On Spontaneity and Hugging

Russell Blackford has flagged up an objection (here & here), which undoubtedly has force, against my hugging argument. Here’s my version of the objection.

Spontaneity, when employed kindly, is a good. If we overregulate social behaviour, then – by definition – this will lead to less spontaneity (and it will also have the effect of infantilizing people). The sort of cautionary principle I talk about is a form of self-overregulation, since its likely effect, if universalized, will be to undermine spontaneity, and, in a sense, pathologize forms of behaviour – such as hugging – that are themselves a good.

Okay, so let’s break down the argument to see if it flies (and I should say that I’m looking at my version of the argument here, not Russell’s, which might be a lot stronger, etc).

1. Is spontaneity, when employed kindly, a good? At first thought that seems an entirely plausible claim. But actually it disguises a lot of complexity. So, for example, maybe the claim is a counterfactual claim – a world with lots of spontaneity is better than a world with only a little spontaneity. Thing is, even if that’s true, it doesn’t show that spontaneity is good in and of itself, it merely shows that more often than not people get their spontaneous acts about right (and remember that it’s possible to employ spontaneity for kind reasons and get it wrong).

2. So is spontaneity good in and of itself? It’s quite hard to know what to make of this idea. Obviously there are large issues to do with how we want to define spontaneity (which I’m not going to get into). But I think I’d want to argue that it doesn’t make much sense to think about the value of spontaneity without focussing largely on outcomes. I don’t think it’s particularly counterintuitive to suppose that if a spontaneous act has a clearly bad outcome, then regardless of whether we think spontaneity if meritorious in and of itself, we’d judge the act as being unfortunate (albeit whether we thought the agent was culpable might depend on a lot of other factors).

3. If spontaneity is not good in and of itself (or not good enough), then the charge against overregulation must be that overall it reduces good outcomes. So, for example, in the case of my hugging argument, the charge would be that my self-overregulation leads to less good stuff (affection, warmth, intimacy) and perhaps more bad stuff (social wariness, nervousness, infantilization, etc). For that charge to be effective, then (1) it has to be empirically warranted; and (2) it has to trump other, at least partly non-consequentialist, moral concerns (particularly to do with the “rights” of individuals).

4. Is it empirically warranted – in other words, is it true that my cautionary principle if applied across the board would result in less good stuff and more bad stuff? Okay, so to recap, my cautionary principle, broadly speaking, holds that:

It is morally problematic to engage in physical contact that has a mild sexual dimension, and one should avoid in engaging in it, unless you have good reason to suppose that you have informed consent, which includes an awareness that the act has a sexual dimension (so de facto consent isn’t enough).

The first point to note is that in this context informed consent does not mean “no touching other people without asking first”, which is a ludicrous rule. It doesn’t mean this because informed consent can be implied. So the example I gave in my original posting was a couple who had been engaging in flirtatious behaviour, etc: in such a circumstance it is reasonable to suppose that de facto consent, which might merely be implied consent (e.g., through body language, etc), is informed consent vis-a-vis the sexual element of the physical contact.

It is also the case that informed consent can be implied by a couple’s shared history. Russell gives an example of a “treasured ex-girlfriend” at the end of his comment here.

And, of course, if physical contact is non-sexual – which might be the case in the sort of ritualistic setting Jean Kazez describes (though it might not be) – then there is (usually) no issue of informed consent over and above de facto consent. Moreover, this will generally be the case if a person is wired up in such a way that the the world is only minimally sexualized (because presumably they’re not going to experience a sexual frisson in the context of ostensibly non-sexual physical contact).

5. This all means that the set of physical acts where my cautionary principle might result in less good stuff and more bad stuff is far from being exhaustive of the set of all physical acts, which clearly lessens the force of the objection (but doesn’t by any means extinguish it).

6. Okay,let’s concede, for the sake of argument, the point that my sort of cautionary principle will result in less good stuff of a certain sort (affection, warmth, etc) and more bad stuff of a different sort (social wariness, infantilization, etc). Is that the end of the empirical argument? It isn’t, because if one is looking at consequences, one has to factor in that by no means everybody is comfortable with spontaneity, physical contact, familiarity, etc. This might be regrettable – in my view it is regrettable – but it isn’t trivial.

