Professor Robert Louden Discusses Kant’s Views on Love, Sex, and Marriage

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The Department of History and Humanities welcomed Professor Robert Louden from the University of Southern Maine on Tuesday, March 13th. Professor Louden is an expert on Immanuel Kant’s ethics and was invited to discuss the philosopher’s views on love, sex, and marriage.

Professor Robert Louden

Professor Robert Louden

According to Kant, the nature of human sexual activity is fundamentally immoral. In his Metaphysics of Morals he claimed that “in presenting ourselves to the other as an object of enjoyment […] we are debasing humanity in our own person and making ourselves similar to the beasts.” He considered this to be acceptable only if we also “possess” each other as things, through marriage. Professor Louden criticized Kant on this point, claiming that it contradicts the fundamental principle of Kant’s own ethics – namely, that, unlike things, people have absolute value. A human being possesses rationality, free will, responsibility, whereas a thing does not. If this qualitative distinction between people and things is not sustained, Louden claimed, then the supreme principle of morality cannot be established and Kant’s entire ethical theory collapses.

Regarding sex itself, Professor Louden also doubted Kant’s claim that sex is inherently or necessarily objectifying. For Louden, sex does not necessarily reduce us to animals bereft of rationality – rather, whether an action is objectifying depends on why we do it, or its “maxim.” If agents adopt a maxim of respect for people into their action, then the action itself is not objectifying. Professor Louden noted that Kant believed that citizens of democratic regimes where the rule of law is respected live under a “moral veneer,” such that “the development of the moral disposition to immediate respect for right is actually greatly facilitated.” Perhaps, Louden suggested, Kant’s appeal to marriage could be similarly understood, as a step towards respectful sex.