Immanuel Kant says that we need to always treat people as an end in themselves, and not just a means to an end. I think that’s extremely true, but I also think that will often mean violating the ol’ Golden Rule – “treat people as you’d like to be treated.”
First, I’ve never liked the Golden Rule. I think it should be “treat people as they’d like to be treated,” because I’ve discovered that treating people the way I’d like to be treated often makes them very upset. I’m weird and I don’t like a lot of the same interaction patterns as other people, so imposing that on others doesn’t seem very kind. But I’m all for treating people the way they’d prefer.
Except, of course, that lots of people would prefer to be treated as means to and end rather than as the ends themselves – even if they don’t know it.
Imagine a young man who spends a disproportionate amount of his income on a flashy car in the hopes of attracting mates. He doesn’t want to be seen as an end in himself; he wants to be seen as a means to wealth and status and prestige for the people he’s attracted to. Or a less negative example: A doctor doesn’t want everyone to treat him only as an end; they probably wouldn’t pay him very well for that. For at least some people (his patients), he wants to be treated as a means to better health – and he, in turn, wants to treat patients as sources of income, not as dear friends.
Being treated as an end in ourselves means that we have to accept that the buck stops with us. We aren’t conduits towards something better for the people who choose to share parts of their lives with us. We don’t add value to them because we make them richer, or healthier, or wiser – we simply are. Take us or leave us.
Sometimes when you look at someone as an end, that end is found wanting. We can easily find ourselves frustrated or upset because the end isn’t what we want it to be.
If you have to put a nail into wood and you pick up a wrench by mistake, it’s natural to say “this wrench isn’t very good at pushing nails into wood.” But it makes no sense to be upset with the wrench for not being a hammer. It never was a hammer – it never could have been, and it can’t become one now.
So you either love it as a wrench or you get frustrated. But what does it mean to “love it as a wrench?”
We are the sum of our actions, and we work every day to meet our needs and desires, and of those around us. We need means for that. If people are deserving of love and respect simply because they’re people (and I believe they are), then that must naturally apply to all people – all the many billions of them. That doesn’t then help you much when deciding which of those people you’ll go to in order to get your car or your kidney fixed. You can be a phenomenal wrench, but that doesn’t mean I have any bolts that need tightening.
Maybe Kant just meant that we should never reduce someone to only being a means; even if that’s the role they play for a day or a year in our lives, we should always remember that there’s a person of intrinsic value behind the white lab coat or flashy car. We should take a moment with every cup of coffee we buy or phone call we make to reflect on the real, breathing, complex person on the other end of that interaction. And treat them as they’d like to be treated.