For these people, the knowledge that a cautionary principle is in play, together with its purported knock-on effect in terms of a decline of spontaneity, certain kinds of affection, etc., might be a relief. It might make them more likely to put themselves in potentially rewarding situations where they would otherwise fear – perhaps without justification (whether the fear is justified or not isn’t relevant from a strict consequentialist point of view) – they might be subject to unwanted physical contact (and don’t forget people can find it very difficult to say “No” – I find it difficult to say “No”.) For a certain subset of people, then, what would be the overregulation of social behaviour for most people, would be just the right amount of regulation.

This is not to claim that there is a balance here, but it is to claim it is necessary to weigh up the consequences of a decline of spontaneity, warmth, certain kinds of affection, etc, in both directions.

7. But let’s bite the bullet, and assume the consequentialist calculus comes out against my cautionary principle. Is this decisive?

Well, no it’s not, and it’s not decisive for one of the reasons that consequentialist arguments in general tend to run into trouble (and remember, we’re treating this as a consequentialist argument – see point 2). It isn’t clear that the “greater good” justifies potentially infringing on the “rights” of particular individuals. (I should say that I don’t like talk of “rights”, I can’t really make sense of it, but again for the sake of argument we’ll just go with it.)

In particular, it is at least arguable that people have rights against unwanted physical contact, regardless of what that means in consequentialist terms. So, for example, none of us are going to think that it’s okay to beat up on a person just in the case that it turns out that some large number of other people find it entertaining. (And yes, of course, there are layers and layers of complication here to do with the difference between act and rule utilitarianism, for example, and a lot of other things.) Likely, many of us won’t think this is justified even if the person being beaten up consents to their beating.

At the very least, then, there’s a tension between a concern with average outcomes and a concern with individual rights (and indeed there may be a tension between different sorts of individual rights).

In terms of my cautionary principle, then, there are two central issues (if we bite the bullet, and accept the consequentialist calculus comes out against the principle).

1. How careful do we need to be that we don’t infringe on people’s right not to be subject to unwanted physical contact (where the argument is that in the case of hugging de facto consent does not equate to informed consent)?

2. How do we resolve the tension between an interest in maximizing the good things in life (on average) and protecting individual “rights”?

I’ll leave those two questions for another time – or other people – because this has gotten too long and I’ve run out of steam. But just some very quick closing remarks. This issue is complex, and I’m largely making this stuff up as I go along (and yes, I’m sure that’s obvious). So it’s important to remember the position I’m arguing against here is my version of Russell’s objection. No doubt Russell’s take on his own position would be very, or at least somewhat, different, and I’m sure much better for it.

Leave a comment ?


  1. Actually as a child, I hated being hugged. I felt attacked.

    Now, old and ugly, no one is much interested in hugging me except people whom I care about, but adults do or at least did descend upon children with a rapacity for embracing their bodies which was very distasteful to me as a child at least.

    After that childhood experience, I doubt that I have ever initiated a hug in my life or ever will.

    The above is probably irrelevant to the discussion, but in fact, it’s a pretext for subscribing by email to what promises to be an interesting conversation.

  2. I should think there are other options besides saying spontaneity is intrinsically good and saying it’s good in virtue of good consequences. Those options sounds exhaustive, but there’s a third possibility–that some activities are themselves better when done spontaneously.

    Take for example being affectionate with a child. One person has a book on the subject and follows various affection recipes carefully, giving just the number and type of hugs and kisses shown to be best for children. Ugh. The affection here seems to lose some of its value by being performed in such a premeditated way.

    Spontaneity is a bit like the salt on your food–it’s not good in itself, but makes other things good. That’s a strong possibility.


    Suppose you get a sexual charge from being packed together with other people at a rock concert. Does the venue owner need to create more space between people to prevent these non-consensual turn-ons? Surely not. It strikes me as very different when someone actively pursues titillation, like by deliberately pressing up against people. I think 99% of women would find that creepy, but not find it creepy that someone is accidentally turned on in crowded venues.

    When you hug someone, you typically have a goal other than sexual pleasure. Your goal is just to show the person your affection. Since that’s your goal, it seems to me you’re like the person at the rock concert who’s just accidentally aroused, not like someone who’s pressing up against people.

    By having a policy of not hugging people you’re attracted to, you’re certainly avoiding the bad scenario, where you’re deliberately seeking sexual pleasure without consent, but you’re going further–you’re like someone who doesn’t go to rock concerts to avoid all that non-consensual crowding that happens to be a turn on. You’re being super-cautious, and doing more than you must.

