February 21, 2009

The Problem of Sex in Kant's Ethics

According to Kant, "Sexual union (commercium sexuale) is the reciprocal use that one human being makes of the sexual organs and capacities of another." (The Metaphysics of Morals, tr. Mary Gregor, p. 61) A thing that is used is generally used for something, and, indeed, in this section Kant mentions two purposes for which "the sexual organs and capacities of another" are used in "sexual union" (he does not say that these are exhaustive): "begetting and bringing up children" is said to be "an end of nature, for which it implanted the inclinations of the sexes for each other," but it is not necessarily a human end in sexuality. Rather, the human end is most commonly pleasure or enjoyment.

In either case, this leads to a problem for Kant. As is well known, Kantian ethics is based on the categorical imperative, which comes in three supposedly equivalent forms. The form of the categorical imperative generally used in The Metaphysics of Morals is the formula of humanity: "So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means" (Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, tr. Mary Gregor, p. 38). Kant defines sexual union in such a way that, on the face of it, it seems to necessarily violate the formula of humanity. This impression is strengthened by Kant's statement that "acquiring a member of a human being is at the same time acquiring the whole person, since a person is an absolute unity" (Metaphysics of Morals, p. 62). So one cannot say that in sexual union merely the body (or merely the sexual organ) of the other is used as a mere means.

Incidentally, most commentators today find Kant's views on these sorts of subjects absurd, simply because they are so much more conservative than the views of our culture. (As you might expect, although I don't necessarily endorse everything Kant says on the subject, I do not, in general share the perspective of these commentators.) Here, however, I want to note that Kant has said something that I think many westerners today, even those who think of themselves as moral liberals, agree with: namely, that to use a person for sexual enjoyment without consideration of and care for the whole person (i.e. his or her personality, emotional needs, intellect, etc.) is inconsistent with that person's human dignity.

How, then, is permissible sexuality possible? According to the formula of humanity, there are two ways an action toward a human person (the self or another) can be permissible: (1) if the person is not used as a means to any end, or (2) if the person is treated as an end in him/herself in addition to being a means to another end. It seems unlikely that Kant thinks (1) is satisfied in permissible sexuality, firstly because Kant defines sex as a form of 'use', and secondly because Kant says that nature intends sex toward the end of reproduction. So, if there is to be permissible sexuality it must be because the individuals treat each other as ends in themselves in addition to using one another as means. Kant specifies the condition on which this can be done: "if a man and a woman want to enjoy each other's sexual attributes they must necessarily marry" (loc. cit.).

Kant argues for this claim in a passage that I am still trying to make sense of. Since I don't feel ready to explain it, I will end this post by quoting it at length:

For the natural use that one sex makes of the other's sexual organs is enjoyment, for which one gives itself up to the other. In this act a human being makes himself into a thing, which conflicts with the right of humanity in his own person. There is only one condition under which this is possible: that while one person is acquired by the other as if it were a thing, the one who is acquired acquires the other in turn; for in this way each reclaims itself and restores its personality. But acquiring a member of a human being is at the same time acquiring the whole person, since a person is an absolute unity. Hence it is not only admissible for the sexes to surrender and to accept each other for enjoyment under the condition of marriage, but it is possible for them to do so only under this condition. That this right against a person is also akin to a right to a thing rests on the fact that if one of the partners in a marriage has left or given itself into someone else's possession, the other partner is justified, always and without question, in bringing its partner back under its control, just as it is justified in retrieving a thing. (loc. cit)
Posted by Kenny at February 21, 2009 7:34 PM
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Korsgaard has an interesting bit on this in her Locke Lectures, which unfortunately she no longer has up on her site (because they are coming out in book form this year; if you managed to download the .pdf earlier, it's on p. 10 of Lecture 6). Her reading might be helpful. First, she quotes from the Lectures on Ethics, which is a bit less cryptic than the Metaphysics of Morals. In any case, this is her take:

The problem is that (1) sex involves not the use of another's work or services, but their whole person (for reasons you've already mentioned in your post); (2) this involves not merely enjoyment or aesthetic appreciation, but desire; (3) so sexual desire is a desire to possess a whole person.

But it is impossible to possess a person without violating the formula of humanity unless that person also possesses you. In that case, even though you are possessed, you get yourself back as your own possession by also possessing the person who possesses you.

That was probably more convoluted than it needed to be. Anyway, it gets Kant's account to make sense, assuming that only legal right can allow for possession and that marriage is thus the only way to have a right against a person that is "also akin to a right against a thing," i.e., property right.

Posted by: Roman at February 23, 2009 7:03 AM

Roman - yes, this is roughly how I think it goes. I don't think your explanation is any more convoluted than it needed to be - compare it to Kant's explanation!

I am interested in how we are to distinguish using another person sexually from, say, using that person to build a wall. In both cases it seems that if I adopt that person's happiness (and my own) as an end (i.e. I take care that our transaction or interaction is to the benefit of both), then I am consistent with the formula of humanity. If Kant wants to get his conservative sexual ethics out of the formula of humanity, he has to make the kind of move you are talking about: the claim that it necessarily involves possessing the whole person, rather than just benefiting from that person's body. I'll have to see if I can find the relevant section of the Lectures on Ethics. Do you know if Korsgaard has published any papers on this?

