People as Things

I read once that the worst act in the world is to treat other people as things. This idea carries a lot of weight. It means that you can’t use other people as tools to get what you want, no matter how important that goal is to you. It means that you can’t use yourself, your body or your mind, in a way that harms it in order to achieve some sort of end that is important to you. It means that human life, without additions or qualifiers, is the most important thing in the world.

This came back to me quite recently when I read the blurb for a novel about slavery. The novel was set in a fictional future world in which some humans were currency. In the novel, a slave was bought by a man who was trying to end slavery. The master apologised to the slave and then sold him to other wealthy people for horrendous abuses in the pursuit of this overarching goal. I didn’t read the book and I never will. Just reading the blurb made me very angry.

I don’t believe in this.

I know that’s kind of controversial. There is an unspoken idea that the end justifies the means in our society. People claim that if the end goal is achieved, whatever had to be done to get it becomes okay or worth it. Nobody seems to notice that this line of reasoning can be and is used to justify a lot of things that mainstream society would class as unconscionable. Our recent history is full of examples of people who killed those who thought differently, acted differently or had sex differently because they believed that it was the only way to spare the world from a god’s vengeance on the entire population for the unforgiveable violation of his rules. We understand that this line of thinking is wrong, and yet we also use the same flawed ‘the end justifies the means’ reasoning to explain why we do things. Torture has yet again become an almost acceptable way to deal with suspected terrorists and our television shows are replete with spy shows that examine just how far a character can push this idea.

I struggle with this.
In an ideal world, it would never happen. In an ideal world no one would ever think of human trafficking or any of the other hundreds of horrible things people do to each other. In the ideal world we wouldn’t need people to become a kind of monster themselves to catch a monster. In an ideal world, we would never use another human being as a thing to achieve an end. But this is far from an ideal world. Do we really have to become monsters in order to stop these people who do such terrible things?  And the rest of us, those outside of this world, with normal office lives and no contact with this seemingly eternal battle of law and morality and reality writ large in the world, do we have the right to demand that others make this sacrifice to keep us safe?

And what kind of person volunteers to be that sacrifice? What are the characteristics that make them capable of doing terrible things in the hopes of a worthy end? I’m not really talking about people in battle situations here. I imagine that the actions and reactions of men and women who serve in the military are more survival based than anything else. But I am talking about the people who are willing to torture another human being to get information. What is in them that can do that? Should we be afraid of someone who can do that, of a society that almost encourages it, of a species that breeds it so easily?

I’m not writing this because I have any kind of answer. I don’t. When I travel down this particular rabbit hole I find that it is endless, touching concepts of religion and philosophy and psychology and justice that I can’t fully articulate. It is a circular argument without end and I understand all the claims made without seeing another way. But is this simply a case of not being able to see what I can’t see? Do we all suffer from this? Is there another way, a way that doesn’t turn people into scapegoats for our safety, doesn’t advocate the use of humans as tools while simultaneously deriding it, and we just can’t see it because we don’t want to? Because implementing it would be too hard? Kant claimed that people had an intrinsic value, just because they were humans, and with that value came inviolate rights that existed no matter what they did.

Is it even possible to live like that?

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