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  • Kant’s Sadism
  • Ermanno Bencivenga

In The Ethics Of Psychoanalysis, Lacan says: “So as to produce the kind of shock or eye-opening effect that seems to me necessary if we are to make progress, I simply want to draw your attention to this: if The Critique of Practical Reason appeared in 1788, seven years after the first edition of The Critique of Pure Reason, there is another work which came out six years [!] after The Critique of Practical Reason, a little after Thermidor in 1795, and which is called Philosophy in the Boudoir.” 1 What is supposed to produce the shock effect is not the simple juxtaposition of dates, of course, but the implicitly Hegelian reading of history which makes those dates significant, and which comes out in full strength when Lacan says, in Kant avec Sade: “The Philosophy in the Boudoir comes eight years [!] after the Critique of Practical Reason. If, after seeing that the former agrees with the latter, we prove that it completes it, we will say that it gives the truth of the Critique.” 2 Lacan’s “proof,” however, is anything but rigorous or systematic; so his provocative statement will probably sound inspiring to Lacan enthusiasts and gratuitous to virtually anyone else. Which is a pity, because the statement is absolutely correct: it is indeed the case that Sade brought to their extreme consequences the characteristic premises of Kant’s ethics, thus unfolding their truth in ways which the man Kant might even have vehemently resisted, but which were nonetheless necessary. Here I would like to provide more of a systematic and rigorous defense of this statement, though I make no claim as to how faithful my reconstruction might be to Lacan’s “intentions” (the irrelevance of this issue from the point of view espoused here will soon become apparent; hence it will also become apparent that it is an issue this point of view need not be concerned with). [End Page 39]

According to Kant, a moral duty cannot be based on any inclination or feeling—including feelings of compassion or sympathy for another human being. Any dependence on such feelings would represent a pathology of reason, a case of reason being guided by something other than itself, of it not being practical, and hence of heteronomous behavior. Making the well-being of some other human, or of one’s community, or of humankind, the goal of one’s action would be relegating rationality to (at best) an instrumental role, and thus denying any ethical value to that action. Kant says that “kindness done from duty—although no inclination impels us, and even although natural and unconquerable disinclination stands in our way—is practical, and not pathological, love, residing in the will and not in the propensions of feeling, in principles of action and not of melting compassion; and it is this practical love alone which can be an object of command.” 3

This independence of any empirical conditioning is further articulated in the distinction between acting in conformity with duty and acting from the motive of duty: “When . . . disappointments and hopeless misery have quite taken away the taste for life; when a wretched man, strong in soul and more angered at his fate than faint-hearted or cast down, longs for death and still preserves his life without loving it—not from inclination or fear but from duty; then indeed his maxim has a moral content.” 4 But now the problem is how exactly to understand this distinction. Kant’s talk of motives suggests that it’s one’s intentional state that makes the difference: that the very same behavior may have only the appearance of morality, or instead be truly moral, depending on what one’s goals are. If, say, I promote the well-being of my neighbor because it makes me feel good, or because I empathize with him, then there is nothing moral to what I do. If, on the other hand, I do exactly the same thing because it is rational to do so, then there will be moral content to it. And indeed this position is often identified with Kant, and sometimes suggested by Kant himself—from now...

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pp. 39-46
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