Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Kant Can't Be Right

Unbeknownst to many business people, their actions today are often evaluated by accredited experts according to the ethical theory of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724 - 1804).

Kant maintained that people should always behave as if their actions were going to become universal law. He also stated that we should never think of other people as simply a means to our ends. We should deal with other people only as ends in themselves.

Kant's ethical theory has lead many a modern business ethicist to preach the idea that self-interested business activity is inherently unethical. These modern Kantians argue that business needs an ethical overhaul, and they are just the guys to do it.

However, there is a fatal logical flaw in their argument. Kant's insistence on a standard of "universal law" for ethical behavior assumes that man's rational mind can correctly identify each and every action that should be a universal law, and all of its consequences.

That is one great, big assumption. So big, in fact, that even a casual student of history must sardonically say to our dead German philosopher and all of his living disciples, "Viel Erfolg" ("I wish you success").

The reality is that the human mind is pitifully limited in its ability to discover universal laws, and even more limited in its ability to confidently predict the consequences of all of its actions.

Rather than theorize omniscience and god-like selflessness, business ethicists should look at what works in a world of limited knowledge and self-interested individuals.

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