Kant mentions that only someone who is his own master can have right to be a citizen in On the Common Saying. I think in order to him, if you give your labor to someone, basically you cannot be your own master. He gives the example of shop clerk, laborer and barber as people who sell the use of their labor work. Although he thinks that a barber sells the use of his labor work, in case of being a wigmaker it is a different because perhaps he considers him as a artist (?) I cannot really see the difference between barber and wigmaker. Maybe Kant only makes such distinction in order to justify some group of people as privileged.

So how can this - from a modern standpoint - seemingly arbitrary privileging be explained?

This is the extract which I mostly used:

Someone who makes an opus [a piece of workmanship] can convey it to someone else by alienating it, just as if it were his property. […] A domestic servant, a shop clerk, a day laborer, or even a barber are mere operarii [people who sell the use of their labor power], not artifices [artisans] and not members of the state, and are thus also not qualified to be citizens. Although a man to whom I give my firewood to chop and a tailor to whom I give my cloth to make into clothes both seem to be in a quite similar relation to me, still the former differs from the latter, as a barber from wigmaker (even if I have given him the hair for the wig) and hence as a day laborer from an artist or craftsman, who makes a work that belongs to him until he is paid for it. The latter, in pursuing his trade, thus exchanges his property with another […], the former, the use of his powers, which he grants to another person […]. It is, I admit, somewhat difficult to determine what is required inorder to be able to claim the rank of a human being who is his own master. (8:295)

  • 1
    What do you think about this view of Kant? seems like a purely opinion-based question. Is there something else you want to ask about the passage that would have a definitive answer?
    – virmaior
    Jan 17, 2017 at 0:37
  • 1
    @virmaior: I tried to read the question as having problems with an interpretation of the text, making the best out of it (hopefully).
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jan 17, 2017 at 2:58
  • Let me know whether the reformulation of the question fits your needs. I tried to adress the objections regarding the question.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jan 17, 2017 at 12:39
  • You exactly adress the objections regarding the problem. My main question was whether it is a good idea to separate people into two groups as Kant did in modern world? Like you said, it definitely was improvement to prior ideas but it seems outdated in the modern world.
    – Wowocado
    Jan 17, 2017 at 12:47
  • If an answer fully answers your question, please tip the tick left to it for accepting it.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jan 17, 2017 at 13:22

2 Answers 2


Setting and provisional answer

As your quote is a note regarding a certain sentence, I will first quote this one for providing context:

He who has the right to vote in this legislation is called a citizen (citoyen, i.e., citizen of a state, not of a town, bourgeois). The quality requisite to this, apart from the natural one (of not being a child or a woman), is only that of being one's own master (sui iuris), hence having some property (and any art, craft, fine art, or science can be counted as property) that supports him - that is, if he must acquire from others in order to live, he does so only by alienating what is his [!here comes the note!] and not by giving others permission to make use of his powers - and hence [the requisite quality is] that, in the strict sense of the word, he serves no one other than the commonwealth. (On the Common Saying... 8:295)

Having both parts together now, we can analyze what this is all about: It is about requirements counting as a citizen. The main condition is according to him being sui iuris, i.e. independent or one's own master qua property.

The difference between a barber and a wigmaker therefore is that the barber indeed has property in sense of a craft just as the wigmaker, but he is not independent through it because he never really posesses it, he necessarily "alienates what is his"

Alienation vs. production of property

So what does it mean that he alienates his property, i.e. his craft? Well, Kant is quite explicit about it:

... the former [wood cutter] differs from the latter [tailor], as a barber from a wigmaker (even if I have given him the hair for the wig) and hence as a day laborer from an artist or craftsman, who makes a work that belongs to him until he is paid for it). (emphasis mine)

The difference therefore lies in the point that the barber, even when executing his craft, does never own (the fruits of) his work, whereas the wigmaker does. A barber is dependent on hoping to get paid for what he did (= alienated from him - his labour power) without ever posessing actual property to trade, i.e. he does not own the product of his work.

He is in this sense a service provider (to translate it into a modern term) and closer to a day labourer - offering nothing more than his labour power - than an artist/craftsman. This is also coherent with the difference between a wood cutter and a tailor.

Keep in mind, though, that the last sentence of the note clearly states that this criterion is problematic, as it was hard to determine when someone really is one's own master, implying that there is some kind of a grey area. Ironically, this makes the criterion correct theoretically, but of no use in practice.


From today's perspective, this view must seem odd. But indeed, it is an improvement compared to the normal ancient view, like Hannah Arendt depicts it in The Human Condition (Arendt is very detailed and shows this point for e.g. Plato and Plutarch as well as Aristotle, her main focus; this is only a very short outtake!):

What prevented the polis from violating the private lives of its citizens and made it hold sacred the boundaries of surrounding each property was not respect for private property, but the fact that without owning a house a man could not participate in the affairs of the world because he had no location in it which was properly his own. (29-30, 2nd edn.)

