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Kant on Filthy, Dirty Sex

Banana Writing in 1797, Kant’s exploration of the doctrine of right or the pure theory of right, strays into some interesting tangents here and there, including a couple of pages about a topic that Kant himself had very little personal experience: sex. Naturally, a lot of Kant’s views are coloured by the time he is writing, but nonetheless an examination of his claims – and an expansion of them in line with contemporary thought – offers some interesting perspectives. (I suggest suspending judgement on Kant’s views as written until we see what they actually imply today).

“Sexual union” Kant states “is the reciprocal use that one human being makes of the sexual organs and capacities of another”. He further suggests that this is either a natural or an unnatural use, the latter being “either with a person of the same sex or with an animal of a nonhuman species”. Kant claims:

Since such transgressions of laws, called unnatural (crimina carnis contra naturam - “carnal crimes against nature”) or also unmentionable vices, do wrong to humanity in our own person, there are no limitations or exceptions whatsoever that can save them from being repudiated completely.

Harsh words! Contemporary liberals, as de facto allies of alternative sexuality (at least as far as homosexuality), vilify this line of argumentation, and Kant does not so much develop this part of his argument as assume that everyone is more-or-less in agreement with his assumption here. It was, after all, the end of the eighteenth century – society was coming to terms with the end of feudalism, and was in no way ready to think about sexuality outside of the context of procreation, and “unnatural” sex is by definition not procreative.

Kant claims that natural sexual union can occur “either in accordance with mere animal nature or in accordance with law” the latter being marriage “that is, the union of two persons of different sexes for lifelong possession of each other’s sexual attributes”. He does not suggest that having children is a necessary requirement for marriage:

The end of begetting and bringing up children may be an end of nature, for which it implanted the inclinations of the sexes for each other; but it is not requisite for human beings who marry to make this their end in order for their union to be compatible with rights, for otherwise marriage would be dissolved when procreation ceases.

Even if it is supposed that their end is the pleasure of using each other’s sexual attributes, the marriage contract is not up to their discretion but is a contract that is necessary by the law of humanity…

In other words, Kant proposes that ‘no sex before marriage’ is “necessary in accordance with pure reason’s laws of right”. His argument is intriguing: Kant claims that when one person uses another’s sexual organs for enjoyment (which is a “natural use”) they make themselves into a thing – that is, they give up their autonomous will (the hallmark of humanity that grounds Kant’s ethical system) and become like animals i.e. things as opposed to persons. Ordinarily, treating people as mere things is forbidden by Kant’s ethics, however, he allows one condition that might make it permissible:

…that while one person is acquired by the other as if it were a thing, the one who is acquired acquires the other in turn; for in this way each reclaims itself and restores its personality.

In other words, it’s okay to use someone for sex as long as the other person is also using you for sex. Kant requires, however, that this is possible only under the condition of marriage – which seems strange by today’s standards. His argument against the alternative rests on the idea that a rightful contract for sex could not possibly hold since:

…everyone will admit that a person who has concluded such a contract could not rightfully be held to the fulfilment of her promise if she regrets it… Accordingly, either party can cancel the contract with the other as soon as it pleases without the other having grounds for complaining about any infringement of its rights.

Or, to put it another way ‘no means no even if you earlier said yes’. Since contracts between people are, at least in terms of the theory of right, binding, Kant sees the inability to make a contract for sex (other than a marriage contract) as the reason why marriage is a requirement for sex: it is the only kind of contract that can legitimise consensual sex in his eyes, and the fact that this also prepares the way for the raising of children (the natural, but not required, outcome of conjugal intercourse) this satisfies Kant as to the justice of his position.

Now Kant did not believe that ethics was something that could be worked out entirely in advance, but rather held that there was a metaphysical aspect to moral thinking which, being untestable but reachable by reason, could be worked out in advance. But this metaphysics of morals could only be made into an actual moral or legal system by taking into account what he terms a “practical anthropology” i.e. the empirical study of the nature of humanity. Since our practical anthropology has come along quite considerably since Kant’s time, we can reasonably update Kant’s claims in line with contemporary empirical views on the human animal.

