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The discarded Lemon: Kant, prostitution and respect for persons

Timothy J. Madigan thinks Kant’s duty-based ethics could approve of prostitution.

‘… to allow one’s person for profit to be used by another for the satisfaction of sexual desire, to make of oneself an Object of demand, is to dispose over oneself as over a thing and to make of oneself a thing on which another satisfies his appetite, just as he satisfies his hunger upon a steak. But since the inclination is directed towards one’s sex and not towards one’s humanity, it is clear that one thus partially sacrifices one’s humanity and thereby runs a moral risk. Human beings are, therefore, not entitled to offer themselves, for profit, as things for the use of others in the satisfaction of their sexual propensities.’ Immanuel Kant1

It would be hard to find a more complete condemnation of prostitution than the above quotation from the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). For him, prostitution was the ultimate example of treating a human being as merely a means to an end, and was despicable because it thereby placed a human being on the same footing as an animal. In this article, I will examine the reasons for Kant’s view, and attempt to show that it is nonetheless possible to give an argument along Kantian lines in favour of prostitution.

In his writings on sex and marriage, Kant provided a seemingly traditional defence of monogamy – the only sexual relation that is morally acceptable is that which occurs between a married man and woman. However, the argument he gave for this differs tremendously from the natural law tradition that had predominated in Western thought. For Kant, the foundation of ethics was his famous Categorical Imperative: it is always wrong to treat another person as merely a means to an end, rather than as an end-in-itself (which is to say, one must show proper respect for other persons). This is a secularized version of the socalled Golden Rule, to treat others as one wishes to be treated. But what is it that constitutes a ‘person’? For Kant, it is the possession of rationality. The ability to reason raises us above our passions, and allows us to act autonomously. We are not mere creatures of instinct. In respecting others, we are acknowledging the fact that they are fellow reasoning creatures, fully responsible for their actions. Anything that goes against reason should be suspect, since it lowers our status to that of non-reasoning animals, who are without moral worth.

What Kant feared most of all, because it was the prime disturber of reason, was sexuality. In his estimation, a sexual urge is the desire to possess possess another person. Those who engage in sexual acts for the sake of pleasure “make of humanity an instrument for the satisfaction of their lusts and inclinations, and dishonour it by placing it on a level with animal nature. Sexuality, therefore, exposes mankind to the danger of equality with the beasts.”2 Since morality can only pertain to rational creatures, such a lowering of status is the worst sort of degradation possible. One loses one’s moral sense when lust becomes dominant.

Kant was not noted for his turn of phrase – his style was usually a plodding one. But in writing about the dangers of giving in to sexual urges, he is positively eloquent: “Sexual love makes of the loved person an Object of appetite: as soon as that appetite has been stilled, the person is cast aside as one casts aside a lemon which has been sucked dry.”3

For Kant, sexual desire, in-and-of-itself, is potentially the cause of the deepest degradation. It can make a person no better than a beast. To treat another person as an object of desire is wrong. “This is the only case in which a human being is designed by nature as the Object of another’s enjoyment. Sexual desire is at the root of it: and that is why we are ashamed of it, and why all strict moralists, and those who had the pretensions to be regarded as saints, sought to suppress and extirpate it.”4

One dishonours another person by focusing only upon his or her sexual attributes. It is the supreme case of treating another as merely a means to an end, the end being sexual gratification.

Yet such desires are extremely powerful, and for most people – especially non-philosophers – quite hard to control. What to do? Using the services of a paid professional reliever of sexual tension is one possibility, but it is one that Kant strictly forbids. Prostitution is impermissible for Kant, not because of the harm it might cause to society (he was not a consequentialist in his ethics), but because it treats a person as a commodity. Persons are not at their own disposal. They do not own themselves, because if they did, they would be a thing. “To let one’s person out on hire and to surrender it to another for the satisfaction of his sexual desire in return for money is the depth of infamy.”5 One would thereby be acquiescing in the act of commodification.

