Kant and the Problem of Morality
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Kant and the Problem of Morality

Rethinking the Contemporary World

Luigi Caranti, Alessandro Pinzani, Luigi Caranti, Alessandro Pinzani

  1. 150 pagine
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eBook - ePub

Kant and the Problem of Morality

Rethinking the Contemporary World

Luigi Caranti, Alessandro Pinzani, Luigi Caranti, Alessandro Pinzani

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This book examines the significance of Kant's moral philosophy in contemporary philosophical debates. It argues that Kant's philosophy can still serve as a guide to navigate the turbulence of a globalized world in which we are faced by an imprescriptible social reality wherein moral values and ethical life models are becoming increasingly unstable. The volume draws on Kantian ethics to discuss various contemporary issues, including sustainable development, moral enhancement, sexism, and racism. It also tackles general concepts of practical philosophy such as lying, the different kinds of moral duties, and the kind of motivation one needs for doing what we consider the right thing.

Featuring readings by well-known Kant specialists and emerging scholars with unorthodox approaches to Kant's philosophy, the volume will be of great interest to scholars and researchers of philosophy, politics and ethics. It will also appeal to moral theorists, applied ethicists and environmental theorists.

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Pauline Kleingeld
DOI: 10.4324/9781003043126-2


Immanuel Kant is known as an ardent defender of the moral equality and inviolable dignity of all humans. Yet he also contended that men are naturally superior to women and – for much of his life – that “whites” are naturally superior to other “races”. On these grounds, he defended the rule of men over women and – again for much of his life – the rule of whites over the rest of the world.
Kant is no exception in having held sexist and racist views, and we should not regard his views as a matter of merely contingent personal prejudice. Sexism and racism were endemic features of the Western philosophical discourse of his era and of the belief systems, social practices and political institutions that form the historical context of this discourse.
Kant’s case is especially poignant, however. He is one of the greatest philosophers of all time, he was able to break with received opinions on many other issues and he formulated egalitarian moral principles that he claimed to be valid for all human beings – and indeed, more broadly still, for all rational beings. Yet he long defended European colonial rule over the rest of the world and the enslavement, by “whites”, of those he racialized as being “yellow”, “black”, “copper-red” and “mixed”-race. Late in life, around his 70th birthday, Kant dropped the thesis of racial hierarchy and began to criticize European colonialism, but he never made parallel revisions to his account of the status of women.
Many moral theorists have been inspired by Kant’s conception of human dignity, equality and the duty of respect. Many also believe that the moral principles Kant articulated can be used precisely to show what is wrong with racism and sexism. But is it possible to do so when we know that Kant himself endorsed racist and sexist views during the very years in which he formulated his egalitarian moral principles? Can we separate the principles from the objectionable views and use Kant’s principles to criticize his own biases? These are the questions at issue in this essay.1
I first provide a brief description of Kant’s view on sexual and racial hierarchies and of the way they intersect (Section 1). I then move to the question whether we should “remove and set aside” Kant’s sexism and racism or “translate” his egalitarian principles into inegalitarian ones, and I advocate a third position (Section 2). In Section 3, I argue that the use of inclusive language and female pronouns, in discussions of Kant’s moral and political philosophy, carries significant risks. I conclude by proposing preconditions for fruitfully using Kant’s principles to criticize sexism and racism.

1. Kant on the sexes and the races

In the 1780s, the decade of the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Mor als (1785) and the Critique of Practical Reason (1788), Kant defended the view that there is a sexual and racial hierarchy that justifies the subjection of women to men and of non-whites to whites. In the subsequent decade, he gave up his commitment to the racial hierarchy but not to the sexual hierarchy. I will present his views only briefly here, since my interest in this chapter lies in the follow-up questions they raise.2

