Kant: Should We Develop Our Talents?

Immanuel Kant

The philosopher Immanuel Kant famously argued that you ought to develop your talents. In fact, he argued that we have an absolute duty to do so. But is he correct? Should you develop your talents?

I don’t think there is a “categorical imperative,” (something that commands independently of one’s desires) to develop your talents. If you enjoy developing a talent, then, by all means, do so; skills and achievements are human goods. Moreover,  you’ll probably be happy as a by-product of developing such talents. (I’m assuming the talent in question doesn’t include harming others.)

But if you don’t enjoy developing a talent, or if developing it would be stressful, or if one isn’t interested in developing it, or if it would harm others then there is no moral imperative to do so. Just because I could be a good soldier, doctor or gymnast doesn’t mean I’m obligated to be one. No matter what the pursuit, if I don’t find satisfaction in it, it’s probably best not to pursue it.

But if you develop the skill and talents that you want to develop and that make you happy; then you have a good chance to be successful, as Thoreau said long ago:

I learned this, at least, by my experiment;
that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams,
and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined,
he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

But this is all too idealistic. In our society, we are often forced to do things we don’t want to. In fact, most people in modern capitalistic societies do work that they would prefer not to do. And even those with high-paying, prestigious positions usually prefer sailing, traveling, or golfing to their jobs. This is an indictment of our system. Modern society does not create the conditions under which most can flourish. So what do we do? If we have no choice but to engage in alienated labor, then we must choose between that labor or homelessness—again, an indictment of our capitalistic system. 

But if we are lucky to have a choice, Thoreau’s words ring true. We should then pursue our dreams and hope the rest of the world benefits from our choices. Oh, that there could be such a world!

Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not. ~ George Bernard Shaw

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