Implications for Moral Status and Uniqueness of Women
  • Mpho TshivhaseEmail author
Living reference work entry
Part of the Handbooks in Philosophy book series (HP)


Certain descriptions of personhood imbue an individual with a particular kind of moral status. There are different person-making capacities that are generally laid out as central to the idea of personhood. Some of the person-making capacities are what people generally refer to as the grounding of certain normative requirements that enable us to respond to individuals as entities with a moral status. Herein personhood is a matter of certain capacities that create one’s moral status. These descriptions of personhood bring about a specific structure of identification that has implications for moral accountability. In this paper I aim to interpret the person-making capacities and argue that they can, in some sense, be limiting, and this may be the case in relation to women as a gender group whose personhood has not always been fairly recognized. I will argue that a view of personhood whose person-making capacities exclude a gender group can have negative implications, and I will explore two implications that I think have this negative attitude. On the one hand, a conception of personhood, especially in the descriptive sense that prioritizes rationality and free will above all else, could imply that women, by virtue of lacking such capacities, are not to be considered as individuals with a moral status, wherein society cannot hold them accountable for their actions, nor would they be able to hold others morally accountable. On the other hand, and this second implication relates to difference in the sense of uniqueness, which is grounded on personhood – if women are denied the status of a person, then they would also be excluded from exploring their uniqueness qua radical difference.


Pershonhood Uniqueness Moral responsibility Dignity Rationality Women Autonomy 


The dignity of individuals can be considered as the foundation for values such as rights and moral worth. There are generally two possible senses in which individuals tend to attach to the idea of “personhood.” On the one hand, personhood encompasses the biological mode of being that is dictated to us by nature. Thinkers such as Kwame Gyekye (1992) seem to defend this idea in terms of the ontological reality of individuals, which ought to be distinguished from the moral reality that is socially determined by one’s surrounding. Another possible way to think of this sense of personhood is in terms of types. Here, a person is a type of species whose biological makeup distinguishes her from, for instance, cats and mice. The dignity that is connected to the idea of personhood is often used to indicate and defend intuitions about the elevated value of persons. Here, persons are to be regarded as more valuable than animals and other nonpersons. Thinkers such as Kant, Locke, and Aristotle champion this idea of human persons as possessing a value higher than those of nonpersons in virtue of their nature as rational beings.

The second sense of personhood that one comes across in the literature prioritizes the idea of the moral value of persons. This sense of personhood lends itself to the values that become relevant when people consider issues regarding human rights, respect, autonomy, justice, and so forth. Any morally laden view of personhood supports ideas about many of the social principles that people generally think form part of our acceptable standards of human interaction, wherein such interaction does not involve the violation of other people’s well-being. In general, people tend to show more regard for those who carry the status of personhood as opposed to those who do not. Although they have endorsed the idea of personhood by advancing different arguments, thinkers such as Ifeanyi Menkiti (2004), Dismas Masolo (2010), and Kwasi Wiredu (1992), have tended to attach morality to personhood, so that being a person signifies having a certain moral status, which affords one a different level of consideration than nonpersons. Herein, the abovementioned thinkers tend to prioritize relationality as the key aspect of personhood and criticize the monadic approach to personhood, which isolates some criterion about humans as a mark for personhood. What they find significant about personhood is the moral value it imbues in persons, where such value is a matter of relationality.

While the abovementioned senses of personhood differ, the ideas expressed by each school of thought on personhood are in some sense related. The second view of moral personhood necessarily depends on biological personhood (See Ikuenobe 2006; Gyekye 1992). One cannot have moral personhood without biological personhood such that the moral sense of a person is dependent on the biological nature of persons. This consideration necessitates the view that persons are necessarily human beings, and as such, this need not take anything away from the value-laden distinction drawn between humans and persons. Moreover, it is this fact of the human body as a necessary requirement for personhood that adds a further point of discrimination between persons and animals. Animals, irrespective of their assumed cognitive abilities or lack thereof, can never be considered persons since they lack the human body (Sapontzis 1981, 608).

There are views that describe the relation between the notions of metaphysical and moral personhood. The relation that I am interested in, for the purpose of this chapter, has to do with illustrating the necessary condition relationship between these two senses of personhood. Herein rationality is the necessary condition for morality (Sapontzis 1981, 613). This necessary condition relationship between the descriptive and the moral senses of personhood interests me because they are relevant in the feminist charge against Immanuel Kant, whose view of the moral worth of women is said to dehumanize women (Moller-Okin 1982). I want to argue that this dehumanization of women is a result of women not being regarded as persons.

