I've been reading a bit about Kant's moral philosophy. What I'm now trying to figure out is if the Categorical Imperative would demand a redistribution of wealth. Or in other words, if according to Kant, it would be morally wrong to possess more wealth than others.

Apparently, Kant himself did not think so, and considered protection of private property an important, or even the most important, purpose of the state.

However, one of the examples he gave for applying the categorical imperative is that one should not refuse to help others who are in need of help. I'm not sure if he provided a rule on how to decide if others are in need of help. From what I understand, he would reject all criteria that argue with emotion or experience, and demand a rule that is based on pure deduction. In another example, the problem of lying, analogous reasoning led him do the rule that lying would be always wrong, even in cases where common sense seems to justify it, like lying to a murderer who asks if I know where his intended victim is hiding. So I assume Kant would not be afraid to choose a generalization, even if it has startling consequences, over leaving a problem undecided and open to vague, ambigious judgement.

With that in mind, let's look at the example about helping others again. When do others need help, i.e. when does the rule kick in? One could suppose: Only in cases where someone's life is in immediate danger, like a beggar left out on the street in a freezing night. But what if the beggar was not in immediate danger of freezing (like possessing a warm coat and enough old newspapers to light a fire), but I would nevertheless be pretty sure that continuing to live on the streets would drastically reduce his life expectancy? And what about people who are not beggars, but are poor and can't afford health care of the same quality as the rich? Where do I draw the line? Would that not turn the problem into a question of experience and emotion, which would cause Kant to choose the safe side and retreat to an impeccable generalization: That no one should own more than any other?

From what I've read, Kant explains that other humans should not be treated as means to an end, but as an end in itself. With which he means that they should not be exploited, and not be restricted in their freedom to act according to their own reasoning and moral judgement. But is being poor not a restriction of the power to act? Maybe not, if you assume that the poor became or stayed poor due to their own (ill-advised) decisions, in a free market where all deals are fair. But can it be objectively decided if a market is fair? Would Kant not prefer redistibution of wealth to that ambiguity?

Again, apparently he did not. So where is the flaw in my reasoning?

2 Answers 2


I am guessing you've only read Kant's Groundwork which is the whole of his moral (and legal) writing in coming to this conclusion. I want to suggest several points where you might be misreading Kant's moral philosophy to reach your conclusion.

First, you state "one should not refuse to help others who are in need of help" as being an outcome of the Categorical Imperative (hereafter, CI). I think this is quite probably a misreading. There are a lot of formulations of the CI, which can be roughly grouped into three kinds: (a) universalization formulas, (b) treat people as ends formulas, and (c) Kingdom of Ends / autonomy formulas. But none of them state quite what you are saying.

Instead, what you are referring to is a concept that occurs roughly (working from memory as my texts are about 70 miles away right now) is that we have perfect and imperfect duties. Perfect duties are those we are obligated to perform at all times, because they are pure obligations of duty, i.e., they are necessary outcomes of reason, like do not murder, do not lie. Imperfect duties are obligations we have insofar as we are finite rational beings who have needed help at some point in our own lives. Kant specifies two: (a) a duty of self-improvement and (b) a duty to help others. But what's problematic in your formulation is that you are making an absolute out of something that for Kant is contingent -- we are obligated to provide aid at some points -- not all points, because we are the sort of finite rational beings who have at some points (not all points) needed help.

To put it another way, you're misunderstanding Kant's ethics when you speak of it as "generalizations." At least for Kant, these are deductions of reason applied to the idea of a rational creature with a free will. But the imperfect duties are kind of generalizations or universalizations that follow contingently from our limits.

Second, your analysis of when need kicks in is one that seems to project several contemporary values onto Kant. It's not clear that he has any regard for lifespan or such things. Moreover, "need" is not social worker need but only imminent need for Kant. This in part follows from respecting the rationality of other creatures. In other words for Kant, what you are suggesting would be paternalistic in a problematic way, because, for the same reason we should not lie to other rational beings, we should not assume that a different rational being is not making rational choices. (N.b., This is a problem with Kant's theory -- that it doesn't handle cases of mental illness well).

