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Kant and the immorality of capitalism

From coffee farmers paid fairtrade rates to shareholders maximising profits modern capitalism is a fundamentally immoral system say Bob Brecher & Phil Vellender

Unfashionable though it is, it's worth insisting that capitalism is immoral. Here's the second formulation of Immanuel Kant's Categorical Imperative, his most famous contribution to moral philosophy: 'Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end.'

Kant's principle seems undeniable (try it). To be a person to be recognised as such and not just a member of the species, Homo sapiens is already to have a moral and political status. A person's life isn't merely a means to another's, or their own, ends. So if you deny Kant's principle, you're denying that you're a person - that's a contradiction. Furthermore, the principle is negative: whilst it's hard to see exactly what it rules in, it's far easier to see what it rules out. Again, that reflects something else we already know: while it's hard to say what precisely our political arrangements ought to be, it's not hard to say a lot about what they ought not to be.

Let's focus on just one fact about capitalism, namely that it's built on the supposition that selfishness inevitably underpins our exchange relations. To quote Milton Friedman, that guru of the neo-liberal revolution: 'there is one thing you can trust everybody to do. You can trust everybody to put his (sic) interest above yours.' This view is at the heart of the capitalist system: people will supply others with what those others need only if that's in their own interests.

Of course, many apologists for capitalism say that selfishness is a given in human nature. Can we be sure that there is a human nature? But even if there is, it's one thing to say that this is how people act and quite another to say that it's morally right. The point is that capitalism requires that we be selfish, whether it takes us to be so 'naturally' or not. All the neo-liberal revolutionaries are busy either ensuring that we remain so or re-creating us to fit. In short, capitalism requires us either to remain fundamentally selfish or to become so. No wonder our entire lives are being commodified. We are being made only ever to do what's in our (narrowly construed) material interest; only what pays. So, for example, universities are being turned into businesses, where knowledge is valued only as a source of income and the NHS into a business where healthcare is bought and sold.

Another neo-liberal guru, Von Hayek, offers a disarmingly frank response. Capitalism, he tells us, stands outside morality: the 'impersonal process of the market can be neither just nor unjust, because the results are not intended or foreseen'. But of course this 'process' is invented and directed by people. The 'laws of the market' are not like laws of nature, but like juridical laws. Furthermore, at the heart of these juridical 'laws' lies a particular conception both of property and of human beings, whom capitalism takes in crucial respects to be like property, or even to be property. Von Hayek's thinking about the market being run by the notorious alleged 'hidden hand' is wrong. It's run by people, for their own benefit, and isn't at all like the weather or the laws of physics. But his conclusion is at least half right in describing how capitalists think of the market and how they would have us all think about it. Namely that the people engaged in it are, fundamentally, things which aren't subject to moral judgement. So if you can be persuaded that the market is outside morality, and that it concerns not people but things, you won't pester the capitalists with any moral judgments. But one way of understanding Kant's principle is to notice that it insists that people aren't things. And from that it follows that we're not property.

The view that we are property, is clearly reflected in the main duty under capitalism of those people who manage a company. It's simple, clear and problematic: namely to maximise profit for shareholders. A director has to act to ensure that those who have invested get the maximum return. It's not their benevolence, but their self-interest, that leads them to invest. That self-interest has to be satisfied if investors aren't to move their investment elsewhere. And the only way that it can be satisfied is through a financial 'return' note the language here! Not just getting back what you've actually lent, which is what you might think 'a return' to mean; but rather getting something new (hence nothing to do with returning anything). In short, the capitalist firm operates through the idea of people getting paid for having lent someone some of their money. This used to be called usury until capitalism overtook Christianity. That term, 'usury', is significant. Why? Because investors are literally using those who need their money to make money. It's hard to think of a clearer instance of using people merely as a means to an end.

But there's more. Having used people as a means to an end the firm itself of which they are now a part the shareholders, as part-owners, use people as a means to the end of making a monetary profit both from the firm's workers who 'consent' to be so used because they need to make a living and the firm's customers who need, or can be persuaded to want, the product. It's not the workers or the customers who count, their role is fundamentally subordinate to the business of making a profit. They are used merely as a means to that end.

