The Ethics of Checking People Out

Is this woman objectifying you?

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).

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25 Responses to The Ethics of Checking People Out

  • Joao Fabiano says:

    It might be the case that society disvalues people who are in the category more likely to be checked out – reasonably or not, some might think those people are more promiscuous and that such is inherently bad. In that case, it would be true that checking someone out without nobody not seeing it would be OK. However, there would be few situations where the risk of any body catching you checking someone out is fairly low. Therefore, the fact that there could be a situation where checking someone out is harmless is pragmatically irrelevant.
    It is also plausible that checking someone out can harm you. Reasonably or not, society might consider that people who check other people out lack impulse control, are morally depraved and/or desperate. Furthermore, sharing that you find someone (or someone like that) attractive might also have social costs.
    I think that the most relevant fact here is that checking people out can cause fear on the person being checked, particularly if it’s a male checking a female. I think that how much more unlikely is that the person or someone else will catch you, greater will be the fear such person would feel if she catches you (e.g. broad crowded street in daylight vs empty street at night). Moreover, this might be a habit, so even if it is the case there are situations in which no harm would be done, doing it only on those situations could be improbable. Given all those pragmatic considerations, although checking someone out might not be bad in itself, it might still be bad. (There’s also the separate question of whether it should be bad. That is, which world is better one were checking people out causes harm or one where it doesn’t. )
    I also think there are a lot of cultural variation on this. In some countries turning your neck might be as harmless as turning your eye in other countries, and vice versa.

  • Andrews says:

    Witty and persuasive! thank you for this post.

  • Rogue says:

    People who are checked out often are mostly beautiful. Most beautiful people make a lot of effort to look even more beautiful. This doesn´t show that checking people out couldn´t ever be inappropriate, but it shows that it most definitely is not a big problem. Probably the opposite problem is bigger: many people would like to be checked out a lot more aften than they actually are.

  • Rob says:

    Personally, as a man, I would enjoy it if people checked me out conspicuously more often. One has to weigh the risk of harming someone against the chance that you will benefit them – and many people surely do, like me, get a lot of pleasure out of being checked out.

  • David says:

    Or to put it succinctly one could simply connect with ones own moral conscience and ask “Does this act feel right or wrong?” Whatever the outcome, by acting upon an urge to ‘check them out’ is to take sole responsibility for the decision one makes along with any resulting repercussions. So for me the answer to the question is to make use of introspection.

  • Nikolas Schaffer says:

    Traditionally, “staring at strangers” is regarded as discourteous, because it can make the individual feel they’re being singled out for attention by someone they don’t know, for unknown reasons, which understandably causes discomfort. But that’s only if the individual notices it, so I’d agree that if you want your gaze to harmlessly linger on somebody in public, make sure they’re unaware of it.

    (Intuitively, if you notice a stranger staring at you in public and you meet their gaze you expect them to turn away, but I remember when I first moved to the Tasmanian countryside, some of the local people in small towns would simply go on staring, which was very unnerving).

  • IBikeNYC says:

    I am smitten!

    Thank you for a good laugh.

  • Rex says:

    I find it rather scary that anyone would think to write such an article. It’s conclustions in this case were reasonable, but in this day and age of political correctness and with so many people eager to take offence, it seems not beyond imagination that actual limiting rules might come to be put in place.

  • Charles says:

    I wonder if the right[s] question is being asked. That is, if we take harm (inclusive of fear, which is all too legitimate today) to be a valid concern, among others, it’s not clear how we can easily get to the “don’t get caught/one step behind” principle without claiming also that one has the right to check someone else out. (Not to count the dubiousness of “don’t get caught” principles in and of themselves). Yet, what right can we have if there is such potential for harming another? Especially if, as Joao notes, in those cases where we might try most not to get caught, actually being caught is plausibly correlated with even greater harm. Think “your right to swing your arm ends where my nose begins”.

