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I have asked many regular non-philosopher type folks about how to avoid

I have asked many regular non-philosopher type folks about how to avoid appearing "rude, crude and stupid" when indicating sexual interest in women. Not many well formed answers are given to me but I am told that a necessary ingredient is subtlety. You should never be direct about your intentions. Is being direct and straightforward really rude? What does saying that you must not be straightforward imply about the nature of those intentions in the first place? What then distinguishes rude from non-rude forms of expressing sexual intention?

It's an interesting question and not easy to answer. Let's start with what may seem to be a minor point but actually isn't. It's not right that we should never be direct. The most obvious exception is when two people already have a sexual relationship and they're both comfortable about it. But even there, being blunt isn't always welcome. Sex isn't one-dimensional. There's lusty animal sex and there's also tender romantic sex. What works for one doesn't necessarily work for the other.

If it's complicated even for people who are in a relationship, it's not hard to see why rude and crude doesn't tend to work when that's not so. Human relationships just are complicated; after all, there are completely non-sexual matters that most of us don't like having broached too directly. When we add sex to the mix, things certainly won't get simpler.

Leave male vs. female aside for a moment. If someone hints to me that they're interested but the feeling isn't mutual, I can ignore the hint in ways that get the message across but don't hurting the other person's feelings or make them lose face. This doesn't go just for sex, but it seems safe to say that it goes particularly for sex. Being less direct can make things a lot less awkward.

A different sort of case might help. If I'm upset with someone, then depending on the relationship and the reasons, being clear and straightforward might be best. But the old saying "least said, easiest mended" often has a point. A certain amount of indirectness seems to make social life easier.

The fact of the matter is that there's a lot of communication that doesn't take place using words, and on the whole, we humans seem to like it this way. The advantage is that this adds a lot of nuance and subtlety to the way we communicate. But not everyone is equally fluent in the language of gesture, gaze, tone of voice and standard dictionaries are hard to find.

As noted, all of this is general and applied to a lot more than sex. But there's another issue here that's at least as important. There's often a lot at stake in sexual encounters, and there's usually a lot more at stake for a woman than for a man. For the most part, unwanted sexual attention isn't a problem for men. For women it very often is. At the very least, staying away from the rude and crude is a way of acknowledging that important fact.


Afternote: a friend pointed out this very instructive youtube video in which Steven Pinker says a lot about all these issues. Stick with it to the end.

According to Nicholas D. Smith in response to a question about sexual harassment

According to Nicholas D. Smith in response to a question about sexual harassment legislation, "The minute someone in that place begins to give sexual attention to someone else in that workplace, the environment is changed--and changed in a way that makes the workplace no longer an entirely comfortable place to work." However the fact of the matter is that a great many people marry their coworkers and that studies show only a small percentage of those relationship were started by people who accidentally met up outside of work. If the purpose of sexual harassment legislation is to ban all interaction of a sexual nature between coworkers (since all sexual attention makes the workplace an uncomfortable place to work) then those marriages could not have occurred if sexual harassment law was 100% effective in achieving its supposed purpose. Since marriage is a highly regarded social institution isn't it highly unlikely that the purpose of sexual harassment legislation is to ban all sexual interaction between...

As Nicholas said in response to the other question, there are questions to be asked about what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior in the workplace. And, while there are companies that prohibit co-workers from dating, most do not, which is simply to say that sexual harassment policies are not in general intended to prohibit all sexual interaction between co-workers, but only such interaction as, first, is unwelcome or unwanted and, second, constitutes a form of harassment.

Even unwelcome sexual attention, by itself, does not constitute harassment, according to the definition promulgated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but only if:

  1. submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual's employment,
  2. submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individuals, or
  3. such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.

The first two conditions are kind of obvious. It is the last condition that can be harder to evaluate, in practice.

Asking someone out on a date, for example, all by itself, certainly would not constitute harassment under this definition. Indeed, as I understand it, merely asking someone out does not constitute an expression of "sexual interest", but of romantic interest, which is different. That said, the line here is blurry, and if the person doing the asking is in a position of authority over the other person, then we are on dangerous ground, since then condition (1) or (2) may be met. And repeatedly asking someone out could constitute harassment, as could asking every woman in the company out, since it is easy to see how condition (3) could be met in such a case.

