloved leads to jealousy and futility. Though a lover is often said to love the entire person, no one can know another person entirely. Instead, one can only know a limited part and trust them.

Second, one must trust that one’s own self will not drive off one’s beloved. We all have aspects of ourselves we are ashamed of, that we do not love. Were our beloved to see those aspects, we worry they would no longer love us. Perhaps so. Yet we must trust they will continue to love us for otherwise our relationship will be contaminated by obfuscation. This does not mean that we must show our beloved the worst aspects of ourselves or tell them all the awful things we have done, but that we must not deny or hide them.

Without either type of trust, it is hard for me to see how a loving relationship will last.

Over the next few months and years I expect I’ll be reading a lot about Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement. Two books I’ve read recently are Ira Katznelson’s When Affirmative Action was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth Century America and Ira Berlin’s The Long Emancipation: The Demise of Slavery in the United States.
One of the themes of the first book is how so much of progressive policies I love–Social Security, strong unions–were only possible by catering to white (male) supremacy. I had hoped that we had reached a place and time where that was no longer necessary. Instead, one could create policies that would be central to one’s campaign that directly addressed the needs of other groups.
I thought Clinton’s campaign largely did that, though no doubt imperfectly. She started her campaign with a speech against police brutality, she wanted to repeal the Hyde Amendment, and so much more. Even small things, like her letter to the Toast, indicated a shift. It was wonderful seeing so many female friends happy about being catered to.
She nearly won. But “nearly” means she didn’t and now we’re faced with years of a Republican controlled government. My fear is that Democrats will turn away from that and instead, ironically, turn to her husband’s successful campaign (or for that matter Sanders’ unsuccessful one). Perhaps they should. Perhaps America isn’t ready for white (male) concerns to no longer be the center of politics and must hear as little about the needs of other groups as possible. After all, Trump may not have won the popular vote but he won promising to Make America Great Again, which means make whites supreme again (as if they no longer are).
But that’s not the America I want to live in, not the sort of campaign I can get enthusiastically behind.
The second book is more hopeful. It stresses that emancipation did not happen simply due to the Civil War or the actions Lincoln. It was a long process. One spanning a hundred or more years, involving countless people, but especially black slaves. At times, things got worse, but the movement was never stopped.

The hope I derive from the book, however, is not the hope that things will get better. They may not and even if they do they won’t undo the pain and suffering Trump’s victory has already caused. The hope springs from a sense that one’s efforts, small as they might be, barren as they might seem, are nonetheless necessary, especially if we are to see any change.

And that’s something I must believe in right now.

Philosophical Films

As someone who has a rather broad conception of philosophy, this could easily become a list of films I like. However, it is written in response to a list of Essential Movies for a Student of Philosophy a friend of mine linked to. Part of what will limit me is I will try to address the flaws I find in that list. Certainly there are good, intriguing films there, but the list displeased me. First, creating a list of essential films is rather foolish. An accurate list would be quite short: there are no films that are essential for a student of philosophy. The same would be true of a list of philosophical books. There is nothing one needs to see or read to be a philosopher. Hence I will stick to films that I think are philosophically interesting. Second, his list has too many films about philosophers. Certainly there can be philosophical films about philosophers–he was right to include Derek Jarman’s Wittgenstein. But that is no guarantee of philosophical quality. Hannah Arendt, for instance, is undistinguished as a film and as philosophy. Third, the value of such lists is less to come up with something definitive–an impossible task–but to stimulate thought about and interest in the items on the list. Therefore I will limit myself to one film per director. That way the range of films will be broader. Lastly, his list is not terribly diverse and there is an over-representation of recent American movies. Including, say, A.I. and Little Miss Sunshine on a list of essential films instead of Man with a Movie Camera reveals more about you and what you have seen than what films are essential. Obviously I have my blindspots too (no Indian, African, or South American films), but they are different from his and, I suspect, smaller. As to how I selected these films as philosophically important? This list will display my bias to ethics, aesthetics, and political philosophy. Some will be tied directly to philosophies and well-established philosophical problems. But most will not. Philosophy is, to use quote William James, “an unusually stubborn attempt to think clearly.” It is not limited to the topics that currently are in vogue philosophically. All of these films count as unusually stubborn and largely successful attempts to think clearly on matters of great import to us as humans. So without further ado, here is a list of 45 philosophically interesting films.

