Kantian Ethics and Economics: Autonomy, Dignity, and Character

Kantian Ethics and Economics: Autonomy, Dignity, and Character

Kantian Ethics and Economics: Autonomy, Dignity, and Character

Kantian Ethics and Economics: Autonomy, Dignity, and Character


This book introduces the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant- in particular, the concepts of autonomy, dignity, and character- to economic theory, explaining the importance of integrating these two streams of intellectual thought. Mainstream economics is rooted in classical utilitarianism, recommending that decision makers choose the options that are expected to generate the largest net benefits. For individuals, the standard economic model fails to incorporate the role of principles in decision-making, and also denies the possibility of true choice, which can be independent of preferences and principles altogether. For policymakers, standard decision-making frameworks recommend tradeoffs that are beneficial in terms of material goods or wealth, but may be morally questionable from a more person-centered perspective.

Integrating Kantian ethics affects economics in three important ways. This integration allows for a more complete understanding of human choice, incorporating not just preferences and constraints, but also principles and strength of will or character. It demonstrates the broader impact of welfare economics, which generates policies that affect not only persons' well-being, but also their dignity and autonomy. Finally, it reconciles the traditional, individualist stance in economic models of choice with the social responsibility emphasized by many systems of philosophical ethics and heterodox schools of economics.


I love economics, I really do. and I always have, ever since my sixthgrade teacher Mr. Dalton drew a supply-and-demand diagram on the chalkboard. After he explained how it works, I thought he had revealed to me the Answer to Everything. But while I love economics, we definitely have a love/hate relationship. One way in which this book can be seen is as an exploration of that relationship, mediated ultimately by philosophy (and an unlikely choice for a marriage counselor).

As we typically teach our undergraduate students, economics has a positive side and a normative side. the former attempts to explain why the world is how it is, how it got there, and how it will be if things change; the latter tries to tell us how the world ought to be, and what should be done to get us there. Economics tries to do both in a “scientifically” or “valuefree” way, which is absurd. the absurdity is most obvious in reference to normative economics, which claims to make “ought” statements with no value to support the ought (which, naturally, is all for naught). But the absurdity is also present, though less apparent, when we talk about positive economics, because economic explanations and predictions—especially in microeconomics—are ultimately based on human behavior, which is driven by an ersatz mixture of moral, amoral, and immoral reasons and desires, all processed very imperfectly (as behavioral economists keep telling us).

It was this realization that introduced a crack into my relationship with economics that has only grown over the years. At the same time as I

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