"The Darwin Economy" by Robert H. Frank

Series:  Part 1Part 2  |  Part 3

When Cost-Benefit Matters …

If there is a part of The Darwin Economy that made me smile is the reasoning Frank uses regarding his discussion on morality and cost-benefit analysis.  The reason for the smile is that the argument is so remarkably beautiful, simple, and sound  (Frank, 2011, pp. 35-39).  If Frank wanted to be a philosopher, I think he would be a great one.  Contrary to appearances, philosophers search for the best possible clearest line of reasoning.  Of course, philosophy is not easy, and its level of rigor of thought leads, sometimes, to difficult discussions, not easily understood by non-specialists.  However, there are others who discuss many issues unnecessarily.  I know that Frank is not exactly impressed with many of the so-called “philosophers” today, who try their best to make their writings as confusing and obscure as possible (e.g. Judith Butler).  He thinks that in these cases, there is a positional tendency of some “philosophers” to appear scholarly by showing off their excessive use and abuse of words, when, beneath, there is next-to-no-content to offer anyone.  I agree.

Of course, I underscore the fact that I adopt a deontological point of view, Frank’s is a consequentialist view.   But, in my view, none of this diminishes at all his argument.

Following his sound line of reasoning, he confronts people who object on several cost-benefit analyses on ethical grounds.  For example, should a business owner place a blade guard for his woodworkers’ safety?  Frank argues convincingly, that the answer depends necessarily on cost-benefit analysis, since buying a blade guard and paying its maintenance costs money (Frank, 2011, p. 38).  An employee working in a risky job receives higher salary for this reason, since the owner does not have to spend money on blade guards, and there are employees willing to place their lives in risky jobs if there is more pay in salary. An employee’s safety is an ethical concern.  Yet, he or she could also trade his or her safety for higher salary.  From an ethical standpoint, many people suppose that we should respect a person’s free choice of trading salary with safety.  Then the problem ceases to be ethical, and it becomes a cost-benefit issue.  How much is safety worth?  Answer:  what employees are willing to pay for it  (Frank, 2011, p. 37-38).

The problem comes when many people need their children to go to the best school, which requires them to live in the best school districts, hence they need to buy more expensive houses.  Under such circumstances, this becomes a positional problem.  There are only so many houses in the best school districts, which leads to an exponential increase in the number of people trading safety for higher wages. This happens while this dynamic increases the market cost of the houses in the best school districts.  As time goes by, this competitive scenario leads to people spending in houses that are too expensive and adopting jobs that are too dangerous.  In other words, this is not the case of just people “freely” choosing to place their lives at risk for higher wages, but they are also people who are engaging in a competition that places the lives of other people at risk.  Negative externalities abound in such cases.  Defending such freedoms blindly, leads to a worse society … and nobody would end up better than before.  Let’s remember Mill’s harm principle, we should avoid acting in ways that lead to undue harm to others  (Frank, 2011, pp. 37-38).

This is what Darwin noted, that frequently competition among individuals can lead to results that are worse-off from a group standpoint.  Hence, as Ronald Coase suggested, the state must mimic the situation where employees as a collective would choose freely to establish a deduction in salary (willingness to pay) for greater safety …  hence states’ rules for safety.  What if salaries are too low to buy safety?…  Then the state could impose higher wages.  In any case … the state should intervene to avoid the sort of competition where everyone is worse off (Frank, 2011, pp. 38-39).

Notice that Frank’s reasoning is completely compatible with the deontological view we assumed in an earlier blog post in this series.  A comprehensive view of the complexities of society that takes into account all orders of society (technoscientific, juridical-political, ethical, etc.) will let us see clearly the nature of the problem before us, and apply the corresponding solution to the problem.  We can lead to effective results if we know which areas of the technoscientific realm (where the economy is) should be restricted by the juridical-political order for the benefit of us, the moral beings in the story.  The rest of the analyses made throughout the book regarding this reasoning (willingness to pay, income transfers in private and public spheres, steep progressive consumption taxes, taxing harmful activities, and so on) would be completely validated under this deontological framework.

Again, I strongly advise my readers to buy the book.  I guarantee you, despite any philosophical objections I might raise in my blog, it is a gem.  If I participated in U.S. elections, I would actually start an enthusiastic campaign to reform tax policies in the way suggested by Frank … plus the implementation of the majority of the policies suggested by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book Nudge.  Hey, both books are libertarian!  So, I don’t expect libertarians in Congress to oppose their suggestions.  If you, my dear reader, live in the U.S. …  what the heck are you waiting for?!

Yet, there is a little thing I wish to address to end the series.

The Trolley Problem or its Equivalents

Frank says in his book a little comment regarding deontologists:

[Deontologists] often manage to score telling debate points by constructing examples in which the action with the best overall consequences seems clearly impermissible to most observers.

A perennial favorite describes a botanist who wanders into a jungle village where ten innocent people are about to be shot.  He is told that nine of them will be spared if he himself will shoot the tenth.  What should the botanist do?  The consequentialist framework seems to suggest that shooting the innocent man would be the right choice, because doing so would result in the net saving of nine lives.  Yet most normal sentient beings are loath to endorse that conclusion.  Deontologists insist that such examples demonstrate the bankruptcy of consequentialist moral reasoning (Frank, 2011, p. 94).

Well … not quite.  If you are a hardcore deontologist, perhaps you are blinded to the fact that under such circumstances, we (deontologists) still have to choose!  Yet, as the philosopher Judith Jarvis Thompson and others have pointed out, neither the consequentialist nor the deontological frameworks help us systematize situations like this, and similar (although qualitatively different) situations such as different versions of the trolley problem.

Trolley Problem:  There is a trolley going to hit five people stuck in the tracks.  You, the driver, may make a switch to another track to save the five, but there is one person  stuck in that other track.   What do you do?

There are many versions of this problem, showing different situations to let us see the problem of systematicity of the criteria we use in each case:  What happens if instead of switching, you can throw a fat man to the tracks to stop the trolley?  What if the one man in the other track is a friend?  What if the person doing the switch is not the driver or a bystander? … and so on.

Note:  Frank’s opinion on what should be done if the man in the other track is a friend appears in his book What Price the Moral High Ground?  How to Succeed without Selling your Soul, pp. 55-56.  I highly recommend this book also.  Although I don’t agree with Frank’s conclusion regarding consequentialism in this case, the book is another very big gem.  Again, everyone should read it.

I will not solve the whole variety of trolley problems here, because, honestly, it is a philosophical headache for me.  However, I just wanted to say that the botanist example brought by deontologists, according to Frank, may be an “easy” way to dismiss consequentialism, but in the end it is a simplistic reasoning for any deontologist to hold.


Foot, P.  (1978).  The problem of abortion and the doctrine of double effect.  Virtues and vices.  Oxford:  Blackwell.

Frank, R. H.  (2004).  What price the moral high ground?  How to succeed without selling your soul.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press.

Frank, R. H.  (2011).   The Darwin economy:  liberty, competition, and the common good.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press.

Thomson, J. J.  (1985).  The trolley problem.  Yale Law Journal, 94, 1395-1415.

Thomson, J. J.  (2008).  Turning the trolley.  Philosophy & Public Affairs, 36, 2, 359-374.

Powered by ScribeFire.