Telling someone flat out that you'd love to get them in the sack is something else entirely. Most people would not receive such a remark as a compliment, for the simple reason that such a remark, made outside an appropriate sort of context or relationship, does not express any real appreciation for the other person, but only how that person might be used to satisfy one's own selfish desires. People rightly feel "objectified" by such comments and, as a result, self-conscious and otherwise uncomfortable, and that is why making such remarks can easily satisfy condition (3). That said, however, a single such remark probably does not constitute harassment, but a pattern of making such remarks very likely would.

That said, companies have a right and duty to ensure that the workplace is free of intimidation, and they also have an interest in protecting themselves from litigation. So a company might have rules that prohibit the making of such remarks, for example, even though making one such remark might not constitute harassment. Such rules are perfectly understandable, seen from this point of view.

Sexual harassment is often defined as "unwanted sexual attention." Isn't the

Sexual harassment is often defined as "unwanted sexual attention." Isn't the idea that all sexual attention must be "wanted" by a women for it to be okay simply a perpetuation of the idea that women have no independent existence outside of the wants and needs of men? Don't women have the right to be indifferent to sexual attention? And don't women have the right to interpret unwanted sexual attention in other ways other than thinking of it as harassment? Basically I find it incredibly ironic that one of the the pillars of modern feminism has such a weirdly sexist underpinning.

I just answered a question very like this one. It isn't sexual harassment to express interest in a woman in a social circumstance, at least in the first instance. There are lots of ways of doing this that are rude, crude, and stupid, of course. But it is only "harassment" if it continues after a clear expression of non-interest has been conveyed by her. If I go up to a woman in a bar and express sexual interest, it is not harassment, even if I am clumsy about it. That would make me a loser, maybe, but nothing in feminism (or in the legal concept of harassment) makes it harassment in the first instance. If I continue after she has told me to take a long walk off a short pier, well, then, it starts at that point to become harassment, and yes, women (and men) have a right not to be pestered and...well, harassed!

The law currently defines sexual harassment as "unwanted sexual attention. There

The law currently defines sexual harassment as "unwanted sexual attention. There is more to the definition but in my own workplace the policy specifically defines sexual harassment as "any unwanted sexual attention". However I recently went out on a date with a girl that I wasn't interested in having "casual sex" with. She however proposed that we do just that. I therefor received "unwanted" sexual attention from her. However, I don't believe that I was harassed one bit. I have seen numerous website that declare dogmatically that women have a "right" to not experience "unwanted" sexual attention. I can't help but to think to myself that that is sheer lunacy. In my mind nobody has a right to not experience "unwanted" sexual attention and that "unwanted" sexual attention is not even a big deal. The term "unwanted" is a fairly neutral term and many things which are neither unpleasant nor pleasant can fit into that category. So how can such a obviously poorly defined definition of sexual harassment continue...

As I understand it, the issue at stake here is that people (and not just women) want to be able to regard their workplace as just that--a workplace. The minute someone in that place begins to give sexual attention to someone else in that workplace, the environment is changed--and changed in a way that makes the workplace no longer an entirely comfortable place to work.

There are obviously degrees of sexual harassment, and I frankly don't think that giving unwanted sexual attention (that is in no way coersive) on a date could count--either ethically or legally--as harassment. But it is different in a workplace. If you find someone's sexual interest or expressions thereof unwanted on a date, you can always refuse to go out on another date with that person. But if you have to deal with this at a workplace, your only option is to try to find another job--which these days can be a major problem, and which a good worked should not have to feel that he or she has to do, to avoid someone acting in a way that is inappropriate for a workplace. So this is not simply a "freedom of speech" issue. It has to do with making the environment of a workplace no longer comfortable for some other worker working in that place. Please respect this!

There has been some debate surrounding sex dolls (expensive, life-size, quasi

There has been some debate surrounding sex dolls (expensive, life-size, quasi-realistic approximations of humans intended for use as sex toys). On the one hand, proponents claim sex dolls are a useful sexual surrogate for men who are socially challenged and "sexually frustrated", and who want a more "realistic" experience than self-sex (the assumption is these men are not able to find dates themselves). On the other hand, feminists decry these life-like sex dolls (which are predominantly female-shaped and bought by males) as misogynistic, because (feminists claim) they are advocated as a replacement for women and reinforce the stereotypes that women are hard to deal with for men, not to mention being the example par excellence of objectification of women. Which is it? Is it valid to say that these dolls can play a healthy role in a socially challenged persons life, or are these things which reinforce misogyny and should not be promoted or made to seem acceptable?