One of the biggest changes in this regard is the divorce between sex and procreation. We not only no longer think of children as a necessary consequence of sex, we no longer think of sex as a necessary prerequisite for children – think, for example, of surrogate mothers. However, since Kant does not rely on this relation for any of his claims (even though his thinking is obviously underlined by it) this aspect of contemporary times doesn’t really bear on his ‘sexual ethics’. We can, perhaps, now assert at the very least that viewing (potentially) procreative sex as ‘natural’ and all alternatives ‘unnatural’ understates the nature of mammalian sexual biology. Canadian biologist Bruce Bagemihl has presented compelling evidence that what he terms biological exuberance in respect of sex is the norm; homosexual and bisexual behaviours occur in some 300 different species, and procreation is just one of many functions that this sexual activity serves (others including group cohesion and lessoning of tensions).

Another change that should be taken into account is in the way we now think about contracts with serious implications. If, for instance, we enter into a long-term contract with (say) a telephone service provider, we are allowed (say) a month in which to cancel this contract without prejudice. Once these kinds of clauses are accepted, Kant’s argument against non-marital contractual sex disappears: the fact that either party can (as he suggested) cancel a verbal contract for sex at any time needn’t invalidate the nature of that contract as long as it stands. As such, therefore, consensual sex becomes an extremely short-term substitute for a marital contract, allowing both parties to use the other’s ‘sexual attributes’ for enjoyment, even though so doing reduces both parties to the status of a thing (or, which is equivalent in Kant’s metaphysics, an animal). The breaking of the connection between sex and procreation via contraception does weigh in on this, and it may be possible to argue that this kind of ‘casual sex contract’ implies the use of contraception.

If our practical anthropology allows for homosexual sex – and the case for this has become quite strong, whether or not (as some people believe), homosexuality is genetically determined – then these two rightful contracts for sexual enjoyment extend naturally to gay people who are just as capable of exercising their autonomous will such matters. Certainly, the ‘casual sex contract’ presents no different issues once homosexuality ceases to be an “unmentionable vice”. Marriage too seems to extend naturally here – after all, Kant already allows that raising children is in no way a prerequisite for marriage. At the very least, it is implied by Kant’s pure theory of right that a contractual relationship equivalent to marriage must be allowed between a homosexual couple (once our practical anthropology validates this kind of sexual relation). That this relationship should be called marriage is neither a metaphysical nor an empirical matter, however, and the issue of what to call such a contract is thus a matter for individual legislatures to wrestle with according to the will of the people it represents.

Kant never married and, we can safely assume, was a virgin his entire life, but his thoughts on sex are not as dated as they may first seem. The idea of a contractual basis for rightful sexual congress is one that we still deem moral today – as indicated by the outrage that accompanies a verdict of rape. We can use each other for sexual enjoyment, even though in so doing we become ‘mere animals’ or ‘things’, solely on the provision that we are consensual equals when we agree do so. This is one of many examples demonstrating how Kant’s metaphysics of morals are as apt today as they were two centuries ago.

Note for Academics

I will be submitting a revised and edited version of the Implicit Game Aesthetics serial that starts today as a paper to an as-yet-undetermined journal or conference. Please help me decide where to publish it as I am really quite unsure!

Parfit's On What Matters

On What MattersI recently finished Derek Parfit’s monstrous epic, On What Matters, Volume 1 and 2, and am currently processing my rather voluminous notes from it. It took me about four months to read this, which isn’t bad for a 1,440 page leviathan, all in all. Although it contains some great material it is far, far too long for what it is and would have seriously benefited from being broken up into shorter, thematically connected books. However, some of the things Parfit does in this work would be impossible in anything other than its current cyclopean tome format.