When considering the personhood of women in particular, one could easily dismiss the my concern on the ground that biologically they count as persons. While I do not contest this view, I do find that it is the moral sense of personhood that primarily concerns me. The reason I would like to bring focus to the personhood of women in particular has to do with the suspicion that women, in some theories of personhood, are not considered to possess person-making capacities, which ultimately precludes their freedom to participate in the society as beings with the necessary moral status that eventually makes them morally accountable. Such a moral status, which is attached to personhood, would also enable women to hold other people morally accountable for their actions. I want to illustrate how certain conceptions of personhood fail to consider women as persons, a mistake that I think has imperceptibly influenced the marginalization of women in society in general.

There seems to be many different ways in which women are disregarded on a regular basis. I want to use this chapter to illustrate two forms of the perception of women that stem from the manner in which personhood is formulated. I want to argue that personhood, in the descriptive sense that we have inherited from Immanuel Kant, does not leave much room for women to be considered as moral persons. The Kantian view of persons proposes criteria for personhood that disregard women. Herein, I want to argue that the person-making capacities are designed in a way that eventually pushes women to the category of nonpersons. My concern is that such relegation precludes women from participating in society as beings with the capacity for moral agency. Even more alarming is the fact that, as such, women would be held morally accountable for their actions and they would become constrained so that they would be unable to impose moral accountability on another individual since their status is that of nonpersons, which is akin to the status of things and/or animals whose existence is often perceived to be valuable insofar as they meet the conditions of utility.

The second aspect involves the homogenization of “women” - an aspect that logically follows from the status of nonperson that is appropriated to women. Herein, there seems to be a dangerous view that since women are not moral agents because they lack personhood, it follows that they lack the tools to distinguish themselves from others. Put differently, due to women being nonpersons, they lack the necessary mental capacities to construct their uniqueness so that we come to understand women as similar with no possibility of any woman existing as the only individual that is she. This view holds if we accept my procedural theory of uniqueness, which I construct as a matter of distinction that is grounded on personhood. Procedural uniqueness is a view about a person’s one-within-a-kind distinction that sets her apart from any other persons. Such uniqueness is not an aspect about individuals that can be constructed without the existence of personhood since it is, in large part, one’s personhood that one distinguishes when one engages in a process of constructing uniqueness.

In the first section of this paper, I will discuss Kant’s view that women’s actions are morally deficient with the aim to show how this moral deficiency, in view of Kant’s moral view of personhood, denies women personhood. I will then use the second section to explore the implications of such relegation and argue that the denial of women’s moral agency is the reason to reject the moral sense of personhood. Autonomy, if we follow the logic of Kantian and the Gyekyean senses personhood, are crucial to one’s sense of self, so much so that one’s dignity is violated if such autonomy is limited. My view is that the denial of autonomy takes away from the dignity of women such that women need not be respected and need not be expected to respect others in turn.

In the third section, I will explore the second aspect of discrimination or exclusion, which has to do with the homogeneity of category and/or condition of woman. I will sketch the view that the homogenization of woman precludes women from forming their uniqueness. I will argue that it is crucial for women to be seen to have the capacity for personhood, same as men, because without personhood, they cannot begin to construct their uniqueness, since uniqueness is really the distinguishing aspect about a person. I will conclude with the recommendation that there is a need to revise the way we think of personhood in order to release the concept from the exclusionary grip of male dominance. I think that it is this concept of personhood that has, in part, contributed to maintaining the view of women as individuals who lack self-governance and/or agency.

I will start by explaining Kant’s supposition that women are morally deficient and illustrate how this supposition ultimately denies women the personhood status. I will then briefly discuss personhood in order to neatly show what it means to be a person. Thereafter, I will discuss the two implications of personhood for women, namely, lack of moral accountability and inability to molds one’s uniqueness.