    Of course, if someone thinks they won’t be able to resist pressing up against people at rock concerts, then they shouldn’t go. Etc. etc. etc. Sames goes for the hugging case.

    Alright, that’s about all the ethics of hugging I can stand for one day.

  3. @Amos – I think your point is relevant, because it counts against the proposition that hugs are necessarily a good (and actually I know (of) a lot of people for whom that is not the case).

    @Jean – Thanks. Interesting stuff. I’ll respond properly tomorrow, because like you, I’m pretty much done with the ethics of hugging for the day! 🙂

  4. Jeremy:

    Actually, as I sent the comment off, I realized that there is a whole sociology or political science of hugs.

    For example, power hierarchies count. My boss can initiate a hug with me, but I cannot initiate a hug with him (or her) nor can I reject a hug from him or her, without losing points in my quest for success in the company.

    Prince Charles (or Obama) can hug me and I can hug them back, but if I try to hug either of them spontaneously, I am apt to be rather roughly treated by some big and muscular fellows.

    A nurse (or doctor) can hug a sick patient, but the patient can only response to a hug from a nurse or doctor, never initiate one.

    Saints may hug beggars, but I’ve never seen anyone else hug one.

    Good looks count. All things being equal, most people prefer to hug someone who is good looking rather than someone who is ugly.

    The more you look at them, the more that you realize that hugs are no more and no less innocent than any other human relationship in contemporary society.

  5. Jeremy, Understandable, and you don’t owe me a response even tomorrow!

  6. Good looks count, but, hmm, I do exchange quite a lot of hugs, when you add them up, with blokes – e.g. with my nephews and with various friends and colleagues.

    Now I suppose I might be less likely to do that with someone who physically repelled me for some reason, but really, the blokes I’m thinking of are not giving me any sexual pleasure when hugs are exchanged. So I don’t think that’s much of a factor. In fact, I’m about as close as it’s possible to be completely straight in sexual orientation, so no hug with another bloke is going to be more than an expression of affection, or solidarity, or whatever, from my end.

    If we’re only speaking of hugs between people who are of the “right” sexes and sexual orientations for a serious possibility of sexual pleasure to be involved, fine. But we shouldn’t forget these other cases.

    The more I think about it, the more the huge diversity of cases I can think of where hugs can be given, sometimes very spontaneously. I’ll think about this some more, but I still think that the vast majority of cases are either asexual or cases where it’s clear to everyone that there’s that sexual undertone which Jean mentioned on the other thread.

  7. Very quickly, because it’s bedtime. I don’t often come across the situation either, except in two quite specific social milieu.

    The first is the London literary scene. I’m not part of it, obviously, but occasionally I float around the periphery, and it can be very tactile. The second is a group of people I know (of) via somebody I used to teach – affluent, Chelsea/Kensington based, early 30s – again very tactile (lots of hugging and kissing).

    Also, I have no problem hugging guys. In fact, just this evening I gave some fella a half-hug after we completed a particularly nasty set of running drills.

  8. “Is spontaneity, when employed kindly, an [intrinsic] good?”

    It might help to rephrase the question so that its implications become more obvious. Suppose that, for an end to be good, that end must provide a reason for action. Suppose, also, that in order for something to be intrinsically good, it must necessarily provide a reason for action. “Kind spontaneousness” does not necessarily provide a reason for action, in those prudential contexts where extreme care is required.

    Therefore, it is quite unlikely that spontaneous kindness is intrinsically good.

    Also, if something is good without being intrinsically good, then that means it is only good in some contexts. For example, cultivating “kind spontaneousness” in your interactions might be appropriate in the context where participants have mutual trust, and possess a realistic orientation towards reasoning about the stuff they do together. And if that were true, then it would just be a needlessly dull way of saying “Oh, just try to feel people out — what you expect from people and expect from yourself — and use your best judgment.”

    Alternately, you can just order people to give you hugs. This is what I do.

  9. Okay, interesting. I’m largely thinking of the Australian science fiction community (and something similar applies in the broader SF community internationally), which is very touchy-feely, but I’m also thinking of a certain old crowd from a long time ago at university (some of these people are still in my life), which was/is likewise. Again, not that many ambiguous situations with these, but it’s at least good to think about the sorts of environments where your worries might arise.

