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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