This argument is generally countered in two ways: the 'fair trade' response; and the response that 'capitalism is an exchange mechanism not a way of life'.

Fairtrade argues that what's described above is what capitalism used to be like, not what it's like today. The Companies Act 2006 is, as the Corporate Responsibility Coalition puts it, 'The biggest shake up of company law for 150 years [it] requires for the first time company directors to consider their business' impacts on people and the environment.' But this is just window-dressing. Fairtrade gives producers a slightly higher price for their coffee beans or whatever: but they're still being used merely as a means to 'Fairtrade' companies' ends. According to the Fairtrade people, a 'fair' price is a little higher than a presumably unfair one. But being a little less unfair doesn't make it fair. So what is a fair price? This is a tricky issue - perhaps a price which enables the seller to enjoy the same standard of living as the average buyer - but we don't have to answer this question to see that a price that comes nowhere near enabling the seller to do that is not 'fair'.

To abuse people less, or even if that's what you think goes on not to abuse people at all, is not to conform to Kant's principle. To use someone merely as a means to an end is a very specific form of abuse. It's not the same as just being unfair. It's a much deeper matter, a matter not of treating people unfairly, but of treating them as not people at all. That's to say, Kant's principle isn't about price whether fair, unfair or fairer but about our fundamental social relationships.

If coffee farmers have to sell their beans at a certain price in order to live at all, then that's what they'll do. If they were less reliant on coffee beans, they'd hold out for a higher price. 'Fairness' between equals is one thing; fairness between unequals which is what we're talking about is nonsense, and amounts simply to screwing people for whatever you can get out of them. It's the structure of social relations that counts: here, the fact that coffee-farmers have no choice but to sell their labour. It's that fact that the firm, 'Fairtrade' or not, exploits.

It uses people, both producers and customers, merely as a means to its end of making money, and the behaviour of shareholders exemplifies the fact. It's what Kant rightly rules immoral. Why? Because according to his principle we're fundamentally equal, precisely inasmuch as none of us are to use any of us as things, as means to an end. That's what equality means.

As for 'employees' interests', these remain defined by the employer. Since the 'choice' is to work or to starve, it's in workers' interests to work. But their interests are interests forced on them, just as their so-called choosing to work isn't really a choice at all, but a necessity. Workers are put into a position where we can survive only by agreeing to be used merely as a means to an end and by using ourselves in the same fashion. In short, the firm effectively owns our labour and to that extent, us.

The second objection is that the relations of 'self-love' or self-interest are limited to the market. If they are, then stepping out of such a market puts a stop to them. If a footballer is injured in a game, they step out of their role. In being medically treated they're not treated merely as a player. Of course that's not how things are, we can't simply walk away from capitalism. It isn't optional and our being treated merely as a means to an end as worker or customer isn't limited in this way, a worker or customer is what we are. And that's not being a person at all. So capitalism remains immoral.

Even if people had entered the structure of the 'free private market' of personal relations as equals, and were in any practical sense free to refuse the bargain on offer, they'd surrender their freedom were they to accept it. For to agree to be treated merely as a means to an end even if you do so voluntarily is to surrender your freedom. Why? Because, as Kant puts it, freedom consists in obedience to the moral law (i.e., doing what's rational hence the Categorical Imperative) not in doing what you like or in just not being forced by another person, (under torture, for instance). Freedom from immediate coercion isn't enough. Only if others don't treat you merely as means to an end and only if you treat neither others nor yourself merely as means to an end, are you a person. That's the difference between being a person, and being (merely) an instance of a particular biological species. A 'person' is already a moral being. Capitalism requires us to be, or to become, non-persons. That's the immorality of capitalism.


1. Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, ed. and tr. Mary Gregor (CUP1997)

2. Op.cit.


4. The Corporate Responsibility Coalition, 'New Directors' Duties Launched': available at http://corporate-responsibility.org/new-directors-duties-guidance-launched/