1) Man with a Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov. Man with a Movie Camera is an astonishingly modern film, one that is still fresh. It is a joyous celebration of modernity and the possibilities of the movie camera–which if you read any of Vertov’s theoretical work he thinks is more accurate than the human eye. This film is one of the best reflections on technology.

2) The Exterminating Angel by Luis Bunuel. Any of his films could be here, but The Exterminating Angel is perhaps his most polished and perfect film, a potent Marxist allegory of how people, especially capitalists and the bourgeoisie are trapped inside capitalism, unable to escape even as it eventually causes their own destruction.

3) Bob le Flambeur is an existential action film by Jean-Pierre Melville. Le Samourai, which stars Alain Deloin as a hitman, is his most well-known, but this film starring Roger Duchesne as a gambler who is planning to rob a casino is perhaps even better.

4) Existential action films are a favorite of mine. There are quite a few, e.g. Runaway Train. But I’ll add only one more, Wages of Fear which is about hauling nitroglycerine somewhere in South America, not because there aren’t a ton of others, but because if I listed them all this list would soon be exhausted. I suspect film, which focuses on the external, is an ideal medium for existentialism.

5) Peeping Tom by Powell and Pressburger. An under-rated duo who probably produced the best British films of all time, this movie focuses on a serial killer who is also a photographer. A controversial flop at the time, it is a far more terrifying and profound film than Psycho, which came out the same year.* The themes it focuses on are voyeurism and self-awareness.
*As evidence that this is a somewhat idiosyncratic list, there will be no Hitchcock. He is, in my opinion, an over-rated hack. See for instance how he turned Conrad’s disconcerting The Secret Agent into a conventional, profoundly schlocky thriller.

6) Andrei Rublev by Andrei Tarkovsky. One of the most beautiful films ever made, this account of the Russian icon painter examines the relationship of life, suffering, and art.

7) The Great Dictator by Charlie Chaplin. One of the best examinations, and a nice deflating of, dictators. And the perhaps the overly serious in general.

8) General Idi Amin Dada by Barbet Schroder. A documentary of Idi Amin, this is a nice companion to Chaplin’s film as it conveys the terrific, dangerous madness of dictators. If one is interested in political philosophy or epistemology–especially possible relations between morality and epistemology–this movie is incredibly valuable.

9) The Grand Illusion by Jean Renoir. In another mood, I would choose The Rules of the Game but this deeply humanistic film, which Renoir hoped would prevent another world war, is amazing and profound.

10) The Up Series mostly by Michael Apted. I don’t watch as many documentaries as perhaps I should, but this on-going British series that follows the lives of 14 British children who were born in 1957, checking in on them every 7 years, is one of the most revealing and thoughtful films ever made.

11) Sullivan’s Travels by Preston Sturges. A perfect weaving of humor, philosophy of art (particularly on comedies), and social commentary.

12) 8 1/2 by Fellini. Just as I have a weakness for existential action films, I like films about films. But Fellini’s semi-autobiographical film 8 1/2 is more than that, it is foremost a film about giving up control in one’s life.

13) Rashamon by Akira Kurosawa. This is the obvious choice. I’m not going to dispute it.

14) The Fallen Idol by Carol Reed. This is not the obvious choice (The Third Man would be). And it is rather similar to Kurosawa’s film since it is an examination of truth and falsehood.* Yet its thrust is different from Kurosawa’s and it is as good as, if not better, than The Third Man. It is an under-seen masterpiece and so goes on this list.
*Quick summary: A young child idolizes the house butler, who is married to the housekeeper. Theirs is an unhappy marriage, and the butler has an affair, and the night she discovers the affair, she dies. When the police become suspicious of the butler, the boy’s testimony becomes vital.

15) Night Moves by Arthur Penn. Is the truth worth it? That is one of the themes of this film about detective Harry Moseby (played by Gene Hackman) who investigates a young woman’s disappearance as his marriage falls apart. In many ways similar to The Conversation or even Blow Up.

16) Sukiyaki Western Django by Takashi Miike. This is probably the most idiosyncratic selection. But this samurai western that draws upon The Tale of the Heike and Shakespeare is a wonderful exploration of the influence of traditions and multiculturalism. I know of none better.