Women as Morally Deficient Beings

Kant’s regard for women is questionable since the implications of the ideas he promotes about women’s actions and their moral worth in his Observation of the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime (O). Kant’s view of women seems to be partly captured in the following passage:

The virtue of woman is a beautiful virtue. That of the male sex ought to be a noble virtue. Women will avoid evil not because it is unjust, but because it is ugly, and for them virtuous actions mean those that are ethically beautiful. Nothing of ought, nothing of must, nothing of obligation. To a woman anything by way of orders and sullen compulsion is insufferable. They do something only because they love to, and the art lies in making sure that they love only what is good. (O 2:232)

Women, according to Kant, are virtuous beings whose virtuosity is a matter of loving what is beautiful and good. Their ethical considerations are a matter of beauty, not principles. Women, while they are good individuals who do good things, their ethical considerations are not motivated by duty, rather, by inclinations. He, in a sense, asserts that women are not and cannot be moral agents since their behavior is motivated by inclinations and not rationality or duty (O 2:232). Kant shows clearly in his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals that duty is grounded on autonomy, where only acts that are performed from the motive of duty possess moral value (G 4:397–4:398). “I pass over all actions that are already recognized as contrary to duty, even though they might be useful for this or that aim; for with them the question cannot arise at all whether they might be done from duty, since they even conflict with it” (G 4:397). It matters to Kant to distinguish between acts that are done from duty and those done from other motives. The case of the shopkeeper is useful in this regard. In the case of the shopkeeper, he chooses to be honest with his clients; however, his honesty lacks esteem or moral value because, while being honest conforms to morality, the motive behind his honesty is not duty. It is for the latter reason that his action is not considered morally valuable (G 4:397–398; Korsgaard, 177–178; Mikkola 2011). The shopkeeper’s act of serving his customers honestly is not a matter of duty; it is a self-serving matter. In this sense it differs from the kind of moral deficiency that Kant claims plagues women’s actions. In brief, Kant finds women’s actions morally deficient because he thinks they are done from inclination.

Upon consideration in line with other views that Kant expresses in his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, there are connotations in the idea that women are morally deficient that one cannot ignore. Based on the structure of his moral theory, to say that women act out of inclinations is to assert that they do not act out of reason. Rationality is the seat of autonomy, so that without rationality one cannot be considered to be autonomous. The crux of his moral reasoning is that it is only persons who have the capacity for rationality, thus it is only persons who possess the moral status since they understand the demand of duty, which makes their actions noble. This is, in part, how Kant comes to identify rationality as the person-making feature. In doing so, he works women out of the category of persons as their lack of rationality indicates a lack of autonomy, where such a lack holds by virtue of their nature as women, which is, simply put, something other than male.

Susan Moller Okin notes that by making rationality the fundamental precondition for morality, Kant dehumanizes women as he asserts that women know nothing of morality, i.e., duty and obligation (1982, 82). Consequently, the view that women are morally deficient necessitates the judgment that they lack autonomy. The lack of autonomy is another particularly worrying aspect since, on the Kantian view, autonomy is the foundation of dignity. To classify women as morally deficient is tantamount to viewing them as something other than human; thus relegating them from the category of persons which, and I agree with Pauline Kleingeld, is quite dreadful (Kleingeld 1993, 134).

Mikkola (2011, 92–94) warns that one should not be too quick to judge Kant’s view of women as deplorable. She suggests that one should look at what Kant means when he states that women act out of inclination and not duty or obligation. In order to do so, one has to consider what it is that makes an action morally worthy. On Kant’s view actions are morally worthy when they are motivated by duty. When one acts out of duty for the sake of duty, then that action is considered to have moral worth. Mikkola asserts a distinction between acts that are in accordance with duty, that is, acts that have legality, and acts that are performed from duty, that is, acts that have morality (2011, 95). On this view, it would appear that women’s moral deficiency is a matter of the latter issue regarding acts motivated by duty. While women accord with duty in the legal sense, their actions lack moral worth because women act without consideration for moral requirement, and in this way they prioritize inclination. Ultimately, their actions are devoid of moral esteem. It is not to say that women are wicked people; it simply means that they perform good acts for the wrong reasons. The reason that matters for performing good actions involves viewing goodness as a moral requirement, something that Kant seems to argue that women are incapable of.