    Regarding objectification, both using another as a stool and to count them are considered. Yet, there’s no apparent reason to think that checking another out is more like the second than the first. Perhaps a better question to ask is whether we are using the person as a means-to-an-end while considering them as an end in themselves. Here it seems like we’re “reducing” a person to an object and not an ends in themselves. The brute fact exists that when one is checking out another person, one is rarely ever checking out a person, but a body, an object designed for one’s pleasure (or so one would like to believe).

    This sheds light on why the privacy concern is not empty either. That anyone-else could have that same view by merit of being behind the other person remains unconvincing, because it is not what one sees in a perceptual sense but how one sees in a perspectival sense. In checking someone out, one is entering a private space because of the nature of your interpretation. In checking someone out, one is performing that reduction to an object, and this is an invasion of one’s autonomy.

    Finally, it seems somewhat concerning if not outright problematic that the authorship and comments on this article appear to be strictly males and those who are privileged in this debate. It is entirely different to want to be checked out when you are in a position of privilege and (it sounds) one of consent (something rather glanced past in the article: that one does not typically ask for consent does not mean it isn’t required!), from those who are not in such a position and non-consenting.

    • Rex says:

      It is concerning that you with your politically correct nonsense troops in. Like all such types you make assumptions that are inately unfair. Yes i am male, but I don’t have any privilege that gives me any edge over any female. The rest of your post is just your own fantasies of imposing your power over others.

      • Charles says:

        Hi Rex. I’ll leave aside the conversation on privilege, as I doubt it would get very far. Needless to say, the data’s around to support systematic gender equality, and it’s there that privilege arises. I’m not affirming that what I say is necessarily correct, and I’m sorry to put it otherwise.

        What I want to point to, rather, is that a need for any discourse on “is it ethical to check people out” probably arises most from the fact that women feel objectified (or worse) for being checked out (see, for example, the videos linked to in the original post), and yet, here we have little or no female representation. My hope, then, is to consider the other side of things and another perspective which has not yet been represented (and I can only imagine why). It may be that I am completely wrong, and that females and other observed parties do not in any way feel as such. Yet, from the narratives I’ve heard, this is unlikely to be the case. I’ll grant readily that I’m not entitled to speak for those people, but I do feel the need to try and share some concerns that could be had about this mono-perspective.

        Final point: I don’t take concern for the perspectives of underrepresented people, or the drawing attention to that matter, as a politically correct move. If anything, being politically correct is often superficial, and I would agree that a lot of it is “nonsense”.

        • Rex says:

          Hi Charles. Thank-You for your calm reasoned reply. Can’t say I can find much if anything to disagree with you on.

    • Dave Frame says:

      (1) Imagine A is checking B out, and our control is person C, who is also there. B says something. If Charles is right and A really is just “checking out […] a body, an object designed for one’s pleasure” then A ought to be utterly incurious as to what B says. This is not generally the case, from what limited data I have on people checking each other out. A will pay particular attention to B (even – gasp – the content of what B has to say). If A is objectifying anyone it’s probably C, since it is C who is being treated like a walk-on in A’s internal movie. In other words – most objectification (if this is treated as treating people other than an end in themselves) occurs through a lack of curiosity in others, rather than a surplus.

      (2) I agree with Charles that privacy matters. But that privacy is A’s, as well as B’s and C’s. Our own private thoughts are not the stuff of public consideration, examination or regulation. (Or they should not be, if privacy is to mean anything.) A, B or C may each be thinking “hot!” or “eww!” or “hurry up with my goddamn coffee you cretinous hipster.” Or whatever. It is no business of mine, or yours. So I don’t think you need a right to check people out – I think you just need the existing right to think for yourself.

      (3) Assuming people are allowed to think (and evaluate) for themselves, then you’re really arguing about the behavioural manifestation of checking people out. That being so, I have a helpful suggestion. If you really want to formalise this stuff, I think you should reconsider the obvious Pigouvian tax idea, but make it two stage. This is really about externalities. B is providing A with a positive externality. Since it’s free, A wants to consume as much as possible. But B (say) resents this free-riding and objects to A’s awkward gawping. But the awkward gawping is just another externality. So B should be able to charge for that. So what it suggests to me is that B should be remunerated twice: once for providing the initial pulchritudinous externality, and then potentially again for having to put up with A’s drooling stare. The size of the first payment depends on B’s attractiveness to A; the size on the second on A’s repulsiveness to B. If the prices properly reflect the externality, A and B are both content with the transaction and the problem has disappeared in a puff of Coasian magic. (Your mistake, team, is in concentrating on silly things like human rights instead of tangible things like property rights.)

