To treat people as people is much different—and much more important—than treating things as things. To use a fork to dig a trench, rather than its intended use in spearing green beans and other assorted foods, would be inefficient. Forks are ill-suited for trench-digging, what with their slots and rather short stature. Still, there is no great moral initiative to stop me from my dirty abuse of a culinary tool, and perhaps in an extraordinary situation (say, an improvised, Tom Sawyer-style jailbreak) I might be inclined to try it. Overall it would not be wrong, just inconvenient. 

Using a person to dig a trench is another matter. A person has a measure of drive and self-directed action that forks and spades alike tend to lack. Were a person my tool of choice, I might not have to lift a finger during the whole endeavor. The experience would be substantially more convenient than most alternatives I can think of. And yet, seeing a person as a tool, as merely a means for achieving some goal—well, convenient as it may be, there is something deeply wrong with that. Slavery is, of course, the most horrendously eggregious evil of this kind as it goes so far as to claim that a human can be owned by another human. But the ill of using a person as a tool, as we shall see, is much broader, and extends to matters great and small in our lives.

This line of thinking was concluded more elegantly by the moral philosopher Immanuel Kant some three centuries past, and continued in the writings of countless philosophers since—not least of which include Martin Buber and Pope Saint John Paul II. For all of these thinkers there was a fundamental imperative at the heart of the ethical life: That we see and treat persons as persons, as subjects, actors, creators, and doers; and that there is something deeply degrading when we fall short of this mark and instead treat persons as objects, as means of achieving what we want, mere things in space and time which we interact with, as that which is acted upon—in short, as things. Tools are made for persons, but persons are not made to be tools. 

Even good, healthy, socially-adjusted folk (that is, those who don’t study philosophy) are likely familiar with this ethical principle. We know intuitively that it is wrong to use our friends for our own gain, without thinking of their wants and experiences. We have called out, and as a society we are continuing to call out, when women are objectified—when a woman is seen not as the person she is but as an object of pleasure for a male gaze. And slavery, the most extreme form of using others as tools rather than persons, is an unquestionable evil. 

Though we are all aware of this ethical principle we may not have explored its extent and ramifications in our social, economic, and political lives. Are there still ways—even institutional, systemic ways—that we treat others as a means to an end? Are there ways we may treat ourselves as objects for use, rather than subjects with inherent dignity? 

Consider the hip adages of the business world. The advice for job-seekers is to “sell yourself,” and when necessary, to “rebrand” yourself so that you can find the optimal buyer. Slaves are no longer bought and sold by masters in the market, and thanks be to God for that. But now we sell ourselves on the job market. And if we cannot find an appropriate buyer for ourselves, many of us rent ourselves out for an hourly expense in retail jobs or part-time gigs. We make of ourselves means of production, the tools by which some product is created or service is rendered. For the small fee of (if we are lucky) $15 an hour and the degradation of our human dignity, we can be anyone’s tool. 

And why do we allow this? Why do we consent to it? Because unlike slaves, we do consent to it. 

Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, explains that when someone acquires an amount of productive property he is naturally inclined to “set to work industrious people… in order to make a profit by the sale of their work.” The laborer sells his labor to the capitalist (the one who owns productive property, or “capital”) for some agreed-upon wage, and with his labor and the capital owned by the capitalist, creates products to be sold. The revenue from the sale of these products, Smith tells us, is split into two parts: one to pay the wages of the workers, and the other as profit for the capitalist. 

In Smith’s telling, the laborer owns no productive property. Perhaps he has a bed, a toothbrush, frying pans, etc., but those are for his own living—they are not means to make a living. If, then, the laborer wishes to gain money to buy what he needs for a dignified life, all he has available to sell is his own self.

Meanwhile, the capitalist who does own productive property is inclined to buy the worker’s labor in order to make a profit for himself. Perhaps he will use this profit for good or for ill. Perhaps he will even invest it in more productive property or purchase more labor, “creating more jobs,” as they say. Regardless, the worker is not invited to be a co-creator in production and a co-owner in what is produced. He is used. The worker is, according to Smith, a means to an end—and the end is profit for the capitalist. Indeed, Smith finds it obvious that the capitalist would have “no interest to employ [laborers] unless he expected from the sale of their work something more than what was sufficient to replace his stock to him,” that is, unless he expected profit. 

I hope my readers will not misunderstand me on this point: I am not advocating socialism or communism of any form. My point is simply that treating a person as a means to an end, as an object or tool, is wrong. And, that capitalism objectifies workers in its own terms and admits to treating them as means to an end by its own theorists. 

I claim no originality on this point either, as Pope Saint John Paul II has said clearly and eloquently that the “true definition of capitalism” is “a reversal of the order laid down from the beginning by the words of the Book of Genesis: man is treated as an instrument of production, whereas he—he alone, independently of the work he does—ought to be treated as the effective subject of work and its true maker and creator.” 

If we accept this point, then we must ask: What is to be done? But I do not think we can give the same answer as Lenin. Giving all productive property to the state, as the socialists would attempt, opens up the dangerous possibility that workers would continue to be objectified as they had been, with the only difference that “capitalists” would be replaced by “state officials,” and they would have not just productive property, but the military on their side. 

But there is a third option: the Distributist, or cooperative option. The capitalist can no longer objectify the laborer if the capitalist and the laborer are the same person. The laborer who owns his own means of production—or put differently, the capitalist who labors to produce his own goods—is no longer using another person to bring about a profit, since he is producing the profit himself. 

This, too, is not a new idea, and we knew it when our country was young. The homesteaders across the Western frontier worked their own land, using tools as tools and treating people as people. They produced their own goods, using what they needed for themselves and selling to make a profit what they did not need. Medieval villages, too, were filled with craftsmen who owned their own tools and materials. The blacksmith owned his own forge and profited off from his work. While not as prevalent as in times past, these small shops and family farms are still found all throughout our economy. 

But this does not mean every man or woman in the workforce must own their own business. As Adam Smith has famously pointed out, the division of labor is one of the main factors in our increasing efficiency in production. Simply put, we work better and faster when we work together. But there is no need to re-create the capitalist-laborer dichotomy when we work together. Instead, we can create worker-cooperatives in which every laborer owns a share in the company for which they work. 

The most famous example of such a cooperative is the Mondragon Corporation, an over sixty year old company that is owned by and employs its eighty-one thousand members. However, worker-owned cooperatives are already successful businesses throughout our economy, from the Black Star Co-op Pub and Brewery in Austin, Texas to Namasté Solar in Boulder, Colorado. These successes prove that—without ever using someone else as a means to our own ends—we can create communities in which co-workers are also co-creators, co-producers, and co-owners, recognizing the personhood and equality between all as we all work and strive toward a common goal.


By Andrew Kinney