Overall, Mikkola rejects that view that Kant views women as morally deficient and ultimately portrays them as nonpersons with a relative value. Her main reason for defending Kant is that he, at no point, explicitly states that women are nonmoral nonpersons. She does admit that there are inconsistencies in his work that open up the possibility of interpretations that regard his view of women to be that they do not count as persons, which would be deplorable. While there is merit in her generous interpretation of Kant’s view of women, her approach in defending him seems to rely mainly in showing that there is no specific area in the text where Kant writes explicitly that women are morally deficient nonpersons. Although this is true, it would strike one inconsistent since the very defense of Kant is itself based, in most part, on interpretive statements that Kant never explicitly wrote. If we cannot accept the objections to Kant’s work because there is no textual reference for them, it should hold that we should not defend his work based on arguments that lack textual reference.

Say one gives Mikkola’s view the benefit of the doubt and accepts her defense of Kant’s consideration of women as persons. Based on his view of morality, it seems difficult to ignore that the logic of his moral view makes it challenging to think that women count as persons when they act mainly from inclinations and not rationality. Given the centrality of dignity for personhood, where dignity is derived from autonomy, which is grounded in rationality, it seems difficult to argue that Kant considers women to be persons when he excludes rationality as the basis for their actions. For Mikkola’s defense of Kant to hold, she would have to show that Kant regards women to have rational will as this would provide grounding for their objective value, i.e., dignity. Kant is pretty clear about women doing good deeds, not because it is noble and morally required to do so, but because they think it is beautiful to be virtuous (O 2:232). It is the structure of Kantian logic that Mikkola would have to explain away in order for her view to convince readers that Kant regards women to be rational in the nondiscriminatory way that her view aims to illustrate.

The exclusion of women from the category of rational beings, i.e., persons, has certain consequences, but I will mention only two. The first consequence has to do with moral accountability. Given that women’s actions lack moral worth, how can we hold them responsible for their actions? The reverse consideration is also worrying, namely, how do women then hold others morally responsible for their actions, especially when they are in violation of a woman’s well-being? My second concern, which is closely tied to the idea of personhood, has to do with the possibility of women defining themselves as individuals who are radically distinct from any other individual. My concerns will make more sense after I illustrate, in the next section, that Kantian logic works women out of the category of personhood.


Different conceptions of personhood emphasize different aspects of what it means to be a person (See Tshivhase 2013). While the debates about personhood noticeably distinguish between two approaches, namely, the African and the Western approaches in order to illustrate what matters in personhood, I wish to set aside the differences and focus on one possible point of similarity. This is not to say that the differences in these theories do not matter, simply that for the purposes of the task I have set in this chapter, it will suffice to argue that at bottom proponents of either of the two abovementioned approaches seemingly use personhood as a reference for awarding certain social values that, in most instances, inform the worth of an individual.

Immanuel Kant provides a theory of personhood that is both descriptive and morally loaded. It is descriptive in the sense that it isolates a certain capacity as necessary for an individual to be considered a person. For Kant, the necessary person-making capacity is rationality. In other words, what it means to be a person is a matter of existing as a being of a rational nature – a thinking being. Herein the psychological capacity of reason is regarded a necessary and sufficient condition for personhood (Snowdon 1995, 655; See Locke 1689). This view of persons as rational beings with the ability to think and reflect on lived experiences is central to arguments that aim to show a distinction between animals and persons. The distinction is often framed in a way that indicates characteristic differences between animals and persons with aim to show that there is something in the nature of persons that differs from that of animals. Moreover, it is the value that persons have by virtue of being persons that makes them more valuable than animals (Zagzebski 2001, 407; Sapontzis 1981, 610–614). Arguably, animals, trees, and material objects lack this capacity to reason. Thought of in this way, it is undeniable that man-made things and trees do not have the mental capacity to think, and, thus, the view that rationality distinguishes person from animals and other nonpersons is quite plausible.

The notion that rationality is a necessary and sufficient condition for personhood is met with some objections. Firstly, the view excludes beings such as fetuses and infants from being regarded as persons (Laitinen 2007, 251). Secondly, it is, in Zagzebski’s view, possible for a person to exist without all aspects of rationality so that it becomes possible for a being without all aspects of rationality to be a person (2001 405). For instance, while solving mathematical equations requires rationality, many have existed and continue to exist without that capacity.

Furthermore, the monadic definition of personhood such as Kant’s is slightly removed from lived experience. It seems empty to speak of capacities without taking into account the fact of socialization. According to Laitinen, socialization is central to the development of capacities such as rationality, ability to discriminate right from wrong, ability to plan, and so forth (2007, 261). Laitinen’s point is that person-making capacities are a matter of development wherein such development or actualization occurs through social interactions with other people. Laitinen’s argument in this case echoes the views of those who emphasize the importance of relationality, over and above individual capacities in a definition of personhood.

