Home > Uncategorized > The ethics of social interaction

The ethics of social interaction

Dear Shane,

During our last conversation I recalled Kant’s formulation that a person should never treat another person as merely a means to an end but also an end in him- or herself.  Now, Kant would roll over in his grave if we turned this statement into a dogma.  And indeed, I think the statement, allowing for translation and my clumsy recollection/paraphrase, could stand some strengthening.  The situation, it seems to me, is not one of “not only/but also” but rather “never/exclusively”: a rational being should never be treated as a means but always and exclusively as an end.  I am aware of myself as a subject, and I am aware of myself as a being of incalculable value.  That time when I was 11 and almost drowned at the altar boys’ picnic convinced me once and for all that my life is precious and to me, infinitely precious.  A million other episodes in my life, pleasant or unpleasant as the case may be, have told me the same story.  But here’s the point: you have told me the same story and the thousands of other people I have encountered in my life have told me the same story.  You’ve never been an altar boy, or watched as your daughter married a Welshman, or missed a fly ball in the outfield because you were looking at ants (well, maybe you have experienced this last one).  But in the relatively short time of a few years we have known each other, you have given me to understand that you know yourself to be a being of infinite value, just as I do, even though our particular experiences differ.  The issue is not that you know something, but rather that in your subjective world it is metaphysically true, beyond doubt, that your life or your experience or your mere being is incalculably precious.  That is, even before you know it, certainly before you can reason upon it, your life is not merely meaningful but suffused, replete with meaning, just as is the life of the 11-year-old being pushed under the surface by the other boys scrambling to climb aboard the floating dock.

You, Shane, are thoroughly convinced of your life’s value, and I understand that state of things for you for two reasons: first, I feel the same way, and second, through a process that I won’t go into yet, I understand that you feel that way about yourself.  Indeed, through the process that I won’t go into yet, not only do I understand that you regard yourself as infinitely valuable (as I do), but I also understand that you understand that I regard myself as infinitely valuable.  Well, here is the beginning and the end of the ethics of social interaction: we each of us know ourselves to be infinitely valuable, but we sometimes forget that other people know the same about themselves.  And so we act out of self-interest regardless of the effect–which is often injurious–of our action on somebody else.  Worse, we sometimes calculate how to use another person as an instrument to our own self-interest.  These two ethical lapses, recklessness and instrumentalization, require discussion.

But first let me anticipate the objection that just because a person imagines him- or herself to be infinitely valuable does not make it true.  The point, as I suggested earlier, is not whether somebody knows or does not know something.  The point is that humans, like all living things, live by sustaining their own lives.  I know this is redundant, but the redundancy is demanded by the question, “Is it true that each person lives as if his or her own life is infinitely valuable?”  The answer, which it is hardly necessary to state explicitly, is, yes: along with every marmot and bean sprout and bacterium.  The difference between people and other species is not so much that we are aware–they may be too–but that we can share our awareness through this process that I won’t go into yet.  Stepping back into the real world for a moment, it doesn’t take long for a person to understand that all people know themselves to be infinitely valuable and that this is not a matter that must be discovered or negotiated on an individual basis.  (As you know, Shane, this discussion is informed by my conversations with our mutual friend and colleague, Jason Thibodeau, philosopher and scholar of the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer.)

“But what about suicides?” I hear you cry.  “They throw their lives away; they don’t consider their own lives to be valuable.”  I hate to use this easy out, but suicide really is the exception that proves the rule.  Or to put it hopefully a bit more freshly, suicide appears superficially to contradict the rule but ultimately conforms to it.  A few years back my father died of the myriad ailments that afflict those of the ripe, old age he had attained.  Near the end he was in such pain that he cried out for morphine, which the hospice staff instantly supplied.  At the very end he was not conscious–such is palliative care–and as with the virtuous man in John Donne’s “Valediction,” my father’s friends and family could not detect the moment of his passing.  So it is with anyone in great pain: we will gladly sacrifice consciousness to escape the torment.  On the other hand, huge numbers of people endure what seem unendurable conditions without seeking the relief of death.  The suicide makes a terrible miscalculation, seizing upon the ultimate and irrevocable escape when less drastic forms of relief may be available.  The facts that so many people considering suicide avail themselves of preventative options and that so many attempts at suicide are halfhearted suggest that the suicidal mood is not proof that one regards his or her life as valueless.  Pain is one of nature’s ways of telling us that we must defend our infinitely valuable lives.  The person considering suicide may counter that fact with the argument that the pain has become unendurable.  But this claim is a judgment, not a fact.  Certainly a terminal patient, for example, whose quality of life has clearly, visibly declined to an unendurable state is entitled to relief.  But the judgment of a person undergoing great physical or emotional pain might well be impaired.  The man who jumps off a bridge because his girlfriend dumped him has made a misjudgment and might well be committing the ethically reprehensible act of homicide.  He has suppressed his awareness of his own value (admittedly perhaps involuntarily), but worse, he has authorized himself to commit a heinous injury.  The fact that the perpetrator and the victim happen to share one body does not exonerate the perpetrator.

