One of the basic concerns is ethics is the matter of how people should be treated. This is often formulated in terms of our obligations to other people and the question is “what, if anything, do we owe other people?” While it does seem that some would like to exclude the economic realm from the realm of ethics, the burden of proof would rest on those who would claim that economics deserves a special exemption from ethics. This could, of course, be done. However, since this is a brief essay, I will start with the assumption that economic activity is not exempt from morality.
While I subscribe to virtue theory as my main ethics, I do find Kant’s ethics both appealing and interesting. In regards to how we should treat others, Kant takes as foundational that “rational nature exists as an end in itself.”
It is reasonable to inquire why this should be accepted. Kant’s reasoning certainly seems sensible enough. He notes that “a man necessarily conceives his own existence as such” and this applies to all rational beings. That is, Kant claims that a rational being sees itself as being an end, rather than a thing to be used as a means to an end. So, for example, I see myself as a person who is an end and not as a mere thing that exists to serve the ends of others.
Of course, the mere fact that I see myself as an end would not seem to require that I extend this to other rational beings (that is, other people). After all, I could apparently regard myself as an end and regard others as means to my ends—to be used for my profit as, for example, underpaid workers or slaves.
However, Kant claims that I must regard other rational beings as ends as well. The reason is fairly straightforward and is a matter of consistency: if I am an end rather than a means because I am a rational being, then consistency requires that I accept that other rational beings are ends as well. After all, if being a rational being makes me an end, it would do the same for others. Naturally, it could be argued that there is a relevant difference between myself and other rational beings that would warrant my treating them as means only and not as ends. People have, obviously enough, endeavored to justify treating other people as things. However, there seems to be no principled way to insist on my own status as an end while denying the same to other rational beings.
From this, Kant derives his practical imperative: “so act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means only.” This imperative does not entail that I cannot ever treat a person as a means—that is allowed, provided I do not treat the person as a means only. So, for example, I would be morally forbidden from being a pimp who uses women as mere means of revenue. I would, however, not be forbidden from having someone check me out at the grocery store—provided that I treated the person as a person and not a mere means.
One obvious challenge is sorting out what it is to treat a person as an end as opposed to just a means to an end. That is, the problem is figuring out when a person is being treated as a mere means and thus the action would be immoral.
Interestingly enough, many economic relationships would seem to clearly violate Kant’s imperative in that they treat people as mere means and not at all as ends. To use the obvious example, if an employer treats her employees merely as means to making a profit and does not treat them as ends in themselves, then she is acting immorally by Kant’s standard. After all, being an employee does not rob a person of personhood.
One obvious reply is to question my starting assumption, namely that economics is not exempt from ethics. It could be argued that the relationship between employer and employee is purely economic and only economic considerations matter. That is, the workers are to be regarded as means to profit and treated in accord with this—even if doing so means treating them as things rather than persons. The challenge is, of course, to show that the economic realm grants a special exemption in regards to ethics. Of course, if it does this, then the exemption would presumably be a general one. So, for example, people who decided to take money from the rich at gunpoint would be exempt from ethics as well. After all, if everyone is a means in economics, then the rich are just as much means as employees and if economic coercion against people is acceptable, then so too is coercion via firearms.
Another obvious reply is to contend that might makes right. That is, the employer has the power and owes nothing to the employees beyond what they can force him to provide. This would make economics rather like the state of nature—where, as Hobbes said, “profit is the measure of right.” Of course, this leads to the same problem as the previous reply: if economics is a matter of might making right, then people have the same right to use might against employers and other folks—that is, the state of nature applies to all.