Thinkers who champion the normative view of personhood generally reject the descriptive view of personhood in favor of a more communal definition, which emphasizes an individual’s connectedness with others (Behrens 2013; Menkiti 1984, 2004; Masolo 2010; Ikuenobe 2006). On the communal view of persons, what is means to be a person is a matter that can be conferred or denied by the community (Manzini 2018, 20–22). Personhood is also not a static aspect about an individual; rather it is something that one develops as one interacts with others. One is not born a person. One becomes a person through relations with others. In this sense, it is possible to lose one’s personhood (Tshivhase 2013, 121–123). What matters most on this relational view of persons is that persons see themselves not as independent substances, but as people whose sense of being and sense of morality is closely tied to the people around them, so that what it means to become a person necessarily involves recognition from others.

It is crucial to understand that while Kant’s conception of personhood is mainly descriptive, it forms the foundation for the value of persons, which is central to his ideas of morality. On the Kantian conception of a person, it is necessary for an individual to possess rationality in order to have dignity, where dignity is a value that sets persons apart from nonpersons. Dignity is also the value that commands other persons to treat you with respect because it is your dignity that persons respond to when they treat you well (G 4:434–4:440). In other words, dignity is what gives individuals the appropriate moral worth, and it is rationality that grounds this value so that beings that lack dignity are considered to be nonpersons and consequently lack the capacity to act for ends.

It is this aspect of personhood that makes it possible or persons to be moral beings who can be held morally responsible for their actions. In the same vein, it is rationality that makes it possible for persons to hold other persons responsible for their actions. Thus one can say that rationality, as conceived of in Kantian personhood, limits morality, i.e., moral accountability and moral value, to persons so that those who are not persons cannot participate within the moral sphere. Overall, persons are perceived as beings that possess the capacity to think/reason/deliberate. According to Kant, rationality is the seat of autonomy, and it is from autonomy we derive dignity (See Korsgaard 2008).

The notion of dignity that Kant advances in his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals is one upon which persons should ground their moral consideration for others. Herein persons are expected to respond to another’s dignity with respect. One is to understand the dignity of oneself and that of another as the value that restrains one from violating oneself or another’s well-being. David Velleman (1999), much like Linda Zagzebski, notes the value of dignity as a value that distinguishes persons from animals. Velleman asserts this view in order to support the idea the dignity affords persons a value that gives them irreplaceable and incomparable worth. Velleman uses Kant’s notion that dignity exalts a person’s worth above price (1999, 368–369). Kant makes a distinction between price and dignity; he illustrates that things that have a price can be compared in value and are thus replaceable (G 4:434). In relation to persons, talk of replaceability does not fit as dignity is kind of value that escapes comparability and replaceability.

The idea of rationality as the mark of personhood or moral beings is also present in the works of thinkers such as Plato (1955) and Aristotle (1981). While they argue for the centrality of rationality for different reasons, they do maintain that it is rationality that grounds moral life so that those who lack such capacity for rationality cannot be considered to possess any moral value.

Thinkers such as Mogobe Ramose (2002) have expressed concern regarding, what appears to be, an exclusionary view of persons. Ramose responds to Aristotle’s view that humans are marked by their rational nature. Though Ramose’s rejection of Aristotle has more to do with defending the need for inclusivity in scholarship of Philosophy, it is clear, that at bottom, Ramose takes issue with the isolation of one aspect about beings as the mark of humanity wherein such a mark distinguishes you from other species by essentially affording those who possess this characteristic i.e., rationality, with a value above those who lack it. The view that “[m]an is a rational animal” gives centrality to the capacity for reasoning in much the same way that Kant’s view of persons does. Ramose’s response to the idea of rationality as the center of human existence, whether used to illustrate intelligence (Aristotle) or as a mark of moral value (Kant), illustrates the danger of placing one aspect of humans as the defining element of being.

What is important to take here is the point about rationality as the mark for personhood, wherein rationality is what matters when it comes to the moral consideration of individuals. Rationality is the foundation for autonomy (Kagan 2002, 114–117). Without autonomy, one cannot speak of dignity since dignity is grounded in autonomy. The aim of this section was mainly to point out the aspect that has become central to some Western conceptions of personhood, i.e., rationality.