And so we must consider the perpetration of injury.  Because each person knows him- or herself to be infinitely valuable, and because we already know this about other people,  to do deliberate harm to another person is clearly wrong.  However, injuries can range from the merest accident to the most heinously deliberate act.  Interestingly, when we inflict a purely accidental injury upon another person, we express concern.  And a responsible person tries to minimize instances of accidental injury.  Indeed, an irresponsible (as opposed to merely accidental) injury is virtually tantamount to a deliberate injury.  The driver who, occupied with a text message, crashes into another vehicle might as well do deliberate violence to the victims of his or her irresponsibility.  Because other people cherish the same sense of personal value as oneself, each of us is obligated to renounce causing deliberate or reckless injury to anyone else, and we are further obligated to prevent accidents to the extent possible.  Equally important is the prohibition against threatening an injury: coercion, which involves inducing fear, constitutes an injury in itself.  Like deliberate or reckless injury, treating others as objects, as obstacles or instruments, constitutes an unethical act.  Indeed, instrumentalization underlies acts of deceit or coercion.  Kant’s formulation, with which I opened this post, seems to allow for instrumentalization so long as one also recognizes the other’s status as end-in-itself.  But a simpler and more practical attitude to hold, it seems to me, is to regard others as only end-in-themselves.  And instead of trying to get something out of other people–instrumentalizing them–we should coordinate action.  That is, we should take action freely and in concert with other people, whom we already understand hold themselves as beings of inestimable value.

To eliminate clumsy circumlocutions, I propose calling the sense of one’s own inestimable value dignity, and I propose calling the already-existing recognition of dignity in others respect.   Only when we respect each other can we address each other in such a way as to coordinate action ethically, instead of achieving selfish outcomes through coercion or deception.  Now I can disclose that process that I was putting off.   Obviously, the way we humans achieve mutual understanding is through that form of verbal interaction that we call dialogue, or better, the word we use in our language-and-literature shop: discourse.  I’ve been through 1500 words without using the term “education,” which is the general subject of our blog.  The question is whether “education” qualifies as a social interaction, which is governed by the ethical norms I have outlined here.  Perhaps, Shane, you will answer that question–or any other of your choosing–next week.



Categories: Uncategorized
  1. September 12, 2013 at 12:01 pm

    While reading your letter, I was struck immediately by your paragraph about suicide. It reminds me of Albert Camus and his look at absurdity, The Myth of Sisyphus. In this text, Camus states, “There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that.” I’m sure you’re familiar with the text, but in short, Sisyphus is used as his example that parallels the lowly factory worker—performing the same menial task day after day. The question then is why that guy doesn’t kill himself. He pushes the boulder or pulls the lever, and every day when he clocks in, he starts from the same place.

    Camus later says that people kill themselves because they “judge that life is not worth living.” I would add that people kill others because they judge that those lives aren’t worth living. We also see that in the case of mass and public homicide (like school shootings) the gunman is more often than not looking forward to his “suicide by police” moment. This supports your thought that pain is a natural/ biological deterrent. The gunman knows it will hurt, so he doesn’t want to do it to himself. Therefore, he forces someone else’s hand—he makes another person pull the trigger.

    So I agree with you. I am too awesome to want to die. I know this because when I thought a guy was about to shoot me on a train in New York (true story), I was afraid and trying to decide on the best escape path. But I also covered the people in my group from the guy. I was worried for them too. Their lives were also important. What’s interesting about this moment in New York, is that the guy was trying to instrumentalize the passengers of the train. He was clear that he wanted something—money, food, whatever. He was trying to get it by using force or coercion—“I have a 9-millimeter and everybody is going to be banging to get up outta here.”