  10. Ben, I doubt that anything is intrinsically good. There are just things that we value for themselves, things that we value instrumentally, things we disvalue, etc. I do value acts of spontaneous kindness – but also, some of those acts, with whatever further beneficial effects (feelings of being appreciated, etc.), would not take place if spontaneity were removed.

    But yes, how we act is going to depend on milieu, which involves the general ways, expectations, etc., of those around us (which is again ambiguous between, for example, the group immediately around us, which will probably include friends, and the slightly larger group, such as our work colleagues, our fellow attendees at a party, our fellow delegates at a convention, etc.). Even apart from deep metaethical issues, I doubt that there’s going to be a really convincing rule about any of this.

    I do, however, have a tentative view about Jeremy’s situation which I’ll probably try on you all tomorrow.

  11. It was Lenin of the Soviet Union who said that the state should struggle against spontaneity.

  12. Oops, I never did say anything “tomorrow” – now yesterday.

    Oh well. Anyway, part of the trouble is that I don’t actually believe in things like moral rights. Officially, I’m an error theorist or an amoralist, or something, so I don’t believe in full-blooded moral claims of any kind, insofar as they claim to be objectively binding on us all.

    What I do think is that there are good and bad , and reasonable and unreasonable, ways to behave, and that judgments about this can themselves be reasonable, non-arbitrary, etc. But the judgments (and meta-judgments about them) need to be supported by appeals to shared values, wants, goals, etc., in much the same way as we support judgments about, say, whether a car is a good one or bad one.

    This means that I’m unlikely to come up with a knock-down argument in support of a rule that I think everyone should follow. I’m more likely to give some indications of what I think is reasonable all round, in the process revealing something of what values, etc., I base it on, as well as something of my sense of the empirical facts.

    Sooo, it looks to me as if there are many situations in which someone offers to hug me – and it’s unproblematic because I just plain will not experience anything sexual. In a much smaller class of cases, the history between me and the person concerned is such that of course everyone knows that there’s something sexual about hugging (though it might be fairly slight in some of these cases).

    But forget about me. Then there are cases where a relative stranger might offer to hug Jeremy, and where she is sufficiently attractive to him that he’s likely to get some kind of sexual arousal and/or sexual pleasure from the experience.

    I wouldn’t analyse this in terms of a right not to have physical contact without informed consent. I’d be looking at risks, possible benefits, and what is a reasonable way to allocate the risks if we’re all going to get along, if we’re all to have the benefits of hugging, etc. It looks to me as if a woman making this offer to Jeremy – especially if she is the sort of worldly, intelligent, sophisticated woman he is likely to meet in literary circles in London – can be assumed, prima facie, to know the risk that a man whom she offers to hug could experience some level of sexual arousal and/or pleasure from the hug. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect Jeremy to give some sort of warning of that each time he is made a hug-offer by such a woman. Add to that the fact that giving the warning will spoil the spontaneity of the moment, and possibly ruin the moment, with its benefits, for both people.

    Now, if Jeremy is unusually prone to be sexually aroused by hugs compared to the typical range of men who present as he does (e.g. men of a similar apparent age), things might be different. There is a special risk here that the consequences of the hug for Jeremy’s emotions might be beyond the range of what she could reasonably be expected to anticipate and assume as a risk. In that circumstance, perhaps Jeremy should give the warning.

    Likewise if Jeremy has reason to believe that this particular woman is unusually naive. If he has reason to think that, he can’t take advantage of it (i.e., in my view it would be bad or unreasonable for him to do so).

    As a sidenote, I’m assuming that offers of hugs between the sexes had best come from women, not men. But that’s for a different reason. It’s mainly just that men tend to be much stronger than women, and hence there is an asymmetry. What might be absolutely unthreatening to a strong man in (something like) his prime, if it comes from almost any woman, might be quite menacing to the woman if it comes from the man.

    Simply for that reason, I’m rather reluctant to offer hugs to women whom I don’t know very well unless the circumstances are unusual – e.g. she clearly needs it and that factor outweighs any possible sense of threat.

    On the subject of the great diversity of circumstances, here’s an example where I spontaneously hugged (in a non-sexual way!) someone whom I would never have normally hugged. I was in charge of an office where one of my relatively senior (and valued) subordinates did something well-intentioned but foolish – she tried to play a joke on me that should have been harmless from her perspective, but it actually ended up having quite embarrassing consequences for me and the organisation for reasons that she hadn’t anticipated.

