Honour and Respect Other People’s Humanity.
The difference between the cases in which it’s okay to treat someone as a means to an end and those in which it’s not largely boils down to whether we’re giving the other person’s desires, intentions, and wishes the same weight that we give ours. It’s called the Principle of Humanity because its advocates believe that there are certain ways you can’t treat people if you truly honor their humanity. Their humanity places limits on what you can do to them, even if treating them in certain ways would produce a greater good for other people. It rules out slavery, rape, coercion, theft, duplicity, adultery, medical experimentation, and murder, just to name a few things.
Contrast this use with the way we use manufactured tools. Even though we know that a screwdriver isn’t supposed to be used as a hammer, in a pinch, we’d use the handle end of the screwdriver to bang on something. We’re not worried about the screwdriver’s ends because the screwdriver doesn’t have any at all. However, we wouldn’t grab a baby conveniently located by us to bang on something because we intuitively understand that that person would prefer not to have that happen to them – even if they don’t have the current capacity to tell us so. It’s (morally) okay to misuse tools, then, precisely because tools don’t have ends. People have ends.
Philosophers have a funny way of using ends, but in this case, ends are more than endings or goals and desires. Without going too deep into Kantian metaphysics, the main idea here is that humans have their own intrinsic value by the nature of their own sentience and morality.
The Mere Means Principle As A Negative Rule
The principle, as stated, is a negative rule that way – it shows you what you can’t do much better than it shows you what you can or should do, but, to be fair, most ethical principles do a much better job at giving limiting parameters than they do at giving positive guidance. Think of the difference between the positive and negative versions of the Golden Rule:
- [Negative] Don’t treat others the way you wouldn’t want to be treated.
- [Positive] Treat others the way you’d like to be treated.
If you think about it, you’ll see that the second version would probably require much more than the first would. Let’s say that you like being treated with ice cream escapades; following the second formulation, you’d have to continually be treating people to ice cream escapades.
Many people think the Principle of Humanity boils down to a version of the consent rule, i.e. that it’s okay to treat people however you wish as long as they consent to being treated that way. It’s actually more stringent than that, though, because it might still be wrong to do something to people if they consent to it. For instance, some people might consent to being in abusive relationships, but it doesn’t make it morally permissible for their abusers to abuse them. The abuse violates the Mere Means Principle, but not the principle of consent.
The Positive Version of the Mere Means Principle
A general way to think about the positive version of the Principle is to ask whether your intent is to support the ends of those that you’re interacting with. To make this work, you have to imagine how you’d like to be treated if you had their same ends – you can’t just imagine how you’d like to be treated because you have your own ends. If your treatment of them supports or is consistent with their ends, then you’re golden.
For instance, paying the teenager next door to cut your grass for $15 would probably be okay, unless you’ve got a huge lawn or some Portlandian lawnjungle that would require industrial machinery to make any headway on it. Orchestrating a party because you’d like to experience the happiness of hanging out with your friends is fine, as well – in that case, you’re using them for your own ends, but they’re also benefiting and you’re respecting their ends.
I never understood why people talk about “taking advantage” of people like it’s bad. Actually, that’s a lie. I do understand. But here’s why they’re wrong:
1. They falsely assume something deceitful is going on.
People assume that when you “take advantage” of someone, you’re doing it with complete disregard for him or her. The idea is that you are taking advantage at the cost of the other person, in a way that may hurt them. I don’t think people should ever do this, but people take advantage of each other all the time, and in most cases the benefit is mutual.
2. If you get anything out of interacting with another person, you’re taking advantage of them.
And that’s a good thing! You do not have to receive monetary or physical gain to take advantage of someone. Even if you only get intellectual or emotional enjoyment out of interacting with someone, you’re taking advantage of something you can get from him or her.
3. If you can’t take advantage of someone, you shouldn’t interact with him or her.
If someone has nothing to offer you in any way, you should not interact with him or her. (Keep in mind that emotional or intellectual benefits are real and should not be ignored!) By definition, if you benefit in no way from interacting a person, he or she is either a waste of your time or a detriment to your well-being.
4. If someone can’t take advantage of you, you should stop interacting with him or her.
If you find that your interaction with someone does nothing to contribute to his or her well-being, get out of his or her life! If you’re not benefiting someone else, you are, at best, a waste of his or her time. Most likely, you are actually making him or her unhappy.
5. Stop freaking out when you think someone’s “taking advantage” of you.
Because everyone should be! And trust me, I’m not the only person who thinks this way. Immanuel Kant declared that you should never use people “merely as a means.” But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be using them at all.
All it means is that when you take advantage of someone, you must consider your impact on them and refrain from acting in intentionally hurtful ways. In addition, you must make sure that the other person benefits from your interaction as well.