Third, Kant's notion of freedom and of the sort of freedom required for morality is one where money or the lack thereof has no place. None of the elements in Kant's idea of morality require money -- except insofar as you should feed yourself (without being glutinous). Here, I think you're importing a more modern notion of freedom and working with a concept of freedom as the idea that you can do what you want. But for Kant the only material sort of freedom is that you can do what is right -- a freedom that others can only inhibit insofar as they lie to you or deceive you.

For Kant, exploitation (using as a means rather than an end) primarily refers to human-to-human interactions and only indirectly and by extension that is not present in the original text to paying living wages or something like that. But it refers directly to not lying or deceiving that person. It's not clear that Kant's moral framework even has the room to calculate something like a living wage.

Fourth, when you refer to the fairness of the market, you are for Kant inverting the problem. If the market is unfair, it is only because people are lying in the market and false dealing with one another. And in such circumstances, the solution for Kant is not redistribution but acting like we already in the kingdom of ends (i.e., keep telling the truth and being fair in your own dealings). Redistributing for Kant would be immoral and reflect precisely the sort of non-CI mentality in dealing with others. We cannot assume that other rational beings are acting immorally or should have resources stripped against their will.

Fifth, Kant draws a distinction between Rechte (often translated "right") and Pflecthe (often translated "virtue"). This is primarily in the Metaphysics of Morals. The first half of the text treats Rechte and describes the sorts of things we can codify into laws and require of people. But for Kant, this will always be different than Pflechte which is what is right. The standard of the latter is higher but not legally enforceable, because Kantian morality has to do not only with actions but with the relationship between the self's will and the maxim of the action.

Private property is a key element in the organization of the state, because it determines who has a right to use things as they please. For Kant, the state's interference there is fundamentally immoral, because morality is about the relationship of will to action -- not property to person.


You're importing modern understandings of notions like 'fair' and misreading the duty to help others.


I think @virmaior has covered the option of actually consulting Kant on the subject, the alternative is then, to just consider this axiomatically.

If we are working from first principles, let's follow his rule as stated, not one of the corollaries. What is the maxim according to which you are considering expecting everyone to live?

First of all, the maxim needs to be categorical, so it is not going to apply to money in particular, but would have to be based on something basically human, like need, or reciprocation, that would apply equally to cavemen and any future version of us we can imagine.

If we choose the most basic thing, reciprocation, say 'whenever you have more of anything, you should share it' this applies to things like husbands, and I think we should stop there. Humans in general would not want that to be universal, it is contrary to other natural impulses.

So we can fall back on need, but we need a concept of need that is not just lack of envy, or we are back in the first boat. So there has to be a level or form of need that is genuine need, and only in reference to that would one have duties.

I think that we do recognize that there are types and levels of need that invoke a duty to provide -- childhood helplessness, real starvation, reasonably preventable death, etc. are things we could universally wish gone.

But at the same time, those duties themselves can be leveraged by the immoral to everyone's detriment -- I should not save the life of the gunman threatening a room full of innocent people from the SWAT team trying to kill him, even if it were not an unreasonable demand on me to make the effort. Or, at least, I cannot wish for everyone to feel that duty, or we would be awash in mayhem.

So even those kinds of need, I cannot wish to be universally addressed in all situations. Again, the distinction has to be something universalizable, and the only thing I can imagine that works is to require cooperation of the person served in some larger context that ensures the use of what I am duty-bound to provide is something also amenable to the same analysis I am make of my own obligations. (I should not give this man his life, so that he can kill with it, but otherwise I probably should.)

Do I consider contribution to the maintenance of my community to be an obligation? I think that is universalizable. Then it is duty of those helped, too, and I can place requirements of reciprocation on the help I extend. It seems, in fact, obligatory to consider the use of the help I am extending.

I think this contradicts any obligation I might feel to try and purposefully just even out the holding of goods. But it does not let me off the hook, it requires that I justify the use of the goods I hold, and that the difference between my use and their potential use should be limited to a degree of difference I can allow to everyone.

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