"The Darwin Economy" by Robert H. Frank

Series:  Part 1Part 2  |

Robert Frank’s brilliant book, The Darwin Economy, a very well-argued long statement against the inanity of political and economic discussions in the United States, should be taken seriously by the political right, left, center and none of the above.  Although I differ from his consequentialist framework, I want to emphasize two things:

  1. Even though it may appear that he is not interested in issues regarding social justice, I don’t think it is the case that he is indifferent towards those issues (pp. 131, 169).  There is a feel in the book for the opposite.  He is motivated by those issues, but he is not being ideological about it.  This can be seen very clearly about his interest about labor-managed firms and their failure to proliferate in the market (Frank, 2011, pp. 30-35).
  2. It is good not to lose sight of his line of argument:  even if you become the most recalcitrant libertarian in the universe …  a John Galt, a Prime Mover a la Ayn Rand, and being totally selfish about the whole thing … you will eventually end up choosing a society very similar to a welfare state, very, very close to one that is built on principles of social justice (pp. 131, 202-207).  In other words, the most selfish of libertarians living all the Randian virtues, if he or she is intelligent, will end up in no less than a libertarian welfare-state (pp. 211-215)

Of course, for those who haven’t read the book, talking about a “libertarian welfare-state” sounds nonsensical.  Yet, everything becomes transparent when we realize that Frank’s whole argument is not solely founded on Darwin’s observation regarding individual and group interests, but also on the views of one Nobel Prize laureate, Ronald Coase.  Frank’s reasoning regarding Coase holds perfectly for the creation of a welfare-state.  Yet, there are some aspects regarding his use of Coase which, I argue, can be better understood within a deontological framework, as presented in my previous post.

Meet Ronald Coase …  and the Reason He Won the Nobel Prize …

Ladies and gentlemen … meet Ronald Coase!

Ronald Coase

This picture pretty much presents Ronald Coase as he looks today.   Did you know he was born in December, 1910?  Yep!  That makes him …. ummm…  101 years old.  Yes, he is alive … not kidding!

Anyway, Coase is famous for two great works in economics.  The first one has to do with his research on why corporations exist.  In his article “The Nature of the Firm” (1937), he discovered the obvious …  at least it is obvious to us now, but not then!  Why do corporations exist?  For one simple reason, because if production consisted solely of independent businesses specialized each in one sole activity (one for extracting metal, another business for making them into pieces for assembly, another for building the product, and so on), each one of them would have to sign contracts with the others in order to create a chain of production between them.  Even supposing that these contracts are negotiated at negligible cost and very easily, it wouldn’t be practical to negotiate all of them, and would drive product prices sky-high.  Imagine a car that is built this way, nobody will be able to buy it.  Yet, Coase realized that corporations exist because it is far easier, cheaper, and more efficient that a hierarchy of command is established, and then create a whole division of labor with a chain of workers doing different jobs … just like Adam Smith envisioned (Frank, 2011, pp. 90-91).

But the work that deserved him the Nobel Prize in 1991 was his 1960’s article, “The Problem of Social Cost“.  The statement of this article has made us understand better the relationship between the law and the economy.  Before this very important article, the law usually saw disputes within an ethical framework:  perpetrators vs. victims.  This framework does seem to hold in some cases, but in other cases, it is clearly inadequate.  For instance, the paper (and an earlier one) makes one reference to the Sturges vs. Bridgman case (1879) as an example.  In The Darwin Economy, Frank modifies it a bit, but the situation is exactly the same.

Before I go into details, I wish to talk about externalities.  The term “externality” has to do with what all of us “internalize” and “externalize”, when we invest in something.  Sometimes that investment has a positive or negative effect that a third party did not consent.  For example, if I paint my house, and modify it to look good, clean, and so on, not only do I have internalized a gain from that investment, but I also externalize value to my neighbors’ houses, in this case, this is a positive externality:  my investment in my house has the side effect of increasing my neighbors’ house value.  I never sat down with my neighbors to ask their permission to increase their houses’ value, yet, in 99.99% of the time, they won’t protest because of it, they will welcome such intrusion without their consent.  However, most of the time when economists talk about “externalities”, they mean negative externalities, i.e. externalities that cost to others.

In “The Problem of Social Cost”, Coase argues that externalities are reciprocal in nature.  How so?  He uses some cases illustrate his argument perfectly.  I am going to use Frank’s version of the Sturges vs. Bridgman case.  Frank quotes Coase:

A confectioner had used certain premises for his business or great many years.  When a doctor came and occupied a neighboring property, the working of the confectioner’s machinery caused the doctor no harm until, some eight years later, he built a consulting room at the end o the garden, right against the confectioner’s premises.  Then it was found that noise and vibrations caused by the machinery disturbed the doctor in his work.  The doctor then brought an action and succeeded in securing an injunction preventing the confectioner from using his machinery.  What the courts had, in fact, to decide was whether the doctor had the right to impose additional costs on the confectioner through compelling him to install new machinery, or move to a new location, or whether the confectioner had the right to impose additional costs on the doctor through compelling him to do his consulting somewhere else on his premises or at another location (Coase, 1959, p. 26).

If we use the perpetrator vs. victim ethical framework, we have a problem.  As Frank argues very well in The Darwin Economy, it is not clear, from an ethical standpoint, who is the perpetrator or the victim (Frank, 2011, pp. 85-95).   The situation for the doctor is the following:  the noise costs him $20,000 in damage.  The doctor could move at a cost of $10,000, or he could install soundproofing machinery at $5,000.  In light of this scenario, there are two possibilities:

  1. The state could make the confectioner liable, in which case, he would have to install soundproofing machinery at $5,000 as the most efficient solution.  After that, the confectioner would not have to compensate the doctor for the damage.
  2. If the state did not make the confectioner liable, the doctor’s best option is that he himself would have to install the soundproofing machinery at $5,000.

Most people find (2) troubling.  Why should the doctor have to pay to the confectioner?  Yet, as noted, no one is perpetrator or victim in this scenario. In case the state did not hold the confectioner liable, the confectioner would not have to pay, making the doctor adopt the most efficient solution to the problem (Frank, 2011, pp. 88-89).  This is the problem of reciprocal externalities, where a simple and at low-cost negotiation would have been enough to solve without state intervention.

Of course, libertarians took Coase’s solution as if he had said that the state were not necessary, and that the state were actually hindering the market.  Yet, as Frank notes, this could have not been Coase’s message at all.  Actually the moral of the story is not that the state is not necessary in such situations.  As we have stated above, Coase has studied the need for corporations to solve the problem that arises when negotiations among parties are impractical.  In such cases a corporation establishes an authority which facilitates the whole process of production very efficiently.  What happens regarding the confectioner and the doctor when negotiations become impractical?  Very simple!  It becomes the role of the state to mimic the situation where free parties would have negotiated if it were practical.  That would be the best possible solution (Frank, 2011, pp. 89-91). If we generalize this situation, then we will end up in a libertarian welfare state.

Frank states that such a view would be classified as consequentialist (Frank, 2011, pp. 93-94).  Yet, I see no reason why this should be the case.  Referring to my earlier post, the problems considered here belong to the techno-scientific stratum of society, not to the ethical stratum.  Why?  Because this is not an ethical problem:  again, none of the parties can be classified as perpetrator or victim.  So, from a deontological point of view, there is no ethical principle to defend here.   This is a market problem, to be solved in the most efficient way possible: there are reciprocal externalities, so the best possible way to solve this problem is the Coase’s approach.

Misapplications of Coase’s Approach

Before I make my core-criticism, I want to point out that Frank is being careful with many of his statements.  Although he suggests Coase’s approach, he also says:

It isn’t my claim that the Coase framework is the uniquely correct way of thinking about such decisions.  But to the extent that we can agree that the costs and benefits of the alternatives we face matter to at least some extent, I hope we can agree that the Coase framework might often facilitate clearer thinking about the relevant trade-offs  (Frank, 2011, p. 98, my emphasis).