17) The Man who Shot Liberty Valance by John Ford. A list could probably be made entirely of philosophically interesting westerners. Unfortunately I have not seen nearly as many as I should. A western Oresteia starring Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne.

18) Wild Strawberries by Ingmar Bergman. His entire oeuvre could be included, but this is one of my favorite films, a profound reflection on memory, aging, love, and religious belief as an old doctor travels across Sweden to receive an honorary degree.

19) Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl. Riefenstahl’s infamous pro-Nazi documentary of the Nuremberg rallies is outstanding. However, if I had seen it, I suspect Olympia would be on this list.

20) Tokyo Olympiad by Kon Ichikawa is an important reason why I would be tempted to put Olympia here. Responding to both Riefenstahl’s film and Japan’s imperialistic past, Kon Ichikawa tells a story of the failures and individuals in the Olympics, producing a film of rare sensitivity and one that gives a much needed re-evaluation of values.

21) Wittgenstein by Derek Jarman is one of the few films about a philosopher–or a thinker–that is very concerned with their thought. All of Jarman’s films are amazing, but given this is a list of philosophical films, this is unavoidable and a film rightly on the Essential Films list.

22) Woman in the Dunes by Hiroshi Teshigahara that follows an entomologist as he is trapped by a community that lives in the dunes to replace a woman’s husband and has to join her in digging to keep the dunes at bay. It explores how our life gains significance through associating with others.

23) Touch of Zen by King Hu. Perhaps not as philosophically interesting as others, but I loved Stephen Teo’s discussion of this film, and its Buddhist theme of illusion vs. reality, and how many Hong Kong kung fu (or rather wuxia) films could be on such a list? And it is one of the best kung fu films–probably only Come Drink with Me and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon compare.

24) Pickpocket by Robert Bresson. Bresson’s re-telling of Crime and Punishment is a stunning film. One reason to put this here is that it sells the ending in a way that Dostoevsky doesn’t quite. It is not a mere up-dating of the novel.

25) Danton by Andrzej Wajda. Wajda is my favorite Polish director, though not as celebrated as Kieślowski or Polanski. Danton is one of his best films, and how can any movie about the French Revolution not be philosophically relevant? Actually, it is probably pretty easy but this one is not, especially since it is informed by Wajda’s own experiences in Poland.

26) Unforgiven by Clint Eastwood. This examination of violence borders on the unwatchable. But deliberately so and to a good end. Profoundly disturbing, but about something that should disturb you.

27) Crimes and Misdemeanors by Woody Allen. He has better films, but this story about wrong-doing and people’s consciences is one of his most philosophical (also a good choice on the Essential list).

28) Summer by Eric Rohmer. Over the summer, a young man gets involved with three different women. Rohmer’s film explores masculinity and the self-deception sometimes needed to preserve our dignity.

29) Dog Star Man by Stan Brakhage. I don’t know enough about avant-garde films, else Maya Deren among others would be here. But Brakhage’s exploration of birth, death, and our relation to the natural world deserves several viewings.

30) Forbidden Planet by Fred Wilcox. The Tempest in space, with a lot of Freud thrown in. Still one of the most interesting science fiction films.

31) 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick because how could I not include it?

32) The Discarnates by Nobuhiko Ôbayashi. Another idiosyncratic choice, but the story of a man who runs into his long-dead parents–who are now his own age–greatly appeals to me. That the dead do not age, do not change, while the living do and our relationship to our dead are themes that greatly appeal to me and that I think are philosophically significant.

33) Do the Right Thing by Spike Lee. Philosophy of race is something I am becoming more interested in. This film, about the racial tensions and relations in a Brooklyn neighborhood, is still incredible.

34) Ordet by Carl Dreyer. Perhaps more a great religious film than a great philosophical film, this is the first Dreyer I watched. It involves a man who thinks he is Jesus and a Romeo and Juliet-like romance. I have never seen a film of his that was less than perfect and chose this only because it was the first film by him I watched.

35) Avalon by Mamoru Oshii. Most of these sort of lists have The Matrix so in its place I have this similar Japanese movie from the director of Ghost in the Shell. It is thematically similar, but its slower pace and greyer, East European scenery appeals to me more. It deserves to be better known.

