Mises, Kant, and Worker Exploitation
Most of my readers are likely to think that socialism is morally wrong in that it violates people’s rights; but in this week’s article, I’d like to discuss an argument by one philosopher who thinks just the contrary, that morality requires socialism, as well as Ludwig von Mises’s refutation of this argument. The philosopher who came up with this argument is Hermann Cohen, a German Jewish philosopher who flourished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was the founder of the Marburg school of neo-Kantianism, and though in the English-speaking world he is little read today outside the field of Jewish studies, he at one time was world famous.
Cohen accepts a modified version of Immanuel Kant’s ethics, and it was from this that he derived his argument that socialism is morally required. The gist of his argument is simple. The categorical imperative, in one of its several versions, requires us to treat each person never only as means but also as an end, but in the capitalist market, people do not do this. People regard others simply as instruments to gain their own ends, and in particular, employers view labor in this way. To employers, workers are just a commodity, a factor of production that, like its complementary factors, has a price but not an intrinsic value, or, as Kant phrases the matter, value but not dignity.
Mises explains Cohen’s argument in this way:
The starting-point of their Socialism is generally the sentence: “Act in such a way that you use your being, equally with the being of anyone else, always as a purpose, never merely as a means.” In these words, says Cohen, “the most profound and powerful meaning of the categoric[al] imperative is expressed: they contain the moral programme of the modern age and of all future wo
Article from Mises Wire