Friday, August 5, 2011

Polyamory, Gay Marriage and Kant

So, today I have been doing a bit of editing of my permissive law paper. In doing so, I was forced to examine a part of Kant's texts that typically gets dismissed: marriage.

I say this because scholars either write of Kant's musings about marriage as either prudish or backwards. But, aside from these worries, I am interested in the notion of marriage as a civil right -- something that gets a lot of press these days.

OK, so as far as gay marriage is concerned: we must first understand what Kant says about homosexuality. He calls it, not surprisingly, "unnatural" (6:277). One could be charitable to the old man and say that he is merely talking about "natural" in terms of men + women = babies. Or, we could look to the context and say that he was not a fan, as he mentions "unnatural" in the same sentence as bestiality, and in the next sentence calls such behavior "unmentionable vices". Personally, for the professor of Koenigsberg, who lived alone his entire life, never married, and was rumored to only have a picture of Rousseau (found in his home at the time of his death), I venture to guess that Herr Professor was himself gay. Either way, due to social mores, self-loathing or denial (or that I am wrong), he wrote this passage. So that does not bode well for my interpretation. Either way, let's move on.

We must, second, understand what marriage means for Kant. Marriage is the only arrangement where a person can "restore" one's "personality" (6:278). In other words, once a person is feeling all randy, that person wants to (typically) use another person as a means to her (or his) end. Sexual enjoyment is using another person as a means. This, of course is a no-no. We can't use people as a 'mere means', and so we have to figure out a way of getting around this predicament. Kant thinks it is through marriage. "There is only one condition under which this is possible: that while one person is acquired by the other a if it were a thing, the one who is acquired acquire the other in turn; for in this way each reclaims itself and restores its personality."

If we were to shelve the Kant's mention of 'unmentionable vices', then marriage between a man and a woman, a woman and a woman or a man and a man, seems justifiable because the use of each "other's sexual organs is enjoyment" and we have to make that enjoyment not demeaning of humanity in persons. To do this, the other person needs to 1) consent, and 2) "surrender completely". So on the premise of sexual enjoyment needs to be an act of "freedom" and respect I see no reason why gay marriage would be outlawed. Given his premise.

What about polyamory? Well, this is interesting. I think another sign that Kant is a product of his era. He automatically assumes it is a woman sharing a man. Instead of the various and sundry ways humans can partner. Moreover, such an unequal sharing makes her a thing. When we could view it from another point of view and think of him as being divided up and more likely the object. Another interesting point is that for Kant, marriage isn't just about sex. It is...not surprisingly...about property. Marriage is always about property. The history of marriage and controlling sexuality has always been about who can trace with certainty their descendants. (Why else would cheating on King Henry the VIII get you beheaded?) But, aside from this... Kant views marriages where one party holds all the property as nonexecutable contract! He likens such a situation as one that is tantamount to 'concubinage'. Interesting eh? Considering that for most of the history of the world women in marriage were legally regarded as children and thus not equal holders of property (which he also knew).

So what if, in a polyamorous relationship, all parties equally had access to each other and joint property rights (assuming the state granted it)? Wouldn't that satisfy Kant's worries?? Moreover, if acquiring a spouse is a right to a person akin to a right to a thing, then if we can have multiple children, why couldn't we have multiple partners? If it is conceptually the same right, and the other worries noted above are assuaged, then couldn't Kant support polyamory?

Perhaps, perhaps not. I tend to think if we address the background assumptions we can get there just fine. But, Kant's archaic and stilted views on homosexuality are still something we'd have to contend with... even in light of his love affair with Rousseau.


Gary Banham said...

This is broadly fair comment Heather. I addressed some of Kant's remarks on "unnatural" sex in *Kant's Practical Philosophy*. The trouble is really based on his view of masturbation I think since he says little specifically about gay sex. But the account of marriage certainly is one that can be expanded, as you suggest, in surprising directions and made radical rather than conservative.

H.M. Roff said...

I totally agree with you Gary. I also hope someone does something along these lines, as it is timely and interesting!