The first volume was rather less interesting to me than the second, simply because I found Parfit’s methods to be too systematic for his goal. He wants to pick up Kant’s task of uncovering the supreme principle of ethics – and indeed, has a serious stab at revising Kant’s formulae in order to achieve this goal. Revising and expanding some of his work on normative reasons from his earlier Reasons & Persons, Parfit is able to take his ideas much further – in part because he is now a “born again” Kantian, and thus isn’t as held up by the inherent problems with Utilitarianism (as showcased by Rawls and Parfit himself in his first book). Parfit ultimately concludes that Kant’s system, Scanlon’s Contractualism and Rule Consequentialism all coincide when cleaned up in certain ways that he finds plausible – rather than being competing ethical systems, their exponents were “climbing the same mountain on different sides”.

I have a lot of sympathy for Parfit’s (volume 1) conclusion, in so much as I believe that all ethical systems are in essence transformable from one to another. However, I see Parfit’s Triple Theory, like Shelly Kagan’s Kantian Consequentialism and other specific instances of apparent moral philosophy convergence, as being just one instance of the kind of crossover in ethical thinking that occurs because of commonality in imaginative ideals and underlying elements such as empathy. The Triple Theory is unsatisfying, however, in that Parfit has had to conduct some considerable violence to Kant’s project in order to make it reach his very high standards – namely, to make it logically and mathematically sound. He basically has to remodel it until it very nearly is Rule Consquentialism, and thus it’s not wholly surprising that after this make-over they seem to “fit together like two pieces in a jig-saw puzzle.”

Volume 2, however, immediately justifies itself by commencing with a series of essays by various moral philosophers that respond to and critique Parfit’s first volume. This odd state of affairs came about since the material originated as a lecture series, plus drafts of the book have been in circulation for quite some time. (Indeed, a book entitled Essays on Derek Parfit’s On What Matters was published two years before the book itself!) The response essays that open the second volume are all great reading – and in fact the contribution by Allen Wood is my favourite part of the entire project. Wood (perhaps the greatest living Kant scholar) supports some of Parfit’s points before cogently arguing against Trolley Problems and similar thought experiments (which are key to volume 1’s argument) claiming they are “utterly disastrous” and “far worse than useless for moral philosophy”. For me, this essay isn’t just the best thing about On What Matters, it’s my favourite paper on moral philosophy bar none. Parfit’s response to Wood’s contribution, frankly, doesn’t seem to wrestle with the depth of the objection it raises.

Parfit is at his best in the main body of the second volume, in which he presents his meta-ethical theory in a formal but slightly scattershot fashion. There are some great sections here, none of which depend on having read volume 1 – which makes me think some philosophers would do better to focus on the second part alone. Some of my favourite moments are here in the minutiae, particularly in Parfit’s critique of Nietzsche which lands right before closing time. With a straight face, Parfit writes:

In other passages, Nietzsche returns to the aim of revaluing all values. We need, he claims, new values. But Nietzsche says little about these values. In his last published attempt to revalue values, The Anti-Christ, Nietzsche merely returns to attacking Christian values. Nietzsche hopes for ‘a new nobility’, whose ‘formula for happiness’ would be ‘a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal’. That is not a helpful formula.

Nietzsche’s brand of poetic madness is about as perpendicular to Parfit’s logical, methodical process as is conceivable, and reading the latter’s thoughts on the former is thoroughly entertaining. Personally, I’d have put material like this up front instead of opening with the mind-numbing sequence of definitions that clog up the start of the first volume.

Ultimately, reading On What Matters is like being locked in a room with a mad genius for a week while he carefully explains his theories. There is much to commend it, but it’s also seriously heavy going – not because it’s too complex, but just because it is so verbose, and so systematically unwieldy. Fans of Parfit’s earlier philosophy are likely to be underwhelmed by this new work, which doesn’t contain anything quite as spectacular as the discussion of Persons in part III of Reasons & Persons, although as a summary of the state of moral philosophy, a source of new points of departure, and as something to gainfully push off against through opposition, On What Matters has a great deal to offer. The books are essential reading for anyone interested in normativity – especially if you are looking for an impassioned defence of the idea that some things really do matter, despite the prevailing sceptical currents in meta-ethics. I can’t recommend it unequivocally, but I certainly don’t regret having tackled it.

