Kantian Care

In Amy Baehr & Asha Bhandary (eds.), Caring for Liberalism: Dependency and Liberal Political Theory. New York, USA: Routledge. pp. 50-74 (2021)
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How do we care well for a human being: ourselves or another? Non-Kantian scholars rarely identify the philosophy of Kant as a particularly useful resource with which to understand the full complexity of human care. Kant’s philosophy is often taken to presuppose that a philosophical analysis of good human life needs to attend only to how autonomous, rational agents—sprung up like mushrooms out of nowhere, without a childhood, never sick, always independent—ought to act respectfully, and how they can be forced to interact rightfully. Questions involving aspects of human life captured by what Eva Kittay aptly phrased “the fact of dependency” (1999) —such as our vulnerable, fragile, and embodied social natures, asymmetrical care relations, and deep systemic injustices—are therefore commonly thought to be beyond the grasp of Kant and of Kantian philosophy. Against this historically prominent understanding of Kant’s practical philosophy, below I engage and draw upon recent Kant scholarship which shows both the inadequacy of such rationalist readings and the fruitfulness of using Kant’s practical philosophy to enhance our understanding of human care relations. After situating my approach in the existing, relevant secondary literature on Kant’s human agent, I explore key features of Kant’s accounts of human nature and the highest good. I pay special attention to his proposal that our human nature comprises reflective and unreflective aspects and patterns that we (ought to) strive to develop, transform, and integrate in wise ways through our faculty of desire. In addition, I emphasize the dangers that our ineradicable propensity to do bad things (evil) poses for our projects of self- and other- care. I proceed by outlining how Kant’s account of moral (ethical and legal) responsibility for self and others is developed through his theories of freedom, that is, through his theory of virtue (virtuous internal freedom with its account of perfect and imperfect duties) and his theory of right (rightful external freedom with its account of innate, private, and public right). On the conception I am advancing, we are pretty messy, fragile, and vulnerable beings whose projects of caring are difficult, ongoing, and complex. On the one hand, we (should) strive to care for ourselves (by striving to manage and heal badly functioning parts and by developing, transforming, and integrating immature or distinct parts of ourselves into good wholes) and for others (assisting them in their projects of management and healing and of developing, transforming, and integrating themselves into good wholes) in ways that are both respectful and attentive to the particular people we are—people with lives of our own to live—and the kinds of relationships we share. On the other hand, we should, and can, be forced to interact rightfully, meaning interaction consistent with one another’s basic (innate, private, and public) rights and, hence, contribute to reform projects that improve our inherited, imperfect legal-political systems with regard to care relations. Bringing Kant’s philosophy into dialogue with care theorists, I conclude, advances the insights of both traditions by showing one way to arrive at a multifaceted, yet unified account of human care relations where our embodied, social as well as our rational natures are given due consideration.



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Helga Varden
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

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