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Posts Tagged ‘Kant’

An Origami Heart folded from a US one dollar bill

An Origami Heart folded from a US one dollar bill

I find it very bizarre that during a time of economic upheaval the Globe and Mail is running a series on “Giving.” Is Charity the answer to our economic woes? Some seem to suggest that it might be. For example, Ed Clark, CEO of TD bank (whose salary rose by 9% last year, while inflation is at 3% according to the consumer price index) said:

“We live in a market economy,” which means that paying executives less than the market rate will make it hard to attract the cream of the crop, he [Clark] said.

“Personally what I’ve always said is… what you do with your pay matters. You can solve this problem on how you behave personally in terms of charitable donations and things like that, and try to reconcile that dilemma.” (Source).

Clark believes the problem of CEO pay would be difficult to address directly (by lowering or limiting it), or we would not be able to attract “the cream.”[1] So the solution is for CEOs to act charitably.[2] Again, a similar refrain to the Globe section, I linked to above.

This suggestion seems problematic to me. There is a moral difference between equality achieved through rights (as a matter of what we are owed as persons) and equality achieved through charity (as a matter of the beneficence of others). Immanuel Kant discusses the danger that charity poses to the self-respect and dignity of the recipient in The Metaphysics of Morals.  Although I have some quibbles with Kant’s discussion in these sections, I think it is right in the broad outlines.

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I have been having a recurring dream lately about going to dinner with Immanuel Kant. The details of the dream are different. We are going to dinner for different reasons and we go to different restaurants.

One element is constant in each of the dreams: I have written extensive notes on my hands about this idea I am really excited about. Both my hands are covered in tiny words that explain the idea in detail. At the beginning of dinner Kant shakes my hand when we are introduced.  Over the course of dinner Kant keeps touching my hands. By the end of dinner, all of the writing is gone. I can’t remember anything about the idea I had written there and I am very distressed.

I think this is a dream about writing my dissertation.

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Lately I have been thinking a lot about the different ways that we can value things. In particular I have been thinking about intrinsic and extrinsic value and how this relates to Kantian ethics through his views on respect. When we value something extrinsically (or instrumentally) we value that thing for the sake of something else. When we value something intrinsically, we value that thing for its own sake.

Kant’s major contribution to the concept of respect was to say that it was owed equally to all, in contrast to older views that honoured only those in the upper echelons of the social hierarchy. Kant justifies the idea that we are each owed equal respect by talking about how each person has intrinsic value, which he calls “dignity.” Human dignity, according to Kant is the idea that we are not fungible in the way that commodities are. Dignity is a special kind of value that Kant contrasts with price. It is because persons have dignity that they are owed respect, which entails treating others always as ends in themselves (or, as intrinsically valuable), and never as mere means (as having only extrinsic value).

In North American culture we often talk about human dignity, official documents like the declaration of independence, the UN declaration of human rights, and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms all contain references to human dignity or human equality that echo Kant’s concerns. The question I have is: how well do we promote this view? Although we claim to think that Kantian respect is important, that all people are born equal and are intrinsically valuable, I think we fail to promote the idea that people have intrinsic value and more often think of people in terms of their extrinsic value, particularly their usefulness or productivity.

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