Published by Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0199265923.

The Age of Recrimination

Finger We live at a time in which almost everyone has allegations and insinuations to direct against others – politicians, co-workers, neighbours – yet almost no-one thinks ethics is an interesting subject. How can this be?

I fear the bad reputation that ethics has acquired is a result both of the dull tone that academic moral philosophy has fallen into sustaining, and the odd belief that the only thing ethics has to teach is what we shouldn’t do – as if ethics was merely the formal counterpart of law. The idea that ethics could still be, as the Greeks believed, about how we should live, has taken upon a negative context: any possible basis for ‘should’ is either discredited or simply disbelieved. Yet ethics is, and always has been, about our mutual happiness. Somehow, we lost sight of this.

We constantly make moral judgements against others, rarely against ourselves, and thus live within poisonous half-ethical mythologies that make no reference to virtue (except to note its absence), have no mention of duty (except when criticising others for not doing theirs), and have absolute certainty about the consequences of other people not sharing our beliefs, while discounting outright the idea that anyone else has any beliefs worth holding. Recrimination has replaced reflection in our moral world – never mind what I do or don’t do, what you did is so much worse.

The consequences of this corruption of our moral perspectives are deeper than are often credited. The belligerent stalemates in politics, the incremental devastation of the natural world, the return of international imperialism all stem from the same withered tree. In this respect, Alain Badiou has it right when he condemns traditional ethics as being built on an image of evil; we know what is wrong, and it isn’t ourselves but always others:

Ethics is conceived here both as an a priori ability to discern Evil (for according to the modern usage of ethics, Evil – or the negative – is primary: we presume a consensus regarding what is barbarian), and as the ultimate principle of judgement, in particular political judgement: good is what intervenes visibly against an Evil that is identifiable a priori. Law itself is first of all law ‘against’ Evil.

Thus the liberal blames the conservative for their traditional beliefs because this fails to live up to the standards of tolerance liberality demands – despite the fact that this demand (as Badiou also notes) becomes self-defeating. The liberal is hopeless at tolerance; they can only tolerate those people who share their specific liberal values. Thus too the conservative blames the liberal for their “godless” or “progressive” values, yet fails to live up to the demands of the religious traditions they claim to extol and bring about the kind of destructive ‘progress’ they abhor by an unholy alliance between tradition and ever-greedy capitalism. Always, the fault lies elsewhere.

We go awry when we think of ethics solely in the form of moral law because then it seems unachievable, and all that is left is to vilify, persecute and ultimately murder the worst excesses that lie outside this unattainable ideal. Instead, we can recognise our imperfection and uphold moral ideals from within, instead of reflecting them as hostility without. We can praise virtues when we find them, we can be dutiful for its own rewards, we can discuss consequences in the light of the uncertainty that inevitable obscures the future. In short, we can practice ethics personally instead of solely pursuing the persecution of the unethical nationally and internationally. We can return to the original ethical question – how should we live? – and answer it for ourselves by living well.


The puzzle game Clusterpuck, designed by International Hobo and developed by Codename, arrived on PlayStation Home yesterday! The concept and design was developed by Joel Atkinson, under my ever-watchful eye – but neither of us have actually played it yet! During development, Codename sent us videos of player trials and that was our only point of reference for the game.

We’d love to know what people make of Clusterpuck, so please leave a comment if you’ve played it.

Cross-posted from

Purchase Models for Games

Over on ihobo today, some discussion of purchase models that players believe in. Here’s an extract:

Talk about games in recent years has been dominated by the distinctions between the business models for games-as-products and games-as-services. But it may be helpful to also consider the purchase model that players have in their head when the approach a game: is it buy-to-own, or is it pay-to-play?

You can read the whole thing over on

I Kill Mosquitoes

mosquito All my life, mosquitoes have sought out the deep echo of my heartbeat and feasted upon my blood. This leaves me with itchy welts and a resentment towards an insect some say has been responsible for more human deaths throughout history than any other cause. For this reason, I kill any blood-sucking bug I find at home. The sentence for even looking like a mosquito in my house is death.