1.1. Sexual difference and sexual hierarchy

From his early pre-critical writings to his last publications, Kant described women as having very different characteristics than men – characteristics that bear directly on moral agency. In a long chapter on the “contrast” between the sexes, in the early Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime (1764), Kant writes:
The virtue of the woman is a beautiful virtue. That of the male sex ought to be a noble virtue. Women will avoid evil not because it is unjust but because it is ugly, and for them virtuous actions mean those that are morally beautiful [sittlich schön]. Nothing of ought, nothing of must, nothing of obligation. . . . They do something only because they love to, and the art lies in making sure that they love only what is good. I hardly believe that the fair sex is capable of principles, and I hope not to give offense by this, for these are also extremely rare among the male sex.
(GSE 2:231–232)3
Of course, Kant’s gallant ending in this passage does not diminish the gravity of his characterization of women as unreceptive to moral obligation and that of men as having to master the art of directing women toward the good. Nor does Kant’s claim that these sexual differences have been arranged wisely by “Nature” or “Providence” make this sound any better (GSE 2:228–243).
In Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (1798), one of Kant’s last publications, he continues to distinguish between “feminine” and “masculine” virtue, asserting that each has a different “incentive”, that women have “their own vocation” and that this is all part of a grand providential scheme (Anth 7:303–311).
When two people unite, Kant writes with reference to marriage, one must be subordinate to the other. Nature has made men superior to women in strength and courage, whereas women are naturally fearful, and this gives men the right to command. Women, by contrast, are superior to men in being able to conquer the inclination of the other sex toward them. As if this was not already damning with faint praise, Kant adds that men gladly submit to their wives’ regimes so as to be able to go about their own business (Anth 7:303–304).
In his legal and political philosophy, Kant never criticizes the legal tutelage of women; indeed, he justifies it explicitly by reference to male superiority. In the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant asserts that the only “human right” is the “innate right to freedom” that “belongs to every human being by virtue of his humanity”. He further explicates this as a right to freedom, equality and independence (including the right to be one’s own master [Herr], MSRL 6:237). Yet Kant also argues that the “natural superiority” of men gives a husband the right to command over his wife as her master (Herr) (MSRL 6:279; cp. Anth 7:209). Further, he classifies “all women” as “passive citizens”, that is, as lacking civil independence and the right to vote. Dependent men (such as domestic servants) are also passive citizens, but Kant explicitly states that they should always have the option of working their way up to active citizenship (MSRL 6:314–315). Nowhere does Kant condemn the subordinate legal and political status of women or call for their emancipation.
Kant shows some awareness of the tensions in his own account. He feels the need to declare that the characteristics of women and their subordinate status do not run counter to the fundamental equality of men and women (MSRL 6:279), but his comments hardly move beyond a reaffirmation of natural male superiority. Moreover, he admits that the very notion of “passive citizenship” “seems to contradict the concept of a citizen as such” (MSRL 6:314). But this does not motivate him to apply his own republican principles to the internal organization of the family or the legal status of women. His claim in the Anthropology that when two people unite, one must be subordinated to the other (see above) contradicts his account of the freedom and equality of the citizens who are united in the republic (MSRL 6:314).
In his moral theory, the characteristics he assigns to men, such as courage, appear as the virtues of human beings. These are qualities that – he there claims – all human beings ought to strive to realize fully and in a morally appropriate way. The female characteristics do not appear to mark potential human excellences, however, and what Kant calls “feminine virtue” is not moral virtue in the strict sense of his ethics.
Kant repeatedly acknowledges that there are women whose conduct does not fit his characterization, such as women scientists. Rather than celebrating their exceptional accomplishments and calling for their civil and political emancipation, however, he describes them as aberrations (GSE 2: 229–230; V-Anth/Parow, 25: 355; Anth 7:307). 4 He says that he “would rather not deal with such women” and that, as a rule, “nature has put something into the man for which one will look in vain in a woman” (V-Anth/Parow 25: 355). The women he does praise are “upright women who, in connection with their household, laudably maintained a character suitable to their vocation” (Anth 7:308).5 He praises womanly women, women who do their womanly duties.