Despite this, I have a disagreement with Frank regarding a misapplication of the Coase framework.  For example, should it be applied to interracial hand-holding?  Let’s imagine that in the south, in the 1960s, each interracial couple would be willing to pay $100 a week for the right to hold hands in public.  If there are 100 interracial couples, then that would be a total of $10,000 a week for the city or the state.  Yet, there are a million whites willing to pay $1.00 a week to avoid the sight.  If negotiations may have been practical, each white may have paid or $0.10 a week for a total of $100,000 which would finance a payment of $1,000 a week to avoid holding interracial hand-holding.  That would mean that each interracial couple would be $900 better than before ($1,000 a week they receive minus the $100 they suffer from not holding hands).  Each offended white would be $0.90 better than before.  Therefore, this is a good deal for both parties … or is it?  (Frank, 2011, pp. 95-96)

Of course, Frank makes it clear that such an arrangement is completely unacceptable (Frank, 2011, p. 96).  Yet, what would prevent such thing from happening?  Why wouldn’t it be ethically right for interracial couples or whites to carry out this transaction?  What is the ethical reasoning that would make us regard this as unacceptable?  Again, Frank uses a particular consequentialist framework.  He explains his position to be against this arrangement in the following way:

… the analysis completely ignores the fact that people adapt over time in dramatically different ways to different forms of real or imagined injuries.  The cumulative amount that white residents o Atlanta in the 1960s would have been willing to pay to avoid the sight of interracial hand-holding probably did outweigh the cumulative amount that the small number of interracial couples would have been willing to pay for the right to hold hands.  But as interracial relationships have become more common during the intervening years, attitudes have changed dramatically, and in ways that were completely predictable at the time  (Frank, 2011, p. 96).

As a deontologist, I cannot avoid thinking that Frank’s heart is in the right place, but this reasoning is not.  I think that he implicitly carries out another misapplication of the Coase framework.  Does Frank mean that if people are not able to adapt over time to interracial hand-holding, then the Coase framework would be ethically acceptable?  Even if we were to argue that in such circumstances whites and interracial couples were to end up economically “better” under the Coase framework, it really strikes our moral sense to actually consider interracial hand-holding as being subject to negotiations.

As Frank does recognize, the Coase framework works very well when allocating scarce resources, which is what the market is all about.  Yet, the example of interracial hand-holding is an ethical and not a market problem.  From a deontological standpoint, we are treating a couple’s legitimate loving expression as being subject to commercial exchange, as if it had a price (in the Kantian sense).  Yet it is not subject to price, because it involves dignity (see my previous post regarding the difference between price and dignity).

We have seen that in most of the cases, consequentialism and deontology usually end up in almost the same place, to account for what, phenomenologically, strikes our moral sense.  Yet, here deontology has a very clear-cut criterion to establish why the Coase framework should not be applied in the case of interracial hand-holding, and why the consequentialist criteria don’t seem to work very well … at least the way Robert Frank applies them.


Coase, R. H.  1937.  The nature of the firm.  Economica, 4,  386-405.

Coase, R. H.  1959.  The Federal Communications Commission.  Journal of Law and Economics, 2, 1-40.

Coase, R. H.  1960, October.  The problem of social cost.  Journal of Law and Economics, 3, 1-44.

Frank, R. H.  2011.  The Darwin economy:  liberty, competition, and the common good.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press.

Powered by ScribeFire.

The Darwin Economy


Many people who have heard about the terms “deontological theory” and “teleological or consequentialist theory” in the field of Ethics, usually have a very particular way of understanding the debates engaged by ethicists on both sides of the field.  Sometimes the image people have about it is a caricature of the more nuanced views in both sides.  Let me give you an example of what I mean, in the movie Robin Hood:  Men in Tights, there is a scene where Robin Hood, Achoo and Blinken want to cross a bridge.  Robin assumes what we could call a deontological approach to the problem, while Achoo chooses a more consequentialist and more efficient approach.

At least in the Anglo-Saxon environment, there is a lot of favor for consequentialist approaches to problems.  At the same time, there is an image of deontological approaches as being noble in spirit, but inherently stupid in practical terms … much like the way suggested by Robin Hood:  Men in Tights.

A similar perspective is shared by Esperanza Guisán with her highly critical exposition of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy and his pure deontological views.  In fact, she alleges that Kant was moved by his pietist prejudices against inclinations and emotions in general as being inherently “evil”.  These are the grounds with which she practically insults Kant’s philosophy to the ground in a very aggressive criticism.  Since Kant’s proposal is, for all practical purposes, religion in disguise, and she is absolutely unable to stand any religious view in any way throughout her book, then she gives the impression that no one should pay any more thought on the subject, and apparently the discussion ends there (Guisán, 1995, pp. 170-189).

Other authors who actually admire Kant’s contributions, and assume a deontological view (like myself), are more moderate.  In fact, as the eminent bioethicists Jorge José Ferrer and Juan Carlos Álvarez point out, rarely can you find today a “purist” deontological philosopher, all of them incorporate consequentialist aspects to their philosophy in one way or another (Ferrer & Álvarez, 2003, pp. 113-114).  In this case, I wish to talk about a deontological approach that I think is adequate to understand many of the proposals of The Darwin Economy from a deontological framework.

The Ethical Points that Kant wanted to Make

Kant has been damnable in the minds of many consequentialists.  Some of their complaints are well founded, especially regarding the inflexibility of what should be done under specific circumstances.  Others, like Guisán’s attacks, are unwarranted.  It may be that Kant was playing a closet pietist while writing his ethics, yet that should be irrelevant when we are evaluating the validity of his contributions.

The question we should ask is what did Kant want to do with his philosophy.  I have written about this before, and I invite the reader to read that article on deontological ethics, but I will repeat the main idea.  In Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant points out that we all have the equivalent of what David Hume called “moral sense”, a very basic instinctual knowledge of what is good or bad, right or wrong.  Yet, the major problem everyone has is that we, humans, are the masters of deception and self-deception.  Sometimes, demagogues, religions, politicians, or even our own friends, can deceive us to make us do what is wrong or evil.  It may well be that even though we believe that we are doing something inherently good, in another level we know it is wrong.  What Kant said was that his proposal should be taken like a sort of compass to point to a secure ethical north (AK:404-405).  He may have gone too far dismissing inclinations altogether, but this dismissal is not an issue of piety, but an issue of the subjectivity of inclinations.  Today we know that we are unable to make rational decisions without emotions, nor with too much emotions.  Still, Kant’s point is still valid, in the sense that too many times our inclinations can lead us astray.  Instead by operating by inclinations, Kant is saying that we should use the rational compass of his proposal.

Also, it is worth noting that Kant “was not born yesterday”.  He did say that good actions carried out contrary to inclinations are more ethically praiseworthy than those when we act in full agreement with inclinations.  Yet he did not really pretend that every single human being can act from duty all the time.  Sometimes we will act in conformity with duty, sometimes from duty, sometimes none.  Yet, if we are confronted with a situation when we need to act the best way possible, Kant says that we should keep in mind the formulae of the categorical imperative to discover which maxims are the actual ethical laws to follow.

A More Contemporary Deontological Model

After G. E. Moore’s Principia Ethica, metaethics has become important, and its distinction from normative and the applied levels of ethics is far more significant in this process.  So, the framework I am proposing for the discussion is the following:

  • We can assume the formulae of the categorical imperative as Kant proposed or certain revised versions other people have made on them as our metaethical criteria to establish which are the objective ethical norms.
  • At the normative ethical level, we can adopt all of the maxims that are consistent with our metaethical criteria as being objective ethical norms.  These are the sort of norms which we should follow from duty, as Kant would say.
  • In the practical or applied level, we deal with black and white situations and all of the grayish area in between.  It is the juice of ethical discussions in philosophy.