    I guess my question to you is one of war or self-defense. At what point do we decide our worth (which is infinite) is greater than someone else’s (which is also infinite)? When do we strike out against someone else?

    Second thought: How would we discuss the actions of someone like Assad who uses chemical weapons (and other weapons) to kill thousands of people? Is it that he doesn’t respect them? Certainly he has dignity—to use your word. He obviously values his own life infinitely.

    How does one move from dignity, or the respect of self, to the respect of others?

  2. September 12, 2013 at 2:31 pm

    Yes. The recognition of one’s own dignity is self-respect, and this is my answer to Camus. His fellow French existentialist, Sartre, said that hell is other people. It seems that Camus and Sartre and Kant and Kelley all begin with individuals and then move on to other people. This approach creates a needless chicken-and-egg conundrum (recently solved, apparently, by The Most Interesting Man in the World). It is true that we all start out as children and children are egocentric. But childish egocentrism is an illusion. I see that this point is obscure in my letter. I tried to point out that everybody experiences this sense of incalculable self-worth. But how do we verify such an assertion? Well, empirical verification, contriving an experiment or survey to test the hypothesis, is clearly both impractical and unnecessary. (This fact exemplifies why we are taking a more philosophical than empirical approach to education.) “You have told me the same story and the thousands of other people I have encountered in my life have told me the same story,” the story of dignity, of incalculable worth. Theoretically, I could survey everybody, but the only exception to the rule that I can find is suicide, And millions of people lead lives of horrible suffering and never attempt suicide.
    Camus is wrong. If the world begins and ends with the individual, then sure, the question of whether life is worth living is an individual judgment. But the world of other people does exist, and they tell all the same story, their their lives are not only worthy but infinitely precious. The suicide apparently belies this sweeping generalization, but see how the provisos stack up: most people who say “I want to die” don’t mean it, many who say it and don’t mean it are unaware that they don’t mean it, and the quest for instantaneous or painless suicide shows that in many cases the suicidal subject thinks too highly of himself to cause pain to himself. This lack awareness might be of organic origin; we know that Lanza had neurological problems. It might be of social origin: we know that Lanza’s mother was a gun nut. Or it might just be ignorance. I firmly believe, Shane, that ignorance is the opposite of an excuse or extenuation: it’s an inculpating factor: “What? I have to pay income tax?”
    From a theoretical standpoint, individual awareness of one’s own dignity combined with the universal capacity to reach mutual understanding (“communicative competence”–Habermas) means that everybody already can be aware of the dignity of others. Reason alone is sufficient to convince us of the truth of individual dignity, and reason alone is sufficient to obligate us to acknowledge the dignity both of ourselves and others. The question is not, is life worth living, but rather, how do we live in the world of other people? The answer to that question is in fact obvious: by respecting them. The problem is that people often fail to respect others and themselves. Why not? Ignorance is surely one reason, and this discussion makes it clear that education is not merely a right but also a responsibility. Each person is ethically obligated to respect all people. Another reason that people injure themselves or others is wickedness: they know better, but they choose to do the wrong thing.
    Your experience on the train is extremely illuminating. When we are threatened with deliberate injury, we take steps to defend our (precious) selves. But you showed the better angels of our nature when you also acted defend others. So we try to prevent, interrupt, and remedy crimes against humanity. When the police take out the mass murderer, they are interrupting the crime, trying to prevent further injury. But what remedy is possible for crime? Certainly we offer aid to the injured, but how do we exact reparations from perpetrators, of the Holocaust, for example. You can execute a guy only once. Obviously, Lanza deserved to die while he was killing people. If he were apprehended alive, does that passage of time make him less deserving of death? Well, you don’t ask aggrieved parties to make judgments, and the due-process clause has the practical value of letting passions cool. So it seems to me that the world should interrupt Assad’s killing, preferably by allowing his suicide by police, and the disposition of that criminal thereafter is a procedural matter. Yes, Bashar Assad possesses dignity in theory, but he dare not make that claim after violating the dignity of thousands of his own people and the dignity of all people. I’m enough of an idealist to hope that as teachers by alleviating the world’s ignorance we will make progress in alleviating its wickedness. But I say this to the wicked: don’t invite me to disrespect you.

    P.S. It would appear that determining whether one’s own life or the lives of others are worth living is not an individual judgment.

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