I will admit that I am no expert on Kantian moral philosophy. Somebody out there in the Bloggernacle is bound to have done some serious graduate-level studies on his philosophy. If so, feel free to help out here (that goes for all the rest of you too). However, I think I probably read Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals no less than a half-dozen times during my undergraduate years. So I hope I learned something…
It seems to me that the Church’s counsel that women (and particularly mothers) should remain in the home is grounded primarily in a utilitarian ethic. Utilitarianism (a branch of consequentialist ethics), in short, views the moral quality of an act based on the consequences of that act. Women are asked to stay home because the consequences of that act, the better rearing of children and a higher quality family and home life. On the other hand, it might also be grounded in a theory of virtue ethics, which would view the decision to stay home as evidence of a desirable character trait, such as selflessness or charity. (I am not sure that a virtue ethicist would see obedience qua obedience as a virtue.)
But what about a deontological theory, one based on duty? Can a rule of “women should remain in the home” be grounded in deontological moral philosophy? Probably the most famous of the deontological theories is Kant’s categorical imperative. In its first formulation, Kant said “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” Can we will that our notion that women ought to stay home be universalized? As a practical matter, I am not sure that the removal of all women from the market economy is even possible. Furthermore, I don’t think that such a thing would be desirable. Many women (perhaps most women) make valuable and essential contributions in their workplaces, including such formative areas as medicine and education. Also, are we sure that all women would make more valuable contributions in the home? From personal experience, I doubt that very seriously. On the other hand, I think that the opposite rule, that “all women should work outside the home”, fails the first test of the categorical imperative as well.
The second formulation of the categorical imperative is as follows: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end.” This is diametrically opposed to a consequentialist ethic, and, as I noted above, I think that is the primary ground in moral philosophy for the Church’s counsel. It would be difficult to see how asking women to remain in the home in order to improve the quality of their family’s home life and to raise children does not treat them as means to those ends. However, the second formulation says that we should not treat others “merely as a means to an end.” Is there some way in which asking women to remain in the home treats them as an end-in-themselves? For some women, perhaps this is true. But for many, such as those who overtly objected to elements of Pres. Beck’s last Conference talk, they do not feel as though they are being taking seriously as individuals apart from their families and children (this was my primary interpretation of the backlash to that speech in my earlier post on that subject). Again, another rule that demands that all women enter the workforce, presumably in order to increase the GDP or to push the cause of feminism forward, would just as easily fail this rule.
The third formulation is “Therefore, every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends.” This third formulation seems to simply run both the first and second together. We must ask whether we can will a rule that will treat all those under that rule as ends in themselves. I won’t analyze this separately, since the rule already failed both of the first two rules.
Where does this leave us? As you might have guess, Kantian moral philosophy is all about how you define and delimit the rule. While we might more readily accept a rule that some women or my wife/sister/daughter/etc. ought to stay home, Kantian philosophy would reject them all, since they must in the end be universalized. What Kantian ethics might support is a rule that allows individual women and their families to choose their own situation. Leaving women an open choice as to their situation is a rule which can (and in my opinion ought to be) universalized (it is essentially the rule that operates outside the Church), and furthermore it treats women as ends in themselves (though whether it treats their children as means only is an open question in my mind).
I want to know people’s thoughts, especially those who might have a little more background in moral philosophy who can help me work out the kinks in this admittedly under-developed and cursorily-described hypothesis (or if necessary, shoot it down altogether).