BP #9: Would Trump fail the categorical imperative test?

You can view the original article from the NYTimes here.

As most of us know, Donald Trump has admitted to not paying any federal income taxes for years. He has confessed to exploiting tax loopholes for billionaires in order to do so. In the early 1990s, Trump avoided reporting over hundreds of millions of dollars in taxable income even though his own lawyers advised him against it. At the time, the tax avoidance maneuver he used was not illegal, even though it was later outlawed by Congress.

It is impossible for us to know exactly how much he avoided paying due to his refusal to release his tax returns. He is the first presidential candidate in over four decades who has refused to do so.

The ethical question here is even if what Trump did at the time was legal, was it morally sound? When put up to the test of the universal law formulation of the categorical imperative, the answer would be no.

The universal law formulation states that in order to deem a maxim moral or just, you must first ask the question “what if everyone were to do this?”. Lets think about this in Trump’s scenario. If everyone were to avoid paying a single dime in federal income taxes, what would happen? On the grand scheme of things, the IRS would not receive the money it is supposed to be legally guaranteed in receiving, no one would pay taxes, and it would eventually become impossible to not only avoid paying taxes, but to pay taxes at all, as the IRS would essentially collapse. This is similar to an example we discussed in class known as “the lying promise”.

Tax experts from the article stated that “the maneuver trampled a core tenet of American tax policy by conferring enormous tax benefits on Mr. Trump for losing vast amounts of other people’s money.” Is this fair or not? Not only was Trump violating the universal law formulation, but he was also treating the people he took advantage of merely as a means to his own benefits. This introduces a way in which Trump also violates another section of the categorical imperative: the humanity formulation. The humanity formula discusses how human beings are of intrinsic value as opposed to instrumental value. Using a human being merely as a means for something else is treating them as instrumentally valuable, which is immoral. Trump using other people as a means to successfully evade paying taxes as his end goal is treating those people as instrumentally valuable, and therefore, immoral.

As a working American citizen, we agree to pay our taxes. Failing to do so would make someone an unjust citizen, regardless of legality issues and loopholes.


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