Lucy Allais is jointly appointed as professor of philosophy at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and Henry Allison Chair of the History of Philosophy at the University of California, San Diego. She has worked primarily on Kant’s theoretical philosophy, on which she has published a number of papers, and has a book on his transcendental idealism coming out in the next few months (Manifest Reality: Kant’s Idealism and his Realism, OUP). She has also published on forgiveness and some other topics in ethics and is interested in moral psychology and free will.
Kant on Giving to Beggars
When I moved back to Johannesburg after 9 years of living in the UK (first for studying, then working), I didn’t expect to experience culture shock. Johannesburg was home. In the UK I had lived first in Oxford and then in Brighton, both old, compact cities, where almost everything was easily accessible by walking or public transport, and I hadn’t had a car. Now I was back in a huge urban sprawl with no public transport. I bought my first car. There are extremes of both wealth and poverty in the UK but I didn’t really see them. Back in South Africa, I couldn’t help seeing. As I drove around the city in my small, ten year-old, second hand car, at the intersection of every major road was someone, often male, almost always black, often young, asking for money. They held up signs, hand written on pieces of cardboard boxes, sometimes appealing to Jo’burg fear of violent crime (‘hungry boy scared to do crime’), sometimes trying to be humorous at the same time (‘criminology is not my major’). At the same time, many of my friends from my undergraduate time in Jo’burg had gone into business or law, while I’d been in graduate school and becoming a lecturer, and seemed to have dramatically more money than me, wanting to eat out in restaurants I didn’t think I could afford. I felt both poor and ridiculously rich.
Since there are beggars at so many street intersections, and since Jo’burg life involves driving everywhere, every day involved some time thinking about whether and why to give. I had never worked in political philosophy, and though I had started working in ethics (after years of writing primarily about Kant’s theoretical philosophy, mostly interpreting his transcendental idealism), it was mostly through writing on forgiveness, which felt like the opposite of a systematic approach to theoretical ethics. But I had been reading Nussmbaum’s work on compassion in public life, which was partly critical of Kant, and came across some very harsh-seeming things Kant had to say both about compassion and about beggars. Kant’s political philosophy is centrally about the idea of freedom and his main work on political philosophy, The Metaphysics of Morals, starts with an account of how to understand private property. This might not seem like a promising place to look for thinking about wealth inequality. But as I began to think through his position (using the brilliant work of Arthur Ripstein and Helga Varden as my interpretative guide) I found materials for a surprisingly rich account of the troubling nature of interactions with beggars.
Fundamental questions in political philosophy concern the justification for the state’s coercing us, and what things, in particular, the state is entitled to coerce. Kant’s answers to these questions are based on human freedom: the legitimacy of state coercion is based in the fact that this is the only way of defending and enabling all of us living in conditions of reciprocal respect for all of our freedom, and this also is what explains what the state is entitled to coerce. Since this starting point seems to be shared by right wing libertarian politics, it might be thought that it would lead to a political philosophy concerned merely with limiting state interference. However, Kant draws different conclusions, arguing that public structures and public institutions are positively necessary to enable our freedom. A minimally legitimate state, and the possibility of public life, is not a mere remedy against human nastiness and scarcity in nature, but is essential for all of us to interact rightfully with each other and to fully realize our free, human natures. As such it is something we are morally obliged to create.
These ideas can be illustrated using Arthur Ripstein’s helpful example of public roads. If all land were privately owned then people wanting to move around the country would be dependent on private landowners giving them permission to do cross their land. In this situation, our capacity to set and pursue ends for ourselves would be systematically subject to arbitrary private choices of others. In order to properly enable our freedom, Kant thinks that the state (which represents all of us but none of us in particular) must create public roads, governed by public law, that link all bits of private land. In moving around public roads, we are all equally subject to public law, rather than the discretionary choices of private landowners. It is important to see that even if all the landowners are generous and always allow us to cross their land, we would still be subject to their choices. In Phillip Petit’s terms, we can be in a situation of domination when we are dependent on another’s choosing to be virtuous, even if they always do choose well, since we are subject to their power. If they were to choose not to be virtuous, we would have no recourse; we are in a dependency relation. This example shows how enabling freedom positively requires public institutions, not simply government limiting our interfering with each other.
Kant thinks that one crucial way in which the state enables and defends our purposive agency is by instituting rightful private property relations. Having property, he thinks, is a matter of having assurance with respect to an external object that I am not currently physically defending that others will respect its being up to me to determine what happens to it. Kant thinks that rightful property ownership can exist only in the context of a rightful state, because my owning something creates obligations for you, but I can’t put you under obligations through a unilateral declaration (‘I’m taking this and I declare it to be mine’). We need a state that puts us under reciprocal obligations and provides us all with assurance with respect to our ownership. By protecting people’s property, however, the state limits the choices of those who have nothing (whether this is through their own fault or not) in a way which, on Kant’s account, is not compatible with respecting their freedom. Those who have no means and no legal way of getting means are dependent on the private generosity (discretionary, private giving) of others. But the state’s entitlement to coerce us (including defending individuals’ private property) is legitimate only if it is compatible with everyone’s freedom: with everyone’s being subject to universal law and not systematically subject to choices of other individuals. This means that anyone who is in the position that beggar presents themselves as being in (dependent on private, discretionary giving for their very survival), has been wronged. They have a claim under justice, and such a claim cannot be met by private charity.
This is a complex and troubled situation. We have, in Kant’s view, a general moral obligation to care about the needs of others (to make their needs one of our ends), and, if beggars are as they represent themselves as being, we are encountering someone whose needs are dire. Further, the beggar has been wronged by a state which fails to provide for their needs, and has a legitimate claim to some material means. But this claim cannot be rightly met by your giving since your discretionary giving is not a way of their getting their basic entitlement under justice. And although you may have more than you would have under a just distribution, the beggar does not have a claim against your particular private property. In addition, on Kant’s analysis, the beggar is wronging you by the way they intrude on you in a public space and is doing something humiliating. But a person who is in the humiliating position of surviving by asking for money is also not treated more respectfully by having their request refused. On Kant’s analysis, the beggar’s request requires you to solve a public (systemic) problem through a private interaction and there is no way of doing this. When we are confronted with a beggar, we are implicated in relations of servility and humiliation from which we cannot escape, whether or not we give. We are related to each other wrongfully, and, in the particular encounters, there is nothing we can do about this. The analysis suggests that the feelings of guilt, discomfort, resentment, and helplessness may all be part of accurately registering the nature of the situation.
If you read only Kant’s moral philosophy, you may acquire an impression of individual autonomous agents whose virtue depends only on their own good intentions. But Kant’s political philosophy presents a much more complex picture, one according to which our being implicated in unjust relations can place us in positions in which we have no morally untainted choices. Further, it explains why some problems created by injustice and domination cannot be solved by private compassion and private virtue. It also, in my view, is helpful for understanding Kant’s account of humanity’s existing in a fallen condition—our evil.