The quandary of infanticide in Kant's 'Doctrine of Right'

Jens Timmermann*

*Corresponding author for this work

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The aim of this paper is to settle the controversy around Kant’s notorious discussion of maternal infanticide in the ‘Doctrine of Right’ of 1797. How should a state punish an unmarried mother who has killed her newborn infant? The text (at DoR VI 335–37) is obscure. Three readings have been defended in the literature: 1. Lenience. Maternal infanticide does not count as murder; so, capital punishment is inappropriate. On this view, the child does not enjoy the full recognition of the law (this is the standard view). 2. Temporary privilege. Lenience should prevail as long as social attitudes are barbaric and treating maternal infanticide like regular cases of murder is perceived to be unjust. The regular punishment for murder will be appropriate once sexual mores have changed. The child will then enjoy the full protection of the law (Hruschka, Varden). 3. No lenience. Capital punishment, though it appears to be unjust, is actually just and ought to be applied. Any child, whether born to married parents or not, enjoys the full protection of the law (Brandt, Uleman). Based on a close examination of the passage and the context of contemporary laws and attitudes, Kant is not, it will be argued, advocating lenience but certain legislative reforms, which are needed to dispel the perception that capital punishment is unjust. Progressive legislation will change social attitudes, not vice versa. Moreover, it will be shown that Kant does not, appearances notwithstanding, endorse the thesis that a child born out of wedlock has been smuggled into the state like ‘prohibited goods’ or ‘contraband merchandise’, which would deprive the child of the protection of the state; that is the view with which Kant saddles Cesare Beccaria.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages28
JournalArchiv für Geschichte der Philosophie
VolumeAdvance article
Early online date16 Jun 2022
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 16 Jun 2022


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