  • SJS says:

    So, basically, there is no reasonable justification for worrying about “checking someone out”, but we should have a rule *anyway*?

    What kind of broken ethics is this?

    Let’s consider the interest of the people who object to “checking out”.


    For a reasonable and prudent person, privacy takes work.

    Want to bathe in private? Most people do so at home, in a room dedicated for the purpose, with a door to close and possibly lock, and occasionally, behind some further barrier.

    Want to keep non-electronic communication private? We enclose the communication in an opaque container, and deliver it via a courier who promises to exercise reasonable care to keep any from looking inside the container, with specific well-defined exceptions, enforced by the legal apparatus of society. We further seal the container, and perhaps even add mechanisms to detect tampering.

    Want to keep electronic communication private? An encryption scheme must be agreed upon, and the proper keys exchanged, and the private (portion) kept hidden. Authentication protocols might be used at multiple levels to control access to the secrets.


    Except when it comes to those who argue that “checking out” someone in public is somehow an invasion of privacy.

    There, all the work is done by everyone else.

    I may draw attention to myself in any manner I choose, and it is the duty of others to deduce that I have an expectation of privacy that all I meet should be sure to respect.

    This would be an undue exercise of unequal power on my part over everyone else.


    The argument is based upon the action of observation making someone “annoyed, uncomfortable, and afraid”.

    These three things are not themselves “harm”.

    Let us suppose they were, and consider a situation where I am walking down a street, and someone very attractive to me walks by, and I am expected to not unduly observe them. This is due to fear (“If I appear to ‘check them out’, I will do harm, and perhaps be vilified by some secret recording, shamed on the Internet, and perhaps arrested as a sex offender!”), which results in my becoming uncomfortable, trying to navigate walking stiffly, not looking at anyone, especially not the very attractive person. I am then annoyed at the sort of society that expects such behavior.

    (Yes, it’s a very silly example.)

    So the solution is to not let oneself be observed by the target of one’s admiration?

    Dumb and dumber. As a third party, I am uncomfortable and annoyed at people being surreptitious in their observations of others. It strikes me as them being up to no good. I become afraid for the target of the clandestine observation.

    All actions lead to the same result. That’s not a solution, that’s just pushing the problem around.

    So, a less silly argument. (Or more silly, depending on your viewpoint, I guess.)

    Let me tell you about my car. I chose the make and model at my leisure, so it was the prettiest car I could afford. I chose the color to complement the lines of the vehicle. I wash it on sunny days, so that it looks exceedingly pretty. People looking at my car is kind of the point (second to the amusement that driving</em the car brings me). Having my car admired brings me pleasure.

    Suppose I took the car to an "unsavory part of town", and the admiration of my car made me annoyed, uncomfortable, and afraid that I would be car-jacked. The only difference of the reactions is who is doing the observation, and my opinion of them. The problem isn’t the car, the problem isn’t the observers — the problem is me.


    If you meet someone who objects to being checked out, the ethical thing to do is to get them to a therapist.

  • kayos says:

    I must start by addressing Charles’ statements about privilege and women not being a part of this discussion.
    1. It would be lovely to have women in this discussion as it would be lovely to have more women, men, everyone in all discussions for a plurality of opinions. There is however no reasonable basis for nullifying any conclusions reached herein due to the lack of female contributors when there is clearly no effort to thwart female contributions and there simply aren’t any women contributing.
    2. Your assumption, which falls right into this wave of left wing activism which insists on knowing who has a right to say or do what about everything, that women are automatically the ‘victims’ of being checked out is completely unfounded and frankly belittles women and negates their sexual agency, ability to enjoy being checked out as well as ability to simply be nonchalant about being checked out by people they are not attracted to. You are a man speaking for women and purporting to know what they are or are not harmed by and painting them all with one brush as a faceless mass without nuance and differences in perspective.
    3. As a black man, I am sick and tired of the left hiding behind ‘privilege’ to speak on behalf of black people or women or gay people etc. A white person can make a salient point about ‘black’ issues and it is completely irrational to discount an idea simply because of the race of the contributor. Silencing or disregarding white voices in a discussion about an allegedly black issue is not doing black people a favor. Similarly, to discount contributions on a ‘womens’ issue because of the gender of the contributor is sexist and belittles women who are smart enough to appreciate reasoned discourse and speak intelligently for themselves if they have any issues to raise.

