Pondering Kant

Kenyan girl.

Kenyan girl.

So, I was pondering Immanuel Kant the other day, probably the day I was sitting in the park, with regard to the dilemma we humans find ourselves in. More specifically, his “categorical imperative”, which, if I can explain it properly, holds that we should all act in ways that, if everyone were to act in an identical fashion, would cause the world to be a better place. That’s a slightly simple rendition, but accurate enough for this discussion, I think.

And here’s the dichotomy that I can’t quite resolve—on one hand, I find his categorical imperative to be valid, in terms of a test of morality and ethics; of right and wrong. On the other hand—we live in a disturbingly unequal world. The actions that I might take, in my surroundings, to move toward sustainability and a better future are almost patently not possible, or applicable, for billions of other beings. We can’t all make the same choices. I am fortunate—due to no effort of my own, I happen to have been born into the rich world. (Loosely defined—Europe, the US, Canada, Australia, S. Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Australia). When you divide the world’s population by household wealth, this is where the richest 10% of the world’s population tends to live. This 10% holds an astonishing 85% of the world’s wealth. The bottom half? They hold, cumulatively, barely 1% of the world’s wealth. We’re talking about 3,500,000,000 people, with 1% of the world’s wealth.

The reasons for this are complex, and much argued about. To simplify the argument—are the poor parts of the world poor because the rich people stole their wealth and exploited them, or are the rich parts of the world rich because they learned to create wealth? There is truth on both sides, but, taking everything into consideration, I think the preponderance of the evidence points to the latter being the more influential force—the rich world has learned to create wealth. And this system of wealth creation (very short version: liberal democracies, industrialization, and the market system) has impacted virtually every human on the planet. The system has created prosperity. It is this wealth creation that has enabled the food and materials production that now enables 7 billion people to exist. But we are now becoming victims of our own success—all 7 billion are putting pressure on the planet in ways that can’t be sustained. There is fault enough for everyone—from the poor in Kenya cutting down the Mau Forest to make charcoal, to the Vietnamese shrimp farmer impacting stands of mangroves, to U.S. citizens powering their McMansions with power from coal and blithely driving their Hummers to buy latte’s from Starbucks. This ever-increasing population is the root cause of much of the inequality and poverty in the world—it causes economic gains to be diluted in poor countries as those gains are spread to ever increasing numbers.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure we can achieve sustainability on the planet without also making more progress toward equality. If nothing else, the desperately poor (something like a billion people live on less than $1.25 a day, the world’s unofficial baseline for poverty) have far too much to worry about to help try and save the planet. The homeless mother of three in the Sahel who struggles to find drinkable water isn’t in a position to help us effect change. In fact, just the reverse—we need to help her, and others like her. We can’t become truly sustainable until all people on the planet can live meaningful, secure lives. Fortunately, the same monetary and demand power that will push the world toward sustainability can also be used to push the world toward a fairer distribution of wealth. I need to think about this; I don’t think I have enough answers. Fair Trade products are a step in the right direction, but there are surely other ways we can push the world toward a fairer distribution of wealth.

But we don’t have this more equal world yet. Right now, I live in my world, and the poorly paid sweatshop worker lives in his, and the desperately poor, in places like Mali and Chad, live in theirs. So, as we begin, Kant’s categorical imperative doesn’t quite seem to apply. The rules I need to follow to move toward sustainability are different for me than they are for the poorer people on the planet. I need to not put herbicides on my lawn, but for the poor in the world this is a truly nonsensical proposition. For that mother in the Sahel, even the idea of wanting a lawn is probably close to ludicrous, let alone pouring drinkable water onto it by the thousands of gallons. So perhaps we need a simpler rule. Perhaps Ghandi’s famous quote, “Be part of the change you seek”. Though our actual actions might vary greatly depending on our circumstances, I think that that basic rule is one that Kant would approve of.

Image credit: photopiano / 123RF Stock Photo

 Link to UN household wealth charts: http://www.wider.unu.edu/events/past-events/2006-events/en_GB/05-12-2006/