Kant & Economic Justice

English: , Prussian philosopher. Português: , ...

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One of the basic concerns is ethics is the matter of how people should be treated. This is often formulated in terms of our obligations to other people and the question is “what, if anything, do we owe other people?” While it does seem that some would like to exclude the economic realm from the realm of ethics, the burden of proof would rest on those who would claim that economics deserves a special exemption from ethics. This could, of course, be done. However, since this is a brief essay, I will start with the assumption that economic activity is not exempt from morality.

While I subscribe to virtue theory as my main ethics, I do find Kant’s ethics both appealing and interesting. In regards to how we should treat others, Kant takes as foundational that “rational nature exists as an end in itself.”

It is reasonable to inquire why this should be accepted. Kant’s reasoning certainly seems sensible enough. He notes that “a man necessarily conceives his own existence as such” and this applies to all rational beings. That is, Kant claims that a rational being sees itself as being an end, rather than a thing to be used as a means to an end.  So, for example, I see myself as a person who is an end and not as a mere thing that exists to serve the ends of others.

Of course, the mere fact that I see myself as an end would not seem to require that I extend this to other rational beings (that is, other people). After all, I could apparently regard myself as an end and regard others as means to my ends—to be used for my profit as, for example, underpaid workers or slaves.

However, Kant claims that I must regard other rational beings as ends as well. The reason is fairly straightforward and is a matter of consistency: if I am an end rather than a means because I am a rational being, then consistency requires that I accept that other rational beings are ends as well. After all, if being a rational being makes me an end, it would do the same for others. Naturally, it could be argued that there is a relevant difference between myself and other rational beings that would warrant my treating them as means only and not as ends. People have, obviously enough, endeavored to justify treating other people as things. However, there seems to be no principled way to insist on my own status as an end while denying the same to other rational beings.

From this, Kant derives his practical imperative: “so act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means only.” This imperative does not entail that I cannot ever treat a person as a means—that is allowed, provided I do not treat the person as a means only. So, for example, I would be morally forbidden from being a pimp who uses women as mere means of revenue. I would, however, not be forbidden from having someone check me out at the grocery store—provided that I treated the person as a person and not a mere means.

One obvious challenge is sorting out what it is to treat a person as an end as opposed to just a means to an end. That is, the problem is figuring out when a person is being treated as a mere means and thus the action would be immoral.

Interestingly enough, many economic relationships would seem to clearly violate Kant’s imperative in that they treat people as mere means and not at all as ends. To use the obvious example, if an employer treats her employees merely as means to making a profit and does not treat them as ends in themselves, then she is acting immorally by Kant’s standard. After all, being an employee does not rob a person of personhood.

One obvious reply is to question my starting assumption, namely that economics is not exempt from ethics. It could be argued that the relationship between employer and employee is purely economic and only economic considerations matter. That is, the workers are to be regarded as means to profit and treated in accord with this—even if doing so means treating them as things rather than persons. The challenge is, of course, to show that the economic realm grants a special exemption in regards to ethics. Of course, if it does this, then the exemption would presumably be a general one. So, for example, people who decided to take money from the rich at gunpoint would be exempt from ethics as well. After all, if everyone is a means in economics, then the rich are just as much means as employees and if economic coercion against people is acceptable, then so too is coercion via firearms.

Another obvious reply is to contend that might makes right. That is, the employer has the power and owes nothing to the employees beyond what they can force him to provide. This would make economics rather like the state of nature—where, as Hobbes said, “profit is the measure of right.” Of course, this leads to the same problem as the previous reply: if economics is a matter of might making right, then people have the same right to use might against employers and other folks—that is, the state of nature applies to all.

 

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  1. If businesses were to treat workers and customers as ends, they’d go bankrupt.

    The current economic system is based on using others in order to increase profits: profits are what counts, nothing else.

    If business A begins to treat workers and customers as ends, business B will out compete them in terms of profits since they pay their workers less and rip off customers. The stock market prize of business B will soar, while that of business A will crash. Business A will end up going out of business.

    I was listening to a podcast the other day about how the food industry consciously and deliberately hooks children on high-sugar or high fructose junk food. They are as far away from treating children as ends, not means (to higher profits) as can be.

    In any case, your idea is fine and I endorse it, although I doubt that it will be put into practice any time in the next
    millenium.

  2. @s.wallerstein “..The current economic system is based on using others in order to increase profits, nothing else.”

    This is not entirely true. The current liberal economic system is based on Utilitarianism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utilitarianism). Even though using others may increase the profit, alturism plays a dominant role. A company that brings you a benefit would sell products more. Contrary to And Rand, evolutionary biologist and game theorist start to accept that alturism is actually a characteristics of a survival. You can NOT survive as a co-operation by just being pure egoist. For example, Microsoft provides lots of tools etc for free of charge for developers, even have an open standard language C#. So your argument about purely using others is not true.

    @Mike: Which works of Kant are you refering to in your article?