I guess you're talking about "Real Dolls" and the like, of which Howard Stern seems to be such a fan.

The terms in which you describe this debate seem to me to be highly contentious. I really do not understand why the question whether someone is "socially challenged" or "sexually frustrated" has anything to do with it. I think the sensible, default viewpoint would be that, if someone wants to masturbate, then they should be free to do so in whatever way they choose, either alone or with their partner or whatever. And if they enjoy using sex toys, then they should be free to use them, too. If one of the sex toys they like to use is a "love doll", either of the blow up variety or the incredibly expensive "Real Doll" variety, then so what? Maybe they like to fantasize about making love to super models, and maybe the doll helps with the fantasy. Great! Feminists like Nancy Friday worked very hard to earn all of us, men and women, the right to such freedom.

That said, "so what" could have an answer, and if one thinks realistic dolls are supposed to replace women, then that would count. But look, I can understand the "weird and icky" reaction that some people seem to have to these dolls. Frankly, they look to me like consumer culture gone mad, making about as much sense as $5000 purses and $500,000 loudspeakers. (I own stereo equipment most people would consider outrageously expensive, but even I have my limits!) So yeah, these dolls are kind of weird. But I haven't read anything even remotely sensible that might explain why they are intrinsically bad, or even why they are any more "objectifying" than Fleshlights or anything else made for such purposes. If people with more money than sense want to buy these things, then, well, there you go.

Yes, Howard Stern made some incredibly stupid comments about these dolls that are, on their face, insulting not just to women but to basic human decency. But being stupid and insulting is Stern's job, isn't it? And yes, some highly dysfunctional people may buy these dolls and then declare their love for them and their superiority over real women. Some of them may even star in reality TV shows. But please do not tell me that we're now supposed to regard "reality TV" as actually representative of reality.

Is it unethical to not tell your partner you have herpes if they don't ask? Is

Is it unethical to not tell your partner you have herpes if they don't ask? Is it excusable in any way not to do so?

If one is innocently unaware that one has a communicable medical condition, then this would be a plausible excuse (here by "innocently" I mean to exclude cases where one has recklessly ignored obvious symptoms). Another excuse might be that the communicable condition is very minor (which I believe herpes is not) -- a slight itch that disappears naturally and permanently after a few hours, for example.

The fact that the other person hasn't asked might be an excuse in a social environment in which only very few are uninfected and in which everyone takes for granted that those they interact with already have the disease ("how could I possibly have known that you are one of the 0.1% of uninfected people; you should have told me this, at least if you wanted to remain uninfected!"). This is obviously not the environment we're in.

Being romantically involved goes along with an expectation of love or at least care and concern for one's partner. Given this cultural context -- which may not exist everywhere and in all subcultures, of course -- it is reasonable for one partner to expect the other to disclose risks and dangers the latter might pose. The romantic context would be considerably disturbed if the burden were placed on the former partner who would then have to think about all the possible risks and dangers she might be exposing herself to and ask about each of them individually. If your date confronted you with such a long checklist on one of your early dates, this might well disturb the romantic mood, and you might well say part-way through the interrogation: "Look, I care about you, and if I posed a danger to you in any of these ways, then I would surely tell you or find a way to neutralize the risk." When this would be a natural thing to say, it indicates that we take responsibility for disclosure to lie with the partner who poses the risk rather than with the one who would be endangered by it.

Is it morally wrong to stop being freinds with someone because he/she is a

Is it morally wrong to stop being freinds with someone because he/she is a homophobe? I'm gay but have many straight friends. One of them is Muslim, and she maintains that as part of her religious beliefs it is mandatory for her to consider homosexuality a sin, that is punishable by an afterlife in "hell". She also does not oppose persecutions of gays in Islamic countries saying that it is their sovereignty that can not be infringed in the name of Human Rights. (She thinks the Koran is more important than any human rights declaration.) That said, she's been a very kind, helpful and longtime friend, but her attitude towards homosexuality is unacceptable for me. Is it morally tenable for her to be a friend to a gay man, and a homophobe at the same time? Is it immoral/unethical for me to dump her because of her religious beliefs?

If we could only like people who share our views, our circle of friends would be very narrow.

Most of my religous friends are convinced that in the next world we shall never meet again, since they are going to one place, and I very definitely am going somewhere rather warmer and less pleasant. I very much doubt that any of us are going anywhere after we are dead, but if we are, then given that God seems to have a sense of humour, we might all be in for a surprise.

