A Grain of SALT

September 15, 2010

I’m probably more of a fan of Immanuel Kant than most folks at Colorado, and I certainly think the Groundwork in the Metaphysics of Morals is one of the great books of ethics (as well as the Critique of Practical Reason), but our dear Tea Party winner-of-the-hour Christie O’Donnell has taken this Kant stuff a wee bit too far.

Turns out, she’s the living incarnation of the great Professor. On one hand, she appears to believe that lying is wrong under all circumstances, even under extreme murderer at the door scenarios. Here she is on Politically Incorrect ten years ago:

Kant, famously, also believed that lying is wrong in all circumstances, and he explicitly addressed a murderer at the door case. Many non- and even anti- Kantians take this example as a core reason to reject Kant out of hand. As a consequence, many notable Kantians have since struggled to offer plausible responses to critics.

But more distressingly, O’Donnell thinks that masturbation is a form of self-aggrandizement akin to adultery. Kant, as well, appears to have believed something similar. Again, some people take this as clear evidence that Kant was a nutter. Here’s O’Donnell again in a PSA she made for an organization called the Savior’s Alliance for Lifting the Truth (SALT) from 1988:

Needless to say, what makes her crazy is not, strictly speaking, these crazy views. If Professor Awesome himself can defend the views — and I believe he can — then it is likely that they are not, strictly speaking, crazy views. What makes her crazy is that these views can’t readily be defended in any non-ideal way, which is what was primarily of concern to Kant. It’s not clear that O’Donnell is speaking of the ideal. She’s speaking of the non-ideal. Fact is, people get horny and people get bloodthirsty. Better to let the horny ones handle their drives in a productive way and to steer the bloodthirsty types away from the kids.


  1. I’m offended by your using the “on the one hand” language in this context . . .

  2. But more seriously, I can see the ideal/non-ideal distinction making sense with respect to the lying story. Maybe in an ideal world there would be no reason to lie. But I can’t extend it to the other case. Part of the reason why Kant’s views on sex seem in one way wackier than his views on lying is precisely that it is not completely implausible that the fact that some statement is a lie is some reason not to make it, however much that reason is outweighed by other factors. (I’m making a pretty weak claim here.) But I can’t think of a parallel claim about the sorts of sex he finds unforgivable. That’s why quoting Kant on sex makes him seem like a loon, whereas quoting him on lying only makes him seem like a mislead fanatic.

  3. And if I could spell I’d seem like an educated person.

  4. Well, I’ll agree that the views on sex seem largely informed by circumstance and context, but I’ll give it a shot.

    I suppose if Sam were queried by his partner about his sexual interests, in an ideal world he would be free to answer that he spends all of his sexual energy on his partner, treating her (him) as a mutual participant in the relationship. He wouldn’t have these cumbersome five-times-a-day distractions that afflict so many young men of his age. Ideally, that is, all of his energies would be directed at respecting his partner; and all of her (his) energies would be directed right back at him.

    In a non-ideal world, he’d be distracted by his urges and desires. In a non-ideal world, it’d be better for him to release himself through masturbation; this would be far preferable or desirable, from a respect standpoint, than pressuring his partner into satisfying his desires, and/or refraining altogether from releasing himself from his desires and making himself miserable.

    • Which is to say, I think it’s the second formulation that informs this view.

  5. Kant clearly was brilliant even if he defended very strange views. van Roojen makes an interesting point. My question is this: what would the ideal/non-ideal distinction mean in the sex case? What would this ideal state of affairs be such that masturbation was morally wrong? Put slightly differently, what would a world in which no one was treating each other as mere means mean for sex and masturbation?

  6. Ben,

    Interesting. But, why would moral ideals require everyone has at least one partner?


  7. Ben, I appreciate the effort. But I have trouble keeping the formulations in order (or for that matter keeping straight the exact number in Kant). The second formulation is . . . ?

    In partial answer to Ben’s question: This is one of those subjects that it is hard to talk about without risking a justified TMI response. But it isn’t obvious to me that the world would be a better place if one always had a willing partner who met whatever conditions we set on also being an appropriate partner in sexual activities whenever we had in interest in sex. One of the features about sex that keeps it interesting is that you can’t have it whenever you want.