36) Two Men and a Wardrobe by Roman Polanski. A short film is sort of an odd man out here, but this film of two men emerging from the sea carrying a wardrobe is one of the most profound films I’ve seen, particularly on man’s inhumanity to man. I understand why people would not want to watch a Polanski film, but his films–like Woody Allen’s–are often wonderful.

37) Zardoz by John Boorman. An overambitious and messy work of science fiction, if philosophy is about thinking clearly, then this probably does not belong here. But this is unjustly mocked and is well-worth thinking about, particularly with regard to the value of mortality.

38) Werckmeister Harmonies by Bela Tarr. A beautiful, haunting, surreal film about what happens to a down when a show starring a dead whale comes to town. This is a movie about order and disorder.

39) Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Either version works, though I prefer the older one. A scathing attack on conformity, it can of course relate to all sort of zombie-related questions. And zombies are an important philosophical topic!

40) Buckets of Blood by Roger Corman. Roger Corman may be the most important man in American movies. He made great films and trained many wonderful directors and actors, such as Francis Ford Coppola. This film is his account of a want-to-be artist who starts making astonishingly life-like statues while people start to go missing. Perhaps more fun than philosophical, it is still very much worth a look.

41) Beauty and the Beast by Jean Cocteau. Cocteau did other, more explicitly philosophical films, but I don’t think any touch this one. It is a perfect fairy-tale, one that also has a great deal to say about relations between the sexes.

42) Blow Up by Michelangelo Antonioni. This film of a photographer who may have taken a picture of a murder is rightfully a classic. A pointed study in the unreliableness of evidence and how we seek patterns, sense, and order.

43) Only Yesterday by Isao Takahata. Sort of a token animated film, this is also my favorite anime. It is the story of an office lady from the city who goes to the countryside and falls in love. This movie says much about happiness, but also about our relationship to the natural world.

44) Time Regained by Raul Ruiz. Proust is one of my favorite philosophical novelist; this is a wonderful adaptation of his work. If you haven’t read the novels, this may be cryptic. If you have, however, it is wonderful.

45) Videodrome is David Croenberg’s exploration of how we are becoming tied to technology. A deeply unsettling film, but given that we started with a film that portrayed the glories of technology, it is fitting to end on one that portrays its horror.

Final thoughts: Done again, this list could have 45 different films. No doubt anyone who reads this could point to obvious films I missed. Such is the nature of lists. Surprising me are the directors I’ve left off, e.g Robert Altman and Sergei Eisenstein. They are some of my favorite directors, but for one reason or another I could not think of a film of theirs that is as philosophical interesting. The paltry number of silent films is also surprising. Metropolis, for instance, is a great film, but ultimately not, I think, great philosophy. What should not surprise me, but does, is how important self-deception and the value of falsehood is in the movies I recommend. There were several films I thought of adding on this theme but didn’t since I felt it was over-represented. Lastly, I’m also disappointed by my lack of female directors.

This first video is in fact a cover of the Swedish band Teddybears’ song (which you can listen to here). But while their song is an interesting mix of reggae and punk, Robyn turns it entirely into her own thing. There’s a clarity, and pure danceability, to her version absent in the original. And she does change some of the lyrics: “You sit around and plan to put girl in fridge” was not in the original (it was apparently “Siddung and a plan fi come put man pon fridge” and I’m not entirely sure what that means). The girl in a fridge is a common complaint about how women, especially in comic books, are only victims. By changing that lyric, Robyn turns the song into an act of female power, rejecting the roles that men often want to force them into and asserting female agency.

Finally, there is a pure joy in watching paint being thrown on the set and musicians in the video. The pastel colors on white are simply effervescent. I could watch the video all day, sound or no sound. It is because of this pure joy that I’ve placed this video first: though several of her songs are more serious, it is this underlying hopefulness and elation that I identify Robyn with.

This is perhaps the most feminist of Robyn’s songs and it is wonderful. Contrasting herself with good girls, who live only to fulfill men’s expectations, Robyn asserts her own independence. “Good girls are sexy like everyday/I’m only sexy when I say it’s okay.” And this song is sung directly to a man:

Let’s play a game that you’ve never tried
You be the girl and I’ll be the guy
Let’s pretend everything has changed, and then
Would you love me any different?