In the next section, I plan to argue that the logic of the Kantian conception of personhood does not leave much room to consider women as members of the community of persons. I wish to show that this logic runs the risk of excluding women from the category of moral agents as they could easily be classified as nonpersons. Ultimately, Kant sets up his moral view of persons with the aim to show the difference between morally worthy actions and morally worthless actions. His view is that acts derive their moral value from the moral agent performing them. In other words, acts are morally worthy insofar as they are performed from the motive of duty. An individual who performs a good act from the motive of inclinations fails to demonstrate moral concern and so can be found to be morally deficient. Interestingly, Kant’s view of women, as expressed in the Observations of the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime, portrays woman as lacking moral conviction. If my interpretation of Kant’s view of persons in relation to women holds, then I want to assert a further argument that if we accept Kant’s view, then we run a further risk of preventing women from constructing their own uniqueness as individual persons, and so, support views that aim to portray those belonging to the category of women to possess some kind of homogenous identity that is ascribed by socially determined stereotypes.

Moral Accountability and Uniqueness

The argument I plan to illustrate and defend here has to do with the moral worth of women. I have argued, following Okin’s view, that by virtue of arguing that women act from the motivation of inclinations and not duty, Kant removes them from the realm of rational an autonomous individuals so that they are considered morally deficient in the sense of nonpersons. In this section I want to show the ramifications of such a view. If one accepts that women are, in a sense, nonpersons whose acts are morally deficient, then one will struggle to give any moral weight to women themselves. What I mean is that women, as individuals whose actions lack moral worth mainly because women do not act with moral consideration, cannot themselves be considered to be moral agents since a failure to act out of duty indicates a lack of autonomy, where autonomy is grounded in rationality. It follows then that women cannot act out of duty because they lack rationality. If they lack rationality, they are not persons. And if they are not persons, then they lack moral worth, i.e., dignity.

Such a view of women takes away from the possibility of viewing women as beings with the capacity to carry moral responsibility. Their actions, while good and virtuous, are not moral. Therefore, women’s virtuous actions are acts that cannot be appraised in terms of moral blameworthiness or praiseworthiness. In view of failing to perform actions from duty or obligation, (1) women’s actions are morally deficient, and (2) women cannot be praised or blamed for their actions. A further concern for me is that if we accept the abovementioned claims, then we run into the problem of relieving them from moral accountability. However this relief is followed by, at least, one obvious consequence. If we release women from moral accountability, then it seems inconsistent to think that they are owed moral consideration so that in the instance of some individual violating their well-being, they would have no recourse to hold that individual morally accountable for their actions.

This seems to be a plausible interpretation (and application) of Kant’s view of persons. Since women do not seem to fall into the category of persons, it follows their value is not one of dignity but that of price (See G 4:397). This also follows from the argument regarding rational being as the only persons who can perform actions from duty. Given that women act from inclinations, which then renders their actions morally deficient, it seems logical to think that women are nonpersons who lack the necessary sense of autonomy that grounds dignity, which commands respect. Put crudely, women are beings whose existence does not command the respect that is afforded to rational beings.

Given their lack of self-governing principles, it is not impossible then to think that women cannot deliberate and make choices for themselves. Incidentally, autonomy is one necessary, though not sufficient, condition for uniqueness; it seems that Kant’s claims about women not being rational could be interpreted to women’s sense of self. In the next session, I plan to illustrate how lack of autonomy due to lack of rationality can also shut women out of the possibility of self-interpretation and self-knowledge that are key to constructing one’s uniqueness.

The Uniqueness of Women

One possible way of understanding women is to simply consider them as persons. What it means to be a person involves different considerations whose explanations regarding the nature of persons aim to clarify the characteristics that are fundamental to the description of what it means to be a person. One finds different approaches to the concept of personhood, namely, the descriptive and the normative accounts of personhood. In my investigation of what it is that grounds the uniqueness of women, I will use the descriptive and normative aspects that are imbedded in the Kantian conception of personhood. My main aim here is to illustrate that the idea of women as individuals lacking person-making characteristics such as the ones promoted by Kant, i.e., rationality, autonomy, and duty, could have implications for the possibility of women constructing self-directed and authentic identities that set them apart from others in the sense contained in ideas of uniqueness.

