Friday, August 19, 2011

"Let justice be done, though the world perish" - Kantian Philosophy and the No-Tax Pledge

Note:  It's always dangerous to blog about philosophy because a) I will always be forced to simplify complicated and nuanced ideas  and b) My own understanding of philosophy is limited.  But I'm offering some links for anyone interested to pursue the nuances.  Those who know more are, of course, encouraged to correct, clarify, or otherwise improve what I've written. 

Robin Young talked to Howard Gleckman this morning on "Here and Now" about "the bi-partisan Congressional “super committee” for debt reduction."  Gleckman, at one point, says
"The reason that Wall Street is having such a bad time is, not because it's worried about the long term federal deficit, but because it's worried about a recession."
He goes on to say we need a combination of short term spending (and revenue raising) and long term deficit reduction.

(And if we want support for this position, there was another story (Jim Zarolli) today about how investors are putting money into Treasury bonds, despite the credit downgrade and even though they are at the lowest interest rate in 50 years or so.) 

But all the Republicans on the bi-partisan committee (and most in Congress), Robin Young points out, have taken Grover Nordquist's No-Tax pledge.  So they feel they must stick to that pledge. 

And that's where Kant comes in.
"Kant's theory is an example of a deontological or duty-based ethics : it judges morality by examining the nature of actions and the will of agents rather than goals achieved. (Roughly, a deontological theory looks at inputs rather than outcomes.) One reason for the shift away from consequences to duties is that, in spite of our best efforts, we cannot control the future. We are praised or blamed for actions within our control, and that includes our willing, not our achieving. This is not to say that Kant did not care about the outcomes of our actions--we all wish for good things. Rather Kant insisted that as far as the moral evaluation of our actions was concerned, consequences did not matter" [from a webpage]

What does that mean?  In the simplest form, Kant thought people should follow their principles without regard to the consequences. You stick to your principles no matter the consequences. 

A competing philosophical position is called utilitarianism which argues that one should weigh the consequences of one's actions.  For example, for Kant, if telling the truth is a maxim one follows, one must never lie.  For utilitarians this causes a problem if, say, a Nazi in 1940 Germany asked if you were hiding Jews in your house (and you were.)  Utilitarians would argue that there are times when there are conflicting values - and one has to know which values one holds are the most important.  Is the value of the lives of the people you are hiding greater than the value of telling the truth?

And that's when we get to things like No-Tax pledges.  Politicians promise to never vote for a tax increase.  All other consequences are irrelevant because they are keeping to this pledge.  Is breaking that pledge a greater harm than causing huge economic harm, like renewing the recession? 

Kant was no fool.  You can read the complexities of his ideas at Wikipedia.

But I suspect that few of the politicians who have taken the no-tax pledge have read Kant, or even know that their stand on the pledge follows Kant's position.

Rather, it seems that many of them are actually doing this for a very unKantian reason - they fear that if they break their pledge, they won't get reelected in the Republican primaries.  If that is the case, then they are, in fact, taking consequences into consideration.  But the consequences they are considering are their own personal benefit, not the benefit of the US economy.


  1. At university I learnt phsychology, sociology and I will learn philosophy, so here we learn about these questions. However I am more interested in the Mathematical part of economy.


Comments will be reviewed, not for content (except ads), but for style. Comments with personal insults, rambling tirades, and significant repetition will be deleted. Ads disguised as comments, unless closely related to the post and of value to readers (my call) will be deleted. Click here to learn to put links in your comment.