I wouldn’t doubt that many woman find this to be a feminist anthem, a song they can identify with (after all, there are in fact no good girls–Robyn and her backup singers “know there’s no such girl”–they are simply figments of men’s imaginations), but it is aimed at confronting men with female agency and making them realize that that is something they must accept and empathize with. If they don’t, then she (or any woman) “won’t let you love me until you really try.” And that is a much needed lesson, tied up in a wonderful pop song.

Continuing with a serious bent, is “Dream On”, from Christian Falk’s album “People Say.” While not a Robyn song per se–she merely sings it–seemingly hopeless situations that are transformed as the song progresses is a Robynesque theme. She no doubt approved the song’s affirmation of the transformation that our imagination can wrought on the world. And in a way, that is exactly what the best pop music (and Robyn is indeed one of our best pop artists) does: our lives, our loves are invariably messy. Without ignoring that messy reality, the best pop music provides a hopefulness, beauty and order to our feelings and experiences. While this may only be dreaming, the song (and video) is hopeful that our dreams can in fact change the world. This is particularly true of the next song: “Indestructible.”

I’ll ignore the video–for some reason there is a blandly attractive woman making out with a similarly blandly attractive man and not enough Robyn in it. That the music is catchy is undeniable, and entirely expected. What appeals to me the most about this song is the verse:

And I never was smart with love
I let the bad ones in and the good ones go
But I’m gonna love you like I’ve never been hurt before
I’m gonna love you like I’m indestructible.

These lyrics are potentially quite misleading. One should read them closely. To begin with, the claim that, “I never was smart with love/I let the bad ones in and the good ones go” should not be taken literally. Instead, there is a triple act of seduction occurring. At the most basic level, she is seducing the person (a gender is never specified) she is singing about by hinting that they are one of the good ones and that this time she is going to be smart with love. Similarly she seduces the listener–male or female–who naturally identifies with the good ones. An attractive singer singing to you is hard to resist. But the final seduction is the most interesting: she is seducing herself.

In fact, it is unlikely she has gotten much smarter. Or that people can be so neatly divided into good and bad ones. But while the lines may not be true, they are perhaps necessary lies. By convincing herself that her previous partners were bad ones, and her current flame is a good one, she is able to ignore the pain that went with the previous relationships (and it is hard to imagine any relationship, especially one that has ended as being free of pain), and commit herself whole-heartedly to her new relationship.

And this is where the final two lines are quite powerful. Robyn does not assert that she is indestructible. She knows too well that she is not. However, she is nevertheless going to love them like she is indestructible. Ultimately she realizes she is decidedly not indestructible. But while an important part of any relationship is making oneself vulnerable, one should not flinch from that vulnerability. There is a certain needed heedlessness that getting hurt in previous relationships can dampen. Loving someone like you are indestructible paradoxically allows you to embrace the vulnerability of loving.

“With Every Heartbeat” is, unlike the other songs, a song of quiet, shimmering despair. The song is beautiful and catchy–pop music at its best. But the video is hard to watch–Robyn ends up literally and figuratively crushed.

This is a song I sympathize, not identify, with. My relationships have gone on for too long, not ended too early. Looking back is a temptation, but not because I look back yearningly. Mostly I wonder what went wrong and how that has affected me. That obviously has dangers of its own, but they are not what the song is about.

However, the fact that this song (and video, which like most of Robyn’s videos is extraordinary) moves me so attests to its power. Unlike most of the other songs, however, it is not one I can listen to repeatedly. It is too overwhelming. So while there are other sorrowful songs in Robyn’s oeuvre–Be Mine! in particular is a fantastic examination of how the possessiveness of love can cause pain–let’s move on to a final, happier song.

“Call Your Girlfriend” is the best way to end this post. On one hand, it is dealing with a painful subject: Robyn is telling her new boyfriend (though in truth the gender isn’t specified) he must break up with his old girlfriend. Yet what could be a quite cruel situation is turned into something deeply sympathetic and almost positive. While the breakup no doubt will cause his ex pain, it is necessary. And more importantly, Robyn gives advice on how to do it in the least painful way possible. Lines like:

Don’t you tell her how I give you something
That you never even knew you missed
Don’t you even try and explain
How it’s so different when we kiss

could be taken as cruel gloating. Instead they both affirm the pleasure of the new relationship and put the feelings of the ex first. She does not need to hear about how good the new relationship is.