    I suppose I might have been angry with her, but once it came out in the discussion what had happened, I immediately intuited how absolutely dreadful she must have been feeling, and I hugged her without thinking about it. She seemed grateful that that was my response, and I’m still sure that on that particular occasion I did a good thing. But this was exceptional.

    Then again, there are always going to be odd exceptions. I can think of others – one quite recently as a matter of fact. Laying down anti-hugging policies at conventions is silly, partly for that reason.

  13. I suspect we’re both consequentialists of some kind — that, perhaps, is our common ground. But apart from that, there are many points on which we don’t agree, ranging from abstract meta-ethics to practical ethics. But the disagreement involves a peculiar feeling of deja vu. Many of the places you are at, are roads which I have considered walking down, but have long since turned my back on.

    Amoralism, for instance, seemed most plausible as a doctrine back when I was excited by J.L. Mackie and Richard Garner. But it only seemed attractive so long as our only options were the ones given by early 20th century analytic philosophers. If we assume some penny-pinching philosophy of language, where all sentences are either ‘cognitive’ (expressing propositions) or ‘noncognitive’ (expressing desires), then sure, it will look as though moral statements are just expressions of feeling. But the dichotomy is false, because sincere promises give expression to propositions with truth-conditions (namely, the conditions under which the act has been said to be intended to be performed), and they are capable of generating an urge towards action (else, they’d not be sincere promises). Hume’s fork has been replaced with Searle’s, uh, trident.

    Also, I’m perfectly fine with codes of conduct. Especially in hostile environments! But not just in hostile environments — in my view, there ought not be any unwritten rules, period, except those rules which are only compatible with human dignity when left unsaid. (As your workplace example above might have been.)

  14. Just as a point of fact, amoralism, etc., are currently having a great resurgence – mainly (IMHO) because Mackie and Garner were never satisfatorily answered (and definitely not by Searle, but maybe we’ve discussed this before…), and more and more people seem to be noticing this.

    The new book in defence of amoralism from Joel Marks should be especially interesting (though very expensive, unfortunately).

  15. @Jean – Sorry, I had seen your argument – it seems it slipped my mind (real life got in the way).

    Okay, so your rock concert scenario. Yeah, it’s the principle of double effect, in essence, I think.

    I’ve always thought that extremely dubious, but… in general, I’d offer a couple of responses here.

    1. A rights based response. Like Russell, I’m not keen on the language of “rights”, but it’s useful in this context, so what the hell. I think I have a prima facie right to attend a public event. In the situation you describe, given my tendency to become aroused by bouncing up & down against people, this conflicts with people’s right to enjoy a public space without being subject to non-consensual physical contact that has a (mild) sexual element. (It’s a conflict, because there’s no way I can go to the concert without this occurring – given the situation you describe). So two points: (a) it’s not strictly analogous to the hugging situation (I don’t have a prima facie right to hug); and (b) it isn’t clear which right has the greater force here.

    This leads to my second response:

    2. As I said in my very first comment on my first post, I don’t think people are required to be moral heroes. Cutting yourself off from the stuff of everyday life because you happen to have a hair-trigger sexual response – assuming you’re not actively seeking to satisfy your urges, etc – isn’t required. Things is, I can’t offer any real justification for this intuition, but I don’t think generally we require people to be morally heroic.

    However, I am prepared to bite a bullet here. In the situation you describe, you should seek out space (if there is any). Also you should endeavor to ensure that your arousal isn’t concentrated on any particular person. If it is, then you should perhaps leave the scene. (In other words, in the situation you describe, it would not be okay to stay in a situation where you’re bouncing up & down against one person, and getting off on it. If there were literally no other option, then you should extricate yourself.)

    There’s a lot more that could be said here – about personal space, etc (in a rock concert, people tend to be more comfortable about having their personal space invaded, tend to be chilled, etc., which alters the moral calculus in terms of my cautionary principle) – but… well, let’s see whether you have any sympathy with what I’ve said so far!

