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The relational wrong of Poverty


In this paper I explore elements from Kant’s philosophy of right to develop a relational account of the wrong of poverty. Poverty is a relational wrong because it involves relations of problematic dependence, inequality, and humiliation. Such relations infringe the rights to freedom and equality of the poor. And the called-for response is one of public recognition and protection of the rights of the poor. This position means we must radically reconceptualize our individual duties to the poor: not private beneficence, but private remedies for public failures.

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  1. I do so elsewhere (Zylberman, forthcoming).

  2. I thank an anonymous referee for pressing me to acknowledge and clarify this point.

  3. For excellent discussion of the Hobbesian break with the neo-scholastic idea of freedom and the theory of action, see Pink (2004). I believe that Kant’s own idea of freedom is aligned with the scholastic tradition rather than with the Hobbesian tradition, but I cannot defend that here. For a contrasting interpretation of Kant on external freedom along Hobbesian lines, see Ebels-Duggan (2011, 2012). Also, as Holtman notes, there is wide agreement among Kant scholars that freedom and justice are concerned with your capacity to make decisions rather than with the satisfaction of your desires (Holtman 2018: 6). See also Uleman (2004) and Gilabert (2010).

  4. Kant marks the fundamental difference between a whole as a sheer aggregate of parts (coacervatio) and as a structured, organized whole, where the parts depend for their identity on their role in the whole and the whole is more than the sum of its parts (articulatio). Kant 1998PR, A833/B861. Moving forward, when I speak of a whole as a set of polyadic relations, I shall only mean a structured whole, not a mere aggregate. For discussion of this important difference in Kant’s legal philosophy, see Weinrib (2012: 88).

  5. For an excellent discussion of different conceptions of relationality in the philosophy of right, see Hasan (2018). Hasan argues that Weinrib (2004) and Ripstein’s (2009) analysis of poverty is unduly focused on dyadic relations, to the detriment of what I’m calling here polyadic, or structural relations. I’m not sure if Hasan’s objection is on point, but his call for greater clarity and inclusion of structural relations is certainly correct, I think. Furthermore, Bird has recently criticized Kantian accounts of dignity, like Ripstein’s, both for being too focused on formal aspects of agency (force and fraud) and for missing the structural dimensions of forms of oppression, like racism or sexism (Bird 2021: 96–112). On the reading proposed here, the more capacious understanding of the original right to freedom coupled with the two forms of relations makes a Kantian account much less vulnerable to Bird’s line of worry.

  6. I’m grateful to Garrath Williams for this turn of phrase and to an anonymous referee for pressing me to address the issue of needs more carefully.

  7. For a particularly clear expression of this sentiment about the shortcomings of Kantian practical philosophy, see this remark from Jeremy Waldron: “The animal side of our nature matters, and the animal side of our human matters equally. And these seem to be points that stand somewhat apart from the Kantian momentousness of our moral agency. Although the moral account gives an account of what is special about us, it does not fully explain why our needs and our interests matter.” (2017:143).

  8. Cf. Vrousalis (2021)

  9. Chris Essert says: “to be homeless is to lack a location where what one can and cannot do is not under the power of others.” (2016: 277). I agree with Essert that this is often part of the problem. But I don’t think it’s a necessary element. In many cases, the homeless are (informally) permitted by the state to occupy public land, such that no private party can directly exercise power over them by virtue of the homeless inhabiting the private property of others. I introduce the possibility of the homeless occupying public land to bring out how the poor would still be wronged, through expressive dimensions of being demeaned, humiliated, or simply marginalized as equal moral members of the community. This is why I said earlier that my understanding of freedom is wider than, say, Ripstein’s (or perhaps Essert’s), which is more directly focused on dyadic relations of use and injury.

  10. This is an important feature because one might worry that my talk of moral agency blurs too much Kant’s distinction between duties of right and duties of virtue. This is a complex topic I can’t broach here. But it should suffice to see that the feature that makes poverty wrong on the proposed analysis is the external relation between agents, not the specific content of an individual’s maxims. I thank an anonymous referee for pressing me to address this.

  11. But for an earlier and important articulation of what Holtman calls a ‘middle-ground’ view, see also Varden (2006). Varden probably comes closest to affirming the claim-rights of the poor among all Kantian political philosophers considered.

  12. “Kant’s central claim is that the dependence of one person upon another inherent in private charity is inconsistent with those people sharing a united will” (2009: 278).

  13. “Second, what Kant’s account of justice as civic respect requires is not that we fulfill any specific set of claims. It is rather that we develop laws, institutions and policies from the appropriate perspective, and then evaluate and revisit them as new information comes in.” (Holtman 2018: 62, emphasis added).

  14. To be sure, Holtman too has a broader understanding of freedom in terms of civic freedom. But as I’ve noted, important differences remain. For one, I’ve defended the thought that poverty is a condition that violates the claims of the poor and so a relational wrong – a claim Holtman explicitly denies. For another, my account identifies the wrong as one directly to our moral status as agents, not indirectly in terms of our civic capacities for participation. If the homeless are given a good education but given precarious spots in a shanty town to settle, perhaps they are given all the civic respect Holtman thinks they are due. By contrast, my account highlights how this social standing of the homeless is contrary to their moral equality due to the humiliating, demeaning character of their living conditions.

  15. As Mieth and Williams put it, ingratitude on the part of a poor recipient can be a way (though a non-ideal way) of reasserting their moral standing (2022a: 218).

  16. I’m grateful to Claire Reid for discussion of the (potentially troubling) structure of philanthropy.

  17. In an insightful article, Allais (2015) pursues a similar point in order to explain why Kant condemns begging so harshly. I’ve learned much from her account. Though close and possibly complementary to the relational account, Allais builds from the middle-ground views of Varden and Ripstein on poverty.

  18. I’m grateful to Karen Stohr for raising this objection.

  19. I’m grateful to Oliver Sensen for raising this worry.

  20. This rationale for the important moral work done by civil society organizations (their approximating more closely the public functions of the state than individual actions) is in line with Onora O’Neill’s idea that agents of justice in contexts of poverty are not limited to the state (2016: 160–192) .


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Correspondence to Ariel Zylberman.

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For help and feedback on previous drafts of this paper, I’m grateful to Corinna Mieth, Violetta Igneski, Jon Mandle, Rafeeq Hasan, Claire Reid, Oliver Sensen, Martin Sticker, Karen Stohr, and anonymous referees for the journal. I’m especially grateful to Garrath Williams for his patient and constructive feedback through numerous drafts.

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Zylberman, A. The relational wrong of Poverty. Ethic Theory Moral Prac (2022).

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  • Poverty
  • Justice
  • Beneficence
  • Rights
  • Equality
  • Kant