Use Somebody

by Jason Stotts

In dealing with sexual issues, I frequently hear the objection that X is wrong because it involves “using somebody.”  This argument is so painfully silly that it vexes me every time I hear it trotted out as the coup de grace that X is immoral.  So, let’s analyze this little Kantian silliness.

When someone uses the term “use somebody,” the objection that they are making is that somehow a person is going to compel or force another person to do what they want.  The problem is that these things, force and coercion, are already recognized as immoral and, further, the situations where the “use argument” is applied is never situations of force or coercion.  The implication of the use argument, then, is that the other person, the one to be “used,” is somehow a non-agent; that they lack volition and cannot make choices for themselves. This is a valid criticism of an actual non-agent like a child, the mentally retarded, or psychologically ill people; it is, however, not a valid criticisms of an adult with their reason intact.

The actual reason that the use argument exists is that some people already believe that certain actions are immoral, disgusting, or just plain unnatural, and thus that someone could not desire them and therefore would never freely choose them. Thus, if a person is engaged in that action, then they must not have freely chosen it.  The problem, though, is that this argumentative path begs the question: it presupposes that X is immoral in order to prove that X is immoral.  If we remove the presumption that X is immoral, then there’s no problem that a person could choose it and therefore there would be no concern that any person choosing would be forced.

The thing that galls me the most is the presumption of the person who would use this kind of argument. They assume that since they would never choose X, that no person could desire or choose X: that since they would never choose X, any person who does is not a full person (they lack agency).  It’s really an instance of the most vile kind of subjectivism.

It’s silly to say that one person is “using” another when the two people are freely choosing to engage in an action and they both understand what the action is and desire that it happen.  Adults with their faculties intact can only be “used” by another through force or coercion, in cases where these are absent, the no one is being “used.”  I want to point out that this argument applies mutatis mutandis to “self-use;” the idea that since no one could choose X, anyone who does is being “used” by their emotions or desires, as though these were not part of the person and under his control.

So, in the future, banish this sloppy idea from your thinking!  In all things, and sex especially, as long as there is free consent from all involved, then all (non-harmful) things go.

2 Responses to “Use Somebody”

  1. Hairnet

    I am sorry, but I think you have misinterpreted what people mean by the phrase “use people” (or equivalent). It doesn’t just imply force . It also implies dishonesty.

    In reality I make use of people all the time, and no one screams “You used me!” when they had a good time with me (sex, conversation, other trade).

    People do say those sorts of things when the supposed victim was promised something, expected something he or she did not get, or had some sort of expectation created by implication. They feel as though they were cheated. And out of that feeling comes that phrase.

    It is the same thing as being called “Manipulative”, “Exploitative”, or any other equivalent phrase, which means literally, to use.

    No one thinks that I “manipulate” my friends by talking to them, and enjoying their company. If taken literally, I do, I use everyone who I interact with, because interaction is use.

    They only say and think those things when there is perceived fraud, or disappointment of some kind.

  2. JasonStotts


    I completely agree with you that defrauding a person is a way to “use them,” since you are obtaining something from them without their consent and to which they would expressly object if they knew your real purpose. The only thing is, that in the case I’m talking about is different and, further, everyone already recognizes that fraud is immoral.

    For example, Kant talks about sex and sexual partners in terms of using each other and has serious moral reservations about it. He’s not talking about a couple who is deceiving each other, but a couple who is freely enjoying each others bodies. Not only that, but Kant thinks you are not free to consent to this kind of “using” as it would “diminish your rational agency.” The problem is that Kant cannot understand what it would be like to freely choose and consent to mutual pleasure, since he is really nothing more than a “couched christian,” to borrow a phrase from Nietzsche, and takes to christian dualism with gusto as well as its hatred of the body and bodily pleasures.

    So, I completely agree that you are correct that fraud is a way to use somebody and that it is wrong, but I don’t think it’s applicable to the case at hand.