In the normative levels, the ethical norms have their own rational foundation and can be assented and recognized as valid by all rational moral beings.  I add here the term “moral”, because as Robert Frank says in another work of his, the term “rational” is often used in equivocal ways, which is one of the reasons he points out that “rational” choice models used by economists can be wrong very often.  Some define rational as “intelligent selfishness”, yet humans do not always behave in such ways.  The way I use the term “moral” in “moral being” is a person you can consider responsible for his or her actions, who is able to choose in terms of right and wrong according to a set of values, and is aware of the consequences of his or her actions.

Every rational being is moral, but do not always act ethically.  I contrast moral with ethical.  An act is moral if it follows the norms and values of a given society.  On the other hand an act is ethical if the actions are made from objective norms and values which may or may not coincide with moral norms and values.  Acting ethically is objectively good, acting morally is not always good.  The ethical norms and values are themselves prescribed metaethically, set in the normative ethics arena, while applied ethics seeks the best objective criteria to act the best possible way given certain circumstances.

Given that by extension moral beings can be also ethical beings, and given that there is a distinction between acting in conformity with duty and acting from duty, the question is:  which of the norms should prevail given certain circumstances?  In this case, the Formula of Humanity can be our guide.

Act so 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.  (AK 4:429)

We can polish Kant’s Formula of Humanity in such a way as to replace “humanity” with “moral rational beings”, which would save us from specismI wrote about a way we can phenomenologically provide the adequate foundations to determine who is a rational moral being and who is not, while not falling into specism.  Other eminent bioethicist, like Diego Gracia, have also made similar approaches from the phenomenology of Xavier Zubiri, but the discussions on these matters are beyond the scope of this blog post.

For now, we should remind ourselves that rational moral beings can claim slight (but only slight) superiority from non-rational non-moral beings.  We have the capacity to make rational and intelligent decisions that have great impact on non-rational non-moral beings as a whole.  Yet, this superiority is not an argument in favor for “raping the Earth” as Ann Coulter so colorfully described it, or doing with it “whatever the heck we please”.  And even if we were to have that sort of gross position, it is a poor approach, since we cannot claim absolute superiority above everything else.  As environmentalists, religious naturalists, process theologians and many others have pointed out, we are all connected to the Earth in some way.  If we do “whatever the heck we please”, the joke will be on us in the end, especially if we don’t decide to establish unsustainable policies.  The religious naturalist, Michael Dowd, reminds us that we can’t live without bacteria, yet they can live fine without us.

Finally, the formulas of Humanity and Autonomy imply the Kantian distinction between price and dignity.  For Kant, price is a property of that which can be replaced by something else as its equivalent.  He makes a distinction between two sorts of prices:  market price is the price that is related to general human inclinations and needs; and fancy price, is the property of something which conforms with a certain taste, with a delight in the mere purposelessness play of our mind.  Yet, for Kant, dignity is the property of those beings whose value cannot be replaced by something else, and which can only be ends-in-themselves.  In other words, dignity is the property of those who have no price, which means necessarily that every other being does (AK 4:434-435).  For Kant, moral rational beings have dignity, nothing else does.

Part of respecting the dignity of moral rational beings is the respect on people’s own freedom, and the people’s ability too choose among some options.  In this sense, Mill’s harm principle is perfectly compatible with this notion of dignity, and we can state with perfect consistency that we can create a society whose economy and jurisprudence is based on people’s freedoms, but we should exclude from them all of those unwarranted liberties which create undue harm to others.  As Robert Frank has explained extensively in his book The Darwin Economy, this principle of harm does not say that nobody should do any harm to others:

As John Stuart Mill argued in On Liberty, it’s permissible to constrain an individual’s freedom on action only when there’s no less intrusive way to prevent undue harm to others (Frank, 2011, p. 9).

Also, as Frank argues very persuasively, we as social animals, cannot establish the harm principle only to direct harm (e.g. hitting a person with a stick, robbing a bank).  For the harm principle to have coherent meaning, we should also include indirect harm.  For instance, if an athelete, say a runner, has worked hard for so many years to reach a certain level in a championship, and there is another player who decided to use steroids, there is no direct harm on the former, but there is indirect harm.  If the runner has to choose to use steroids too to win, it will lead to serious health and social risks.  If her or she decides not use steroids, then, in all likelihood, he or she will lose.  No one can argue that there is no undue harm being done here.   Frank says:

If Mill’s harm principle is to have any coherent meaning, indirect forms of harm must count.  My conception of what constitutes harm to others strike some as expansive.  But it’s one that even libertarians will find difficult to challenge in their own terms …  Even if libertarians had complete freedom to join others in forming any sort of society they pleased, they’d find compelling reasons for joining one that gave indirect harm equal footing with direct harm.  (Frank, 2011, p. 12)

No matter how much is an athlete willing to defend his freedoms to choose, he or she will ever join a competition where there are no rules and penalties against using steroids to win a championship.  He or she would love to participate in a competition where such rule is enforced.  Hence, from a deontological standpoint, this rule would be completely consistent with the dignity of the rational beings participating in it, because it takes away a freedom that prevents undue harm to all participants.

If this is the case, from a deontological standpoint, economic and political institutions built to guarantee people’s freedoms and help them make better choices without taking people’s freedoms away.  In this sense, I wholeheartedly agree with Frank in recommending the book Nudge by the economists Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein (follow their blog here).

How would We Organize Conceptually a Deontological Approach to Society

Unfortunately due to language and ideological leanings, some of the social philosophy being elaborated in Europe never reach the United States.  For example, the thinking of philosopher André Comte-Sponville on this matter is pretty much unknown in North America.  One of the best books he wrote is Le capitalisme est-il moral? (2004), which I have discussed extensively in other blog posts.  He proposes four different conceptual strata in order to understand social complexities.  Here, I will change the terminology of some of the strata to adjust it to the discussion, but the idea is more or less the same.  Here is the illustration:

Comte-Sponville Social Model

From bottom-up direction, we can distinguish the following four strata:

  1. The Techno-Scientific Stratum:  It involves techniques which have their own logistics, i.e. their own intrinsic problems, and their own solutions to those problems.  Among these we can find the different natural sciences, technology, and the economy.  For Comte-Sponville, all of these mechanisms are amoral, hence none of their mechanisms can be considered themselves ethical in any way.  Since amoral processes generate good and ill for society, it needs an external social force to diminish the ill (the negative externalities) and increase society’s welfare (the positive externalities).
  2. Juridical-Political Stratum:  The juridical-political stratum consists of the law and the state.  It is up to the juridical-political stratum to restrict externally the processes of the techno-scientific stratum.  However, this stratum also needs several restrictions.  According to Comte-Sponville, laws are not equivalent to ethical norms, which means that unethical people can indeed follow the law verbatim, and still be evil.  Also, at the level of the state, which he understands within Rousseau’s conception of what the Republic should be, it is important to point out that the people or the state should not have all the powers.  It should have the power to guarantee its citizens’ welfare, but it should never have power against minorities, nor should it have the power to establish concentration camps.  Therefore, it also needs the external restrictions established by another social force.
  3. Ethical Stratum:  Comte-Sponville calls it the “moral stratum”, but it is the same idea.  This is the stratum of ethical norms as well as the rational beings (as ends-in-themselves), who can establish these external restrictions through their votes, the courts, or even on the street, creating political pressure.  It is the stratum where responsible decisions are made regarding the law, and the techno-scientific stratum.
  4. Emotional Love:  Comte-Sponville is based on some of the Christian philosophy regarding what should move us to act ethically.  Yet, the “emotional love” in a very loose sense of the term as a way to promote ethical behavior is exactly what cognitive scientists and neurologists have been studying for years.  Love for our neighbor, for a nation, for God, can be powerful means to move us to act ethically.  He points out three sorts of love that should be at the very top of all emotions that lead us to act ethically:  love towards truth, freedom, and humanity.

