Thursday, 18 March 2010

Kant, Objectification and Feminism

In a further response to the piece mentioned a couple of postings ago that denigrated Kant on the basis of some "bad arguments" he makes in a few places, not least with regard to matters sexual, it is worth pointing out how widespread the references to Kantian analysis are in feminist writing. See, for example, the article in the Stanford Encyclopedia on Feminist Perspectives on Objectification, a piece that makes clear how often views drawn from Kant's accounts of sex are implicitly and explicitly made use of in contemporary feminist philosophy. The fact that such use can be made of Kant's analysis of sex suggests that this analysis is less subject to being only seen as a cause of contemporary condemnation than might have been thought by anyone who only focused on Kant's views on masturbation and homosexuality.

In fact, the situation is even more complicated than this since it is partly elements of what might be problematic in some of Kant's points that also show how valuable his analysis is. So, the author of the Stanford article doesn't make explicit that the "Kantian" analysis in much contemporary feminist philosophy is itself partially traceable to the same line of thought as underlies Kant's negative view of masturbation. Take the following passage from the Doctrine of Virtue for example: "Lust is called unnatural if one is aroused to it not by a real object but by his imagining it, so that he himself creates one, contrapurposively" (Ak. 6: 424-5). This argument finds the problem with unnatural lust to reside in preferring an imaginary object to a real one. Compare the analyses of pornography by such writers as Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon and one will find the allure of Kant's analysis resides precisely in a point of this kind. So, whilst this point may well not persuade many now to adopt the attitude towards masturbation in particular that Kant argues for, the manner of his argument might nonetheless be part of a motivation for a case that indicates the contemporary relevance of the form of the argument. And, after all, it is the form of the argument (in relation to the comprehension of ultimate Kantian principles) that is most of interest.

Again, Kant's general problems with sexuality itself reside in areas that have clear parallels with contemporary feminist analysis of much that is taken to be problematic about heterosexual conduct. In Kant's suggestion that sexuality involves a kind of "objectification" for example, something that he views as grounded in treating the other only as a thing so that moral relations between persons cease and the other is, effectively, no longer seen as a person at all. The motivation of his argument in favour of marriage is to ensure that a protection is given by it to each person through a mutual adoption of a position: "while one person is acquired by another 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" (Ak. 6: 278). Mutual relation of possessive acquisition enables reclamation of personality by nullifying the one-sided and obsessive claim on the other's body. By means of the rules that are at work in the contract that is marriage there is a means to escape the condition of objectification, a means that requires, however, a mutual recognition in the contract itself. In some respects the idea of this undercuts other elements of Kant's account since, on the basis of the mutual recognition alone, there is no serious ground for treating women in the marriage relation differentially to men.

The suggestion that marriage as it exists embodies in an obvious sense Kant's notion as expressed in the above citation would be as foolhardy as viewing existent states as expressive in a comprehensive way of the notion of Kant's state of right. However, just as the imperfection of these states does not prevent it from being possible to see the existence of them as part of the move towards the state of right so the existence of marriages whilst not a sufficient guarantee of mutual recognition may well be a necessary ground for its emergence. And that claim, after all, might well be thought not to be one of Kant's "bad" arguments.


Timothy said...

"So, the author of the Stanford article doesn't make explicit that the Kantian analysis in much contemporary feminist philosophy is itself partially derived from Kant's negative view of masturbation."

I think (hope) you mean to say that much contemporary feminist philosophy has analysis that shares much *in common* with Kant's analysis. I think it would be odd to act as if the analysis of Dworkin and MacKinnon were derived from Kant, rather than saying they shared a similar concern.

Timothy said...

On p. 136 of your book on kant's practical philosophy, you talk about the desire for death. You also talk about the replacement of the body with partial drives. I wonder how this connects to this discussion her.

Gary Banham said...

Thanks for your comments Tim. With regard to the first you are right to correct me. Dworkin and MacKinnon don't reference Kant. What I was meaning to get at was a kind of conceptual dependence in the sense that the analysis effectively is best seen as emerging from a similar kind of concern and that the concern in question is one that is motivated in Kant through his analysis of masturbation. Subsequent feminist analysis has, however, made explicit the reference to Kant (Herman for example).

Gary Banham said...

Interesting that you raised the question of the connection between objectification and the discussion in my book of the assertion of partial drives and desire for death. In the book I was going through some motifs that link the *Critique of Teleological Judgment* with *Religion within the Limits* and suggesting what was meant in terms of "desire for death" concerned the subversion of the integrity of the organism. I didn't then think to relate this to the later discussion of masturbation in the Doctrine of Virtue though I can see now how such a link could be made. The problem with the account of masturbation concerns the way in which the teleological argument at that point is that it doesn't really address the special status of the self (see p. 210).

Timothy said...

Interesting. On page 210, you talk about changes in technology might affect Kant's analysis. You mention that procreation of the species no longer requires sexual intercourse. Kant allows for a permissive law (or perhaps a permissive principle) in cases of (and only in the case of) marriage, where sexual intercourse is allowed.

I'm a bit unclear on how this argument works. You seem to think that only Kant's condemnation of masturbation is left in place. Isn't another alternative is that the basis for the permissive law is gone, and that there is no permission for sexual union?

Gary Banham said...

Thanks for your latest Tim. The point about procreation is that it no longer requires a given type of union to bring it about so that the "teleological" argument Kant gives here is no longer apt. Given the argument concerning marriage in the Doctrine of Right was simply one about a contract right there is no reason in principle why that kind of right couldn't be extended (certainly no reason within the area of right). The "teleological" argument was the ground in ethics but since it doesn't now apply then what could be grounded in right (extension of contract) can also be allowed in virtue.

You imagine here an alternative to the effect that the sexual union is no longer required as such and that is a possible reading though it has a lot of problems, not least that the basis of the ground in right for union wasn't in terms of procreation but creation of a space in which mutuality of use could be given whilst respect maintained. So that supports my kind of argument.

Timothy said...


Just to be clear - I'm generally on board with (or see as plausible) your point about how we should look at Kant's "strange" statements.

I also find congenial teleological arguments (or rather, arguments based on the good) in favor of gay marriage, such as those mentioned by Michael Sandel, which center around the similarity of the good in heterosexual and homosexual relationships. I find this a bit more persuasive than arguments that it sex discrimination to not let someone marry the person of the same sex, a more formal argument.

Here's what I don't get with your latest:
If Kant's argument is about mutuality of use, how does a change in technology change anything, as you indicate it does?

Gary Banham said...

Hi Tim: the claim about technology concerns the way in which Kant's teleological argument (in terms of virtue) is presented which is to do with reproduction. I am suggesting that view is undermined by the ways in which reproduction is now possible, not that the argument concerning contract right is undermined.