Associate 2013-14

Helga Varden


A Kantian Theory of Sexuality

Most Americans today agree that dogmatic stalemates undermine our public discourse. These stalemates result partly from a drive for dominance, but also from the premise that a single, authoritative answer exists for every moral question, in all contexts. Professor Varden challenges this premise in her book-length project, A Kantian Theory of Sexuality. 

Human freedom, for Kant, is the ability responsibly to set and pursue ends of our own. His theory refuses the pluralist claim that several values co-exist at a foundational level, because freedom is the foundational value. Yet, intriguingly, he insists that respect for freedom involves distinguishing between ethical and legal-political analyses, as well as making appropriate accommodation for issues concerning human nature. In extending Kant’s multi-dimensional treatment of complex issues, Professor Varden aims to demonstrate why engagement with central public questions must involve distinguishing different, yet compatible, normative perspectives: ethical, legal, religious, social, historical, and personal. Her lens is sexuality, one of the most relevant and controversial contemporary public conversations. Importantly, too, there is no comprehensive philosophical theory of sexuality, including in Kant scholarship today. A Kantian Theory of Sexuality will help to fill that void, while also charting a course beyond polarized scholarly and political impasses by correcting the mistaken assumption that there is one correct analysis of any phenomenon.

The book is divided into two parts. Early chapters consider why and how analyses from the different normative points of view differ and yet complement each other in a more comprehensive, Kantian analysis of freedom. The resulting theoretical framework is then applied to discussions of issues of sexuality, such as same-sex marriage, prostitution, and abortion, in the second part. During her Center appointment, Professor Varden plans to draft the book’s two final chapters and fully develop and refine the completed manuscript.