Most people, I'd guess, have racial preferences in dating. I don't think that

Most people, I'd guess, have racial preferences in dating. I don't think that this is morally problematic in itself, since there is surely no obligation to date anyone, or members of any particular group. Still it strikes me that many cases of racial preference in dating are likely rooted in racism. For instance, I have never been attracted to black women; and while I would insist that I have no duty to be anything like an equal opportunity dater, I strongly suspect that my preference in this case is at least partially the result of racial prejudice. (I imagine that I would more often find myself attracted to black women if I had not internalized various stereotypes, racially-based aesthetic norms, etc.) Is this a problem? Does it matter to our evaluation of a particular attitude if, though perhaps innocuous in itself, it has a causal origin in bigotry?

I doubt whether we should feel that we ought always to treat everyone entirely equally to avoid being called racist. We are allowed to have preferences and sometimes these will be on racial grounds, perhaps, provided that those preferences do not systematically discriminate against people in ways that do them harm. Unless we had some fairly fixed preferences, it would be very difficult to discriminate among different sorts of people in any way whatsoever, and dating is based on such discrimination. It is as well to be aware of one's prejudices and to consider whether it is worth trying to challenge them, but there is nothing wrong in acknowledging them and recognizing their role in defining a personality.

Blind dates are fun because they force the individual to respond to partners with whom one might not otherwise consider going. On the other hand, if every date were to be a blind date, this would not be evidence of having an open mind but rather of a lack of character.

I told my friend that I didn't pursue a second date with a woman I met through

I told my friend that I didn't pursue a second date with a woman I met through an Internet dating site because she wasn't physically attractive enough. My friend said it was wrong to "judge" a person by their looks. I said that I wouldn't date my friend Travis either based on his looks and you wouldn't disagree with that. My friend said that the reason that I wouldnt date Travis was that Travis is a man and I'm a heterosexual. Yes but what is a man I asked other than someone who "looks" different than a woman? So isn't heterosexuality about discriminating against a person based on their looks? And if that's the case and if we as a society are okay with diacriminating against a person just because they don't look like a certain gender then why is it often considered wrong to not date someone based on looks that go beyond gender? It might sound like I am resorting to a kind of logical trickery but I think I have a good point. People often speak of a romantic relationship as if it were an elevated...

Physical attraction is part of what makes a romantic relationship, and so if romance was what you wanted, not being attracted would matter. This also explains why it would be strange to say that a heterosexual is discriminating in an objectionable way against people of the same sex just because s/he doesn't have romantic relationships with them. (We can turn this around, of course. A gay man isn't discriminating against women in some untoward way just be cause he doesn't want to have romantic relationships with them.)

That much is obvious. But there's still some subtlety in the background. You said you didn't pursue this possibility because the woman "wasn't attractive enough." That could mean a couple of things. One is that you didn't find her sexually attractive: for whatever reason, there was none of that sort of spark. More on that below, but so far, no foul. However, you might have meant that she didn't meet some conventional standard of attractiveness, quite apart from your own reaction. If so, there'd be room to wonder: is it a matter of what other people will think? If so, why do you care? Or is it a matter of some merely arbitrary standard you've set for yourself? In either case it would be worth giving some further thought to your decision.

But let's suppose it's not that; let's suppose you simply didn't find yourself attracted to her, whatever anyone else's view might be. The caution here is that even though chemistry is sometimes obvious from the start, it doesn't always work that way. As you get to know someone better, your sense how "attractive" they are can change. The ways people move and talk, what they think and feel, make a difference to how we see them in a rich sense of "see." People regularly find themselves becoming attracted to someone they had little response to on first meeting. After all, there's a whole genre of romantic storytelling built on this premise, and it's for a reason: it really happens. So there's a practical point here: don't be too sure that you know on the first meeting how you'd feel on the third.

But before we end, you raised a more philosophical issue: where's the room between sheer lust and mere platonic friendship? The broad outlines surely aren't that hard to see. When you love someone in the romantic way, lust is part of the picture, but so is friendship. It would be too simple to say that romantic love is just the sum of lust and friendship, but then even non-romantic friendships aren't all alike; some are much deeper than others. Most of us want our friendship with our romantic partner to be of the deep kind, though if you want more depth about the depth, poets and storytellers might offer more insight than philosophers.

Summing up: discrimination doesn't seem to be the right word for cases where we don't pursue romance because we aren't attracted. However the cautions above both apply. And whatever the essence of romantic love may be, a complex combination of friendship and old-fashioned lust is surely part of the story; no need for an "either/or."

