Many defend unrestricted capitalism on the ground of its efficient outcomes. A free market society has a higher productivity compared to any other productive systems and it allows for the greatest overall satisfaction of preferences. On the opposite side many others pointing to the inequalities markets bring about, charge capitalism for falling short of moral standards.
Fabrizio CIatti has recently graduated from master's programme in philosophy and economics at Erasmus University in Rotterdam. The text below is an excerpt from his thesis.
In the bid to challenge this common view Nozick favours a pure market society for ethical reasons. In his highly-discussed work Anarchy, State and Utopia he advances the claim that only a society enforcing the absolute respect of individual property rights is inherently just. 'Individuals have rights, and there are things which no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights)’. It is the self-ownership thesis which asserts that each individual qua the exclusive proprietor of his own self possesses “original moral rights over his own body, faculties, talents and the fruits of his labour”. Any forms of interference with the individuals’ free exercise of their own legitimate rights is a violation of their moral status. Nozick presents the principle of 'self-ownership' as an interpretation of the Kantian principle of treating people as 'ends in themselves'. Libertarians à la Nozick suggest that enforcing rights of self-ownership and the Humanity principle have an equivalent scope, in the sense that they serve the same purpose and forbid the same actions. They affirm that a side constraint view gives strength to the “Kantian principle that individuals are ends and not merely means; they may not be sacrificed or used for the achieving of other ends without their consent. Individuals are inviolable” (ASU: 31, Otsuka, 2005: 14). If that is so, a pure market society where individuals can engage in all the transactions they want as long as no right is violated is also a morally just society. By the same token, those societies implementing forms of control aimed at avoiding or correcting unequal social outcomes would act against moral principles. Individuals can even sell themselves into slavery under the shield of morality. What follows is an attempt to debunk this alleged tie between self-ownership and the Kantian imperative.
A potential conflict arises out of a simple fact: if self-ownership implies a liberty to “dispose of oneself as one pleases” and even self-enslavement would thereby be a permissible act, then it is inconsistent with the second formulation of the categorical imperative, which imposes an absolute duty on all rational beings to “so act that you use Humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.” Cohen also favours this reading of the Humanity principle, thus asserting that Humanity is an objective end constraining our conduct (Cohen, 1995: ch.10 ). For Kant, an objective end or end in itself is such that its validity is unconditional and independent of any personal desire and valid for all rational beings. It is an end that every individual qua a rational being has a reason to produce (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, 1785: 4:428) and that limits what one is morally permitted to do when he pursues his ends. And the place of Humanity in Kant’s theory is the one of the end in itself that gives content to the categorical imperatives and provides a sufficient motivation to be effected in our conduct.
For Kant complying with moral imperatives signifies to evaluate and then adjust your conduct with the ways implied by the dictates of a pure and self-determining reason. The maxims of our conduct have to abide by a standard procedure of moral reasoning, which involves a procedure of progressive stages of universalisation. Only if a maxim can be articulated as a universal law governing all rational agents, and a world governed by this law is conceivable and finally you also would, or could, rationally will to act on your maxim in such a world, then your action inspired by this maxim is morally permissible. In addition to this formal standard, for Kant a categorical imperative can be binding on a rational will only if there is an objective end that serves as objective ground for the determination of the will. Lacking an end, any maxim would be wanting of any motivational force, as any action invariably “contains an end” (ibid.: 428). Some of these ends are objective, other are subjective, namely depending on contingent personal desires. Humanity is of the former type and as such can give motivational force to the categorical imperative. Accordingly treating someone else as a mere means, as in the case of slavery (and we can extend this to some forms of wage labour dictated by poverty and starvation, prostitution etc. etc.) is never a permissible act which a rational will would elect as an universal law. And this may count even for the one who enters voluntary slavery and for the one who benefits from the service of his slave. Treating someone merely as a mean for your ends fails to recognise the Humanity of that individual, therefore for a person engaging in such a conduct towards others would cause him to act in contradiction with the dictates of the pure reason. The Humanity imperative generates perfect duties which are such that require that we do or abstain from certain acts with no legitimate exceptions.
For Kant, our Humanity is the collection of features that make us distinctively human, and among these factors the central one is the capacity to engage in self-directed rational behaviour and to adopt and pursue our own ends. To bear in mind, the Humanity principle does not forbid an instrumental use of a person, as this would be absurd considering how many times in our daily life we benefit from the services of individuals. The point for Kant, as Cohen righteously remarks, is that we should never treat individuals as “mere means”, but “always also as end in themselves”, namely as “originators of projects that demand our unconditional respect (Cohen, 1995: 239). The capacity for self-legislation marks out human beings as different from all other living creatures. A person for Kant acts autonomously when he chooses those principles of action that are the most adequate expression of his nature as a free and worthy being. A slave is by definition a mere instrument in the hands of his owner, who detaches himself from the possibility of being an originator of autonomous projects. Nevertheless, libertarians would deem as permissible a transaction that results in the enslavement of an individual if the would-be slave has previously given an informed and autonomous consent to it. Consent is an important component of the libertarian morality as it is a necessary condition for the realisation of the idea of self-ownership. If we deny one the possibility to enslave himself and thus let himself be treated as a means, a libertarian would contend (see also Steiner, 1994: 232), we are as a matter of fact curtailing his right to dispose of his body as he pleases. And this is in contradiction with the SO rights. One may also suggest that Kant’s stress on self-legislation would allow one to agree on his enslavement. But quite to the contrary such a thing would not gain Kant’s approval, because in entering voluntary slavery one no longer allows the possibility that he is treated as an end. He indeed gives up his Humanity and the possibility in the future to be self-directed and pursue his life goals. From the moment he sells his freedom out his will is directed by an external authority whose benefits he has to serve. The fact that he consents to this does not change the fact that his owner can dispose of him as a mere object. Therefore the Humanity imperative would never permit a situation of slavery, not even in case of voluntary consent.
One can probably try to avoid this tension by weakening the demandingness of the “consent” principle. One could advance the argument that when you enter voluntary agreement you are not, properly speaking, giving consent to it but you are led to that choice by pressing external circumstances. This would make your choice a result of a form of coercion and would not thereby be sanctioned by a libertarian as well as by Kant. At a glance the tension with the Humanity principle seems solved, but as a matter of fact changing the standard of what a consensual action is would not be so different than reducing one’s control over his own body. It would in fact introduce some form of paternalistic control in one’s life, in that some over-demanding standards of consent external to an individual would be imposed to assess the use of his body and faculties. Other people (or the State) as a matter of fact would acquire the right to assess one’s conduct in order to prevent some results that they do not deem good for his own interests. In other words it is like letting someone else to establish whether your choices are truly free and not imposed by environmental circumstances that misdirect your judgments, with the consequence that your space of non-interference is drastically diminished.
We then reach the same conclusion as before that in order to meet the condition of Kantian imperative a libertarian has to partially discharge SO. To summarise the whole point, the tension between SO and the Humanity imperative lies in the fact that SO licenses some acts that Kantian imperative categorically forbids. The reason of this tensions ultimately comes down to the fact that respecting rights of self-ownership has no implication whatsoever about my attitude towards other, how morally I ought to regard them, whereas Kant’s morality demands a “particular form of regard for or attitude to others” (Cohen, ibid.: 240). Owing to this, even if we reinterpret Kant and move away from the idea that voluntary servitude is a violation of the Humanity within a person, the tie between SO and a weakened Humanity formula would still be a matter of dispute.