According to Comte-Sponville, we make a mistake if we want to moralize the economy (which Marx tried to do), i.e. to adjust the economy to be forcibly fair and just using internal, not external, mechanisms.  It is equally a problem to eliminate the needs of the ethical stratum and let the dog of the techno-scientific stratum loose (which is the movement-libertarians’ mistake).  The state must have a role in the interaction between the techno-scientific stratum and the ethical stratum.

Finally, Comte-Sponville tells us about the importance of taking into account all four strata when making a decision that is going to affect society.  We should prioritize one or the other depending on the circumstances, and have the best welfare of humanity when making the decisions.  To omit the importance of each one, would lead to irresponsible decisions.  Therefore responsibiity, should take into consideration the ethical ideals for society as established metaethically and by normative ethics, but taking into account the consequences that lead society to the best welfare possible.

This is not incompatible with the “libertarian welfare-state”, which Frank advocates, or even the “libertarian paternalism” as Thaler and Sustein advocate.

Why Teleological-Based Models do not Work for Me

Of course, Robert Frank seems to favor a teleological model.  His main objection to deontologists, at least as it appears in The Darwin Economy seems to be the following:

Deontologists face other hurdles, such as how to explain where the bedrock moral principles they invoke come from.  (Frank, 2011, p. 94).

Of course, this is not the whole objection, which we will discuss in our next blog post on the subject.  Yet, he knows that at a practical level, deontologists and consequentialists (teleologists) are almost in the same place:

Consequentialist and deontologists have been at each other’s throats for millenia.  Nothing I say here could possibly settle the issues that divide them.  But because I will advocate policy claims that follow from Coase’s consequentialist framework, it’s important to emphasize that the two frameworks are less squarely in conflict than may often appear  (Frank, 2011, pp. 94-95).

Yet, although there is little difference in extension, there is a difference in intension.  I think that the objection quoted above actually is better understood from a consequentialist framework.  For example, at all times consequentialism posits the importance of happiness of most individuals possible as the guide for all ethical decisions.  Yet, stating this begs the question as for why should we should use this as a criterion for any decision.  There is a problem de jure, regarding why should our happiness or interests (in the language of Peter Singer) be considered superior to all other beings, or even if there were no other being, why is happiness and interests good?  How do you establish this as an objective criterion when whatever especially when this is moved by subjective inclinations that do not necessarily have a tendency towards ethical behavior.  G. E. Moore’s criticisms to the naturalistic fallacy in all modalities, does include pleasure and happiness as identical to being good.  He advocated a form of utilitarianism, but a platonist utilitarianism, where happiness alone is not the sole value to be sought by our actions, but many objective abstract values as well.

Deontology, since Kant, has provided an adequate response.  The preference of rational moral beings should be preferred because it is us who are the ones who have the ability to make the best decision for society and the world.  Also, notice that in all of this there is a consequentialist component of deontology.  All non-rational, non-moral beings serve as means, such as the economy as a whole, the jurisprudence and political body (the state), and all the sciences.  In this sense, we have provided a more complete deontological model for ethical behavior, especially regarding the economy, in contrast with some other consequentialist models.

In my next blog post on this subject, I will examine other objections by Frank to deontologists, and the consequentialist approach of Ronald Coase.


Comte-Sponville, A.  (2004).  El capitalismo, ¿es moral?.  España:  Paidós.

Guisán, E.  (1995).  Introducción a la ética.  Madrid:  Ediciones Cátedra.

Ferrer, J. J. & Álvarez, J. C.  (2003).  Para fundamentar la bioética.  España:  Universidad Pontificia Comillas & Desclée de Brower.

Frank, R. H. (2011).  The Darwin Economy:  Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press.

Kant, I.  (1999).  Groundwork of The metaphysics of morals.  In M. J. Gregor & A. Wood (eds.),  The Cambridge edition of the works of Immanuel Kant:  practical philosophy.  (pp. 37-108).  US:  Cambridge University Press.

Moore, G. E.  (1903).  Principia Ethicahttp://fair-use.org/g-e-moore/principia-ethica.

Moore, G. E.  (1912).  Ethicshttp://fair-use.org/g-e-moore/ethics/.

Paton, H. J.  (1971).  The categorical imperative:  a study in Kant’s moral philosophy.  US:  University of Pennsylvania Press.

Powered by ScribeFire.

"The Darwin Economy" by Robert H. Frank

Unlike the previous post where I cheered for Robert Frank’s book The Darwin Economy, I want to be a bit more critical about the book this time.

Before I begin, I want to say that I still cheer for this book, and it is one I ardently, enthusiastically, and wholeheartedly recommend.  If I had the chance I would buy lots of them and give them as gifts to my friends, neighbors, legislators, governor … you name it.  One of the greatest things about reading this book is that it becomes one of those events which invite you to revise your thinking on a rational basis.  And I never cease to marvel at the depths of Frank’s views on the economy.  It certainly has stimulated me to revise my own ideological views about how the economy works, and which solutions should be adopted to make this world a better place.  As a matter of fact, there are many areas in the book I will use for my Ethics course this semester (most of the students in my course are from Business Management).

That does not mean that I agree with all of the examples he uses in the book, nor do I agree with the way he portrays many aspects of what is a deontological view of Ethics.  Frank seems to promote a teleogical or consequentialist view of Ethics, while I use a deontological approach.

What is the Book About?

Before discussing what the book says, let me clarify what the book is not about.  When I showed the book to several on my friends in Facebook and Google+, some raised concerns about the subject.  They warned me of the possibility that I might fall into social darwinism.  Of course, whoever has read my educational material about what Ethics is and is not, knows that I would never fall into it.  Although I always begin the course explaining from a biological level how evolution made us have a moral sense, I strongly warn my students that Neodarwinism, as it is proposed today, only describes a whole process by which living beings reproduce, speciate, and change over time.  It does not intend to prescribe ethically what we should and should not do as rational moral beings.  As we shall see soon, Frank does not turn Darwinism’s description of biological processes into an ethical advice.

Originally, The Darwin Economy was going to be called The Libertarian Welfare State, which gives you an idea of what it is about.  Given that Frank was told that such a title would never sell in Europe, he changed its name to The Darwin Economy.  It was also written as a reaction to the almost inane (I would say “insane”) “dialogue” that seems to permeate all of political discourse in the United States.  Of course, most of us know Adam Smith as being the father of the science of economics as we know it today, yet Frank predicts that in a hundred years from now, the majority of serious and learned economists would name Charles Darwin as the parent of their discipline. Contrary to some misconceptions, Smith showed that, sometimes, if you let selfish people act in the marketplace, the “invisible hand” of the market will lead to good outcomes for society.  Frank points out that Smith would not recognize his own views if he ever read the proposals made by extreme libertarians today, who think that government should do nothing and that a free unregulated market will always lead to good outcomes.

Smith’s skepticism about a universal goodness out of selfish people stems from the fact that many business owners can join together and conspire to oppress the people, in which case, the government should intervene to prevent such conspiracies against the public.  However, one question we could ask is:  When does the invisible hand fail?   Frank finds the answer in Charles Darwin’s own work.  What drives biological descent with modification is precisely competition among individuals and groups.  Both the cheetah and the gazelle compete for survival by trying to be faster than the other.  The fastest member of each species tends to survive and reproduce, passing those genes along.  When that happens, individual and group interests are in harmony, since the prevalence of fast gazelles and fast cheetahs do actually benefit their respective groups as a whole.  In this case, we have “invisible hand”-like results.

