Angelina Grimke's Letter 12 and Kantian Ethics

Introduction

This lesson has two main purposes. The first is to illustrate to students how one could apply the Kantian argument that one should not treat others merely as means. This is done by introducing them to an open letter written by the early feminist and abolitionist writer and activist Angelina Grimké in 1838 in which she explicitly argues that men have treated women as mere means. The second is to draw attention, in a way meaningful for students, to the fact that when we think about right and wrong, we often fail to consider others in really problematic ways that later seem obviously mistaken.

Texts and Courses

Primary Texts:

  • Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals
  • Angelina Grimké’s Letter 12, “Human Rights Not Founded On Sex”

Background Readings for Instructors or Students:

Courses

Introduction to ethics, Introduction to Philosophy, History of Ethics, Feminist Ethics, Political Philosophy

Overview

Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative / the Humanity Formula, that we never treat others as mere means but as ends-in-themselves, is often the most straightforward formulation for students to track. This lesson begins by demonstrating one way in which Kant’s theory could be applied, by looking at an open letter written by Angelina Grimké in 1838. Angelina, and her sister Sarah, were two of the earliest major figures in American feminism and were active fighters for both abolition and for women’s rights (which they saw as intrinsically connected). The assigned reading is an open letter written by Angelina to Catherine Beecher (the sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe), who Angelina criticized for her claim that though women should be educated, they should still hold a subservient place in society.

Angelina’s argument in the assigned reading explicitly follows Kantian lines. She writes powerfully (in a passage that should be highlighted in class):

“This regulation of duty by the mere circumstance of sex, rather than by the fundamental principle of moral being has led to all that multifarious train of evils flowing out of the anti-Christian doctrine of masculine and feminine virtues. By this doctrine, man has been converted into the warrior, and clothed with sternness, and those other kindred qualities, which in common estimation belong to his character as a man; whilst woman has been taught to lean upon an arm of flesh, to sit as a doll arrayed in 'gold, and pearls, and costly array,' to be admired for her personal charms, and caressed and humored like a spoiled child, or converted into a mere drudge to suit the convenience of her lord and master…This principle has given to man a charter for the exercise of tyranny and selfishness, pride and arrogance, lust and brutal violence. It has robbed woman of essential rights, the right to think and speak and act on all great moral questions, just as men think and speak and act; the right to share their responsibilities, perils and toils; the right to fulfil the great end of her being, as a moral, intellectual and immortal creature, and of glorifying God in her body and her spirit which are His. Hitherto, instead of being a help meet to man, in the highest, noblest sense of the term, as a companion, a co-worker, an equal; she has been a mere appendage of his being an instrument of his convenience and pleasure, the pretty toy with which he wiled away his leisure moments, or the pet animal whom he humored into playfulness and submission.”

In an extension of this argument, Angelina Grimké goes on to criticize romantic ideals about women that actually serve to oppress them”: “This idea of woman's being 'the last best gift of God to man,' however pretty it may sound to the ears of those who love to discourse upon 'the poetry of romantic gallantry, and the generous promptings of chivalry,' has nevertheless been the means of sinking her from an end into a mere means…” (italics added for emphasis)

Once the students understand how Grimké’s argument can be seen as a version of a Kantian argument, then transition to the second part of the class. The goal of this part of the class is for students to examine their own moral attitudes and beliefs. Directly address the fact that Kant was baldly sexist and racist (the optional reading by Hay is accessible for intro level students and discusses this issue). Ask students how it is that a person who could argue so admirably that we have obligations to respect the humanity of all people could have left out most human beings from the scope of his moral principle. Help students to see that this wasn’t just a mistake of Kant’s – that all of us can and do make moral mistakes about treating everyone with the dignity, humanity, and respect they deserve – that we all have moral blind-spots. 

Discussion Questions

  • Do you or someone you know fail to apply their moral beliefs consistently? Have you ever had an experience where you realized you weren’t treating someone as morally as you should because of their social identity?
  • How can we protect against the danger of failing to treat others as moral equals because of aspects of their social identity?
  • (In a completely different direction, but may be interesting for some classes): Grimké leans very much on her Christian religious beliefs to support her ethical arguments against sexism and against slavery. But, the vast majority of Christians she was responding to disagreed with her. What should this tell us about using religious reasons in ethical disagreements? Can they be truly convincing to the other side? Do we actually have more fundamental ethical beliefs that we justify post-hoc with religious claims? What is the proper role of using religious claims in public debates?