    As for the ethical questions pertaining checking someone out, I’m astonished that there is even a discussion to be had.

    I believe the issue of harm has been addressed effectively by previous contributors. May I posit that there may in fact be a harm done by everyone not checking each other out. After all the species relies on sexual reproduction and what greater harm is there than subverting the natural mating process by barring any display of initial sexual interest by all people? How western middle class liberals have come to so hate sex, especially sex that may lead to production (heterosexual sex) as to pathologise even thinking about it and to seek to enforce a prudish idea or morality without any logical basis or consideration for a plurality of ideals is beyond me.

    The notion that viewing a woman through a sexual lens objectifies and limits her is ludicrous. Objectification as liberals like to call it is what has kept humanity going for millenia. Initial sexual interest is what leads to conversation, getting to know each other, sex, marriage, everything. You signal sexual interest in her, she signals sexual interest in you and you get to know each other with romance in mind. Or in most cases, one signals interest in the other, the interest isn’t mutual, everyone moves on and meets other people, no harm done. The idea that it is somehow degrading to find a woman attractive is not only farcical but sees male sexuality as evil and female sexuality as nonexistent. Women put a lot of effort into being seem as beautiful and sexy, and were we to outlaw looking at them tomorrow, they would not thank us for it. The idea that a woman is so fragile as to need to be protected from a look does them a great disservice.

    Objectification whilst a term loved by followers of male gaze theory and thrown around lately even when the woman is consciously seeking objectification (because she is too dumb to really know what she wants right?) is a deeply flawed idea. We are sexually attracted to people, not random non human objects. Even fetishes for everything from shoes to feet, used underwear and all manner of inanimate objects are built around the fetish object being humanized through contact with, being a partial object of or semblance to a human and must be ascribed human traits and feelings to properly function as a sexual surrogate. We are never so into people as when we desire them sexually, their bodies appeal as parts of a human whole that we seek union with, that we interact with sexually. Even rape and abuse function through humanization, the torment one dishes out would be pointless unless there were a real suffering, feeling human at the receiving end of it. The closest one can come to objectification is necrophilia and even that fails to truly objectify as the corpse is a fetish object whose inanimate state allows it to be humanized in the abuser’s mind to his/her fantastic ideal without imposing it’s alternative humanity and distorting the fantasy human the abuser has in mind. So arguments of harm through objectification are unfounded as to objectify someone whilst being in any way sexual with them, even in fantasy is impossible.

  • Peter Wicks says:

    I think our discomfort with “checking people out” has two sources: post-religious guilt regarding sexual desire generally, and a sense that one may be guilty of harassment. Perhaps also a sense that one is being unfaithful to a partner, and/or unconscious fear of a jealous reaction.

    I’m sure there’s more going on besides, but these seem to be some of the fundamental drivers, and I’m writing this in part because in addition to trying to clarify whether we have a good reason to worry it can be helpful to consider why we are worried about it in the first place, especially if we are coming to the conclusion that we don’t need to.

    In any case, there seems to be something of a consensus here: as long as you don’t overdo it (to the extent that you are clearly making people needlessly uncomfortable), there is absolutely nothing wrong with “checking people out”.

    A related point, which I have thought about in the past, is that once we get outside stone age-sized communities we inevitably objectify each other. There’s just no way you can have an interpersonal relationship with everyone you come across. Just try to imagine how that would work in a city. So there cannot be anything wrong per se with “objectifying” someone you pass on the street. The point at which you are clearly making someone uncomfortable is the point at which you have to stop objectifying them and treat them as a person.

