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Impartial Respect and Natural Interest


Kant’s regulative ideal of a constitution “allowing the greatest possible human freedom in accordance with laws by which the freedom of each is made to be consistent with that of all others” (Critique of Pure Reason, A316/B373) has much to offer in relation to sexual ethics, and some feminist criticism of prevailing norms of sexual behavior—notably the objection to treating another person as a ‘sex object’—reflects a Kantian influence, drawing especially on the categorical imperative qua ‘formula of humanity’. Kant himself did not shy away from applying his own moral theory to sex, but the outcome of his efforts is unlikely to find favor under modern social conditions. Can something nevertheless be salvaged from these efforts, perhaps by developing Kant’s concern with social connection (as opposed to division or disintegration)?

My response invokes another Kantian idea, this time from aesthetics —the contrast between ‘interested’ and ‘disinterested’ pleasure (the latter being supposedly definitive of the ‘judgment of taste’). After some critical discussion of this idea, I offer the following positive proposal, which seeks to acknowledge both the pos sible emancipation of taste from nature and the indebtedness of taste to nature. Picture a continuum, as regards the sexual appreciation of others, between (a) the raw impulse to appropriate something, and (b) the recognition of another person as an autonomously sexual being (to whom one’s own sexual interests are irrelevant). And now picture an attitude in which personal sexual ‘interestedness’, where it exists, will emerge from a background that is of type (b) rather than type (a). This is our candidate for the kind of sexual culture which might realistically be achieved by human beings qua natural creatures, but which would also express the impartial ‘respect for rational nature’ demanded by the formula of humanity.