Martha Nussbaum’s “Taking Money for Bodily Services” (Part One)

Inspired by Philosophical Disquisitions, I’ve decided to look at some articles that interest me.  This procedure would help me get a clearer view of the philosopher’s arguments, and this would help me make my ideas clearer.  With that in mind, I’m starting with Martha Nussbaum’s article “‘Whether from Reason or Prejudice’: Taking Money for Bodily Services.”  Because this is such a lengthy article, I’ve divided this article into three separate posts.

Nussbaum argues for the legalization of prostitution.  Her focus isn’t so much on the moral matters, but more on the legality.  Her arguments rests on six analogies where they all have something in common: these professions take money for the use of their body.  Because these professions are not considered legally (and perhaps morally) problematic, we should not consider prostitution legally (and perhaps morally) problematic as well.  Thus, the argument is structured simply as this:

Argument from Analogy:
1.  Profession X is not legally problematic.
2.  There are many similarities with profession x and prostitution.
3.  Therefore, prostitution should not be legally problematic.

Like any analogy, it works if the similarities are more frequent than the dissimilarities.  Notice also that Nussbaum is looking at prostitution from a legal realm, not a moral one.

The quote in the title of the article is meant to give us a clue as to Nussbaum’s strategy.  “Whether from reason or prejudice” is taken from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.  Smith talks about how some talents are beautiful as long as they are without pay.  These professions include opera singers, actors, and dancers.  If they do receive some benefit (such as being paid), “whether from reason or prejudice, [then these professions are seen] as a sort of publick prostitution.”  Nussbaum picks up on this and considers shows how opera singers, actors, and dancers are not seen as being stigmatized as they were in Smith’s time.  Prostitution, however, still carries a stigma.  In both cases, they are both using their body to receive pay.  The emotions and judgements about opera singers, actors, and dancers underlying the stigmatization was irrational.  With prostitution, however, there is a heavy judgement and emotional disgust toward this profession.  Nussbaum then asks the question: are our beliefs about prostitution a result of reason or prejudice?  Nussbaum will argue that it is the latter.  This is because by using her six analogies of professions where one is being paid for the use of the body, our beliefs regarding prostitution are irrational in the same way that people in Smith’s time were being irrational about singers.  In both cases, these professions have been stigmatized.  Here’s Nussbaum’s argument:

  1. Opera singers, actors, and dancers were considered “as a sort of publick prostitution” (meaning they were stigmatized) because they are paid for the use of their body.
  2. This stigma toward opera singers, actors, and dancers is based on irrational and emotional judgments that are biased.
  3. Prostitution is stigmatized because they are paid for the use of their body.
  4. Therefore, by analogy, the stigma toward prostitution is based on irrational and emotional judgements that are biased.

How did this stigma come about?  Let’s start with opera singers.  They have had a bad stigma since the ancient times.  This is because of two cultural beliefs:

Aristocratic prejudice: any work is base.  Labor is still seen as class privilege in Europe and America today.  One should not earn wages.  Earning wages is preoccupying oneself with baser things in life.  Thus, one who earns wages is base him/herself.  Even today, those with an aristocratic background frown upon working too hard at menial labor instead of gaining scholarly or athletic pursuits.

So one can be an opera singer as long as one does not get paid to do so.  But the only people that can afford to do that are those that are already wealthy.  Who are they?  The aristocratic class.

Bodily prejudice: “it is shameful to display one’s body to strangers in public, especially in the expression of passionate emotion.”

So opera singers, actors, and dancers were seen as immoral women in Smith’s time.  This irrational attitude displays a prejudice against the body.

So far, I like the setup that Nussbaum is doing.  Her approach is different in that she’s not defending prostitution by typical means.  She directly attacks the prejudice against prostitution itself.

With this in mind, let’s go straight to the analogies.

1.  The Prostitute and the Factory Worker

factory worker

Nussbaum’s strategy is interesting in this example because she focuses on the disanalogies here.  However, the disanalogies work in favor of prostitution because the prostitute has better circumstances than the factory worker.  Yet, Nussbaum argues that where the factory worker has the advantage, the way to fix this is to legalize prostitution so that the prostitute is not the target of violence and has a lower risk of health.

2.  The Prostitute and the Domestic Servant

Domestic Servant








The similarities shows that while if we accept one (domestic servitude), we ought to accept the other.  This strategy, however, seems pretty weak.  I think that Nussbaum was using this example to counter a common argument against prostitution: prostitution is wrong because it debased oneself by doing a lowly profession.  Here’s the argument:

  1. An occupation is immoral if one debases oneself in some lowly profession.
  2. Prostitution is an occupation where one debases oneself.
  3. Prostitution is a lowly profession.
  4. Therefore, prostitution is immoral.

Nussbaum uses the domestic servant to counter this argument because the domestic servant does debase oneself, and the domestic servant is seen in a lowly profession.  Yet, we wouldn’t say that domestic servitude is immoral.

I think this argument is ambiguous.  Domestic servitude may actually depend on the work.  With domestic servitude, there is the bad form where it is akin to slavery.  However, there are many kinds of domestic servants where we would now call them domestic workers.  These would be butlers, maids, babysitters, chauffeurs, pool boys, gardeners, nannies, stable boys, security guards, and wet nurses just to name a few.  But these occupations can be taken advantage of based on the structure surrounding them or whoever their client is.  Is it in general where domestic workers are taken advantage of?  It’s hard to say.  I don’t have the answer, but Nussbaum needs to make this case stronger if she wants to use domestic servants as part of her analogy.