And the song is filled with what one needs to hear when breaking up. Though they will no longer be dating, they will still be friends because she is still important to him. Moreover, she should move on–and that advice is to be given in a deeply sympathetic and caring fashion. One could easily imagine him telling his girlfriend she should move on in a manner that made it clear that he would now blame her pain on her inability to do so. But that is not what Robyn advises. Done properly, that advice is an act of great tenderness.

In short, the song recognizes the inevitable pain the new relationship will cause, but does its best to lessen that pain and through the sheer infectiousness of the song and Robyn’s dancing transforms the pain into something of great beauty. And that, perhaps, is the best justification for any art.

Abuse and Objectification

In “Woman-Battering and Harm to Animals”, Carol Adams claims that the abuser objectifies the abused.1 At first, I was planning to deny that. Certainly that need not be how it seems from the perspective of the abused.2 But the longer I considered the matter, the more truth it gained. What it lacks, however, are two things. First, being objectified is a process. One is not so much treated like an object as made into one through activities such as gaslighting. Furthermore, becoming aware that one is being objectified is also a gradual process. Second, as one realizes one is being treated like an object, it is one’s abuser who paradoxically seems to turn into an object. An object that no longer enchants.

Before discussing those points however, I should give a quick account of objectification.

Objectification means treating a person as an object and is, unsurprisingly, a complex and disputed concept. For the purposes of this essay I will use the seven notions that Martha Nussbaum uses in her essay “Objectification,”3 which while more fleshed out that Adams’ account, is similar to hers. It also matches well with my own understanding of objectification. Her seven notions are:

1. Instrumentality. The objectifier treats the object as a tool of his or her purposes.

2. Denial of autonomy. The objectifier treats the object as lacking in autonomy and self-determination.

3. Inertness. The objectifier treats the object as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity.

4. Fungibility. The objectifier treats the object as interchangeable (a) with other objects of the same type and/or (b) with objects of other types.

5. Violability. The objectifier treats the object as lacking in boundary integrity, as something that it is permissible to break up, smash, break into.

6. Ownership. The objectifier treats the object as something that is owned by another, can be bought or sold, etc.

7. Denial of subjectivity. The objectifier treats the object as something whose experience and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.4

From my experience, all seven notions apply to abusive relationships, though each may have to be tweaked a bit. Furthermore, it is not clear to the abused at least that all seven are at play from the beginning. One discovers them gradually. Fungibility is perhaps the last to emerge. So instead of going through the list in Nussbaum’s order, I will attempt to go through the order in which I became aware of being objectified.

The denial of autonomy was the most obvious one, and perhaps the most important. As one does in fact have autonomy, it must be undermined. This is why gaslighting–the activity of causing someone to mistrust their own judgment–is important for the abuser.5 One effective gaslighting method is to criticize one’s past decisions, to show they were poorly chosen or even immoral. To some degree one is even allowed to act in the present (though note that it is allowed to act). However, most of those choices are ones in which no matter what you do, you choose wrongly. The effect is to further undermine one’s confidence in one’s judgment. Nonetheless, there is a second effect, one that works to undermine the abuser’s power. The second effect is that it gradually becomes clear that when the abuser is expressing how she feels, that act is aimed not at disclosing herself, but at affecting the abused. We shall see that it is by this failure to disclose, a failure that the abused (hopefully) becomes more aware of, that the abuser transforms into an object.

Violability comes next. Rarely is the denial of autonomy left to specific areas. Instead, every aspect of one’s life becomes besieged. Little is left private. This can be attractive when seen as a sign of how intertwined ones’ lives are. Since one’s decisions affect one’s partner, every aspect of your life is also part of your partner’s. This, I believe, is a thoroughly wrong-headed view of romantic relationships, though a common one.6 Violability has another much more harmful affect: it also leads to the abuser causing the abused to cut ties with family and friends. This is because it is not enough to deny the abused autonomy. The abused must trust the abuser alone. The abused must not only be inert (which the denial of autonomy in conjunction with violability causes), making few if any decisions on their own, but their possession.

While in an important sense one does not feel owned, since ownership implies one can belong to someone else, one does feel intimately connected to the abuser, as if you belong to them alone. Often when thinking about abusive relationships, it seems that the abused becomes dependent on the abuser and thinks that they cannot live without them. This is no doubt often the case, especially when the abuser is a man. That is because women are often expected to be dependent on men; in many respects the difference between a traditional male-female relationship differs from an abusive one only by degree. Marital rape, after all, is a recent idea.

