Treating People as Means Versus Honoring Them as Ends

Kathy Pratte pointed out that people very often use others.  In her own words, “When someone wants something from you, they show you attention, do you favours, act like they really care about you. When you have fulfilled your “purpose”, or failed to do so, you’re no longer of any need to them. You become unimportant, replaceable, and they grow distant.”

This is sadly often true. People often treat each other as means to their own ends as Kathy describes. They do what is needed and feign attention and care until we fulfill the end they have in mind for us and then they leave us be. I’ve been used many times in this way in the past and it is not a pleasant feeling.  One feels one’s humanity has been reduced to the tool-like status of a hammer, to be used when needed and cast aside when no longer so.

However, this “I-It” relationship is not the only mode of relationship that we can have. We can also have respect for each other, not as means, but as ends, as people with unique dignity and worth, who cannot be reduced to objects or means to selfish ends. It is on this level that we acknowledge each other for who we fully are and feel compassion, understanding, and sincere care. This is the kind of relationship we have with our true friends and close family.  This is what Buber called an I-Thou relationship, in which we fully relate to another in the fullness of their being, not as a shallow tool to be used to fulfill our ends.  This is a poor way to relate to others and it makes our relationships shallow, superficial, and unfulfilling.  It is also a damaging way of thinking and treating people that causes suffering and reinforces illusions.

There is wisdom in the old saying that we should treat others as we wish to be treated; just as we wish to be honoured as ends in our own right, so should we do the same to our fellow human beings, who, while distinct in appearance and unique and wonderful in their own ways, are not separate from us in being.  Interconnectedness and interdependence require us to acknowledge the full worth of others and not reduce them to tools to be used by us.

This is not only a far wiser approach than treating others as means, but a far more kind and compassionate one as well since it reduces rather than increasing suffering.  In the I-It, using others as means relationship, we become cruel, indifferent, uncaring, and fail to understand the interests of others or their right to be free from suffering.  In the I-Thou relationship, we live in harmony with the reality of nonseparateness, interdependence, and interconnectedness.  We practice compassion and treat each other in a way that conduces to the arising of insight and wisdom.  This is the best way for all parties, and it is with all parties that we must be concerned if we are to be the caring people we aspire to be.

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