3.  The Prostitute and the Nightclub Singer

Nightclub Singer

Again, both have many similarities, and we don’t find the nightclub singer doing any immoral activity nor do we find the agent participating in nightclub singing immoral or having a flawed character.  I think Nussbaum picked this analogy in order to drive the point home that this was considered a lowly occupation in Smith’s time, but no longer our time.  Thus, singing was considered low not based on reasons, but based on prejudice.  Likewise, prostitution could be considered low because it could be based on prejudice as well.  This analogy is going back to the original argument that I gave toward the beginning of this post.

4.  The Prostitute and the Professor of Philosophy

The first similarities might be odd, but we must keep in mind how the ancients considered education for pay as a form a prostitution.  The Sophists took money in order to teach their students and this was considered low.  Medieval thinkers had a moral problem about philosophizing for money.


With the disanalogies here, it seems that the occupation of prostitution is at a disadvantage.  So why does Nussbaum use this analogy?  I think the main point is to compare the prostitute with the professor of philosophy in Cuba.  While we don’t think there is anything wrong with the professor of philosophy in Cuba for speaking her mind, those around her do.  But the problem is that the professor’s profession is not immoral; she’s in a situation where the structure of society has made it appear as if her occupation has a stigma.  In other words, the professor of philosophy in Cuba has a stigma, but this is based on a prejudice, not reason.  Albeit this prejudice is structural and institutional rather than obvious, but she is stigmatized from false judgements and emotions.  This may have an affinity toward the prostitute.  Does the stigma against prostitution have an obvious prejudice, or is it structural?  The point is that this stigma is not some a priori truth regarding the professor of philosophy in Cuba.  The same is true with the prostitute.  The reason why she’s stigmatized is because people view her that way.  In other words, the problem with the professor in Cuba is not the professor, but the people perceiving her in a certain way.  Likewise, the problem with the prostitute isn’t the prostitute herself, but the people who view her.

5.  The Prostitute and the Masseuse






The masseuse is considered not degrading her body nor does she turn her body into a commodity by using her body to give customers pleasure.  The point is driven home from Nussbaum: “One is having sex, and the other is not.  But what sort of difference is this?  Is it a difference we we want to defend?  Are our reasons for thinking it so crucial really reasons, or vestiges of moral prejudice?”

The masseuse used to have this stigma, but now she’s gained a sense of respectability.

6.  The Prostitute and the Colonoscopy Artist


At this point, I could imagine (and I’m sure Nussbaum does too, which is why I think she includes this example) that someone could respond by saying, “but these previous professions have their internal bodily space intact.  Thus, these professions are not debased.  The prostitute, however, has sex for commercial benefit which is why she has a lowly occupation, and that is why it’s immoral.”  The argument can be formed as this:

  1. If one’s occupation is to invade one’s internal bodily space, then that occupation is immoral.
  2. Prostitution is an occupation that invades one’s internal bodily space.
  3. Therefore, prostitution is an occupation that is immoral.

As weird as it sounds, Nussbaum uses a hypothetical case of a colonoscopy artist where her skill is to tolerate the fiber-optic probe without anesthesia to make a living.  So she allows her body to be penetrated by another person’s activity in order to test these instruments for medical use.  If this sounds strange, Nussbaum adds in a footnote that medical students need models when they are learning to perform internal exams, including gynecological exams, and young actors earn a living playing such a role.

These analogies are interesting.  What’s the upshot?  Although I have framed some of the analogies within the moral realm, Nussbaum’s point is to show that since these professions are legal and don’t have a moral stigma (or not as much when the profession started), the same is true with prostitution.  The reason why the stigma started was because paying for the usage of the body was considered base.  I appreciate Nussbaum’s strategy of using other professions to show that stigma is irrational.  However, there seems to be different kinds of stigma.  For the domestic worker, the stigma is the work itself; for the masseuse, the stigma is lack of respectability; for the colonoscopy artist, the stigma is the non-aesthetic factor of exploring a colon.  Notice, however, that there is no moral stigma with these professions.  Prostitution, however, does have this moral stigma.  For Nussbaum to make her case stronger, she needs to show that a moral stigma against prostitution is unfounded.  I think to do that, however, is to show that prostitution itself has no moral problems, or at least, that the moral problems against it are unfounded.  So far, Nussbaum has not done that.  Perhaps she could reply that opera singing and the nightclub singer did have a moral stigma in Smith’s time.  Indeed, the women were considered of low character and immoral.  If this is the case, then Nussbaum’s case makes a radical shift in what prostitution ought to be seen as: not as a moral stigma, but a stigma about respectability, about the work itself, or about a non-aesthetic factor.  It’s an issue that could still be explored about these different kinds of stigmas.

In a later post, I’ll continue Nussbaum’s article and offer an account of why the stigma against prostitution (among other jobs) has become stigmatized.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
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7 Responses to Martha Nussbaum’s “Taking Money for Bodily Services” (Part One)

  1. thekillerj says:

    I don’t have much to contribute, other than a question about how one advertises to fill the job spot of “colonoscopy artist?”

  2. Pingback: Martha Nussbaum’s “Taking Money for Bodily Services” (Part Two) | Shaun Miller's Ideas

  3. Pingback: Martha Nussbaum’s “Taking Money for Bodily Services” (Part Three) | Shaun Miller's Ideas

  4. Matilda says:

    Great article, but Nussbaum argues for legalisation and not decriminalisation, arguing that legalisation would add necessary safeguards.

  5. Pingback: Who’d You Just Cite? – Silly Ol You

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