However, Darwin also noticed that individual and group interests diverge.  This is the case with the bull elk (as you can see in the cover of the book).  Members of the species are polygenous, meaning that they take more than one mate if they can, to be able to reproduce.  Their male antlers are not really meant to defend themselves against other predators, but to win some fights with other males; whoever wins, will end up with as much as 100 females maximum.  So, whoever has the biggest antlers will end up with their mates and pass the genes along.  Yet, in this case, there is a problem.  If males with heavy antlers prevail, then such feature becomes a disadvantage from the group’s point of view, because they can end up being eaten by predators if chased in dense wooded areas.  In this case, individual and group interests diverge.  Such cases do happen in the economy, and when they do, the “invisible hand” of the market breaks down.

Bull elk are pretty much stuck with the situation, since their intelligence is not complex enough to make rational decisions about what to do with their antlers.  They are pretty much stuck with natural selection.  Yet, Frank does not suggest that we ought to be stuck with natural selection, not even market selection for that matter (which is what social Darwinism would suggest).  Instead, he points out that we, humans, as intelligent beings who actually can make rational decisions, we should collectively establish a mandate which benefits the group.

He uses the example of hockey players.  If you let players have the choice of not wearing helmets, all of them end up not wearing it.  This is not because they ignore the fact that helmet protects them (there is no cognitive error in the process), quite the opposite, they know that playing without helmets could increase the chance of being hurt during the game.  Yet, given the immediacy of seeing better, hearing better, and intimidating the opponents better ….  they are not too worried about a more abstract concern of harm.  Yet, if you ask them if they should be a mandate to wear helmets, they would all favor it.  Why is there a discrepancy?

If there is no mandate, the individual interest to win prevails, leading other players to do the same, since they are also thriving for their individual interest to win.  Yet, when they all do it, the result is that not one individual is in any advantageous position, yet everyone is worse off, since all of them are unprotected.  Hence, individual and group interests diverge.   A rule mandating helmets and prescribing a penalty for those who do not want to wear it, would make all players wear helmets, everyone would be in equal footing, and they end up better than if there were no mandate.

This is what happens with the construction of ever more expensive houses for the middle class, even when there is no increase in salary in real terms over the years, leading huge problems.  Those at the top earned more throughout the years, buying far more mansions, and spending considerably in them, even when they are no happier than before for doing so.  This consumerist behavior “trickles down” to those below.  As a result, the middle class competed for more and more expensive houses even when they had no real income growth.  This apparently benefited them individually, especially regarding status, but not as a group.  This inevitably leaves the middle class worse off.

[Note:  I highly recommend Robert Frank’s analysis on this very interesting subject in his book Falling Behind:  How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class.]

Frank suggests that a progressive consumption tax will discourage this sort of behavior, among others which create harmful activities such as carbon dioxide emissions which create global warming, while, at the same time, leading governments to have money to invest on roads, bridges, and other infrastructure and services people actually need.

Again, his whole argument makes a LOT of sense, and, in a way, I am completely surprised that this has not led to further policies for scrapping the income tax and payroll tax, and phasing in some of these progressive consumption taxes.  In another sense, I am not surprised, since many people in the United States are actually misled regarding how taxes and economic prosperity are related.  You need government to take care of bridges, dams, roads, and even the army.  As Frank argues, if there were no taxes, there would not be an army, without an army you couldn’t defend yourself against other countries which have armies, and if conquered by another nation you will end up paying mandatory taxes to that country.  Also, he shows in the book how lowering taxes has helped terrorist causes.  Many people are not aware that because of irresponsible tax cut policies, a lot of funds were cut  to keep nuclear missiles in Russia (the former Soviet Union) guarded. This means that terrorists may have far less barriers to reach them.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the mushroom cloud metaphor that George W. Bush talked about when launching the failed Iraq War in 2003 will be realized in some way any time soon.

Again, I enthusiastically recommend Frank’s book as being one of those bright lights which challenge people of all along the political spectrum to re-evaluate our own positions on the economy and politics.  None of what I will say in these series will ever change that.  In fact, I thank him for changing my mind about a lot of things.

Frank’s Ethical Position of the Discussion

Yet, there is a little difference I have with him regarding his approach to the issue of ethics.  I confess that I have still to read his book What Price the Moral High Ground?, which seems very interesting.  I want to react to Frank’s notion of ethics as he is pondering about the issue presenting Ronald Coase’s contribution to the discussion on what should be the relationship between the economy and the state regarding cases where the traditional ethical framework of perpetrator and victim seems inappropriate.  Surprise, surprise!  As a deontologist, I fully agree with Coase!

Frank alludes to the famous debate between the consequentialists (teleological ethicists) and the deontologists (deontological ethicists).  I happen to be the latter, Frank seems to hold a consequentialist approach.  Yet, he recognizes the following:

Consequentialists and deontologists have been at each other’s throats for millenia.  Nothing I say here could possibly settle the issues that divide them.  But because I will advocate policy claims that follow from Coase’s consequentialist framework, it’s important to emphasize that the two frameworks are less squarely in conflict than may often appear (pp. 94-95).

In many areas of ethical discussions, there seems to be a “battle” between deontologists and consequentialists, but I don’t want to give that impression in this case.  Ronald Coase’s views actually does make a lot of sense to me, but reasons very different from Frank’s views.  The purpose of my next blog post is to ponder about a deontological solution to some of the problems raised by Coase’s framework.

Powered by ScribeFire.

This article is part of a series of articles on the subject of evolution, ethics and spirituality:

Parts: I, II, III, IV, V, VI (1), VI (2), VII, VIII (1), VIII (2), IX (1), IX (2), IX (3), X (1), X (2), X (3), XI (1)

Evolution, Ethics, And Spirituality: Part XI — Darwinism, Culture and Ethics (2)

Immanuel Kant

Deontological Ethics

For all practical purposes, the father of all deontological ethics is Immanuel Kant. Most ethics are teleological, they are focused mostly on achieving the happiness of the individual or on social happiness or pleasure. Some thinkers are focused on virtue, such as Aristotle, others are focused merely on the outcome, as in the case of utilitarianism.

On the other hand, Kant states that being virtuous is not enough. We should practice the virtue of fortitude, or temperance, or good judgment, honor, and so on, but if good will is not present in the practice of any of those virtues, then we cannot say that their practice is itself good without restriction (AK 4:393). That is the reason why Kant’s ethical philosophy is not a philosophy of virtue, but one which tries to provide the groundwork to know what is ethical (i.e. "moral" in his sense of the word) or not.

Kant is one of those thinkers who want to be rigorous to the core. For such a thorough approach to ethics, he is, perhaps, one of the most misunderstood ethicists of all time. Some scholars point out that hidden in his proposal there is a "theological" agenda, because Kant placed God as a sort of guiding principle in Ethics. In reality, most people miss the words "as if" when talking about God and ethics: act as if these ethical norms were established by a God who is a perfect lawgiver. Yet, as any philosopher knows, an "as if" does not translate to "it must be". If we examine Kant’s ethics, there is hardly any need for an actual, proven and existent God to live it.

