Suppose the following maxim.

Goal: satisfy basic needs: food, water, sleep, etc.

Method: having a specialization, getting money for work, spend money to satisfy basic needs.

Conditions: capitalism, everyday life.

Now let us suppose we have a particular specialization. A cook, for example. We do not do others' people work. If everyone was a cook, no one could provide food to be cooked, therefore goal would not be acheived. It appears, the only method satisfying this maxim is to be a jack-of-all-trades who can both work on farm and garden, cut meat, gather fruits and vegetables, cook them, etc.

Well, people leaving in a village typically do that. But this lifestyle is incompatible with town/city. I am not even sure Kant himself had a farm, cut meat, etc. (but that's irrelevant, even if Kant did not follow CI, it does not show CI is bad) Also, we have strong reasons to encourage division of labor, so that not everyone actually had a farm, garden, etc.

Does CI actually restrict such division of labor?

  • +1 I've upvoted because I have never come across this angle on the CI before. I am trying to connect the economic organisation of society with the CI. I don't know quite what to think straight off.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Sep 1, 2018 at 7:26
  • 2
    I am pretty sure that the level of abstraction needed for "maxims" in the sense of "that which is universalised per CI" would exclude something like "becoming a cook". I am also pretty sure that Kant did indeed write about how morality (as imperfect duty) demands to fit into the society where you can best further the welfare of humanity considering your particular abilities and restrictions in the Metaphysics of Morals and something along similar lines in his Anthropology. No time to look it up atm, though - therefore as a comment.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Sep 1, 2018 at 11:12
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    Durkheim criticized CI on exactly these grounds, and more broadly the objection goes back to Hegel. One can finesse CI to the effect that "becoming a cook" is not a morally relevant description and hence not universalizable, but CI generally has a problem with selecting relevant descriptions. The modern consensus is that Kant does not have a solution to it, see What are some examples of categorical imperatives/universalizable maxims relevant to modern ethics?
    – Conifold
    Sep 2, 2018 at 23:01
  • This has the same problem that 'I should not live in my house because everyone cannot live in my house' has. It is not an abstract enough statement to be a maxim. It contains things other than categories and relationships. If everyone on the planet decided to step to their left at the same time, I am sure limbs would get broken, people would get pushed off subway platforms and over cliffs, which does not mean no one should ever step left.
    – user9166
    Oct 31, 2018 at 18:05
  • @jobermark Well, how is a maxim "I should kill someone just for fun" an abstract statement? And it is theoretically possible for everyone to step to their left at the same time. Even more, I am sure your prediction is wrong (due to my experience - thousands of people in small area are marching even above the underground and nothing bad happens).
    – rus9384
    Oct 31, 2018 at 19:16

2 Answers 2


The categorical imperative needs to be employed at an appropriate level of abstraction, otherwise it immediately yields absurdness.

Example: Maybe I am feeling very hot, and would currently enjoy having some cold water splashed onto my face. Misapplying the categorical imperative could lead me to believe that I should go and splash cold water on other people. A better reasoning, working on a higher level of abstraction, would reveal that whether or not is ethical to splash water onto people's faces primarily depends on their consent - for I would not want to have water splashed on me if I do not consent, and overall, would dislike a world full of non-consensual water-face-splashing.

Coming back to divison of labour: The categorical imperative could appropriately be used to guide how we organize division of labour. It can help us to figure out eg whether people with rare and essentially skills could be compelled to perform duties, whether people with more valuable innate skills should be compensated better, etc.

  • Your example show that CI does not prohibit something considered bad. Also, splash water onto yourr face and onto other people faces is different. My example, instead, shows that CI prohibit something considered good.
    – rus9384
    Sep 1, 2018 at 10:39

Maybe it would help to think about this question if we think about Kant's discussion of developing one's talents. Kant argues that the CI gives the imperfect duty to develop one's natural talents. Now if I am naturally talented at music, this would mean that I have the imperfect duty to practice music. But surely this would not impose on everyone else that they should practice music!

So the first thing to look at is the distinction between perfect and imperfect duties. Perfect duties admit of no exceptions based on relevant inclinations. We have a perfect duty not to commit suicide, and this applies uniformly to the happy and to the depressed individual. But developing one's talents is an imperfect duty because it depends to some degree on facts about my particular subjective situation.

Accordingly, I think the distinction between perfect and imperfect duties could help Kant deal with your objection. The division of labor would be determined according to each individual's imperfect duty to develop their specialization. Take the maxim, "I will fail to pursue my specialization to become a contributing member of society". I think Kant would argue that this maxim is ruled out by the categorical imperative (but obviously issuing in only an imperfect duty). Our particular talents are somehow innate. Could a rationally ordered world have a law of nature in which members of society are given particular talents and specializations and barred from developing those to contribute to society and the species at large? I think Kant's answer would be "no", and quite plausibly so.

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