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Kantian Ethics and Economics: Autonomy, Dignity, and Character

Kantian Ethics and Economics: Autonomy, Dignity, and Character

by Mark White

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This book introduces the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant—in particular, the concepts of autonomy, dignity, and character—to economic theory, explaining the importance of integrating these two streams of intellectual thought. Mainstream economics is rooted in classical utilitarianism, recommending that decision makers choose the options that are expected


This book introduces the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant—in particular, the concepts of autonomy, dignity, and character—to economic theory, explaining the importance of integrating these two streams of intellectual thought. Mainstream economics is rooted in classical utilitarianism, recommending that decision makers choose the options that are expected to generate the largest net benefits. For individuals, the standard economic model fails to incorporate the role of principles in decision-making, and also denies the possibility of true choice, which can be independent of preferences and principles altogether. For policymakers, standard decision-making frameworks recommend tradeoffs that are beneficial in terms of material goods or wealth, but may be morally questionable from a more person-centered perspective.

Integrating Kantian ethics affects economics in three important ways. This integration allows for a more complete understanding of human choice, incorporating not just preferences and constraints, but also principles and strength of will or character. It demonstrates the broader impact of welfare economics, which generates policies that affect not only persons' well-being, but also their dignity and autonomy. Finally, it reconciles the traditional, individualist stance in economic models of choice with the social responsibility emphasized by many systems of philosophical ethics and heterodox schools of economics.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"There is much here that will repay careful reading . . . This is a particularly worthwhile read for Christian economists, not only for its intriguing secular insights, but also for its critique of normative economics from premises which are similar but not identical to the Christian concept of human dignity . . . A Christian economist who wants to explore the implications of human dignity for normative economics will find an important ally in White."—Andrew M. Yuengart, Faith and Economics

"Here we have a robust, well-conceived and serious book. It is a breath of fresh air, which improves understanding of preference structures in economic decision models that are better suited to the reality of normal economic science . . . this is a well-penned text from a literary perspective; it exudes dexterity, fluency, and boasts a refined sense of humor."—José Fernández, Ethical Perspectives

"White objects that the emphasis on inclinations and beliefs makes economics careless of rights, dignity, and autonomy . . . His book is a careful reproach to a discipline too often oblivious to individual rights because they are preoccupied by aggregate market efficiency . . . Economists reading White's book will find much to value."—David Weissman, Clio

"Mark D. White's book on Kantian Ethics and Economics is an outstanding example of mastery in both fields. . . [A] treatise written in a way that is accessible to graduates and to all economists, increasing the reader's knowledge without being too demanding in terms of pre-existing knowledge."—Stefano Solari, Review of Social Economy

"This remarkable book provides a new ethical perspective for economics based on Kantian ethics of autonomy and dignity . . . [It] is clearly written, and the author has upheld the interdisciplinary appeal of the topic, demonstrating an outstanding knowledge of the vast literature on ethics (both Kantian and not) and economics. White's emphasis on the irreducibility of moral principles is absolutely relevant for current economics and political debates."—Ivan Boldyrev, Journal of the History of Philosophy
"This interesting book presents itself as an introduction to economists of the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant . . . [T]he reference point from which the author develops his critique of the ethical foundations of mainstream economics is quite a sophisticated . . . view of Kant's conception of morality."—Nicolas Gravel, Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics
"This book makes an original and valuable contribution by introducing the philosophy of Kant and the concepts of autonomy, dignity, and character into economics. Mark White is to be complemented for raising fundamentally important questions about economics' theory of choice. The book will be a landmark in social economics."—John Davis, University of Amsterdam and Marquette University
"Relentlessly utilitarian and procedurally-detached, economic man takes no account of the duty to treat morally equivalent persons impartially. In contrast, the decision environment contemplated by Professor White's Kantian agent is congenial to the cultivation of respect for the moral law. The implications for social interaction and for public policy are profound. A must read!"—Timothy Roth, Department of Economics & Finance, The University of Texas at El Paso
"For too long it was almost universally thought that utility theory, and so economics, was intrinsically and solely about means/end rationality and achieving the best consequences. Principled action, it was agreed, could not be integrated into formal decision theory and economics. Mark White's wonderful and important book shows this to be a fundamental error. White's Kantian ethics opens a much richer, and far more adequate, normative analysis to economics, freeing economics from an impoverished view of humans and ethics. White holds out to us the promise of an economics as a science of human dignity and autonomy."—Gerald Gaus, James E. Rogers Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Program in Philosophy, Politics, Economics & Law, University of Arizona