1.2. Racial difference with and without racial hierarchy

Whereas Kant attributes to women characteristics that contrast with those of men, while also asserting their equality, until the mid 1790s, he explicitly describes the “yellow”, “Negro” and “copper-red” races as having increasingly serious deficits compared to “whites” and as lacking the capacity to govern themselves. On this basis, Kant defends white colonial rule over the rest of humankind, including the exploitation of non-white slaves. (It is worth noting here that Kant does not restrict the original region of “whites” to Europe but includes Africa north of the Sahara and large parts of Asia; see BBM 8:92.)
Kant portrays “whites” as occupying the highest rung of the racial ladder and as entitled to give laws to all other parts of the world. In his 1782 lectures on physical geography, Kant claims that the peoples of India would be much happier under European rule (V-PG 26: 1058). In drafts of his anthropology lectures, he notes that “Americans and Negroes cannot govern themselves. Thus, [they] serve only as slaves” (Refl 15:878). In the lectures, he is reported as having said that [Native] Americans are the lowest of the four races because they are weak and incapable of being educated. He places “Negroes” above them because they can be trained to be slaves (but are incapable of other forms of education), and he remarks that although the inhabitants of India can be educated, this does not extend to the use of abstract concepts (V-Anth/Mensch 25:1187), and hence they are incapable of being magistrates (Refl 15: 877). Kant also refers to this hierarchy in his published works, such as the 1788 essay “On the Use of Teleological Principles in Philosophy”, which appeared just months after the Critique of Practical Reason (ÜGTP 8:176).
Kant’s discussions of chattel slavery until the mid-1790s are strikingly matter of fact.6 He reports on the types of slaves needed for various types of labor (VRM 2:438n.), endorses an anti-abolitionist tract (ÜGTP 8:174n.) and remarks that “Negroes” “seem to be made to serve others” (V-Anth/ Kowalewski: 363) and “were created for” the harsh labor conditions on the so-called [Caribbean] “Sugar Islands” (V-PG Dohna: 421). The 1780s lecture transcripts include passages such as the following:
The Mandinka are the very most desirable among all Negroes up to the Gambia river, because they are the most hardworking ones. These are the ones that one prefers to seek for slaves, because these can tolerate labor in the greatest heat that no human being [Mensch] can endure. Each year 20,000 of this Negro nation have to be bought to replace their decline in America, where they are used to work on the spice trees. . . . One gets the Negroes by having them catch each other, and one has to seize them with force.
(V-PG 26: 1080)
Note in this passage the implicit contrast between “slave” and “human being” and Kant’s adoption of the perspective of the slave owner when explaining to his students which kinds of slaves “one prefers” and which “have to be bought”.
In the middle of the 1790s, however, not long before the publication of Toward Perpetual Peace, Kant abandoned the thesis of racial hierarchy and white superiority. In contrast to his earlier characterization of Native Americans as weak, for example, he now calls them courageous, on a par with medieval European knights (ZeF 8:365). Whereas he had previously described conditions on the “Sugar Islands” without any hint of criticism, merely educating his students on the use of these territories for European profit, he shifts to being a vocal critic of colonialism and slavery. In Toward Perpetual Peace, Kant writes:
The worst of this (or, considered from the standpoint of a moral judge, the best) is that they [viz., the European states] do not even profit from this violence; that all these trading companies are on the verge of collapse; that the Sugar Islands, this place of the cruelest and most calculated slavery, yield no true profit.
(ZeF 8:359)
Importantly, not only does Kant begin to criticize colonialism and slavery, but he simultaneously adds a new category of public right to his legal and political theory. This is the category of “cosmopolitan right”. Cosmopolitan right grants full and equal juridical status to all humans – to all “citizens of the earth” (Erdbürger, MSRL 6:353). It covers relations between states and foreign individuals or groups, including non-state peoples. Among other things, cosmopolitan right prohibits states from imperialist intrusion. No one has a right to settle land used by others, except when expressly permitted through a treaty (ZeF 8:358–359). Kant appeals to this new type of right when he condemns ...

Indice dei contenuti

  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Title
  4. Copyright
  5. Table of Contents
  6. List of contributors
  7. Acknowledgments
  8. List of sigla
  9. An introduction
  10. 1 On dealing with Kant’s sexism and racism
  11. 2 Kant the naturalist
  12. 3 Pleasure and displeasure as moral motivation
  13. 4 Inefficacy, despair, and difference-making: a secular application of Kant’s moral argument
  14. 5 Lying, deception and dishonesty: Kant and the contemporary debate on the definition of lying
  15. 6 The duty and the maxims: elements for a morality and culture of sustainable development
  16. 7 Kant as an ante litteram theorist and critic of the moral enhancement
  17. 8 Spielraum: narrow and wide duties and their consequences
  18. Index