  3. Mehmet David:

    It probably is true that evolution has programmed us for altruistic behavior in certain circumstances, but in the current capitalist system nice guys finish last or even go out of business. In the last 30 years companies have increasingly outsourced their production to low-income, low-wate, non-union countries, where workers are treated as a means to higher profits. At the same time consumers are manipulated to get them to buy as hysterically and compulsively as possible, being treated as a means to higher profits rather than as ends in themselves. I mentioned above how children are cynically indoctrinated by the food industry to crave high sugar foods, which produce obesity and diabetes among other ills.

    The fact that you point out that most of us have altruistic drives, drives which if we put them into practice in the cold cruel world of economic survival, makes us losers, is just one more indicator that the current economic system does not serve the full range of human needs.

  4. I tried to post, but it seems it didn’t go through…

    Mike LaBossiere,

    A different kind of objection would be to question some of Kant’s claims about rationality and request some further arguments to back it up, or even go further and argue that some of those assumptions are not true, for example by means of presenting hypothetical scenarios.

    A possible way to do this (one which I personally find persuasive) would be as follows: (btw, I don’t know how to use blockquote cite or cite on this blog, so sorry if the formatting is a bit messy).


    It is reasonable to inquire why this should be accepted. Kant’s reasoning certainly seems sensible enough. He notes that “a man necessarily conceives his own existence as such” and this applies to all rational beings. That is, Kant claims that a rational being sees itself as being an end, rather than a thing to be used as a means to an end. So, for example, I see myself as a person who is an end and not as a mere thing that exists to serve the ends of others.

    An objection to that holds that Kant is mistaken, perhaps because he’s using a very small subset of (metaphysically or even nomologically) possible rational beings to make his assessments.

    For example, in Coming to Terms with Contingency: Humean Constructivism about Practical Reason.” (you can find a .pdf here) , Sharon Street provides the example of a hypothetical “reflective social insect”, who lives on another planet on another galaxy, and rationally – given her own set of preferences or values – only values herself instrumentally, if at all – there are circumstances in which that instrumental value would be lost.

    There is no good reason to think such beings aren’t possible (well, maybe not literally an insect, though something insect-like, or in any case, something not so insect-like, but with the aforementioned set of values/preferences, as a result of a different evolutionary process), and I would say there is good reason to think they are possible. How would the universe block the formation of brains (biological or strong AI) that do just that, either by evolution or by design by some advanced aliens?

    Similarly, a being (say, an unfriendly AI) may rationally value itself as an end, but value all other beings that it values positively, as means, and value many rational beings negatively because they get in the way.


    However, Kant claims that I must regard other rational beings as ends as well. The reason is fairly straightforward and is a matter of consistency: if I am an end rather than a means because I am a rational being, then consistency requires that I accept that other rational beings are ends as well.

    But the unfriendly AI (for instance) considers itself one of its ends, and makes no claims that others rationally (let alone morally) should treat it as one of their ends. It treats itself as one of its ends (or the only one) because (in a causal sense of “because”) it has such preference structure (or value structure). It recognizes this, and that’s fine with it (unsurprisingly, given its preference structure). It behaves rationally in seeking its ends. Its position is not inconsistent.

    Also, the smart social insect also rationally does not treat herself as an end. She values herself instrumentally only as long as she contributes to the prosperity of the queen and/or the colony. And it values the queen and/or the colony because (in the causal sense of “because”) she has that set of values, as a result of the evolutionary process (and her normal development in that environment).
    She reckons that she would be acting irrationally if she were to come to value herself as an end in itself, because that would be against precisely the values she already has (i.e., she reckons that given her values, it would be irrational on her part to change her values and value herself non-instrumentally). Not that she has any interest in doing so.


    After all, if being a rational being makes me an end, it would do the same for others.

    The objection here would be that what is an end for some rational being need not be an end to some other rational being. What makes you and end depends not only on your particular traits, but also on the traits whose end we’re talking about.

    In other words, no entity is, because of her, his or its traits, an end to all rational beings. Being rational might make you an end to some rational beings who value rationality for its own sake, which is another way of saying that beings that value rationality for its own sake will value you because you’re rational.

    But there are beings that do not do so. You’re not an end to an unfriendly AI, or to the intelligent social insect or insect-like being from another planet on another galaxy mentioned above.

    An alternative objection along the same lines would be from an agnostic on the matter, who does not hold that those beings would be rational, etc., but who does hold that they wouldn’t be so, either, and who might request that you argue in support of Kant’s view on rationality.

  5. Angra Mainyu,

    I agree: Kant could be wrong and for the reasons your present. And many more. :)

  6. Time span of discretion
    Oner hour: If I hit this man on the head and steal his wallet, I can buy enough smack to stay stoned the whole afternoon.

    One week: If I hit this man on the head and steal his wallet, his mates will gang up on me and smash my kneecaps.

    100 years: If everyone went around hitting everyone else on the head and stealing their wallets, the whole of society, of which the money and my ability to use it to buy stiff, would collapse.

    My enlightened self interest therefore says I should become a policeman.
    :cool:

  7. I can not believe it.
    How can you write this essay without mentioning great Kant’s book Metaphysics of Morals and his imperatives?

  8. Dave,

    It is implied by the subtext.

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