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Autonomy, Dignity, and Character
By Mark D. White


Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-6894-8

Chapter One

Kantian Ethics, Economics, and Decision-Making Economists have developed a very powerful model of human decision-making, often personified in the metaphor of "economic man" or homo economicus. While certainly not without its share of criticism, from both mainstream and heterodox economists as well as other social scientists and philosophers, this model has proven extremely useful in helping us explain countless aspects and examples of human behavior, from common business decisions to government policy-making, and from choosing a life of crime to selecting a mate. Recent developments in behavioral economics, which question some of the core assumptions of the standard economic model of decision-making, have illuminated many standard deficiencies in rational decision-making, resulting in an even richer conception of human choice.

But despite the success of these models of choice in explaining countless types of behavior, they have struggled to explain behavior motivated by ethical concerns. The simplest approach is simply to introduce a "taste for morality" into the standard set of preferences or utility function; in such a model, ethical actors are simply indulging one preference out of many. Either this approach extends the usual assumption of the self-interested agent to include other-regarding preferences, or it simply subsumes such preferences within the very concept of self-interest, which stretches and thereby weakens the term beyond all recognition. Other approaches to modeling ethical behavior involve interdependent preferences, wherein one person has preferences over another's well-being, and as a result takes that other person's interests into account in her own decision-making, or various conceptions of reciprocity, wherein altruistic behavior is strategically undertaken (consciously or not) to maximize long-term self-interest.

What ties together these various approaches to modeling ethical behavior is that they all assume that the utility-maximizing agent seeks to achieve the best outcome (as measured by her preferences) out of all the possible outcomes over which she has influence (as determined by her exogenously imposed constraints). If we translate this into the language of moral philosophy, this implies that the agent is a hedonist or egoist, if narrowly self-interested; an altruist, if she takes into account the welfare of select others (such as family or friends); or a broader utilitarian, if she takes into consideration the well-being of all persons (and perhaps other species as well). In all of these cases, the agent can be described as a consequentialist, since she determines the moral worth of actions according to the goodness of their outcomes. This is the implicit assumption made in most economic models of individual choice, which has been extended to study behavior in the context of the law and the family, for example, as well as more traditional market transactions.

But this pervasive reliance on consequentialism in economics comes at a price. Attempts to force a utility-maximizing explanation on "sacrificing" behavior (such as voting, tipping while traveling, or heroic acts) results in unsatisfactory, ad hoc assumptions of new preferences. Assuming that people behave ethically only out of expectation of future benefits, or even out of an unconscious, evolved disposition toward reciprocity, seems overly cynical, and cheapens the true ethical acts of persons, whose conscious, reflective, and deliberate behavior deserves to be explained in ways that emphasize its moral nature without cynically degrading it to self-interest.

Perhaps the most important contribution toward this end came from Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate in economics and a prominent philosopher as well, who introduced the concept of commitment into the discussion of rational choice in his classic 1977 paper "Rational Fools." By suggesting the possibility of commitment as an alternative method of motivating and explaining choice, he opened the door for deontological values and principles to be incorporated into economics. Using Sen's commitment framework, agents can act on principles, duties, or values without representing them as preferences which can be substituted for others as relative (subjective) costs dictate. Sen's approach allows for absolute considerations in economic models of choice, influences which are not subject to standard economic factors such as prohibitively high opportunity cost or diminishing marginal benefit. Furthermore, as Sen noted, commitment "drives a wedge between personal choice and personal welfare," since an agent's choices cannot be assumed to maximize her own well-being if it is possible that they were motivated by some conviction or principle.

Consistent with Sen's theme, if economics strives to explain human behavior, it must recognize there are other ways for agents to behave other than according to consequentialist logic. As Vivian Walsh, another prominent economist and philosopher, writes:

It has always been thought that some actions were wrong despite their consequences. These claims must have a place in any serious moral theory, and economic theory and decision theory should not be allowed to foreclose what is properly an issue for moral philosophy, simply by adopting particular formal structures as constitutive of rational choice without explicit dialogue on the philosophical issues raised by doing so.

In this chapter—and, more broadly, this entire book—I propose to construct an economic model of decision-making based on nonconsequentialist ethics, specifically the moral theory of Immanuel Kant, in which the nature of actions themselves, rather than their consequences, determines their moral worth.

This type of ethical theory is often called deontological, as opposed to consequentialist or teleological (goal-oriented); these terms are heavily debated among philosophers, but William Frankena's definition is often taken to be representative:

Deontological theories ... deny that the right, the obligatory, and the morally good are wholly, whether directly or indirectly, a function of what is nonmorally good or what promotes the greatest balance of good over evil for self, one's society, or the world as a whole.