Perhaps one of the most misunderstood aspects of Kant’s philosophy is why he was so … so … ummm… categorical about following duty, following moral laws without allowing any sort of exceptions to them. I’m going to address that problem later, but for now suffice to say that Kant did not pretend that everyone would act morally all the time. Most people who read Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals actually miss some statements he made right there, regarding the need for such groundwork. He says the following about people in general:

… we cannot consider without admiration how great an advantage the practical faculty of appraising has over the theoretical in common human understanding. (AK 4:404)

I know that some people reading this are saying: "Huh?!"… Let me translate this to English. Kant is saying here that essentially humans have a "moral sense" or "moral feeling" as David Hume would say. He actually admires it, and praises it. The man of the street has absolutely no problem trying to distinguish intuitively between right and wrong, what is good and what is not. Yet, for Kant there is one problem with the man in the street:

… if common reason ventures to depart from laws of experience and perceptions of the senses it falls into sheer incomprehensibilities and self-contradictions, at least into a chaos of uncertainty, obscurity, and instability. It then becomes subtle, whether in quibbling tricks with its own conscience or with other claims regarding what is to be called right, or in sincerely wanting to determine the worth of actions for its own conscience or with other claims regarding what is to be called right, or in sincerely wanting to determine the worth of actions for its own instruction … There is something splendid about innocence; but what is bad about it, in turn, is that it cannot protect itself very well and is easily seduced. … [A natural dialectics can arise], that is, a propensity to rationalize against those strict [ethical] laws of duty and to cast doubt upon their validity, or at least upon their purity and strictness, and, where possible, to make them better suited to our wishes and inclinations, that is, to corrupt them at their basis and to destroy all their dignity — something that even common practical reason cannot, in the end, call good. (AK 4:404-405).

What is Kant saying here? He says what is obvious to most of us. Even though we have some basic moral sense, we are the masters of deception and self-deception. It is extremely easy to be deceived by someone and be led to do stuff that isn’t good ethically speaking. How many politicians tell you to vote for them even when you know that politician is deceiving you, that his or her policies are harmful? How many religious leaders have conditioned people to not think straight, then subjecting them to all sorts of unethical activity in the name of "the greater good"? How many people around you manipulate you into doing stuff you know are wrong? We sometimes make exceptions to rules which are too convenient, but in the end we know are not good?

Here is what Kant is trying to do with his proposal:

Here it would be easy to show how common human reason, with this compass in hand, knows very well how to distinguish in every case that comes up what is good and what is evil, what is in conformity with duty or contrary to duty, if, without the least teaching it anything new, we only, as did Socrates, make it attentive to its own principle. … [Because innocence can be easily seduced], even wisdom … still needs science [philosophy, rational foundations], not in order to learn from it but in order to provide access and durability for its precepts. … [Common] human reason is impelled, not by some need of speculation …. but on practical grounds themselves, to go out of its sphere and to take a step into the field of practical philosophy [Ethics], in order to obtain there information and distinct instruction regarding the source of its principle and the correct determination of this principle … based on need and inclination, so that it may escape from its predicament about claims from both sides and not run the risk of being deprived of all genuine moral principles through the ambiguity into which it easily falls (AK 4:404-405, my italics-bold).

In other words (in plain English) Kant is saying: "Look! Since sometimes we self-deceive or other deceive us, or sometimes we twist ethical norms so that they fit our own passions and inclinations … we need a compass, we need rational principles to guide you. Here is my proposal!"

Kant is not pretending that everyone follows all moral norms all the time. Most of us have a healthy notion of good, bad, evil, right and wrong, but, there is a gray area where we have absolutely no idea how to act, or how to be ethical. When that happens … use Kant’s compass, his philosophical instrument. According to him, you won’t fail ethically if you do.

Let me explain in plain words what is going on in Kant’s ethical doctrine.

Good Will and Duty

We have stated above that good will is necessary for our acts to be considered ethically good. The sixty four thousand dollars question is: what is good will? For Kant, good will is the disposition to act according to ethical duty, without the influence of inclinations (that is, all of those passions that could lead us to act contrary to our ethical duty). Here, Kant makes a very important distinction that we shall use in our discussions in later blogs (AK 4:397-398):

  • Actions which are done in conformity with duty: an act which goes along with what duty requires us to do, but ultimately it is not done for duty’s sake, but for other reasons foreign to duty’s sake;
  • Actions done from duty: an act which is done for duty’s sake — an act done because this is what we ought to do, regardless of the consequences.

So, if you act with good will, you ought to act from duty, not just in conformity with duty. Let me give you an example with what he means according to this distinction. Let’s say that you are a businessperson. You may have two attitudes towards being honest with your clients:

  1. I’ll be honest with my clients, because honesty will surely build a relationship of trust, and that will guarantee a running business and a certain income for me and my family.
  2. I’ll be honest with my clients, because this is what I have to do from an ethical standpoint. It is the right thing to do.

If you adopt the #1 attitude, you will certainly act according to duty, but it has no ethical value. Your ultimate intentions have nothing to do with honesty itself, your goal in the end is money. On the other hand, #2’s attitude is praiseworthy from an ethical standpoint, because it is honesty carried out for honesty’s sake. What is the ultimate difference between acting in conformity with duty and acting from duty? The answer: our inclinations. If we are led to fulfill a duty because we are inclined to do so, then it is not as praiseworthy as if we are led to fulfill duty for its own sake (even if we are not inclined to do so!)

Let me give you a radical example. Let’s suppose that you have your mom and a stranger hanging down a cliff, about to fall to the abyss. Of course, we should save both of them, it is our ethical duty to do so, but let’s say that under the circumstances we can’t do it simultaneously. Kant would ask you, "who would you save first?" Our inclinations would lead us to save our mom first, yet, for Kant, it is more praiseworthy to save the stranger first, precisely because we are not really inclined to save him first. That is how radical Kant’s proposal is.

Now, wait a sec… what do we mean by "duty" anyway? Kant defines "duty" this way:

duty is the necessity of an action with respect for [ethical] law (AK 4:400).

Which basically means that there is a rational recognition of the objective need to follow ethical laws. We should respect an ethical law and follow it for its own sake.

I can hear you saying: "Wait a sec again! Which law? What is this "ethical law"?

Kant makes a distinction between a maxim and a law. A maxim, for Kant, is a "subjective principle of volition" (AK: 4:401), that is, an expression of what each of us want individually. For instance, my inclination some afternoons is: "I don’t want to pay the bills." That is what I will, that is what I want. Is it a good ethical advice not to pay the bills? Ahem! No! And that establishes the distinction between a mere maxim and a "law". For Kant, an ethical or practical law is "an objective principle (i.e. that which would also serve subjectively as the practical principle of all rational beings if reason had complete control over the faculty of desire)" (AK 4:401). Notice that this act of volition cannot be confused with inclinations or "wishes", it is more a "wanting to do" something according to one’s wishes, or against them.

According to Kant, following the objective law can be done against our inclinations or our wishes if we want to. The trick is to seek for a coincidence between our maxims and these objective laws, so that we follow them!

Neat! … This all sounds great! Yet, we are puzzled to know how do we find out these laws which exist objectively and can be grasped and understood by all rational minds.

The Categorical Imperative

Kant wants to clarify that there is nothing in experience we could have in this universe from which we can infer or find ethical laws. It is only with the help of reason with which we can find these ethical laws. He gave several formulas to find these ethical laws. Today they are known as the formulas of the categorical imperative. For him, ethical laws are categorical, meaning unconditional, and imperative, meaning that it must be followed (from a rational standpoint).

A scholar called H. J. Paton, in his book The Categorical Imperative, has found five formulas of the categorical imperative in his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals:

Formula of Universal Law (FUL): I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law (AK: 4:421)

Formula of the Law of Nature (FLN): Act as if the maxim of your actions were to become by your will a universal law of nature (AK 4:421).

Formula of Humanity (FH): 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 (AK 4:429).

Formula of Autonomy (FA): Act so that your will could regard itself as giving universal law through all its maxims (AK 4:434).

Formula of the Kingdom of Ends (FKE): Act in accordance with the maxims of a member giving universal laws for a merely possible kingdom of ends (AK 4:439).