I have a question that was prompted by a recent discussion with a female friend.

I have a question that was prompted by a recent discussion with a female friend. We both agreed that a certain kind of voyeurism is obviously wrong. For example, we both thought that it would be wrong for a man to climb a tree to watch a woman disrobe through a window. The disagreement, however, emerged when we discussed a second case. Suppose a man is sitting on a bench minding his own business when he notices a girl sit down across from him wearing a short skirt. She doesn’t realize it, but he can see up her skirt--and she isn’t wearing any underwear. Now, let’s suppose that this girl is no exhibitionist and would be extremely embarrassed if she found out this man could see up her skirt. Indeed, let’s say she would be just as embarrassed as the woman in the first case would be if she found out about the tree-climber. Moreover, let’s suppose this man gets the same thrill out of this experience as the tree-climber. Is the man on the bench morally obligated to look away, or is it permissible for...

Your well-articulated question brings out something interesting about how we moderns think about morality. When we consider whether a certain piece of conduct is morally acceptable or not, we tend to examine what complaints other people might plausibly raise against this conduct and how the agent might possibly answer these complaints.

This is pretty clearly the approach of your female friend in the case of the man on the bench. Your friend thinks along the following lines, I believe: if the man's behavior is to be wrong, then this must be in virtue of some complaint one might raise on behalf of the girl (who else?). Her complaint must be that he is looking at a part of her body that he should not be looking at. But this is not a convincing complaint, because it is as a consequence of her own conduct that this part of her body has appeared in his visual field. His sitting where he is sitting is entirely innocent, and the viewing opportunity arose (unexpectably for him) through her choosing to wear a short skirt without underwear. Her own conduct invalidates her complaint.

I am with your female friend here in agreeing that what she says cannot be dismissed as "morally irrelevant". Given the facts (plus the assumption that this girl is a young adult rather than a child or teenager), the "girl" has no complaint. I would add that your friend's reasoning seems to me to withstand Oliver Leaman's response. Oliver is right that we have a reasonable expectation that certain aspects of our lives should remain private, and that others ought to honor this expectation. This surely disqualifies the conduct of the tree climber, but not the conduct of the man on the bench. When the "girl" -- however inadvertently -- exposes certain parts of her body in public to public view, then she cannot complain of a violation of her privacy when these parts are being seen by others.

I am also sympathetic to your side of the argument. I believe it is wrong for the man to stare. In one sense, this is not very controversial. Many will agree that it would be better for the man to do something else. For example, he might switch over to her bench and inform her politely of the problem -- verbally, perhaps, or with a little note. This sort of kindness is pretty common among men, most of whom will occasionally forget to zip up their fly. One can look and chuckle, but it is surely kinder to offer a gentle reminder (especially when the good man is about to teach his class). While this is true and widely accepted, it does not follow that one is acting wrongly when one fails to show such kindness. Your friend could easily agree that the man on the bench could have shown more kindness but continue to deny that he is doing anything wrong. It is on this issue that I agree with you against your female friend.

To do this, I have to reject the idea that the complaint model -- convincing as I find it -- is exhaustive of morality. I have to say that some conduct is wrong even if no one has a plausible complaint against it. To make this convincing, one can start with the ancients for whom the question of how to live was at the center of moral thought. Here our moral task not to harm others unduly is integrated into a larger task of being -- or better: becoming -- the best that we can be. It is, for men, a central part of this task of self-improvement that we should leave behind the lockerroom attitudes toward woman as objects to be used for pleasure or labor and that we should develop our capacities to relate with women as genuine equals. Staring up a girl's skirt is quite clearly a move in the wrong direction. (I have written a bit about this in my response to question 1702, so won't repeat here.) Of course, gender relations are not the only area in which we find conduct that is wrong without wronging anyone else. It is wrong, for example, to waste one's life on trivial pursuits -- even if one is a rich heir who can do this without drawing on others' resources either public or private.

A final thought. I want to resist the idea that conduct that is wrong without wronging anyone else must be conduct that wrongs oneself. (This is an idea Kant suggests with his account of duties to oneself.) The view I want to defend, then, is that conduct can be wrong even though it wrongs no one. See whether this captures your resistance to your friend's reasoning or whether you want, instead, to resist her arguments while remaining within the approach that makes a plausible complaint a precondition of wrongness.