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 him to secretly stare? My friend thought that the latter man wasn’t guilty of any wrongdoing. He just happened to find himself in that sort of situation, whereas the former man went looking for it. This explanation did not seem quite right to me, however. I can think of other cases where it seems this isn’t a relevant factor at all. Suppose, for example, that the first man didn’t climb a tree. Instead, imagine that he was hiking through a forest when he came upon a cottage unexpectedly. There he notices an open window and sees, once again, a girl disrobing. Now here it is clear that he didn’t go looking for this sort of thing, but it still seems like it would be wrong for him to stick around and watch her secretly. My friend also suggested that some of the blame should have been focused on the girl wearing the skirt; after all, she chose to wear a short skirt without underwear. This too, however, doesn’t strike me as morally relevant. Indeed, we could say the same thing about the girl in the cottage. She shouldn’t have left her window open, but this surely wouldn’t absolve the man of his moral responsibility if he chose to stick around and secretly watch her. So who is right here? Or are we both wrong? Any sort of sophisticated philosophical analysis would be much appreciated. Thanks a lot.

I wonder if the issue here is less about morality and more about privacy. A whole variety of things gives people sexual pleasure, and provided they do not harm others we might well not be critical of them, however strange they might be or even sometimes illegal. After all, just looking at someone's face might do it, or their eyes, or just their actual presence. On the other hand, in the examples you provide there is definitely the sense of someone's privacy being invaded, in that we do not ordinarily expect to be viewed in the situations described. And someone looking at us when we do not expect to be looked at often produces a sense of violation.

Here issues of privacy shade into issues of morality, since surely we are entitled to expect certain aspects of our lives to be under our control and not broadcast in public without our consent and knowledge. The primary issue here is not the pleasure that someone else takes at seeing us when we do not want or expect to be seen, but our reasonable expectation that certain aspects of our lives should remain private.

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.

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