But it needn’t be simply the abused who feels dependent on the abuser. An abusive relationship is (paradoxically) an extremely close, intimate, caring (if one-sided) relationship. The abuser often makes the abused feel that they are important to them and only the abused can help the abuser. The abused may feel that they truly are helping the abuser and that they are the only ones who can. The abuser is made touchingly vulnerable. It is this, perhaps, that makes leaving the abuser so difficult, even more so than distrusting one’s judgment. One’s most meaningful relationships are often those that involve care. What one cares about, and for, help constitute who one is. Moreover, care is particular: it is a particular person caring about or for a particular thing. Being in a relationship where one is frequently told that only you can help them makes one feel quite important and unique. It is for this reason that fungibility is the last notion to be realized.

Once one realizes that one is spending so much effort caring for the abuser, realizing that the abuser does not care for your feelings is a natural next step. This is the denial of subjectivity. At first it may seem to be the result of the abuser having so much to work through and one will discount one’s own needs. But one eventually realizes that one’s needs are scarcely acknowledged. The needs of the abuser always trump the abused’s. For me, it was the inability of my partner to take joy in me being happy. Instead, something would arise that would cause her displeasure and that would become the focus.7 This is the denial of subjectivity. One’s feelings and needs do matter. This also reinforces the sense of being owned.

Finally, one realizes that one is treated as an instrument. Any relationship should involve reciprocity.8 Once one realizes one’s subjectivity is denied, it is clear there is no such reciprocity. One is treated as an object that should care for one’s abuser. But here a difficulty enters: the abuser by treating the abused as an object, fails to disclose her needs. Language is used to manipulate and hurt (often unconsciously so) and not to reveal.9 But just as the abused seems most like an object, it is here that one can break out, and the abused becomes an object.

It is largely through language that we become aware of the needs and agency of others. Certainly language is not required for such awareness–we can draw inferences from actions as to what motivates people–but it is the most direct method. But when someone uses language as a tool for manipulation, speech becomes just another action. It no longer discloses their subjectivity. Therefore, the partner who one thought one knew is revealed as an illusion; a black box takes its place. One has no idea what is inside it, if anything. All one sees is what it does. In this, it is no different from a rock or a machine. There is no accessible or visible interiority. One knows it must exist, but only through analogy. One does not see the partial glimpses within that language can reveal. And thus, the objectifier becomes the object and love ends. The abused is set free with a new feeling of agency, an agency it is no longer clear the abuser has.

Finally, fungibility. Objects are interchangeable, without any real individuality, and one can only have relationships with individuals. But as mentioned before–particularly when discussing ownership–an abusive relationship feels intimate and personal. After all, even the abuse is personal. The abuser can be quite good at targeting specific weak-points. And one does feel that at times one really did mean something to one’s abuser, not as a mere object, but for who one is. Thus it is that fungibility is the last notion to be realized. Abusers are rarely abusive in only one relationship. It forms most, if not all, of their relationships. While they certainly can change, I suspect such changes are rare. Consequently shortly after separation–a separation they may have (sincerely) claimed they could not bear–they will find themselves in another relationship. One is replaced. But while this may mean the abuser from their position finally objectified you, you realize–perhaps more than ever–that you are in fact not an object.

And there I might have ended this post, on a probably hortatory point. But that feels false. That is because one is constantly changing, even while writing. It is impossible to fully capture your thoughts let alone yourself. And while that is true generally, it seems especially true of this post. Therefore a more opened-ended ending is needed. The call for action, of further acknowledging you are not an object, is not enough. For while the future is yet undetermined, so, in many ways, is the past. In “All the King’s Men” Jack Burden speaks of a memory of Anne swimming in the ocean, saying that it was full of layers that were gradually revealed over time. To some degree that feels right about my past relationship. Its significance to me will change over the years. Aspects that I never thought of may become freshly relevant. And I suspect the abuse will become less and less important. The relationship was brief enough that (I hope) no permanent damage was done, though it has probably shaped me a great deal. Already one of the ways it has affected me is by making me less moralistic and more concerned with making others feel safe intellectually and emotionally.10 And because of the relationship I finally managed to become a vegan and more of a feminist.11 That is, however, no justification for abuse. Good results can be produced by bad means, but unless only those means could have produced those results, the results do not justify the means–especially if the results were achieved unintentionally.