Like most scholars, Frankena defines deontology negatively, in terms of what does not determine the right thing to do—namely, the goodness of the outcomes of actions. Understood practically, this means that deontological ethics may allow, in some cases if not all, for persons to act in ways that do not maximize the goodness of consequences, and may even demand it. For instance, a deontologist may not allow the intentional killing of one innocent person to save two (or more) others; even though the number of lives lost would be smaller if the one innocent person were killed, and therefore the single killing would likely be recommended by a consequentialist, a deontologist may judge the act of killing an innocent person to be wrong regardless of the consequences. Positive definitions of deontology are harder to come by, mostly because every deontologists has a different idea of what makes certain actions right, but most agree that it is not a consequential measure.

Philosopher John Broome once wrote that "if deontological moralities affect people's behaviour in important ways, then economics is in for a shock." Well, among moral philosophers, Immanuel Kant is widely held to be the paradigmatic deontologist, and in this chapter, at risk of shock, I use his conception of duty to incorporate deontological considerations into the economic model of choice. I begin with a summary of key aspects of Kant's moral theory, including autonomy, dignity, the categorical imperative, perfect and imperfect duty, and judgment. Next, I illustrate these ideas by applying them to the classic prisoners' dilemma of game theory. Finally, I present a Kantian-economic model of decision-making, which shows one way in which Kant's ethics can be incorporated into the economic optimization framework. My contention is that with the proper understanding of duties, preferences, and constraints, the standard economic model can describe deontological choice along Kantian lines; if I'm right, the shock should be a little less painful.

Kantian Ethics

Despite his high degree of name recognition, Kant is widely misunderstood as a moral philosopher. He is often accused of being cold, rigidly logical, and uninterested in the realities of human existence, and much of the blame for this must be laid at the feet of the great magister himself. Many people's exposure to Kantian ethics starts and ends with his slim 1785 work, the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, especially if it is taught as part of an introductory ethics course alongside the work of other moral philosophers. The more approachable sections of the Groundwork detail, in a relatively straightforward fashion, the three formulae of the categorical imperative in the context of four examples of immoral behavior (making false promises, committing suicide, failing to develop your talents, and neglecting the needs of others). But the treatment of autonomy, dignity, and the will in the Groundwork is much more abbreviated, incomplete, and difficult for students to grasp without lengthy elaboration from their teacher (or secondary readings), and topics like strength, virtue, and judgment are all but ignored. It is not until 1797's The Metaphysics of Morals (especially the second half, known as the Doctrine of Virtue) that Kant explains the real-world implications of following the moral law. There, alongside lengthy discussions of the nature of virtue, vice, and other general ethical topics neglected in the Groundwork, he provides a systematic listing of duties to others and to ourselves, along with "casuistical questions" for the reader to ponder.

Furthermore, Kant himself regarded the more formalistic universalization formula of the categorical imperative as more applicable than the other two more humanistic versions, given its more technical, algorithmic nature: "One does better if in moral judgment he follows the rigorous method and takes as his basis the universal formula of the categorical imperative." I regard this as unfortunate, because it is from the other formulae—especially the Formula of Respect for Humanity—that what I consider the "heart" of Kant's ethics emerges, and it is with this heart, namely dignity and the autonomy from which it derives, that I begin. After explaining these more general aspects of Kantian ethics, only then do I turn to the categorical imperative, which operationalizes autonomy and dignity, and then to the nature of the duties that result from it and the role of judgment in moral decision-making. Duties will then be the main focus of the remainder of the chapter, which lays out a Kantian model of decision-making, and the next chapter will emphasize autonomy and the will at length, at which point the model of decision-making—or what I will call judgment—becomes a true model of choice.

Autonomy and dignity

Kant's moral philosophy is ultimately based on autonomy (or inner freedom), the capacity of every rational agent to make choices according to laws that she sets for herself, without undue influence from either external pressures or internal desires. Thus considered, autonomy has equally important and interrelated negative and positive aspects. The agent is not bound to either internal desires or external authority, and therefore she is free to make choice according to her moral judgment. Nonetheless, she is bound by the laws she determines for herself (and which will rationally accord with the moral law), but since these laws are imposed on the agent by the agent herself, she is acting freely. If she sets herself the rule "I shall not lie," then she is not limiting her freedom or autonomy—rather, this is the ultimate expression of her autonomy, because the rule is of her own making and imposition. To put it another way, we are free to restrict ourselves. "In one sense," philosopher Christine Korsgaard writes, "to be autonomous ... is to be governed by principles of our own causality, principles that are definitive of your will. In another, deeper, sense to be autonomous ... is to choose the principles that are definitive of your will."