Uniqueness, in the manner that I construe it, is grounded in personhood (See Tshivhase 2018). There are, at least, two different senses of uniqueness. The one sense of uniqueness is based on a general sense of difference wherein one type of this is different from the other type in virtue each possessing a feature that the other lacks (McMullin 1969, 33–37). Such uniqueness is a general kind of uniqueness that is based on the difference in nature. In accordance with uniqueness in general, a car would be unique to a stone because each of their natures is constituted by stuff that the other one lacks. In this sense both the stone and the car are unique. Nonetheless, this is not the sense of uniqueness I am interested in.

I am interested in the sense of personal uniqueness that has to do with differences within kind. What interests me is a matter of distinction between things of the same kind. To be more concrete, I want to discuss the distinction of persons among other persons. It is my view that there is something among persons that distinguishes them from each other in a way that would make each person one within her kind.

Uniqueness in this personal sense is a matter of irreplaceability, incomparability, and rarity. For a competing view on uniqueness of persons, see Zagzebski (2001) wherein she presents what I call the personhood view of uniqueness, which grants individuals uniqueness by virtue of being persons. One also finds a genetic view of uniqueness where one is unique in so far as one has DNA (Miller 1998). The third competing view of personal uniqueness is that God created persons unique. This view is championed by Colosi (2008) and Crosby 1998 who take their cue from Max Scheler. I reject all three since they are based on notions of uniqueness that portray uniqueness as an aspect of the self that is always already unique, no matter what one does.) Irreplaceability has to do with a particular configuration of one’s identity, which cannot be substituted by another, as it should not be repeated in another (Gowans 1996; Grau 2004; Kadlac 2012). Incomparability is a value that people often bestow on others, where such a value admits to no standard of measure. Rarity has to do with the infrequent instantiation of one’s irreplaceable and incomparable identity. All three criteria for my conception on uniqueness of persons necessarily involve personhood. Furthermore, they seem necessary when considering the value of a person. Moreover, the process involved in constructing one’s personal uniqueness necessitates autonomy and authenticity. Autonomy and authenticity are not sufficient conditions for uniqueness, but they are necessary. It is because of the necessity of autonomy and authenticity that I call this view the procedural view of uniqueness of persons.

In order to become unique, one must develop authenticity and autonomy in order to create a distinct identity in a manner that is self-driven and not dictated to one by others who would impose their views upon the individual. Kant’s logic, which gives primacy to rationality in personhood, precludes women from fostering their own senses of procedural uniqueness. This occurs in two ways: (1) women lack rationality thus they are not persons – the problem here is that without personhood women have nothing to distinguish in the sense of personhood or procedural uniqueness as these two senses of personal uniqueness necessarily apply only to persons; (2) women are not autonomous – the problem here is that without autonomy women are forced to maintain a sense of difference that is limited to uniqueness in general where everything of a specific type is unique to any other thing of a specific type. This interpretation flows from the idea that Kant mistakenly disregards the value of women based on their nature.

To sum up, the theory of persons we get in Kant’s moral philosophy and the view he asserts about women lacking the necessary principles that would render their actions unique hold implications for the possibility of women constructing their own identities, which they can mold into uniqueness that would set them apart from other persons. By preventing women from living as autonomous beings, Kant takes too much away from women.


The value of persons has significance on a social and individual level. On a social level, the status of person affords one access to and protection of one’s rights and respect as a moral individual whose well-being should not be violated.

On a personal level, the values such as autonomy become crucial when one has a desire for self-knowledge and the creation of an identity that is not dictated to one by others. Kant’s theory of persons bars women from the basic values that are important for an acceptable sort of existence that does not force one to live without said values by virtue of one’s nature. On the basis of the personal implication of Kant’s view of women, people ought not to endorse such a view so that women are not restricted to explore and experiment with their own sense of self. Apart from preventing women from being moral agents, it also denies them the freedom to hold others accountable. It is this implication that is particularly deplorable as it gives us no tools to defend women in the instance of violation. Given the treatment of the implications of Kant’s theory of personhood for the moral status and uniqueness of women, I think it may be worthwhile to investigate the possible link between Kant’s disregard of women as moral beings and the perpetual violence against women (and children).


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of PretoriaPretoriaSouth Africa

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