Of these formulas, I’ll only discuss two of them: FUL and FH.

The Formula of Universal Law

What does the FUL mean? Ok, let’s fomulate a maxim. Let’s say that one morning, I wake up knowing that I have to go to work, yet, it is so cold outside, and the bed is sooo comfy, and I want to keep my eyes closed thinking … "Aaah! This is sooo good! I want to stay in bed and not go to work." Well, let’s express that determination using the following maxim: "Stay in bed to not go to work". Kant reminds us that if our maxim can become a universal law, then it is an ethical norm. This means, let’s elevate my maxim to a universal law: i.e. pretend that every rational being on the face of this earth will act according to my maxim.

What would be the practical result of fulfilling my maxim? What Kant would call a practical contradiction, which basically means that if everyone carried it out, our lives would be a living chaos. If each and every person would stay in bed and not go to work, there wouldn’t be wealth circulating, there wouldn’t be jobs, we would paralyze all social activity, in other words, there would be an economic recession, and certain death (remember … we consider our maxim a universal law, valid for all people and all time!).

If that is the case, this maxim is not at all an ethical law. But what about a maxim that says: "I shall not kill". If everyone acted according to this maxim, would such a practical contradiction arise? The answer is no. If this is the case, then this maxim expresses an objective ethical law.

With this kind of exercise, any rational being can discover all sorts of ethical laws.

The Formula of Humanity

Although the FUL is simple enough, the FH is deeper. Up to now, we have considered following ethical laws for their own sake, not for any other reason. When we act from duty, each ethical law is an end in itself; there is no other purpose, no other end. With the FH, things change a bit. Kant is implying that not only ethical laws are ends in themselves, but humanity as a whole is an end in itself. This means, that we can use humanity, but never merely as a means. Even if we use humanity as a means to an end, that end must be humanity itself.

Here Kant brings his own concept of dignity. If we use humanity merely as a means, we are essentially disrespecting its dignity. Let’s say that my girlfriend left me. So, I look for another girl, and she becomes my new girlfriend. Yet, do I have her as my girlfriend because I love her? Nah! I have a relationship so that I can show her to my ex-girlfriend and say: "See! Envy her!" Well, if I do that, then I am using my new girlfriend, but not for her sake, but for another purpose completely foreign to her: to make my ex jealous. When I do that, I disrespect my new girlfriend’s dignity! Of course, this is a silly example, but one I find happens frequently. Another example of disrespect of dignity is using slaves, or using the public to have high positions of political power, completely disregarding what the public really needs.

What is dignity? For Kant, dignity is recognizing each rational being as an end in him or herself. Kant calls this a "principle of humanity" (AK 4:430-431). But why all rational beings in particular? Because rational beings are themselves "legislators", that is, they can rationally "legislate" (so to speak) maxims as universal laws. This makes rational beings able to use non-rational beings as means for the ultimate end: humanity (all rational beings). In other words, we, the rational beings, are the only ones to make rational decisions about everything else, hence we should use non-rational beings as means for us, who are ends in ourselves.

Only rational beings can be autonomous: we can make decisions independently of where our inclinations leads us to. Autonomy and free will are pre-conditions for all ethical behavior.

Problems with the Kantian Proposal

Of course, as with many ethical propositions, Kant’s has its problems. I’m going to talk about some of them just to give you an idea of what is going on.

You may have heard this example before if you have already taken a course in Ethics: let’s say that in Nazi Germany a Jewish friend of yours is under pursuit by soldiers. Following your ethical principles, you want to save your friend’s life, so you let him in and hide him inside your home. Then comes the Nazi soldiers asking me if you have seen your Jewish friend. Now … because he is my friend, you might be inclined to lie to the soldiers to save your friend’s life. But here’s the thing: according to FUL version of the categorical imperative, you should tell them the truth! Hence, your friend would be completely dead! Yet, if use the FH version of the categorical imperative, your lie is a means to serve an end, to save my friend’s life.

How can we solve this problem? Kant really couldn’t. Yet, after G. E. Moore wrote his Principia Ethica, we have been able to establish an important difference between metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics. We’ve discussed it in our previous blog post. Let’s look again this situation making these distinctions:

  • Metaethical Level: We have our principles from which we can derive rational ethical norms: I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law; 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.
  • Normative Level: We have some ethical laws that are completely consistent with the principles established in the metaethical level: you shall not lie, you shall save someone’s life.
  • Applied Ethics: I prioritize these normative principles: to save my friend’s life is more important than to lie to the Nazi soldiers.

This distinction can also applied to all other sorts of situations, for instance, when I save a baby in a house full of fire at my own expense, or when we dedicate our lives to civil rights activity knowing fully well that it might have adverse consequences for our families.

Basically the Kantian proposal is very clear in determining which are the metaethical principles we should follow, and which are ethical norms. It is not so clear, though, regarding applied ethics, precisely because many of our experiences in our lives do not allow a black and white sort of ethical decision. This is the reason why applied ethics is the most actively researched level of ethics today. I call applied ethics "the realm of responsibility". We should look at ethical norms and the particular circumstances of the moment to make responsible decisions.

The problems with Kant are not over, though. We talked about the dignity of all rational beings. What about the dignity all non-rational beings (living beings, non-living beings, the environment)? In a way, they are ends in themselves too. We are able to recognize that as species keep disappearing off the face of this Earth, and life on our planet is threatened. There is a sense that there is a dignity of all living beings to be here, and that there is an inherent right of living beings in general to live on planet Earth. We cannot suppose that because we are rational, we have every right to mistreat the Earth in whatever way we please, or as that great "mind" (yeah right!) Ann Coulter would say: "Rape the Earth! It’s yours!"

We have an ethical responsibility towards the Earth to recognize, not only that we are ends in ourselves, but also that we recognize that to a certain extent all other non-rational beings are also ends in themselves, not just means. If something is clear from studying evolution, genetics, and biology in general is that all living beings are interconnected.

It is a humbling experience. In that humility, make responsible decisions. It is said that if we establish a proportion of all of the 3.5 billion years living beings have been on the Earth to an hour, not only do we discover that we are just a little tiny branch of a very, very, very big tree of life, but we also discover that humanity arose in the last hundredth of a second of that hour. All of our civilization, for thousands and thousands of years are just nothing compared to the whole history of the Earth. For all practical purposes we "just arrived".

A whole series of animals went extinct. The dinosaurs of the Jurassic Era disappeared apparently because of a meteor that hit the Earth. Today, all sorts of dangers loom our existence on this Earth, and wipe almost all living beings including us (for that kind of information go to Armageddon Online … and nope, it is not from the Bible belt, nor it is a fundamentalist website). Reverend Michael Dowd calls these the "wild cards" (Dowd, 2007, pp. 302-307). However, the sad part of all of this is that of all of the threats that darken our skies, none of them can compare to us. Yeah! It seems that we are the next meteor! With the exponential growth in population, contamination of the environment, and the increase in greenhouse effect, we are threatening all living things on this planet, including ourselves.

Yet we are the moral beings, so, by definition, humanity is the only species able to make the sorts of responsible decisions to find out how to solve these problems … and the clock is ticking!


Dowd, M. (2007). Thank God for evolution: how the marriage of science and religion will transform your life and our world. US: Plume.

Kant, I. (1999). Groundwork of The metaphysics of morals. In. M. J. Gregor & A. Wood (eds.), The Cambridge edition of the works of Immanuel Kant: practical philosophy. (pp. 37-108). US: Cambridge University Press.

Paton, H. J. (1971). The categorical imperative: a study in Kant’s moral philosophy. US: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Powered by Blogilo

Bookmark and Share