Category Archives: Kant

Greece and the EU – should we follow Kant or Aristotle?

In an article in the Observer Alan Posener argued that “Greece must honour the terms of its bailout.” Greece

“lied its way into the eurozone, refused to reform … can’t or won’t collect taxes properly, has been bailed out repeatedly and still doesn’t accept the rules.”

It is the failure to stick to the rules that, says Posener, is the problem. For Germans, rules “must never be broken, even if they are self-defeating”. He contrasts this Kantian way of thinking with utilitarian (or “Anglo-Saxon”) thinking.

Immanuel Kant and rules

For Kant, the goodness (or ‘moral worth’) of an action is independent of its consequences. This can seem plausible. Good intentions can lead to bad outcomes – as when a two year old tries to pick flowers for his mother. The flowers do not survive but we praise the intention (or, in Kant’s language, the manifestation of a good will).

But ignoring consequences can be self-defeating. The most extreme example of this comes from Kant himself. In  On a Supposed Right to Lie Kant argued that one cannot lie to a would-be murderer even if lying is the only way to prevent the murder.

This has led to accusations of rule-fetishism; and Posener’s Germans seem to be guilty of it. So here are some relevant questions.

Are the Greeks who caused Greece’s current plight the same Greeks who will suffer from it?

If not, then by pursing current policies Europe may merely make one group of people suffer for the sins of another group. And it seems to be innocent Greeks who will suffer most. Youth unemployment in Greece is currently over 50%. And youth unemployment can have disturbing life-time effects.

We should also distinguish between morality (or individuals’ conduct and politics (or groups’ conduct). Perhaps person A should be held responsible for her actions. But it does not follow that everyone in group B should be made to suffer the effects of actions and practices of some sub-group of B. Let’s call the relevant sub-group the ‘oligarchs’:

“Greece has failed to address …[its] problems because the country’s elites have a vested interest in keeping things as they are. Since the early 1990s, a handful of wealthy families — an oligarchy in all but name — has dominated Greek politics. These elites have preserved their positions through control of the media and through old-fashioned favoritism, sharing the spoils of power with the country’s politicians. Greek legislators, in turn, have held on to power by rewarding a small number of professional associations and public-sector unions that support the status quo.”(Eleftheriadis)

If this diagnosis is correct, then it may be inter-generationally unjust to hold all Greeks liable for Greece’s plight.

When following the rules is self-defeating, on what principled basis should we make exceptions?

This second question is more general. The worry here is that rules do have exceptions but without some sound principle about how to identify them we might delude ourselves and make self-indulgent exceptions when we shouldn’t.

The utilitarian can offer a good answer to this question. Kant struggles. If, like Jeremy Bentham, you think that rules or acts are good or bad to the degree to which they bring about good or bad consequences, and you discover that following the rules will have disastrous consequences, you can – without hypocrisy – ignore the rules.

The reason to depart from the rules is the same reason that justifies following them.

If, like Kant, you think things are good or bad independently of their consequences, then disastrous consequences alone cannot justify exceptions. We can end up feeling compelled to tell the truth to the would-be murderer with full knowledge of what will happen next.

Aristotelian virtue ethics

But there is another view and – given our problem – the approach to ethics of one of Greece’s most famous sons (although he wasn’t actually a citizen) may be apt.

Aristotle thought that there are no universally-applicable moral rules. The world is just too complex. Moral rules are true only ‘for the most part’. Exceptions exist and Greece’s current plight might just be one of them.

For Aristotle, the wise person – the person of good character and judgement – can differentiate correctly between legitimate exceptions to rules and the cases in which the rules must be followed despite unpalatable consequences.

But it is not possible to reduce this wisdom to a set of rules that can be followed by the not-so-wise.

What would the wise person recommend?

I speculate but I sense that she might look forward 20 years and ask what kind of Greece and Europe will there be if youth unemployment runs at 50% for any length of time (youth unemployment is at a similar level in Spain)? How many lives might be ruined? How much will it cost to keep such societies tolerably stable?

What else? Political reform to reduce the wealthy’s domination of Greek politics is probably necessary. Attempts to reduce oligarchs’ economic clout without first reducing their political power will almost certainly fail anyway.

But whatever the solutions, making Greece stick to its agreements because the rules must be followed, and because the Greeks have failed to reform, punishes the wrong people and may be self-defeating.

In other words, the way forward for Greece may be a little more Aristotle and a little less Kant.