    • Peter Wicks says:

      NB I’m probably using the term “objectify” in a different sense to kayos here. When people use words like “objectify” and “dehumanise” I don’t think they literally mean you are forgetting the person is a human being, only that you are not really dealing with then at an interpersonal level, i.e, recognising and taking due account of their subjective perspective, as distinct from your own.

  • Molly says:

    I think that, although it may not be completely morally unthinkable to check someone out as they walk by, it’s still a perpetuation of the feeling of objectification and discomfort that many people (specifically women) feel in public. For a large part, women are already in a constant state of some sort of anxiety or discomfort in public places because we’re aware that we are constantly being looked at and judged on our appearance. We have our guards up, and we’re far more likely to notice than I think is explored in the original post.

    Furthermore, the problem with finding “acceptable ways” to check someone out is that it creates too much of a grey area where people already have the tendency to behave inappropriately. Even if the object of your attention remains unaware of your eyes on them, other people are likely to see you doing this, and this will give anyone who already feels largely justified in objectifying passing women on the street a feeling of validation and something like permission to continue and possibly even worsen their behaviour, and they will likely not be aware of the “one step rule.” If occurrences of checking people out on the street happened in a vacuum, then it might be justifiable.

    • Dave Frame says:

      I find this approach a bit hard to fit into a coherent framework of people happily mating. A matrix helps. There are true positives and true negatives, and two errors: false positives and false negatives.

      I take it there is no objection to true positives and true negatives: I’m working here on the assumption that you’re not boiling with rage that sometimes people meet each other, find each other sexually attractive and get together (perhaps happily ever after). Assuming you find that acceptable, some checking out has gone on, but that’s ok, because it was mutual. True negatives are obviously ok – she vaguely reminds him of former England footballer Peter Beardsley; she thinks he looks like a haddock. No checking out has gone on, so you’re cool with that. False negatives get a pass, because less checking out is better.

      So it seems to me that your objection is basically to a particular form of inaccuracy: false positives. He (say) sends a sexual signal; she still thinks he looks like a haddock, so feels repelled by what she perceives to be something like a category error on his behalf.

      If I were a romantic and a consequentialist at the same time, I might object to this – it may be the case that false positives are irritating, but less disastrous than false negatives. In one case someone you’ll forget in five minutes looked at you funny. In the other, your failure to check out the check-out-able person deprives you of (one of a moderate number of) your (potential) life partner(s). That seems pretty costly. It may be the case that we make too many false positives and too few false negatives, such that the net costs of a million false positives outweigh half a dozen false negatives – suggesting we need to recalibrate. And undoubtedly some individuals need to recalibrate. (But I’m not sure that the need for many individuals to recalibrate suggests that there’s a structural problem, any more than the fact that lots of cars’ wheels need rebalancing suggest there is something badly wrong with vehicle design/assembly/regulation.)

      But in any case, while I fully take the point that false positives have costs, it seems to me that it’s simply unfair to ask that the opposite sex (or same sex) are perfectly accurate and symmetric in their sexual signalling/interest. Surely the problem is actually with people’s behaviour subsequent to the initial signal – repeat offenders or bad Bayesian updaters or whatever you want to call them – not with people who send any sort of inaccurate initial signal. To err is human, and all that.

      • Peter Wicks says:

        Just to add a further perspective on this, I find Molly’s comment helpful not least because it provides an indication – even if obviously anecdotal – about the very real problem of women feeling harassed simply because there are too many people staring and judging them. And if there really are a lot of cars going around with (significantly) unbalanced wheels, then that suggests that there IS a structural problem , if not with design/assembly/regulation then at least with owner habits and awareness-raising. And given that the chances of meeting one’s life partner by walking past them on the street seem to be very low, indeed the likelihood of a false positive seems to vastly outweigh the likelihood that a false negative can be prevented by “sending a signal”. Even if the attraction turns out to be mutual, the chances of it being acted on would seem to be minimal in that case.

