- Kantian Ethics and Economics: Autonomy, Dignity, and Character
This remarkable book provides a new ethical perspective for economics based on Kantian ethics of autonomy and dignity. There are two main messages in it that I find particularly important. First, Mark White derives from Kant the idea of irreducible moral principles that govern the behavior of economic agents independently of welfarist and, more generally, consequentialist concerns. These principles of duty and the “incomparable worth” (21) of human dignity, as well as justice or rights, may not be economically traded off against some other motivations; hence, they simply evade economic reasoning altogether.
Second, White endorses a version of libertarian Kantianism that treats people as individuals in essence (“autonomous”) and social in orientation (respecting the rights and the choices of the others). In discussing individualism, White attacks the conventional wisdom of economics and claims that preferences alone do not account for the identity of individuals [End Page 298] in space and time, although their unique characters do. Persons should be given free choice (absent in deterministic rational-choice models) and hence responsibility for their choices that incorporates the social factors in decision-making. However, White never mentions the almost insurmountable difficulties associated with fleshing out the truly individual features of a given person. Although he allows for a person’s identity and character changing over time, he does not recognize that character itself is in many respects a social construction.
White criticizes paternalistic economic policies that suggest manipulating choice environments in order to follow the “true” preferences of the individuals. Instead, real consent, as satisfying both relevant preferences and principles (e.g. rights and human dignity), is, in his view, the sole criterion for justifying particular policy measures—not Pareto-efficiency or Kaldor-Hicks compensation. Economists’ obsession with efficiency leading to the misconceived notions such as “efficient level of crime” or “manageable level of terrorism” is also severely criticized.
For White, the most popular formalistic version of the categorical imperative is less important than the other two—prohibiting treating other people simply as means and instituting the “Kingdom of Ends.” Formalism is reserved merely for the negative evaluation of actions and providing strict perfect duties that give clear guidance concerning what should not be done. White’s “Kantian-economic” model of decision-making incorporates perfect duties as constraints, and imperfect (positive) duties as preferences. He also stresses that for Kant, duties derived from the imperative depend on empirical knowledge, the context of decision-making, and judgment as a unique personal interpretation of the moral law. He further emphasizes the intersubjective role of Kantian morality: moral law should be universalizable to all rational persons (the “Kingdom of Ends” formula of the imperative), whereas rationality means not just following the patterns of behavior developed in the preference-oriented choice model, but rather acting on one’s beliefs and desires or choosing not to follow them, thus exhibiting genuine autonomy.
The new and important contribution to the discussion is an explicit treatment of will as an inner faculty that, together with judgment, constitutes a person’s character or “self,” and helps to overcome the mere inclination to follow duty. Will is the missing link between decision and action and should be “well-trained” for bringing about true morality.
The book 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 economic and political debates. However, some reservations are in order.
There is an ambiguity concerning the status of his analysis. If in its positive aspect White’s recommendations for economists is to accept the Kantian vision of morality, then almost no arguments are given for this, and his modifications of the standard choice model are introduced in an ad hoc manner, just to reconcile it with the Kantian framework. Are an individual’s decisions to act on principles and to overcome mere inclinations really...