In Kant’s view, even mutual sexual satisfaction, rather than the selling of sexual services, would be morally impermissible, since it still treats a person as a thing. It involves showing concern for only a part of them, rather than for their personhood in its entirety. It shows a lack of regard for the other individual’s reasoning capabilities, as opposed to their sensual qualities. The only morally acceptable route for sexual expression would be through legal matrimony. Only marriage allows for a morally acceptable exchange of sexual pleasure. “The sole condition on which we are free to make use of our sexual desires depends upon the right to dispose over the person as a whole – over the welfare and happiness and generally over all the circumstances of that person.”6

How does marriage give one the right to use another? By also giving one’s spouse the same right over you. Matrimony is an agreement between two persons in which they grant each other reciprocal rights – “each of them undertaking to surrender the whole of their person to the other with a complete right to disposal over it.”7 Or, as the old song says, “All of Me/Why Not Take All of Me?”

Marriage, in a sense, allows two individuals to mutually degrade each other, to treat each other as the property of the other – to use each other. While they are still placed on the level of non-rational creatures, for a temporary time, it is permissible because it is done in the broader context of two rational agents freely engaging in a cooperative lifelong contractual venture. They are not using each other merely as a means to an end, but are doing so in a broader context of overall respect. Yet, while Kant’s conclusion may be conservative – only sex within marriage is moral – the implications are quite radical. The purpose of marriage, he states, is not, as natural law theory would have it, procreation. “The End of producing and educating children may be regarded as always the End of Nature in implanting mutual desire and inclination in the sexes; but it is not necessary for the rightfulness of marriage that those who marry should set this before themselves as the End of their Union.”8 The purpose of marriage is to allow the union of two persons of different sexes to have lifelong reciprocal possession of their sexual faculties. Husband and wife are on equal footing, in this regard. Sexual enjoyment is a right to be expected within the partnership.

Kant’s deontological ethics, with its emphasis on rights and duties, has often been used to justify practices he himself had strongly argued against. Would it be possible to develop a Kantian argument in favour of a contractual exchange in which one partner receives sexual gratification and the other some financial remuneration? I think that this can be done, if one no longer looks upon sexuality as degrading in-and-ofitself. A similar type of argument has been made by the philosopher Ann Garry, in her seminal article ‘Pornography and Respect For Women’. In it, she gives a Kantian defence of some types of pornography. Garry writes that “Although much current pornography does degrade women, I will argue that it is possible to have nondegrading, nonsexist pornography. However, this possibility rests on our making certain fundamental changes in our conception of sex and sex roles.”9 In other words, it is not the depiction of sexual acts per se, or the excitement such depictions cause, which is immoral, but rather certain types of depictions, namely those which show individuals in degrading positions.

Garry agrees with Kant that objectification is morally unacceptable, but raises interesting questions about what this means. The notion of ‘respect’, she argues, is not the same for all people in our society – women are still often treated as less able to live autonomous existences, less able to function on their own. It is easier to objectify women as a whole, because the roles they are allowed to play in society are still far more restricted than those of men. Stock stereotypes ring more true when counterexamples are hard to find. Since their status is so different, the loss of respect has greater repercussions for women in general. Pornography is often pernicious because it perpetuates images of the so-called ‘fallen woman’. Garry writes: “This fall is possible, I believe, because the traditional ‘respect’ that men have had for women is not genuine, wholehearted respect for full-fledged human beings, but half-hearted respect for lesser beings, some of whom they feel the need to glorify and purify.” 10

This is an interesting observation, especially coming from a Kantian perspective. ‘Losing respect’ for men as a class is more difficult than losing respect for women. The so-called ‘double standard’ is an affront to dignity. Therefore, it is not sexual desire that is objectionable, but the different attitude society has toward men versus women who engage in essentially the same sexual activities. Garry ends her article by speculating on possible types of acceptable pornography:

Plots for nonsexist films could include women in traditionally male jobs (e.g. long-distance truckdriver) or in positions usually held in respect by pornography audiences. For example, a high-ranking female Army officer, treated with respect by men and women alike, could be shown not only in various sexual encounters with other people but also carrying out her job in a humane manner. Or perhaps the main character could be a female urologist. She could interact with nurses and other medical personnel, diagnose illnesses brilliantly, and treat patients with great sympathy as well as have sex with them.11

This article originally appeared in 1978. Since then, feminist filmmakers such as Candida Royalle and Annie Sprinkle have been producing just the sort of scenarios Garry is describing. While Kant may have found such films unwatchit able, Garry is arguing that by his own criteria he should not find them morally objectionable, provided they show true respect for autonomous agents. At the beginning of her essay, Garry states that she does not accept the assumption that sex is an evil to be controlled, an assumption that is at the heart of Kant’s stricture against prostitution. She adds that “… it seems preferable to try to change pornography instead of closing one’s eyes in the hope that it will go away. For I suspect that pornography is here to stay.”12 A similar assertion can be made regarding prostitution.

If one accepts human sexuality as a natural and good aspect of life, rather than a degrading and bad aspect, it takes away much of the force of Kant’s argument against prostitution. Rather than looking upon sexual desires as flaws which place us on the level with beasts, they can be seen as drives that unite us all. Whatever our station in life, the libido is common property. Kant is opposed to treating humans as merely means to an end. But he does not hold that it is wrong in-and-of-itself to satisfy human needs. For example, one can fulfill the role of being a food server, and thereby help to alleviate hunger. It would be morally unacceptable to treat a waiter as merely a serving-thing. One should recognize his/her common humanity. But giving money to the waiter in recompense for services rendered involves two free agents mutually living up to the provisions of an agreed-upon transaction. In a similar fashion, sex workers provide a valuable service in alleviating the sexual hungers of their clients. One might object to this if one holds that only sex acts which lead to procreation are morally acceptable, but as was seen earlier, Kant did not ascribe to such a natural law line. Thus, if one decouples Kant’s repulsion about sexual acts from his overall contractual emphasis, a strong case can be made in favour of reciprocity in sexual relations, outside of a marriage contract.

For what it is worth, Kant was a lifelong celibate, whose knowledge of sexual fulfillment must have been primarily theoretical. Annette Baier emphasizes that “The great moral theorists in our tradition not only are all men, they are mostly men who had minimal adult dealings with (and so were then minimally influenced by) women.”13

Just as Garry points out that much pornography is degrading, so undoubtedly is much prostitution. One can justly object to situations involving those who engage in such acts against their will; those who find the role they are playing demeaning; and those who may be harmed mentally or physically by it. But a consistent Kantian can look upon providing sexual services as morally acceptable, provided no coercion is involved, and provided each participant fulfills his or her end of the bargain. Mutual respect is a real possibility in such activities. While Kant’s lemon analogy seems to say a good deal about his own negative attitudes toward sexuality, when it comes to discussing the morality of prostitution, his emphasis on reciprocity and respect is still fruitful.

© Timothy L. Madigan 1998

Tim Madigan is the Editor of Free Inquiry, the international humanist magazine based in Amherst, New York

1) Immanuel Kant, ‘The Philosophy of Law’, translated by W. Hastie, in Morality and Moral Controversies, 3rd edition, ed by John Arthur (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1993), p.254
2) Ibid, p254.
3) Ibid.
4) Ibid.
5) Ibid p255,
6) Ibid.,
7) Ibid.
8) Ibid. p256
9) Ann Garry, ‘Pornography and Respect for Women’, in Morality and Moral Controversies, 3rd edition, ed by John Arthur (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey:
Prentice-Hall, 1993) p258
10) Ibid p260.,
11) Ibid. p264.,
12) Ibid.
13) Annette Baier, ‘Trust and Anti-Trust’ in Doing and Being: Selected Readings in Moral Philosophy, ed by Joram Graf Haber (New York: Macmillan, 1993) p362

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