  8. @Jay: I suppose they probably wouldn’t. If you hold to the second formulation of the Categorical Imperative, the Formula of Humanity, that one should always at the same time treat another as an end, and never merely as a means, this would suggest that you can have multiple partners, so long as the entering and exiting of the relationship was mutually respectful.

    In effect, Kant is suggesting that, if men (women) were angels, then they wouldn’t be torn or distracted by mere inclinations — inclinations that drive them to take actions upon others and treat them as objects. Since men (women) are not angels, they ought to do what they can to maintain that respect while still adhering to the FOH.

    I definitely think Kant was largely influenced by his religious background and the views of the day, but I take it that his reasoning is what counts, even if his conclusions were, at times, a little screwy.

  9. @Mark: Very good point about sex being interesting for these reasons, and I agree with you. Hence the emphasis on the ideal/nonideal distinction. Kant’s basic ethical point was that we can’t isolate morality by appealing to our partial desires. They’re partial, after all; and if there’s one thing that seems critical re: morality, it’s impartiality.

  10. Thanks Ben! I’m actually at least a bit of a fan of the second formulation, despite not being all that much of a Kant fan. (And, to correct yet another mistake in a previous comment, where I said “Ben’s Question” in my previous “contribution” I meant to be partially answering Jay’s question.)

    What I’m not seeing is why the actual situation (where we have more desires than it would make sense to fulfill) is less ideal than some appropriate contrast class that is ideal. Would we really be better off if either the occasions for desire were constricted to match the opportunities for appropriate satisfaction of those desires, or if the opportunities were expanded to match the occasions for desire? I think I’d chose the actual situation over either of those options.

  11. I think you’re basically right. But supposing that we were angels, let’s say (Kant says this), and don’t have any desires at all. Suppose we could just act according to what was right. Would we need to release ourselves sexually? No, we don’t have any desires to do this. That’s not a problem for us. By definition, angels don’t have desires. They’re just following the moral law. They respect one another and treat each other as ends in themselves. (I’m playing fast-and-loose here to make the point. Kant would never be so crude as this.)

    In the nonideal scenario, desires and inclinations confuse the ethical question, making it difficult for us actually to respect others at all times. Sometimes we want things of other people, and sometimes we can’t have them. What is important is that we not make ourselves an exception to the rule and act upon our inclinations whenever it suits us. Nonideally speaking, we have to cope with the animal in us… but we should of course do so in the most respectful way possible.

    For Kant, the idea is to approach the ideal, to legislate from within, autonomously, toward that ideal. Just as you might say that you want to be as good to your wife as possible, while also acknowledging that to a certain extent, you’re a flawed brute.

    It’s not that we’d be “better off,” as you say, but rather that it’s right to respect your partner. So how can you do that? Ideally, you’d focus on her and only her. But you’re a human, so sometimes you forget to clean up the kitchen, sometimes you leave your drill bits in the living room, and sometimes you do things that you know she doesn’t like. Acknowledging this, the question then is how to be a human while also maintaining a grip on personhood. That’s really what Kant I think is after.

    And yes, there really is a bit of TMI in this discussion.

  12. I agree with Mark when he writes,

    “But it isn’t obvious to me that the world would be a better place if one always had a willing partner who met whatever conditions we set on also being an appropriate partner in sexual activities whenever we had in interest in sex.”

    It seems that treating others as ends and not mere means leaves things enormously open sexually and that is why I had a hard time distinguishing between the ideal and non-ideal.

    Also, is having hypothetical desires for sex necessary here? Why couldn’t you have sex with a person via one’s categorical desires?

  13. Oh, i’m not sure the idea is as foreign as you make it out to be. How many relationships have felt the tensions here? How many times do you suppose that a partner has, upon being caught for thinking dirty thoughts, or even for acting upon those dirty thoughts (gasp!), had to explain that he desires “only you, baby.” The idea of pure love is pretty powerful for a lot of people. Obviously, it’s a myth. We’re human. But we like to hold on to the myth as something to aspire to in our relationships. That’s why we hide our little secret activities, we don’t spell out every last fancy and lust that crosses our minds. Better to discharge these harmlessly.

    I’m not sure what categorical desires are if they’re not desires to be rational.

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