  16. This is primarily in response to the original hugging post, but as a young, attractive, woman, I have two things to say:

    1. I am perfectly capable of judging who will or will not have sexual thoughts about me as a result of a hug, and I’m capable of choosing, for myself, how to react to that.
    a. Men, it turns out, are not the only people who have sexual thoughts as a result of hugs. I have sexual thoughts about people while hugging them, sometimes, too, and I don’t feel the need to warn them. Which leads me to my next point:

    2. Women are just as sexual as men. Sit in on any gender class, or talk to… a woman. Sexuality shouldn’t be taboo and not talked about, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be announced in order to “protect” women’s right to choose what kind of hug they walk into. This whole thing makes me think that, really, you skipped over the stuff that really matters, namely:

    3. Masturbation. People masturbate. To images, thoughts, and feelings inspired by other people. Is this also a broach of their “informed consent”? Have you ever masturbated while thinking about someone who wouldn’t have sex with you in reality? Is that not a more egregious broach of their autonomy by the standard you’re setting of a purely mental step over a person’s sexual boundaries? A hug is a hug, if a woman is comfortable with a hug, then I don’t see a problem there. Letting a woman hug you isn’t the same thing as raping her. Most people don’t care what you do to their bodies, so long as it stays in your head, and out of their actual, physical comfort zone. If you have an awkward hugging->boner problem, this point might be moot, but in that case, so’s your entire opinion on the hugging issue.

    4. To wrap up, here’s a thought, did you ever think that maybe NOT hugging women and making a big deal out of the sexual thoughts hugs with attractive women evoke (sidenote: do you hug unattractive women? Isn’t it awkward at parties to hug only the women who no longer want to hug you because you’ve insulted them by announcing that you find them utter undesirable and therefore suitable for hugging?)Anyway, isn’t it awkward to announce this to the world? Wouldn’t it be better to accept the gift of that level of closeness with someone you find desirable? By denying the hug, you cross a boundary that’s deeper than the hug itself would be. I would rather you masturbate to the feeling of my curves against your body every night for a month than deny a hug and cite the intense, uncontrollable sexual feelings a hug would incite as the reason against it. It says “I don’t believe you’re capable of evaluating this situation for what it is, and I would rather have no closeness with you at all than accept a hug from you as a fellow human being who has sexual urges and understands that these are a normal, human experience, that doesn’t need to be over-evaluated. I don’t respect you as a fellow sexual and intellectually and socially capable human being, and I am unable to control my objectification of your body for the few seconds it would take to hug you.”

  17. @Cassie – That’s 4 things! 🙂

    Your points in turn:

    1. The trouble with this claim – and in your case it might well be true – is that it clearly isn’t universally true, because there’s been no general agreement here about whether or not there are such things as non-sexual hugs. The fact there is disagreement shows that at least one group of people must be making a wrong judgement (and, of course, there’s the possibility that people of both groups are wrong on particular occasions).

    2. I don’t think there’s good evidence to the effect that “women are just as sexual as men” (on average), though of course it’s entirely right that any particular woman might be just as interested in sex as any particular man.

    3. The masturbation thing is interesting (in its own right), but not directly analogous. The point is that we don’t tend to think that we have “rights” against unwanted thoughts, whereas we do tend to think we have “rights” against unwanted physical contact.

    But having said that there are a number of interesting issues about masturbation/fantasy, etc. So, for example, a philosopher inclined towards virtue ethics might well argue that if a person consistently had a violent rape fantasy about some other particular person then that would be morally problematic (because it said something about character) even if they didn’t act upon it. I’m not saying that’s right, but it’s not a no-brainer.

    4. Thing is, it doesn’t say – “I don’t believe you’re capable of evaluating the situation as it is…”. It says – “I know that some people aren’t able to evaluate the situation as it is – at least on some occasions – and I’m not sure whether that’s true of you, because I don’t know you very well, therefore I’m erring on the side of caution.”

    And obviously I don’t recommend announcing one’s hugging policy in advance. It is very easy to avoid being hugged (if you’re a guy). As I said before, body language is key. I give off strong don’t come near me signals.

  18. Jeremy, I don’t think I have to sign on for the whole doctrine of double effect, which has many dubious applications, to attach some importance to the distinction between foreseeing and intending. I’m not saying that for any X, if it’s wrong to intend X, it’s OK to merely foresee X. Nothing that strong. But there does seem to be a difference between intending and foreseeing…

    I foresee that going to a certain funeral will help my business. That’s different from going just to advance my business. I don’t think I should go at all, if I’d merely be going for that reason.