What interests me about my feud with this particular insect is what this says about my relationship with the natural world, and what this implies about everyone else. I am a vegetarian by diet, and by intention kill no animal for any reason. Only the mosquito is excluded. Although I would draw the line at some insane plan to eradicate all mosquitoes (perhaps by a viral agent or genetic engineering) I feel moral obligations not to kill every other creature. I would never expect anyone else to believe or behave the same way, yet I do consider my moral stance to be sound.

How can this be? How can I defend my own ethic of nature when it conflicts with everyone else’s? The presumption of a moral law requires a clear right or wrong on such issues, and although I support anyone whose ethics are based on a law-conception – and believe law ethics has contributed considerably to our contemporary moral viewpoint – my own beliefs admit a tremendous variety of moral positions. This is the nature of chaos ethics – not a nihilistic denial of the validity of all values, but an acceptance of the myriad ideals that can motivate moral behaviour. Not everything is permitted in such a view, but nothing is given in advance.

Consider the moral tenet that connects to my opening theme: don't kill. For me, this applies to all animal life except the mosquito. Others bound their moral community at their own species – a view grounded in many different ways, from claims about souls to attributions concerning our faculty of reason. For me, however, this boundary is essentially arbitrary. I've met dogs, cats and squirrels that struck me as more rational than some humans I know, and this is not meant as an insult to the latter. It is simply unavoidable that we are a wonderfully irrational animal, and thus suggesting that we can ground our obligation to one another in our capacity for logic seems quite ill-considered (although still theoretically plausible).

Philosopher Mary Midgley makes the point that we are all embedded in diverse communities of concern that are like a series of concentric circles. In the centre, ourselves and our loved ones; our community outside this; and other humans within a still wider circle. Some animals receive better treatments than others within this metaphorical scheme – cats and dogs usually enjoy a closer position to the middle than, say, farm animals, and vermin lie far from the safety of the centre. Vegetarians cast their border wider than most, vegans wider still – except for those who choose to value wildlife above humanity in an odd inversion of the expectations of care. The boundary of respect is not fixed, but shifts according to the ideals of the individual, and while there is some commonality of belief there is no unanimity.

Is there a minimal case, some moral position we all must abide by? If there were, this would be a major concession to moral law since it would mean there are at least some ethical rules that we all should abide by. Venturing towards this goal, Derek Parfit quite plausibly suggests that we all have valid reasons not to wish for suffering, and that this demonstrates that there must be at least some moral principles we would all have reasons to consent to. (Remember that the masochist does not suffer when enjoying pain.) Parfit’s claim may be true, but it could also be trivial, since ‘suffering’ embeds a value judgement that presumes a particular interpretation. So, for that matter, does ‘murder’: I do not claim to murder mosquitoes because this would be tantamount to admitting that what I do is wrong.

Like words, morality finds its grounding in the community it exists within. Just as Wittgenstein likened our use of language to moves in a ‘language-game’, in which the meaning of a word is how it is used within its expected context. Similarly, our moral positions can be compared to ‘moves’ in an ethics-game. It is not a coincidence that one of the more popular approaches to ethics is couched in terms of rules (of which ‘rights’ conceptions, being positive claims, are the most popular modern form). What we are now beginning to explore is the extent of the different ways to play this game – the possible moral chaos ideals available to us. These may not be infinite, but they are more diverse than moral law conceptions suggest.

I kill mosquitoes because they are outside of my community of concern. We have words, like ‘vermin’ and ‘exterminate’ to address our willingness to kill those creatures that lie beyond our threshold of care, and revile those who would take this view on other humans. The triumphant prize of the bloody carnage of the twentieth century was the ideal of the human as the boundary condition for concern – hence ‘human rights’, a concept with an immeasurable debt to Kant, and indeed to the religious traditions that inspired him. Even this ideal is still only provisional, subject to cultural acceptance and potentially open to revision by mutual consent. Morality is not static – it never was. However, that does not render it a mere illusion. The rules of this game are simply subject to perpetual change.