Source: Prof Michael Sandel, Justice: ..., Episode 06: "MIND YOUR MOTIVE"

A student (who reveals his name as Patrick, at the 52:45 interval) asks:

52:34: Suppose I want to buy something, food. I must go to the store, use the person working behind the counters as a means for me to purchase my food.

Prof Sandel responds:

52:49: Patrick you're not doing anything wrong. You're not violating the categorical imperative when you use other people as a means. That's not objectionable, provided [that] when we deal with other people for the sake of advancing our projects and purposes and interests, which we all do,
53:11: provided [that] we treat them in a way that is consistent with respect for their dignity 53:20: What it means to respect them is given by the categorical imperative.

This answer feels too abstract; so could someone please concretise or reify it?

If I'm going to see a checkout clerk to pay for my food, then I MUST be using the clerk for the sake of advancing our projects and purposes and interests, which we all do [to buy food]?

Suppose everybody were to treat them in a way that is consistent with respect for their dignity. Does this mean that we must see checkout clerks ONLY for any purpose, BESIDES paying for food? For example, we should see them to discuss philosophy?
But then no food would ever be bought and these clerks would lose their jobs.

Footnote: Am I right that I'm appealing to consequentialism in the last sentence above?

5 Answers 5


The phrasing for this that I use is striving to find a win-win situation in all interactions.

You have a purpose in mind: you want to buy food. They also have purposes and interests; you generally don't know exactly what they are. You have many possible ways to buy food. Some of those may coincide with their purposes and interests, and some will not. This quote is directing you towards looking for which ways are beneficial to both parties, not just looking for the easiest way to satisfy your own needs. The suggested minimal solution is to find a way to buy the food which respects their dignity. I would argue this search for win-wins should go beyond simply respecting dignity, but it's certainly a start.


By Kant, you may treat people as means; however, you must not treat them only as means. In other words, you must also treat them as ends in themselves.

Presumably, almost all retailers retail as a means to an end. When you buy from them, you conduce their attainment of those ends. As such, when you buy from them, you do not treat them only as a means to your ends.

If you were to steal from them, you would have treated them only as means to your ends.


I would argue that "don't use people" can be expanded upon and clarified to mean not "don't use people at all" - which would lead to the end of society since we all need other people - but more to mean "don't treat others purely as an extension of yourself and an inert mechanism to deliver goods and services for your personal benefit." Other people are real and important and not just a facet of your own internal or external reality, and while we can view or treat them as impersonal delivery systems for our own wants and needs, we shouldn't. Instead, it is better to cultivate an awareness and practice of viewing and treating others as dignified beings possessed of their own rich internal reality, autonomy and personal significance. Other humans are real people possessed of rights and a distinct integrity separate from us (or from society as such for that matter, or any other narrowly defined end). That is the moral insight lurking behind the whole idea of "don't use people" which may indeed be phrased in a confusing manner. In most society, we need to buy stuff from other people in order to survive. That's ok as long as we treat them with respect and basic dignity, and our transactions with them are fair. That's not to say that many transactions will not be fair due to larger structural problems in the society, but that issue is a little bit out of the scope of Kant's moral ethics; and is one on which Kantians may have different opinions about how to deal with. Whatever the other social and ethical commitments of any given Kantian, however the basic moral insight still holds, and in my view relevant to other ethical philosophies as well. Human dignity as a fundamental moral principle in social and political ethics and even in law has a strong origin in Kant's ideas.

  • Relevant references would help support your answer and provide the reader with a place to go for more information. Welcome to Philosophy! Jan 16, 2019 at 21:55
  • Is buying food in order to survive an exploitation of others at the expense of their dignity or a necessary pursuit of needed survival materials? It could be both, but not necessarily. Relying on others for help is what humans (all mammals really) do in order to survive, and surviving with the help of others isn't exploitative; taking unfair advantage or taking action that damages human dignity is.
    – Leah
    Feb 11, 2019 at 23:40

The correct formulation is stated in the Groundwork for Metaphysics of Morals, Ak. 4:429:

So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means. (bolded PK)

So it is not that we should not treat persons as means, but merely as means, so that we respect their dignity even by using them as means. To put it in another formulation: We should not violate their freedom and dignity by using them as means.

Consequentialism should not be taken into consideration, because its all about intentions (in form of maxims), not about consequences. Kant always argues against consequentialism. Regarding dignity and freedom we do not have to stick to it, because we know the sphere of dignity and freedom (in the sense of autonomy) for every person because of its universality.


"Treat them in a way that is consistent with respect for their dignity"

As for the categorical imperative : “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become universal law.”

If you treat clerks with respect and are not rude to them, you are in accordance with the imperative. If you see them as people and treat them as such.

But then no food would ever be bought and these clerks would lose their jobs.

I would think that not wasting others time would be part of the imperative, you wouldn't want someone doing something that would cause you to get fired at your job correct?

  • In this example they are talking about a different formulation of the CI: treat others always as an end in itself, not as a mean.
    – user2953
    Mar 27, 2015 at 21:28
  • “So act as to treat humanity, both in your own person, and in the person of every other, always at the same time as an end, never simply as a means.” My answer remains the same, it doesn't matter which formulation of the imperative you use, they ultimately mean the same thing.
    – hellyale
    Mar 27, 2015 at 21:30
  • @Keelan edited out some of the sloppy parts
    – hellyale
    Dec 15, 2015 at 3:46

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