    I foresee that asking a clever question at a colloquium will impress my colleagues. That’s different from asking the question entirely for purposes of impressing my colleagues.

    Ditto–going to rock concerts and getting on subways, foreseeing pleasurable contact, vs doing these things just for the contact.

    I suppose in all these cases, the intuition is that you’re “using people as a means” if you do X just to get the benefit (business advancement, impressing colleagues, sexual pleasure). “Using as a means” and violating rights are much the same thing, I think, in this context. No using as a means at all is involved if you merely foresee receiving the benefit–accidentally, so to speak.

    If I were an easily aroused hugger, I think I could defend myself by saying it was accidental, and I wasn’t using anyone, along these lines.

  19. Hi Jean

    Sure, there is a distinction.

    But I still don’t think your counterargument works (or, at least, I don’t think it’s clear that it works).

    I’m happy to commit to some version of the proposition that a person has rights against unwanted physical contact just in the case that it is *foreseen* and avoidable (where its being avoidable doesn’t infringe upon other rights that most people would take most individuals to possess). So that rules out hugging in the situation I describe, but doesn’t rule out going to the rock concert (since it seems that I at least have a prima facie right to attend a public event, etc), albeit it does rule out certain kinds of behavior at the concert.

  20. I think it would be very hard to make a case that there’s a stronger prima facie right to go to crowded rock concerts than to hug people in the sort of social situations where everyone hugs–family occasions, parties, funerals, etc. It’s often far more awkward to be a non-hugger than to pass up on rock concerts.

    Plus, I don’t think you’ve established that there’s any rights violation at all, in a situation where I am not intentionally using X for sexual pleasure, but only accidentally getting sexual pleasure from X.

    Another example: I once knew an internist who said he got aroused from doing pelvic exams on women. As long as this was accidental, not intentional, I don’t think he was “using” these women, and they also weren’t harmed; so I don’t think there was any rights violation. He didn’t have a duty to send these patients to an ob-gyn.

    There is no using when someone hugs for innocent reasons and accidentally winds up feeling sexual pleasure. AND no one is harmed. So … it seems similar to the internist case.

    No doubt we’ve exhausted this subject … or very nearly so.

  21. Hi Jean

    I think we just have different intuitions here. I find your internist story… worrying. Sure, they weren’t harmed, but how many would have chosen not to be examined by the internist if they knew that he was going to become aroused?

    I’d have thought a good many of them. Moreover, I’d argue that he would know that this would likely be the case…

    Of course, I could just be wrong here – maybe I’m misjudging how women would feel in this situation (if they knew) – but that doesn’t alter the basic point:

    I think there is a “rights” violation if you can foresee that the sexual thrill you’re going to get from some physical contact would mean that the contact would likely be unwanted and the contact is avoidable (where its avoidability doesn’t infringe upon other rights that most people would take most individuals to possess).

    However, I think you’re right that we’ve probably exhausted the subject. I suspect we’re just at the level of different brute intuitions here. The trouble with talk of “rights” is that I don’t actually think there are such things. It’s a convenient shorthand for something else – also probably a bit mysterious. So I certain don’t claim to be able to *establish* that there are rights violations in my scenario. Merely that given how we tend to think about these things it’s not inappropriate to talk in these kinds of terms, etc.

  22. It would be interesting to hear what a bunch of internists and women would say about that story. I wonder if he was unusual, and if women would be shocked or would care. So I’ll leave it at that: hmmm.

  23. Yes, it would be interesting to hear whether it was common, and what women would think about it if it were, etc.

    I nursed for a year in the 1990s, and what I found is that bodies, plus bodily waste, etc., very rapidly became, I suppose, mere objects (the people inhabiting bodies didn’t, often far from it), and the idea of being aroused while, I don’t know, helping with a bed bath or something just would have seemed bizarre. But, of course, I would have been dealing with a different subset of the population than the internist.

    Similar sort of thing was in play in the running community I used to be part of. A friend of mine once related an interesting story. He’d completed a 30 mile off road race. He was showering in communal showers – at a boys school, which was being used as the race headquarters – when two women walked into the shower room, having also completed the 30 mile run. They all looked at each other, and sorta just shrugged, and the women showered next to him. After 30 miles, sex, and usual male/female stuff, wasn’t part of the story.

  24. No hugs please, we’re atheists | Talking Philosophy - pingback on July 11, 2012 at 3:18 am

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