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Horban Award 2023 Interview: Parmida Saemiyan

July 04, 2023

The Department of Philosophy at Simon Fraser University would like to congratulate Parmida Saemiyan, who has been awarded the Peter Horban Philosophy Essay Award for her paper "Self-Improvement Necessitates Self-Objectification". The annual departmental award is made to recognize excellence in a philosophical essay written by an undergraduate student. Winning essays demonstrate academic and research excellence at the undergraduate level with particular emphasis placed upon originality and promise of ability in research.

First, congratulations on winning the Horban Award! Can you provide a brief overview of the argument at the heart of your paper "Self-Improvement Necessitates Self-Objectification"?

Thank you! To boil it down, in this paper I argue that in the process of deciding whether to pursue an act of self-improvement, the agent necessarily objectifies herself. Put another way, I argue we cannot engage in self-improvement without objectifying our bodies in the process. This may seem to be an intuitive and perhaps even common view, but what sets my argument apart is my claim that it is the decision-making process, and not the decision itself, that requires objectification. 

I support this claim by first defining the concept “self-improvement” as an umbrella term and categorizing the several acts that fall under it (ranging from dying one’s hair to injectables and so on). I then present several short scenarios (as philosophers often do) and show that in each case of deciding whether to pursue or resist an act towards self-improvement, the agents necessarily objectify themselves. More specifically, I first use Nussbaum’s account of objectification to argue that in each case, the agents perceive themselves and their bodies as things made up of parts that can be improvedand that this is evident in that the language used (by using terms such as “improvement,” “fix,” “touch up,” etc.) is different from that which we normally use for bodies. I then go on to argue that this seems to be a precondition that enables us to think of and begin to improve ourselves, for if we don’t think of our bodies as things made up of smaller parts that can be made better, then we cannot make sense of improving them.

I then move on from the semantics to argue that there is a second, stronger way in which each agent’s decision-making process constitutes self-objectification, and this has to do with what I call “concerns for social impressions and implications.” These include any and all types of considerations that relate to some external social element- be it one’s social standing, class, range of opportunities, power, etc. I argue that these concerns for social impressions and implications are always present, and secondly that they necessarily include an element of self-objectification, because taking these concerns into account requires the agent to first and foremost perceive and treat her body instrumentally- as a tool that can be used for some purpose. Put another way, I see this as a precondition or prerequisite that enables the agent to take concerns for social impressions and implications into account. For, if she does not engage in self-objectification in this way, then she cannot make sense of concerns about how the bodily change in question will affect her social standing. To put it simply, if she does not recognize her body as the tool, then she cannot make sense of what that tool can do. And neither can she make sense of how to improve the tool and make it better, so that she may get better results. So, for the agent to make sense of how her body representation affects her social standing, and further to consider different bodily changes and how they will improve or worsen her social standing, she must first and foremost understand and perceive her body as the instrument that (1) affects her position in society and (2) can be changed to improve or worsen her position in society. 

Lastly, I bring the paper to an end by making a second claim, namely that in cases of self-improvement, since we are unable to not engage in self-objectification, we are not morally required to do so, and so we should not be penalized for it. My claim here is an extension of the popular philosophical one “ought implies can.” To support it, I briefly discuss the stigma and prejudice targeting those who take self-improvement seriously and argue that these social penalties are unwarranted.

What first drew you to Philosophy? And when did you first get the feeling that it was a good fit for you?

I don’t remember the exact moment (if there was one) but I became sure that philosophy was the right path for me after my first year of undergrad. I was a business student at the time, and in all honesty, I was very miserable! I was certain that business was not the right path for me, and so I took a few classes in different subjects to see if I find anything I like better. Among the classes I took were PHIL 110 and 120 with Nic Fillion and Sam Black. It was probably after my second or third week of being enrolled that I booked an appointment with the philosophy advisor and asked to be enrolled in the philosophy program. From the heated debates we had in prof Black’s class on democracy and privacy rights to practicing the De Morgan laws and learning about predicates in prof Fillion’s class, I became absolutely obsessed with philosophy! I found myself eager to attend every class and tutorial, to study every additional reading posted, and to even show up for office hours at every chance I got. Looking back, I think I got very lucky to have found my passion so early on- although I would study it all over again if I had to!

What's something about studying Philosophy that you think would surprise someone who is unfamiliar with it?

Whenever I tell someone that I study philosophy, 9/10 times they respond with something along the lines of “what’s the point? Everything’s either already figured out or won’t ever be- you’re wasting your time” and boy does it get to me. I think this is probably one of the biggest misconceptions about philosophy- that all we do is read and talk about what people in the past have already figured out, or that we waste our time discussing unsolvable puzzles. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. From my experience, topics discussed in philosophy are both important and relevant to our current world- and they are not unsolvable! Engaging in philosophical debates, even if there is no clear cut answer, is also valuable for other reasons: it teaches you how to listen, analyze, communicate, and so much more!

What's next for you?

I have just finished my undergrad degree and needless to say, I’m very sad to be leaving the philosophy department here. Currently, I’m studying for the LSAT (procrastinating? Studying? Who’s to say?) and I’m hoping to take the test in October and apply for law school from there. I wish I could say more, but in truth I have no idea what I will be studying once accepted! My plan is to take it one step at a time, and trust that I will figure it out as I go. 

If you had to recommend one book or paper to get someone interested in Philosophy, what would it be?

I’m a firm believer that you really need to find what area of philosophy you’re interested in the most and start there. For me, it has always been logic and ethics. I can’t really recommend a book or paper on logic, because I think the real fun is in practicing deductions and applying the rules! But for ethics, I really enjoyed reading Thomas Nagel’s paper on moral luck in my second year- it’s one of the few papers I go back and reread every once in a while.