Kant on autarky

Leafing idly through Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, I came across this interesting quote (p 683 in the Unwin paperback edition)

Kant gives as an illustration of the categorical imperative that it is wrong to borrow money, because if we all try to do so there would be no money left to borrow

Russell seems to see nothing wrong with this, but it is obvious that the same argument applies to trade of any kind. If I engage in trade, I must be a net buyer of something, say bread. But if everyone tried to be a net buyer of bread, there would be none left. Hence the categorical imperative requires everyone to be self-sufficient.

I assume this constitutes a reductio ad absurdam for Kant’s argument against borrowing. But is it possible to reject the argument against borrowing while accepting the categorical imperative from which it is derived? Any Kantians among the readers of this blog are invited to set me straight on this point.

Update In the comments thread, James Farrell points out that, contrary to the quote from Russell, Kant was talking about borrowing money without the intention of repaying it.

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9 thoughts on “Kant on autarky

  1. I’m not a Kantian explicitly anyway but if I understand your question, I don’t think it’s Kant’s formulation of the categorical imperative which is problematic but his application of it. The categorical imperative works fairly well against, say, theft and murder because theft and murder are zero sum games. it doesn’t work against buying bread and borrowing money (well, at least up to a point for the latter) because they aren’t zero sum games but opportunities for trade.

  2. I think Jason is right if Kant did say something like that. But, to be clear, Kant believed that exceptions were possible as long as they could be consistently universalized. In fact there are two basic forms of the categorical imperative:

    (1) Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.

    (2) Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.

    Neither are necessarily easy to understand. John Rawls’ Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy is a good introduction, and you can read it all online if you don’t mind the cyan “exam copy” text on the background of every page. (there are almost 200 pages on Kant, but two chapters on the two versions of the categorical imperative in particular)

    My own opinion is that consequences tend to seep in, but maybe I don’t know enough about Kant.

  3. I agree with Jason Soon – the problem is with the application. If everyone borrows money then it is presumably to use it for something – so it is a transfer payment. If everyone borrows, the the money per se doesn’t run out – except for some people some of the time. Nor does the bread run out if one is a net purchaser of bread – something is being ‘traded’ – person with excess of bread trades the surplus for needful other goods the other may have in excess. Ideally, no one runs out, rather an equilibrium of supply and distribution is achieved. What Kant may well have been on about is simply greed – if everyone is super greedy then certain other values are thereby obliterated.

  4. Jason seems on the money with this one.
    Kant sought to make each person morally autonomous, ie an end in himself, not a means to anothers end.
    But this was meant in a normative moral, not positive economic sense.
    Thus in positive economic terms we are all, at certain times and places, means to various others several ends.
    Ideally we deliver ourselves to others in a free, fair and forthright bargain.
    The Kantian C-I seeks to ensure that society is a regime for voluntary-informed bilateral (mutual-reciprocal) exploitation.
    It follows that unilateral, fraudulent forceful exploitation is prima facie immoral since it would lead to chronic assymetry of advantage ie the game would be zero sum with one side piling up a huge score at the other’s expense.
    The idea of a just society is to see that the gains from mutuality are fairly distributed.
    In Australian terms, leave a drink for your mates.

  5. “Don’t marry the prince, because there would be none left for others of your cohort”

    Is there any biology in Kant at all?

    let alone more modern evolutionary ecological theories…

  6. Kant means borrowing with the intention of not repaying. Borrowing as an institution would collapse if it was generally understood that everyone acts according to this rule. That consequence – not of the individual act but of its hypothetical adoption as a general rule of behaviour – is what makes it wrong for the individual do it.

  7. I’ve always found Kantian moral arguments rather ridiculous, but surely this one can be salvaged as a proto-Keynesian economic argument.

    You could argue quite persuasively that in one-period trading for goods for spot delivery, a form of Say’s Law operates; it’s possible to universally will that everyone trade value for value.

    But it’s much more debatable whether any such law prevails for exchanges involving time and uncertainty, so you can’t universalise your behaviour as you’re not entitled to assume the market clears.

    or something …

  8. james has it right.

    here is the relevant passage from the fundamental principles, http://eserver.org/philosophy/kant/metaphys-of-morals.txt:

    “Another finds himself forced by necessity to borrow money. He
    knows that he will not be able to repay it, but sees also that nothing
    will be lent to him unless he promises stoutly to repay it in a
    definite time. He desires to make this promise, but he has still so
    much conscience as to ask himself: “Is it not unlawful and
    inconsistent with duty to get out of a difficulty in this way?”
    Suppose however that he resolves to do so: then the maxim of his
    action would be expressed thus: “When I think myself in want of money,
    I will borrow money and promise to repay it, although I know that I
    never can do so.” Now this principle of self-love or of one’s own
    advantage may perhaps be consistent with my whole future welfare;
    but the question now is, “Is it right?” I change then the suggestion
    of self-love into a universal law, and state the question thus: “How
    would it be if my maxim were a universal law?” Then I see at once that
    it could never hold as a universal law of nature, but would
    necessarily contradict itself. For supposing it to be a universal
    law that everyone when he thinks himself in a difficulty should be
    able to promise whatever he pleases, with the purpose of not keeping
    his promise, the promise itself would become impossible, as well as
    the end that one might have in view in it, since no one would consider
    that anything was promised to him, but would ridicule all such
    statements as vain pretences.”

  9. So the moral becomes, It’s wrong to borrow money fraudulently, because where would be be if everybody did that? I find it hard to believe Russell could have been so wide of the mark!

    It’s nice on occasion to feel that you’re being put in touch with the historical source of one of your internalized values. My upbringing included a generalized version of the rule: ‘You shouldn’t do that, because what would the world be like if everyone behaved that way?’ It’s a pretty powerful moral rule and one I like a lot, for several reasons.

    It assumes an existential equality among people;
    It can be used as a standard to encourage positive behaviour as well as to discourage negative;
    If it became part of consumer culture, markets could be a lot more efficient.

    Imagine how much more pleasant public spaces would be if, for example, everyone parked their supermarket trolley neatly at the side of the aisle while inspecting the shelves there.

    A consumer application: Recently, the more popular of our two local daily newspapers increased its price substantially while the other remained at the same price. I understand that sales of the two papers remained about the same, and after a couple of months the cheaper of the two decided to stop looking a gift horse in the mouth and raised its price accordingly.

    If each individual had chosen to act as they would like everyone to act, and gone over to the cheaper paper, the price might have come back down again. Better still, the newspaper would have thought twice about the price rise in the first place if it knew its readers would behave this way. Any chance of a bit of Kantian consumer education being introduced into our schools?

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