Decency, Nakedness, and the Social Contract

What is it to see a body? What mental structures are involved in seeing a physical object as the body of a person?

I think there are two, potentially opposed, aspects to this. On the one hand, the other’s body appears as the expression of the other’s will – most fundamentally, their movements are not just physical movements, to be explained by causes, but deliberate actions, to be explained by reasons and goals and beliefs.

But this isn’t specific to their body. The same happens when I see an artifact that the person made, some graffiti they painted, the bleeding face of the person they punched. In all these cases, I perceive some object, and make sense of it by bringing under the idea of a person’s deliberate action.

The other aspect of perceiving a body is different: again I encounter the physical traits, the colours and texture, the weight and consistency, but now I attribute them to a person in a very different way. These are not an action, not an expression of the person’s will: they’re simply…the person. The person, somehow, is this thing with shape and size and odour. Let’s call this the ‘brute object’ features of the body.

I’m going to suggest that at a basic level, we find something disquieting and uneasy about this, about the identity between the person – something which acts on, determines, understands, and in doing so distinguishes itself from physical objects – and a certain physical object. More precisely I’d say that it undermines our ability to conceive of ourselves as a distinct thing, which is a presupposition of whatever our self-concept is, and people are very defensive of their self-concepts.

But the detail is unimportant – let’s just suppose for the sake of argument that we are made uneasy when we dwell too long on the body as a brute-object. Certainly, when we set aside the possibility of being sexually attracted to someone, seeing their naked body is usually unsettling – let alone seeing the inside of that body (either in orifices or by injury), or the substances it produces. Or observe that our word ‘body’, when used on its own, suggests the dead body.

What might we do to deal with this unease? We can’t ever quite banish it, but we can make it less salient – allow others, and ourselves, to ignore it, by emphasising the other aspect of the body, the expression of will. We can do this by ensuring that the sensible properties of our bodies – their colours, shapes, sizes, patterns, etc. – are themselves things we’ve chosen.

The biggest way that we do this, obviously, is by wearing clothes. When someone sees my body in a suit, they don’t see flesh so much as they see my choice (and ability) to wear a suit, which indicates a great deal of psychology. The shape and gait of my body is still visible, of course, but it recedes into the background. The same goes for other things – styling and brushing the hair, painting the nails, shaving off other bits of hair, and most of all keeping clean. It also has negative elements – I might decide to only let people see me doing certain things and not others, which I only perform in private.

Let’s call this ‘self-presentation’. Observe briefly a couple of points – firstly, the more of your body is ‘presented’ in this designed way, the more any other parts, even if not themselves at all altered, come to also express a choice, namely the choice to leave them unaltered. Secondly, this allows for the paradoxical decision to present one’s body deliberately as an object – for instance, to wear clothing, which draws exposes and draws attention to particular body parts. This phenomenon is complex, and important, but deserves its own treatment so I’ll leave it aside here.

But there’s still a problem. We want our bodies to reflect a choice – but you can’t choose without choosing something. It doesn’t really matter what you choose, on the face of it, since the point is just to choose something. But if we’re equally likely to choose anything, then we’re very unlikely to choose any given one of the millions of possible self-presentations. And that means (by Bayes’ Theorem) that someone seeing the choice we have made has very little evidence that it reflects a choice.

That is, it’s hard to distinguish an accident, a brute fact, from a very very odd and inexplicable choice. This doesn’t necessarily mean people will fail to see that we’re people – but it means they may not see that swiftly, easily, and certainly enough for our brute objecthood to fade into the background.

So what we need is expectations – for people to believe in advance that, were we to choose a self-presentation, we would choose this one. Then, when we choose that one, people will instantly recognise it. And hey – this is what we’ve done! This is what ‘public decency’ is: standards of what clothes (etc.) you wear to appear ‘normal’, i.e. as a normal person, as well as what clothes (etc.) you wear to give some more specific message.

But how is this to be acheived? Other people must have certain expectations – but how to give them those expectations? Most obviously, by dressing and self-presenting in the relevant way. But people will only do that if others have the relevant expectations. That is, these standards of decency rest on reciprocal conditional expectations. But that’s the same structure as is found in contracts: I will do X if you do Y, but you’ll only do Y if I do X, which I’ll only do if you do Y, etc.

Decency isn’t just a contract – it’s a social contract, in the sense of one that underlies society. At least, that’s the case if we are, as I postulated above, fundamentally unnerved and even disgusted by people’s bodies and the conceptual difficulty they pose.

Does this mean that any philosophical treatment of ‘the social contract’, whether as a hypothetical construct or especially as a historical, sociological, or psychological reality, should give ‘decency’ direct attention as a central component of this legendary covenant?

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3 Responses to Decency, Nakedness, and the Social Contract

  1. Nakul says:

    There’s also some evolutionary background to the desire to ‘cover up’, particular the genitals, isn’t there… All about implied aggression and angling for mates. Clothes are in part about drawing attention away from the sexual+aggressive aspects of human nature. (Cf. The Naked Ape)

    • lukeroelofs says:

      Sure, but why should we wish to conceal the sexual aspects of human nature? I mean, we don’t typically want to conceal babies, but they’re just as related to reproduction as anything is – that’s just to point out that the concept of ‘the sexual’, and the significance it has, isn’t all that simple.

      We often want to de-emphasise aggression – but why does that have anything to do with concealing our skin or organs, or with bein clean and ‘presentable’? I’m inclined to see that as a separate issue – more related to things like eye contact, personal space, restrictions of bodily contact, etc.

  2. Pingback: Against the Social Contract | Majestic Equality

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