Of course, the word autonomy has a number of meanings, in both the personal and political realms, and in common usage as well as philosophy. Perhaps the most familiar usage comes from international politics, in which national autonomy is roughly synonymous with sovereignty, which applies when no other power can legally compel a nation-state to action (or inaction). While the United States (for example) can be persuaded or given incentive to enter into a treaty with another nation, whether to do this is the choice of the appropriate government official or body in the U.S., not the other nation. By contrast, its fifty constitutive states have limited sovereignty or autonomy, given that their actions are limited by the U.S. Constitution; for example, the states cannot enter to treaties with foreign countries, and to some extent must follow the policies of the federal government. But the U.S. itself in not subject to other nations' laws, so it is autonomous in this sense. Nation-states, particularly those with constitutional legal systems, are autonomous in the other sense as well, that of determining the laws or principles by which they will operate. Constitutions are laws that a nation sets for itself, to set procedural guidelines for its activities (such as setting up legislatures, executives, and judiciary), as well as to limit those activities more substantively (such as the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution).

Kant's use of the word "autonomy" in relation to an individual agent is very similar to the meaning from international politics. An autonomous person does not allow external factors—especially outside authority—to determine her choices or actions. This is not to say, of course, that she cannot be influenced by external factors, or even decide to do what someone tells her; both happen all the time, and neither by itself implies any lack of autonomy. But she cannot cede her own decision-making authority to another, and if she chooses to follow someone's direction or order, she must make a conscious, deliberate choice to do so. In this way, the ultimate decision is hers, not the other person's, for she must endorse the external reason for action and thereby make it her own.

This aspect of autonomy, that of resisting external compulsion when making decisions, is familiar to most, and corresponds fairly closely to how we think of autonomy in personal situations (and in fields like medical ethics). While we take this aspect for granted most of the time, the other aspect, that of resisting one's own preferences and desires, is more particular to Kantian ethics, and also more counterintuitive. Most of the time, following one's desires and preferences—or inclinations, to use Kant's term—is unproblematic, since there is no moral conflict involved. (Even so, one must make a conscious choice to follow them, rather than do it unthinkingly.) But in an ethical choice situation, Kant held that one's preferences are not a reliable guide to proper decision-making; what we want to do, even if it may seem ethical, is not necessarily the right thing to do. When the moral choice differs from our preferred choice, autonomy grants us the power to deny our inclinations and do the right thing instead; in fact, autonomy implies the responsibility to follow the dictates of one's own moral judgment. This is in clear opposition to Hume's famed position that "reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions," a view against which Kant aligned himself from the start.

While Kant held that all rational agents have the capacity for autonomous choice, exercising this capacity is not automatic, nor it is always easy. If an agent allows either her preferences or desires, or the wishes or commands of other persons, to influence her choice without adequate reflection and endorsement, she is said to have acted heteronomously: she has allowed her will to be co-opted by a force other than her own judgment. But even in such cases, the agent has made a choice-she has chosen to sacrifice her autonomy or inner freedom. As Irwin puts it, "the difference between heteronomy and autonomy does not consist in the difference between compulsion and free acceptance, but in the source of the principles that we freely accept. We become evil not by being overcome by an evil principle, but by freely incorporating such a principle in our maxim." Korsgaard, drawing from Kant's Religion, writes that "we learn that a bad person is not after all one who is pushed about, or caused to act, by his desires and inclinations. Instead, a bad person is one who is governed by what Kant calls the principle of self-love. The person who acts on the principle of self-love chooses to act as inclination prompts." Finally, according to Thomas Hill, Kant held "that all have autonomy, that this implies commitment to certain rational constraints, and that some live up to these commitments while others do not." In this way, autonomy is not just a property of rational beings, but also, in a normative sense, a goal: a person should always try to assert her judgment and her will without blind obedience to either her internal desires and preferences, or external authorities and influence. Only by doing so can she be true to herself, preserving her integrity and respecting her dignity.


Excerpted from KANTIAN ETHICS AND ECONOMICS by Mark D. White Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Mark D. White is Professor in the Department of Political Science, Economics, and Philosophy at the College of Staten Island and The Graduate Center, CUNY. He has edited several books, the most recent of which are Accepting the Invisible Hand and The Thief of Time.

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