Posted by: Kenny at February 23, 2009 10:15 AM

The difference is somehow supposed to be--as I'm sure you've gathered--between desiring the products of another person's labor, and desiring the other person him/herself. In the first case, you do not aim to possess the person, but only something they produce. So what's the difference if I can do both consistently with having the other person's ends as my own ends? The builder case is simple: the person makes building a wall for profit his aim, and I make possessing the wall my aim. In the second case, however, I desire to possess the other person. The other person desires to possess me. It follows that we both desire to be possessed. But allowing oneself to be possessed is just as inconsistent with the FH as possessing another (since you violate humanity in yourself).

Perhaps the key difference is that in the first case you benefit from the product of the person's choice (+body), whereas in the second you benefit from the person's body alone?

Do I buy this argument? No, definitely not. So I doubt I can really try to interpret it any more charitably. CK's reading at least gets it to the point where it looks like an argument, though, whereas the sketch in MM really looks like a bold assertion (there are a lot of those there; like, when Kant tells us that the law of retribution is grounded in an a priori law).

Korsgaard hasn't published on this, to my knowledge, except the short passage in the Self-Constitution book (which is not quite out yet). It's really only a page or so. I could e-mail it to you, but you don't seem to have your address anywhere on your blog...

Posted by: Anonymous at February 23, 2009 12:34 PM

Yes, please do email it to me - kenny@kennypearce.net. I'm still not sure we can make the difference between the two cases work, because the cases of selling organs (MM 177) and masturbation (MM 178-179) show that Kant thinks I may not use my body as a means to either financial profit or pleasure without offending my dignity. Why, then, can one uses one's own or another's body as a means to financial profit in the case of ordinary employment?

Posted by: Kenny at February 23, 2009 12:52 PM

I can make it my end to create a painting or to build a wall: that is something I do with my body, but there is nothing problematic in it. Virtually EVERYTHING I do, including the things I might need to do in order to fulfill the requirements of the Categorical Imperative, is done with my body.

Consider the difference between these maxims:

1. "I will give myself pleasure by eating chocolate when the urge strikes me."
2. "I will give myself pleasure by stimulating my genitals when the urge strikes me."

In the first case, my end is my pleasure, and my means involves (directly) using chocolate and (indirectly) using my body to obtain and chew chocolate. In the second, my end is also my pleasure, but my means directly involve using my body.

You are getting at the following: what is the difference between maxims like "I will build walls in order to earn money" and "I will use my body to build walls to earn money." The difference is in what you are doing: Are you building walls for money? Or are you using your body (to build walls) for money? If your goal is to describe an impersonal event, then both are equally accurate. But if your goal is to figure out which of these is the agent's maxim, they are different.

So there is a very natural and (one would think) normal maxim that allows you to build walls, but it is not clear that there is an equally natural maxim that would allow you to masturbate or have extra-marital sex. (I am coming up with this all on the spot, though.)

By the way, what are the numbers you give for NN? They're not paragraph numbers, and they are not Akademie edition page numbers.

Posted by: Roman at February 23, 2009 2:03 PM

Roman - thanks. The reminder to think in terms of maxims is helpful here (as in all of Kant). The differing maxims may be where Kant thinks the moral difference comes in.

The page numbers are from the Gregor translation, as in the main text above. The corresponding Akademie pages are 422-423 and 424-426, respectively (sects. 6-7 of the Doctrine of Virtue).

Posted by: Kenny at February 23, 2009 9:06 PM

There's not a lot of useful or even moderately sympathetic commentary out there on Kant's views on sex, but I recall finding Barbara Herman's paper on the topic (early 1990's -- don't recall the venue) a rich treatment.

Posted by: MC at March 3, 2009 4:14 PM

Since most forms of physical gratification make use of the person's body to achieve an end, whether it be orgasmic pleasure or simple satisfaction of common human urges like hunger or cravings, does this mean that most human acts are not considered sexually permissible?

Posted by: Blue Peaches at June 29, 2009 9:29 AM

Peaches - In a paper which I hope to revise and post soon, I argue that Kant holds that we must not ever suspend practical reason. Kant does say pretty explicitly in MM that physical enjoyment is not only permissible but good. But his view, as I read it, is that we must not ever allow physical enjoyment to exclude the ends of practical reason. In other words, for instance, I can eat food both because I enjoy it physically and because it nourishes my body allowing me to continue to pursue my projects, but I may not eat food only because I enjoy it physically. This is supposed to be the application to the self of Kant's principle that I may treat another person as both a means and an end, but may never treat another person as only a means. In the particular case of sex, Kant vacillates as to whether there are any possible ends which practical reason can assign to sex other than reproduction. He suggests at least two at various points: (1) a 'preventative' end - by having permissible sex it becomes easier to resist the temptation to have impermissible sex, and (2) the expression of marital love. (1) has theoretical problems for Kant - he doesn't generally like this sort of 'prevention.' Furthermore, permitting either of these purposes will make it difficult for him to get the applied results he wants, namely, the prohibitions on masturbation and homosexuality.

Posted by: Kenny at June 29, 2009 9:41 AM

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