II Kant on Sexual Desire
Before discussing Kant’s view of sexual desire, it is important to briefly address his Categorical Imperative—the Supreme Principle of Morality— because we need it to fully understand his views on sex.
To Kant, human beings are rational creatures, and rational creatures have important properties that require and prohibit certain kinds of treatment. The property of humanity, which to Kant is the capacity to set and act on goals, is crucial.19 It is so crucial that Kant made it the core concept of the Humanity Formula of the Categorical Imperative: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity in others and in yourself not only as a means but also as an end.”20 Kant argued that humanity commands our respect, so we must never treat it only as a means to further some goal, but always also as an end.21 Typically, this means that in our treatment of others we should never deceive or coerce someone else to further a goal, and that in our treatment of ourselves we should not abuse certain faculties just to attain happiness.22 When we treat the humanity in others or in ourselves only as a means, we are degrading it, which is, to Kant, a morally prohibited treatment. Positively, treating the humanity in others and in ourselves as an end means ensuring that we approach it with the proper moral attitude of respect.
Although what it means to treat the humanity in others and in us with respect is a complicated question, in general it means at least two things.21 First, it means that we should not place obstacles or undermine others’ and our goals (which we can do by treating humanity only as a means, e.g., via coercion, deception, and subversion of our physical capacities). Second, it means that every so often we should adopt (some of) others’ morally permissible goals as our own and help promote them, and every so often we should promote our own goals (e.g., develop a talent that I have). These forms of treatment exhibit the right moral attitude because it reflects our commitment to respecting the humanity—the capacity to set goals—in others and in ourselves.
Let’s now address Kant’s view of sexual desire, which captures something true about the phenomenology of sexual desire, a point to which I return when I argue against some criticisms of Kant’s views.24
Kant singles out sexual desire as the only desire that human beings have for other human beings themselves and not for their work and services: “Amongst our inclinations there is one which is directed towards other human beings. They themselves, and not their work and services, are its Objects of enjoyment.”25 Kant clarifies what he means by “humanbeings themselves” by claiming that the only other instance in which the flesh of another is desired is in the vengeance of war. 6 This explains that by “human beings themselves” Kant means their bodies. Indeed, soon after, he claims that in sexual desire we want the sex of another person:
The desire which a man has for a woman is not directed towards her because she is a human being, but because she is a woman; that she is a human being is of no concern to the man; only her sex is the object of his desires.27
Kant thinks that there is something deeply problematic about sexual desire in its targeting the body in this way, which is that it bypasses our humanity or our ends in the ways that he believes that none of our actions should. As he puts it, “because sexuality is not an inclination which one human being has for another as such, but is an inclination for the sex of another, it is a principle of the degradation of human nature.” The man and the woman, who presumably go on to enjoy each other sexually, “make of humanity an instrument for the satisfaction of their lusts and inclinations, and dishonor it by placing it on a level with animal nature.”28
The main reason, then, why Kant indicts sexual desire is that it is, “taken by itself,” nothing but an appetite for a human being as such. Because this is the nature of sexual desire, when we sexually desire others we regard them as objects, thus inhibiting “all motives of moral relationship [which] cease to function.”29 This is the fulcrum of Kant’s argument for why sexual desire is by its nature objectifying. What does Kant mean by it?
Suppose that Antonio is at the gym working out. He is warming up on the treadmill before he starts pumping iron. On the treadmill in front of him is a guy (Jared) whom Antonio finds sexually desirable. Antonio checks out his firm ass, his broad shoulders, and his thick biceps. Antonio does not think of the man’s skills in playing the violin, rock climbing, or delivering a philosophy lecture. Antonio is visually feasting on the other guy’s body. Now suppose that Antonio picks up Jared and that they have sex. During the sex, they focus on each other’s genitalia and other body parts, smelling, kissing, and touching each other. Once they are done, they say their goodbyes and they discard each other like lemons “sucked dry,” as Kant famously put it.30
From sexual desire to sexual activity, Antonio and Jared view and treat each other merely as sexual beings, to be used for sexual purposes. But this cannot be all that Kant means. For suppose that I hire a plumber. I also don’t care about any other aspect of his except for his plumbing abilities. He does not care about any other aspect of mine except for my paying abilities. Once he’s done fixing my sink I pay him and we say our goodbyes. I view him as a plumber, and he views me as a client. When we
Temperance and Sexual Objectification 159 finish, we discard each other like lemons “sucked dry.” Kant was aware of situations like these. So why does he single out sexual desire?
The answer lies in Kant’s remark that sexual desire targets people’s bodies, not their “work and services.” What he means, I think, is this: When I hire a plumber, I am interested in a particular ability of his, the ability to fix whatever plumbing problem I have. When I hire a math tutor, I am interested in her mathematical abilities. When I hire a masseuse, I am interested in her massaging abilities. In virtually every interaction we have with another person, we are interested in some ability, talent, or service that they can perform, an aspect of people intimately connected, according to Kant, to their rationality, given that we need practical or theoretical reasoning (or both) to develop, maintain, and act on any talent, skill, ability, or service. In these cases, what I desire is not the people’s bodies or body parts as such, but their abilities, talents, or services. If I do desire their body parts, it is only instrumentally, in service to their abilities. Only with sexual desire do I desire the person as such, as a body, as an object. I want to enjoy the person himself, not his beautiful voice, his company, or his massaging abilities. If I desire his abilities, it is in service to his embodiment and his physicality. Thus, sexual desire renders people objects by reversing our normal relationship to their bodies. Their bodies become the ultimate, not the mediate, objects of our attention.