But the general point–that the significance of the past is undetermined–stands. It will be interesting to observe how it unfolds.

ETA: This was briefly public after I wrote it, but I quickly changed it to private. However, as it has been a number of years, I’ve decided to make it public again. (1/1/17)


1. Unfortunately I am working from memory and hope I am not misrepresenting her. In any case, it is only a jumping off point.

2. Since I am finding it difficult to keep the veneer of impersonal objectivity, I should state outright that this post is about me trying to understand a past relationship. I am unsure if it accurately captures that relationship let alone other abusive relationships. Also, to some degree I am almost certainly too harsh on her–it was, at times, a wonderful relationship, and she is in many ways a wonderful person and, like everyone, deserves happiness and care. However, for various reasons the relationship (I am reluctant to simply state “she”) became emotionally and physically abusive and the bad has driven out the good. I now feel that most of the good was in the promise of good times to come. They rarely did.

3. Found here.

4. Nussbaum, “Objectification”, p. 257

5. It should be said I do not believe that many abusers act deliberately. Certainly I do not think mine did.

6. And one that Nussbaum touches upon in “Love’s Knowledge.”

7. Mundane example: we went to watch a movie I was excited about. What should have been a pleasant trip became a disaster because the smoothie store she wished to go to was closed when the movie ended.

8. Nagel’s essay “Sexual Perversion” examines this brilliantly.

9. One suspects that the dissatisfaction that the abuser often displays at the decisions her partner makes to care for her are less attempts to deny autonomy (though that is what they cause) and more the result of not knowing or expressing her actual needs which must be known to the care giver for there to be care.

10. These were important aspects that were not part of the relationship. If I may allow myself a brief aside, I am now mostly convinced that one should not judge friends, family or lovers. Everyone needs a safe place where they feel they will not be condemned or rejected.

11. The feminist aspect may be overselling things. She brought issues to my attention, but more to condemn me for not already knowing about them and less to inform me. Most of what I have learned has been on my own.

Parting by Fan Yun

別詩 範雲 Parting by Fan Yun

洛陽城東西, In Luoyang, from east to west,
長作經時別。 A long way to travel when saying farewell.
昔去雪如花, When I left, the snow was like flowers,
今來花似雪。 Now when I return, the flowers are like snow.

This is a poem I translated years ago, probably because the last two lines are simple yet beautiful. But their appeal is obvious–by simply switching snow and flowers, it is clear how much time has passed. Moreover, that it looks like nothing has changed stresses how much the traveller has probably changed. That nature remains the same, yet people change, is a common motif in Chinese poetry. Li Qingzhao, for instance, does it in the following poem (probably written after her husband’s death, though certainly they are separated):

偶成 By chance completed

十五年前花月低, Fifteen years ago, flowers under the moon,
相從曾賦賞花詩。 Walking together, we composed poems about them.
今看花月渾相似, Now I look and see the flowers and the moon are the same,
安得情懷似往時! How come my feelings are not like before?

But when I originally translated Fan Yun’s poem, I think the first two lines somehow confused me. What it portrays–marvelously and indirectly–is the pain of separation. Fan Yun is leaving the city, but is delayed because he is saying farewell. 長 means both long in distance and in time, so while on the surface he could simply be saying he has to travel a long ways to leave the city, what is actually occurring is that it is taking him a great deal of time to leave.

There is a pleasing simplicity in many pre-Tang poems I enjoy, though it has been a number of years since I’ve read many. Even in its indirectness, the poem is pretty straightforward (even if I find the second line a bit odd). Li Qingzhao’s poem, in contrast, seems much richer, laden with meaning and sentiment. It also feels much more complex yet structured (Fan Yun was writing in the 5th century when Chinese poetry was working towards regulated verse). Part of that is probably because she was the superior poet. Nonetheless, I wonder if by being simpler, Fan’s poem is not more universal and moving. Plus, it’s still hard for me not to love “snow like flowers/flowers like snow.” There is a freshness to Fan’s (and other early Chinese poets’) work that often is not captured in the more sophisticated poems that followed. There are advantages to coming at the beginning of a tradition.