The Ethics of Checking People Out
You’re walking down the street. In the opposite direction comes a person whom you find very attractive. As he or she passes by, you feel tempted to turn your head so as to, well, check them out. I assume that you have felt this temptation. I, at least, have felt it many times. I have resisted turning my head, however, since doing so is supposedly a bad thing.
But what, exactly, is so bad about turning one’s head to check someone out on the street? What is the bad-making property (or properties) of such actions? Let’s consider a number of possible answers.
Privacy and consent
One answer might be that if one turns one’s head to catch an extra glance of an attractive person, one invades their privacy. In assessing this suggestion, let us grant, for the sake of the argument, that invading someone’s privacy is indeed a bad-making property. The relevant question then becomes whether one invades someones’s privacy by turning one’s head to check them out.
No matter how inappropriate it might be to check someone out this way, I cannot see how doing so could count as a privacy invasion. The reason why is that in turning one’s head to look at the person, one doesn’t come to see anything that isn’t already public. The person in question is walking down the street and is seen by everyone passing by. The specific perspective that one gets by turning one’s head, moreover, is almost identical to the perspective available to whoever is already walking behind that person (and while those walking behind the person might have this perspective for several minutes, the one who turns their head would only have it for a few seconds.)
A somewhat different explanation might be that by turning one’s head to check someone out — even ever so briefly! — one makes use of another person without his or her consent. This seems like a more promising explanation of why it is bad, for the action would clearly be non-consensual. Head-turners don’t ask for permission. A problem, though, is that we usually do not think that looking at someone on the street for a few seconds requires their permission or consent. Here it might perhaps be suggested, in response, that the problem isn’t really the looking per se, but the fact that one sexualizes another person if one turns one’s head to look at them for the reason that one finds them attractive. It is unclear if this helps much, though, for just as no-one is expected to ask for permission before looking at a person, no-one is expected to ask for permission before having sexual thoughts about them either. (Of course, maybe we should ask for permission before we have sexual thoughts about others. That, however, would be really odd.)
You are an object
A different explanation of what makes it bad to check someone out on the street might be that no matter how subtle one is, doing so involves objectification. If I turn my head to check someone out, I treat them, not as the full persons that they are, but as bodily objects that I can use for my satisfaction.
Objectification is a big issue that I cannot discuss in detail here, but a few things should be pointed out. First, it is a mundane — but seldom emphasized — fact that human beings are in fact objects. Humans are objects as good as any. Admittedly, humans belong to a subcategory of objects that are also subjects, but that does not contradict the fact that we humans really are objects (if you are in doubt, locate a mirror). Accordingly, if we treat someone as an object, we are not treating them as something that they are not; we are treating them in accordance with just one of their aspects.
Treating someone on the basis of just one of their aspects can be bad. It is certainly bad in cases where they are harmed as a result. If I step on you so as to reach a book on top of a shelf, I treat you like a mere object that does not have any valid interest in not being stepped on. Thus I disregard your subjectivity and harm you as a result. But is a selective focus on just one aspect of a person bad even in cases where it does not lower that person’s well-being?
Here it might be suggested that it is still bad because it reduces the person to this one aspect.
What exactly do we mean by “reducing” in this context, and in what way is this reduction a problem? I am not sure. In one sense of the term, I am “reduced” to one of my aspects very often. Sometimes, for example, I am counted. Then I am reduced to a quantity or a number. And sometimes I am weighed, as when the elevator at the philosophy department is filled with so many people that one or more must step out. Over at the university administration, moreover, I am probably just an employee with a certain salary; they do not at all pay attention to the views that I defend in my papers. Does any of this reduce me in a problematic manner? Does it deny that I have aspects other than a quantity, a weight, and a salary? It cannot see why it should imply any such thing; it is only a selective focus on one of my aspects for a purpose where the other aspects are not so relevant. For a similar reason, it is not clear that focusing on someone’s body need imply a denial of the fact that the person has many other aspects. It is merely a selective focus for a specific purpose where other aspects are not so relevant.
Perhaps, though, one might (after all) devise harm-based arguments as to why it is bad to turn one’s head to check someone out on the street. By engaging in these activities, it might be suggested, one can easily make another person annoyed, uncomfortable, and afraid. This might be particularly true if we assume that a small group of people will be looked at very often. This argument, I think, is a perfectly valid one, and something that counts against many forms of checking people out on the street.
Let me therefore propose a rule: If you want to turn your head to catch an extra glance at someone that you pass by on the street, don’t do so until they are at least one full step behind you. That way, they are very unlikely to notice that you are looking, and as long as they do not notice, they will feel neither uncomfortable, afraid, or annoyed as a result of your action. (Of course, they might also turn their head to look at you, and then notice that you are doing the same thing. In that case, however, all should be fine and good.)
What should we make of this suggested rule? Would it, if we adhered to it, be fine to turn one’s head to check people out? Or would there still be reasons not to do it? One reason not do it, perhaps, might be that though the person being looked at does not (ex hypothesi) notice what you are doing, other people on the street might, and this might in turn make your action problematic. This suggestion sounds reasonable enough, but two things should be noted. First, if this is the correct explanation of why it is bad to turn one’s head to check someone out on the street, it would presumably stop being bad if, in fact, nobody saw it. Is that a conclusion we are willing to accept? And second, there is something curious about this account of why it is bad, for if it is bad that passersby on the street can see that one is turning one’s head to check someone out (without them noticing), there would presumably have to be something bad about that action in the first place. If the action itself were fine, it is puzzling why it would be a problem that anybody saw it.
Check with care
There are many bad ways of checking people out on the street. One’s behavior might be annoying and threatening, and it might manifest a negative view of women (or men). There are also ways of checking out people that counts as outright harassment and ought to be illegal. When we are trying to provide an ethical assessment of an activity, however, it is important to keep in mind that the interesting question to ask is not whether there are bad ways of engaging in that activity. That’s a no-brainer, for there are bad ways of engaging in virtually any activity. The interesting question is whether there are acceptable ways of doing it — and, if there are, how broad that range of acceptable ways is.
I have been very brief in my treatment of the above arguments. I have also considered only a small number of them. So, quite possibly, there are strong counterarguments that I have failed to take adequately into account. Still, my tentative conclusion is that there probably are no general reasons why it is bad to turn one’s head to check someone out on the street – and though there might be good reasons to avoid doing so in many contexts (if doing so would upset one’s fiancée, say), occasionally catching a discreet look over one’s shoulder can be morally just fine. Just remember the one step-rule.
Ole Martin Moen is a Post-Doctoral Fellow in Philosophy at University of Oslo. He is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics.
Illustration: Wikimedia Commons (Franco Follini).