        Also, if the potential for finding a partner is supposed to be the justification, then presumably it’s completely out of bounds for someone already in a (monogamous) relationship. The utility I am more afraid of losing is (i) the simple pleasure I get from letting my gaze linger, and (ii) the freedom not to worry much about what my gaze does happen to do (within reason of course). For me, this is essentially what needs to be balanced with the concerns expressed by Molly, and part of the point of my reply to her was that it is, necessarily, a balance. Just declaring it “unacceptable” doesn’t work.

  • Peter Wicks says:

    I see your point, and it’s certainly helpful to get a woman’s point of view on the issue, but I’m still wondering how much effort I should be making to avoid allowing my gaze to linger. Much of this goes on subconsciously, so if I really want to be serious about it I would need to be making a conscious effort whenever temptation arises.

    To put this another way, I think the “grey area” is in any case there, inevitably, so declaring it “unacceptable” doesn’t really solve the problem. In any case it’s not going to stop happening just because we declare it “unacceptable” on an ethics blog. Nor will it stop us judging each other (and especially women) on our appearance.

    In any case, you’ve convinced me that one’s sense that one may be guilty of harassment is not entirely unfounded, even if one is being relatively discreet…

    • Peter Wicks says:

      By the way this was meant as a reply to Molly; for some reason it didn’t indent properly.

  • Owen Hansen says:

    I can agree to what the Author is saying because there is a lot of issues and conversations about if checking out people is wrong. I believe that if someone is being checked out that means they are appealing to the eye and are in public and therefore know what they look like and can’t blame those that look. if you are buying clothes for being out in public you know by buying them people will see you in them and will look. But i also think there is a line that could be crossed, like starring for an unnecessary amount of time could be seen as creepy.

  • Halle Uhde says:

    There is some very valid points in this post. The aspect that resonated with me most was the idea of objectification because it’s something that saturates our media-induced culture — especially with women. Often in our society, we have a tendency to merely think of a person as a material being without considering inward qualities. So by “reducing” a person to simply an object, we are stripping that person of worth and dignity. It is unfair to evaluate someone with a small glance just as it is to “judge a book by it’s cover.”

    Although I consider it to be quite normal to be attracted to another human being (it’s embedded in our nature), it is also important not to misinterpret a person according to the external appearance, because by focusing solely on appearances, we become prone to minimizing one’s value. This is particularly true with distorted portrayals women in the media. Both the media and the beauty industry promote so many misleading messages and images that it’s hard to distinguish between reality and fabrication. It’s in the world of appearances that we tend to dismiss self-worth and body image by reducing women and girls to nothing more that sexual objects — a product of objectification.

    I do believe that there is no real harm done in casually assessing a person who possesses beautiful features, but we must be careful not to cross a line of privacy and be respectful of others’ value. It’s important to not fall into the pit of objectification because in doing so, we remove the opportunity to explore individual and internal traits more significant than any attribute of outer appearance.

  • Halle Uhde says:

    There are some very valid points in this post. The aspect that resonated with me most was the idea of objectification because it’s something that saturates our media-induced culture — especially with women. Often in our society, we have a tendency to merely think of a person as a material being without considering inward qualities. So by “reducing” a person to simply an object, we are stripping that person of worth and dignity. It is unfair to evaluate someone with a small glance just as it is to “judge a book by its cover.”

    Although I consider it to be quite normal to be attracted to another human being (it’s embedded in our nature), it is also important not to misinterpret a person according to the external appearance, because by focusing solely on appearances, we become prone to minimizing one’s value. This is particularly true with distorted portrayals women in the media. Both the media and the beauty industry promote so many misleading messages and images that it’s hard to distinguish between reality and fabrication. It’s in the world of appearances that we tend to dismiss self-worth and body image by reducing women and girls to nothing more that sexual objects — a product of objectification.

    I do believe that there is no real harm done in casually assessing a person who possesses beautiful features, but we must be careful not to cross a line of privacy and be respectful of others’ value. It’s important to not fall into the pit of objectification because in doing so, we remove the opportunity to explore individual and internal traits more significant than any attribute of outer appearance.


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