Immanuel Kant vs. the Welfare State

Harold Jones argues, in this very interesting article, that Kantian ethics leads to a capitalistic polity and that it militates against the concept of the welfare state. He bases his argument on two formulations of Kant’s “Categorical Imperative” – “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law,” and “act so that you use humanity, as much in your own person as in the person of every other, always at the same time as end and never merely as means.” If you simply follow the “Categorical Imperative,” Jones’ argument is a good one. Further, this is not the first time I have heard such a defense – Kant as a defender of capitalism, or even Kant as a defender of negative liberty (I believe Nozick has used the “man should not be used as a means to an end” argument, and even Adlai Stevenson has talked about it). An excerpt-

Kant would say redistribution is immoral because the maxim upon which it is based cannot be universally applied without running into the law of non-contradiction. The welfare state is immoral also because it allows the recipient to make demands upon the taxpayer without providing the taxpayer an equivalent value in return. Redistribution is immoral, more generally, because it allows one person to treat another as no more than a means to the first person’s ends.


The immorality of redistribution lies in the elimination of this mutuality. The voter seeks to use the taxpayer as a means to the voter’s financial security without at the same time deliberately choosing to do something that will serve the taxpayer. The politician attempts to use both the taxpayer and the voter as a means to the politician’s goals of power and tenure. The fact that the voter, the taxpayer, and perhaps even the politician may be the same person does not raise the scheme to the level of morality. It indicates only, as Herbert Schlossberg has pointed out, that the person in question believes he can enrich himself by picking his own pocket.

Trade restrictions also fall short of the Kantian standard. In an attempt to use their limited resources as efficiently as possible, consumers purchase the products and services of foreign vendors. This interferes with domestic producers’ desire to maintain the high prices upon which their wage levels and profits depend. In limiting customers to the purchase of domestic products, producers are seeking to serve their own ends without at the same time serving the ends of their customers. Domestic producers are seeking to use domestic consumers simply as means to the producers’ ends.

But then Jones goes on to level an allegation against Ayn Rand-

Kant has a bad reputation among free-market libertarians primarily because he was maligned by Ayn Rand, who accused him of having “divorced reason from reality.” Her dislike for him may have come from the fact that she knew of him only by way of “his intellectual descendants,” who have indeed misrepresented him. This is especially true of his epistemology, but it applies also to his ethics. Most of those who have written about Kant, says Professor Roger Sullivan, have contented themselves with reporting on only a part of his work, rejecting everything that does not fit with the way in which they have made up their minds to interpret him.

Rand, furthermore, may be guilty of protesting too much. John Galt’s speech in Atlas Shrugged drips with Kantian philosophy. The inscription above the door to the Galt’s Gulch powerhouse (“I will never live for the sake of another man or ask another man to live for mine”) seems to be no more than an abbreviated imitation of one of the ways in which Kant phrased his Categorical Imperative: “Act so that you use humanity, as much in your own person as in the person of very other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means”. If Rand was not imitating Kant, her tines are a testimony to the soundness of his reasoning.

“Maligned” is too harsh a phrase here. And he doesn’t give Rand enough credit, nor does he understand how important “reason” was for her. For example, Rand has, at the very least, read (the editor of Marginalia should be flogged if he spelled the philosopher’s name as “Immanual”) German philosopher and professor of philosophy Friedrich Paulsen’s book Immanuel Kant – His Life and Doctrine which is an extensive treatment of Kantian metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. Further, this was what she thought of herself-

I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason.

And here comes Kant saying that there are two worlds – the noumenal and the phenomenal, and that reason is powerless to deal with the noumenal world (in Paulsen’s words) “on account of the nature of human cognition, which presupposes perception.” The evisceration was to be expected, and well-deserved. That Jones is using only one part of Kantian ethics, is a different matter altogether. The problem is not Kantian politics – liberal in nature, but his repressive ethics that worships duty and divorces virtue and happiness. When you make an impossibility an ethical ideal, the kind of politics that it leads to is immaterial.

What Kant did with (to, rather) philosophy is no mystery. Will Durant writes in his The Story of Philosophy about The Critique of Pure Reason

Here was a tremendous book, eight hundred pages long; weighted beyond bearing, almost, with ponderous terminology; proposing to solve all the problems of metaphysics, and incidentally to save the absoluteness of science and the essential truth of religion. What had the book really done? It had destroyed the naive world of science, and limited it, if not in degree, certainly in scope,—and to a world confessedly of mere surface and appearance, beyond which it could issue only in farcical “antinomies”; so science was “saved”! The most eloquent and incisive portions of the book had argued that the objects of faith—a free and immortal soul, a benevolent creator—could never be proved by reason; so religion was “saved”! No wonder the priests of Germany protested madly against this salvation and revenged themselves by calling their dogs Immanuel Kant.

And no wonder that Heine compared the little professor of Konigsberg with the terrible Robespierre; the latter had merely killed a king, and a few thousand Frenchmen—which a German might forgive; but Kant, said Heine, had killed God.

You cannot read anyone out of context – if that is done, a dictator can be shown to be a saint on the strength of a couple of sentences, and vice versa. While talking about Kant, or any other philosopher, you have to consider their whole philosophy. And if that is done with Kant, I don’t think he is a defender of capitalism or liberalism. One thing he did do – he unleashed a pack of mad dogs on the world – “his intellectual descendants” – which included Hegel, Marx, and the pragmatists James and Dewey. Marx alone has the blood of tens of millions on his hands thanks to Lenin, and Stalin, and Mao. The others have the genocide of Nazi Germany, and the involuntary servitude of most of humanity to their credit.

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