According to Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the moral evaluation of our actions has nothing to do with our feelings, inclinations, and selfish preferences. It also has nothing to do with the actual consequences of our acts. Rather, it is a matter of seeing whether our actions can satisfy the categorical imperative or the unconditional commandment of morality. This commandment, to paraphrase, says: only commit those acts that you can will to be a universal law for all rational people to follow at all times. According to Kant we have a good will if our moral motivation is to obey this law and we do the right thing if we act in accordance with it.
Now, one way we can see whether an action can indeed be willed as a universal law is to see whether or not it presents us with a contradiction of the will (CW). A CW is not strictly logical contradiction (like a square circle which is inconceivable) but a contradiction in the form of a self-defeating action. Such a contradiction is conceivable—we can conceive of someone engaging in self-defeating action—but it is irrational. This means any action that implies a CW cannot be willed as a universal law for all rational people to follow since rational people avoid contradictions.
For example, suicide, according to Kant, is undertaken in order to end some sort of suffering. In fact, he thinks it is done out of self-love. But the suicidal person is, in effect, saying: I need to avoid suffering so, in order to avoid it, I am going to do the worst harm to myself possible: I will kill myself. So we have this:
In order to save myself I will destroy myself.
Does that make sense? No, because it is self-defeating. To be sure, we don’t have a logical contradiction since we don’t have something inconceivable. We can conceive of suicide. But suicide cannot be willed as a universal law that all rational people should follow at all times since it is self-defeating.
In his work Being and Nothingness (1956) Jean-Paul Sartre discusses sadism and masochism (see the sections “First attitude toward others : love, language, masochism” and “Second attitude toward others: indifference, desire, hate, sadism” in part three). He points out that masochists want to be objects and sadists wants to reduce others to objects. Why? To escape the burdens of freedom such as guilt, responsibility, shame, failure, and so on. If people can be objects then they don’t have to worry about something free subjects have, namely, “transcendence” or future possibilities for action. They can, like objects, just be what they are with nothing to worry about. And if people can reduce others to objects then they, too, don’t have to be threatened by transcendence. They can remain who they are and need not worry about those possibilities that typically emerge when two subjects are romantically involved. Thus we see that masochists want their freedom possessed and sadists want to possess the freedom of others.
Now, theories of sadomasochism are quite varied and Sartre’s existential interpretation is one controversial one among others. But if his view holds, and I would think it is bound to be the case for some people, then such practices would be considered immoral for Kant not because of the consequences nor because of our feelings. They would be immoral because when we analyze the very ideas of sadism and masochism we see they entail contradictions of the will.
On one hand, sadists want to make people into objects without subjectivity or transcendence. But, on the other hand, they need the people they objectify to remain free subjects. Sadists don’t go and humiliate dolls. Why not? Because they need a human to acknowledge their presence. But as long as such acknowledgment exists the sadist hasn’t reduced the person to an object. So the sadist is trying to make a human into an doll that will nonetheless remain human.
And masochists are in a similar predicament. On the one hand, they want to be treated as objects with no transcendence. But, on the other hand, they want to be aware that they are objects that lack freedom. But such awareness would show they are still free subjects not objects. Thus the masochist, too, is trying to make a human into a doll that will nonetheless remain human.
So we see that both sadists and masochists, insofar as they are engaged in the self-defeating strategies Sartre describes, are necessarily involved in contradictions of the will and thus act immorally according to Kantian ethics.
For my post on consent in sexual morality, go here.
For my post on whether there can be a science of Eros, go here.
For my post on how three different forms of love can benefit our relationships, go here.
For two posts on love as power, go here.
For my post on love and duty, go here.