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Saturday, April 9, 2016

On Kant and “giving back”

Stephen Hicks on Immanuel Kant's views on donations:  

Kant asks, on what is the duty to be charitable based? Why ought we be charitable, whether we want to or not?

Kant’s answer is that to give charity to the poor is to make good on past injustices. Here is the key quotation: in giving to a person in need of charity, the giver “makes restitution for an injustice of which he is quite unconscious; though unconscious of it only because he does not properly examine his position. Although we may be entirely within our rights, according to the laws of the land and the rules of our social structure, we may nevertheless be participating in general injustice, and in giving to an unfortunate man we do not give him a gratuity but only help to return to his that of which the general injustice of our system has deprived him. For if none of us drew to himself a greater share of the world’s wealth than his neighbor, there would be no rich or poor. Even charity therefore is an act of duty imposed upon us by the rights of others and the debt we owe to them” (p. 194).

Here we have the first part of the “giving back” claim made explicit: the zero-sum assumption and the consequent implication that one is merely returning something one has borrowed or stolen.

On the very next page, Kant makes explicit the second assumption of “giving back”: “A man ought not to be flattered for his acts of charity lest his heart swell with generosity and desire to make benevolence the sole rule of his conduct.”

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