Modern Engendering: Critical Feminist Readings in Modern Western Philosophy

By Bat-Ami Bar On | Go to book overview

Women in Kantian Ethics: A Failure in Universality

Kristin Waters


I. The Model of Kantian Ethics

Even some vigorous critics of Kantian ethics hold his theory in high esteem, and single it out as a paradigmatic moral theory. Among the attractive features of Kantian ethics are the strict insistence upon universality coupled with the equally strong claim of the inherent worth of each individual as a rational and moral agent. In traditional ethics, universality is a requisite component of moral theory, necessary for discovering the rightness of actions. For Kant, the underlying concept of autonomy is one of individuals as self- legislators bound by a formal concept of persons, who are to be treated as having inherent worth.

I shall argue that Kant's view of women, found in his early writing on aesthetics, is not consistent with his general moral theory. When writing about women, Kant fails to apply his own standard of universality, and as a result, women are not subject to equal treatment under the moral law. In terms of Kantian metaphysics, in the phenomenal world we know of things in a limited way as physical objects, as appearance subject to physical laws. In ethics we are treated to a more complex view of rational beings only. In their "noumenal" aspect, as Kant calls it, things can be known beyond the subjection of physicality as moral agents possessing freedom of the will. Kant's theory can be interpreted as treating men as noumena--things-in-themselves possessing autonomy and capable of moral agency, while women are treated as phenomena--mere appearance subject to physical laws and lacking true reason and morality. Kant, then, is in the tradition of objectifying women, treating women as appearances or inanimate objects rather than as beings with inherent worth. In this way he is in the tradition of great philosophers like Aristotle, who also deny the full measure of reason and morality to women and in doing so leave careful thinking and consistent argumentation behind.

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