To my mind, this is the most convincing way to understand what Kant intended in considering sexual desire as unique in its targeting human beings as such, while also not rendering his view about sex implausible by claiming that to him sexual desire somehow merely targets the bodies of others. In other words, this interpretation of Kant reconciles his claim that sexual desire targets human beings’ bodies with the claim that in typical cases those bodies are targeted as living, self-conscious, consenting bodies (not as corpses or by force).
Thus, if this interpretation is correct, Kant did not mean, and could not have meant, that the person who desires another’s body is indifferent as to whether the person is dead or alive; he did not mean that the desiring person would have been as happy to desire the other’s corpse. Kant also did not mean that during sexual activity one does whatever one wants with the person one desires, no matter whether the desired person agrees or not. Had Kant intended any of these meanings, his view would have been utterly implausible as it clearly flies against the obvious facts of sexual interactions, about which Kant knew.31
Instead, Kant must have meant that one desires a living human being, but as an object, as something on which one can satisfy one’s sexual urges. With sexual desire, we are not interested in the other person’s abilities, talents, and intellect, but in the person’s body as a tool for the satisfaction of desire. Thus, when Antonio interacts with Jared through the lens of desire, it is under his desire’s tutelage or direction that heinteracts with Jared. His sexual desire for Jared oversees and manages his interactions with him. Although he can interact with Jared as a fellow human being—he might offer him a glass of water before having sex, he might seek his affirmative consent every step of the way—this happens under the direction of sexual desire, for the purpose of satisfying it.
On the other hand, viewing Jared through the lens of rationality is different: it is Jared’s purposes and goals that guide Antonio’s interaction with him. He adopts his goals as his own, as Kant would say. Thus, and except for the sexual parts, the interactions between them might look similar under the guidance of either sexual desire or rationality, though the underlying motivations would be different. Imagine the case of Antonio and Jared differently: Imagine that Antonio, for whatever reason, has sex with Jared out of pity for him and not out of sexual desire (assume that he does not sexually desire Jared at all). Imagine him going through the same actions and steps he would have gone through had he had sex with him out of desire. The cases will behaviorally look the same, but they will have vastly different motivations. Indeed, in the variation of the case, Antonio does not sexually objectify Jared (though he allows himself to be objectified by Jared). There is thus a deep tension between viewing someone through the lens of sexual desire and viewing them through the lens of humanity or rationality.
Note that we cannot get around this issue by reminding ourselves that Jared’s goal is to have sex with Antonio, so that by adopting his goal Antonio is approaching him through the lens of rationality. We must remember that sexual desire, according to Kant, makes an instrument of another human being. So if Antonio’s goal is to make of Jared an object to satisfy his (Antonio’s) sexual desire, Jared may not (morally) adopt this goal because he would be allowing himself to be treated as an object, which to Kant is as morally prohibited as it is to treat another as an object. Thus, to Kant consent is not sufficient to render sex permissible (though it is necessary).32 Because to Kant sexual desire aims to use another as a body, consent to it does not make it permissible. This indicates that sexual interactions stemming from sexual desire have a difficult, if not impossible, time abiding by Kant’s Formula of Humanity.
Kant attempts to solve this problem through marriage, because it is only in marriage that “we are free to make use of our sexual desire” by having the “right to dispose over the person as a whole—over the welfare and happiness and generally over all the circumstances of that person.”33 In marriage, each person gives the other the right over their own body, and in doing so they retain the rights over their own: “Matrimony is an agreement between two persons by which they grant each other equal reciprocal rights, each of them undertaking to surrender the whole of their person to the other with a complete right of disposal over it.”34 If Jared and Antonio get married, Jared acquires over Antonio a complete right of disposal, and so does Antonio over Jared. In this
Temperance and Sexual Objectification 161 way, they each also get themselves back. Marriage, then, gives rights of disposal over another while maintaining the other’s personhood. This guarantees to Kant that each is treated as a person without being treated as a mere means.
Kant’s marriage solution relies on a conception of marriage that is very strong to contemporary ears, as a form of legal ownership of another. It also contradicts earlier statements by Kant that “man is not his own property and cannot do with his body what he will,” which seem to imply that one cannot will oneself to become the property of another, even if one gets oneself back.35 Still, if we set aside these difficulties, Kant’s marriage solution, as unpalatable as it sounds, is coherent: the two people are at liberty to dispose of each other, including sexually, as they please, while retaining their personhood.
The rub, however, for our discussion is that Kant’s marriage solution does not fix the nature of sexual desire. That is, sexual desire does not transform into something benign once it occurs in marriage. Marriage is basically a legal arrangement to give each spouse rights over the other’s sexual aspects. It allows the spouses to use each other without infringing on their personhood—it “prevents this denial or loss of personhood” found in non-marital sexual acts.36 Kant’s description of what occurs during non-marital sexual activity applies equally to marital sexual activity—“marriage does not change the nature of the sexual act.”37