Here, property is the central concept as well. But instead of narrowing it to owning a house (and don't having to work for sustaining one's life at all!) as a necessary requirement for being a citizen, Kant allows for much more people to achieve the status of a citizen, i.e. a zoon politicon. That is a huge improvement! This reference could also be reflected in his distinguishing of citoyen [state and in reference to Rousseau] and bourgeois [polis].

The same thought of property grounding state and citizenship is found in Locke's Second Treatise of Government, coincidentally containing one of the few early bits of philosophy about the concept of work as well. I actually think this may be the main adressee here, although the section is supposed to be against Hobbes by its title. The big difference is that Locke simply assumes you make something your property through work, not even considering other cases.

The argument for revoking materially dependent persons the right to vote by many authors (e.g. Locke, Kant himself, and, very influential for Kant, Achenwall/Wolff in Germany and Abbe Sieyès in the wake of the French Republic) is that they are dependent. In fact, allowing them to vote would, so the argument says, result in them voting to please their masters or the persons they depend on. By that, those who own more would have more weight in the electorate than those who are independent as well, but own less. Or, to put it differently: Some citizens would effectively have more than one vote. So, given you want equal vote, you either disqualify some as active citizens (Kant's solution) or fight against material dependency as a whole (Marx' solution), see e.g. Vorländer, K. (1926). Kant Und Marx Ein Beitrag Zur Philosophie des Sozialismus.

One should keep in mind that voting by secret ballot in independent election was not exactly standard back then. Maliks (see below) quotes Allen Rosen writing:

those who depend on others for their livelihood would either be too eager to please their masters or too susceptible to pressure, particularly in an open ballot system, for their votes to be truly their own (p.81)

There is also a formal reason: Kant uses the Hobbesian criterion from De Cive that "[the citizen] serves no one other than the commonwealth". As again Maliks writes:

The reason is that women and the financially dependent are incapable of voting impartially because they answer to masters other than the state.

So e.g. civil servants are in some sense "dependent", but they are nevertheless "their own masters", as they serve no one other than the state. (p.108)

This view must seem odd in modern understanding, but was the practice of the time.

I would therefore argue that it must seem odd considering La Grande Révolution had happened already, the idea of fundamental equality etc. But especially regarding the philosophy of work, it is a considerable advance compared to everything that had been there before. Additionally, the development from Kant over Hegel to Marx' Theory of Alienation may be seen as presaged.

Further Reading and scholar's answer

Of course, the inner tension between moral theory and accounts of citizenship is widely discussed (and already had been in his times). For a historical view, see Maliks, Reidar (2014): Kant's Politics in Context, Oxford UP, Ch.3 (pp. 80ff). For two different contemporary approaches to this problem see James, David (2016): Independence and Property in Kant's Rechtslehre , British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 24:2, 302-322 and especially Storey, Ian (2012): Kant's Dilemma and the Double Life of Citizenship, Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice, 4:2, pp. 65–88.

Maliks writes, referring to the argument laid out earlier (p.81):

Most scholars agree that he [i.e. Kant] was convinced that the votes of the many who were economically dependent would distort the general will, given his doubts about their ability to make free and rational choices about public matters.

In this text, there are further sources to be found for that argument probably being what Kant had in mind there as well.


In German, the translation of sui iuris - selbständig - coincedentally can be understood both as independent and self-employed, which may be understood as the modern equivalent of what Kant describes here.


Every individual desires from an early age to be their own master. It's as if it is instilled in us at the moment of conception. If we were all docile slaves, we'd all be living in the cradle of creation with no drive or yearning to explore beyond our own front doors. My answer is two fold. First, to mention the "Wisdom of Eosphoros" by Michael W. Ford he point out 11 points of power (as he calls them). They are more like guidelines by which we mold our lives to become ultimately our own masters. Secondly, I want to refer to the illustrations of those who trade their labor in exchange for money, goods or services. This is how the very captains of industry got started. Andrew Carnegie, Charles Schwab, the men who built America started with only their labor in exchange for a dream. They gained the right to be masters of their own destinies. I believe it is seven times since 1831 that the US Supreme Court has ruled that man shall not be deprived his Life, liberty or pursuit of happiness. In each of those cases, "pursuit if happiness" was defined as a man's leisure and labor. Governments have no jurisdiction in saying how a man provides for himself or his family. Also they have no authority in taxing a man on his "labor" of love. There is much about this in the book, "General Principles of Constitutional Law" by Judge Thomas M Cooley (1891)..I have a copy here in front of me.

The majority of my answer was in response to". He gives the example of shop clerk, laborer and barber as people who sell the >use of their labor work. Although he thinks that a barber sells the use of his >labor work, in case of being a wigmaker it is a different because perhaps he >considers him as a artist (?) I cannot really see the difference between barber >and wigmaker. Maybe Kant only makes such distinction in order to justify some >group of people as privileged. What do you think about this view of Kant?

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .