Using People

by Benjamin Studebaker

One of the frequent criticisms of consequentialist ethics (the notion that whether or not a given course of action is just depends upon the consequences, the results, of said action) is that it has a tendency to treat use people like objects, to treat them as a means rather than as an end. I propose today to challenge this critique.

In consequentialist ethics, we try to produce the best possible outcome. Often that outcome can entail requiring that individuals sacrifice their interests in order to maximise the interests of the group. When we do this, we are using people to achieve our moral ends. Consider the following situation:

  1. The state comes under attack from an invader.
  2. In order to reduce the total negative consequences resulting from the invasion, it is necessary that the invader be repelled.
  3. Therefore, it is justifiable to require the most qualified portion of the population to join the military and take up arms against the invader even though doing so will increase their individual risk of being killed.

When we do this, our prospective soldiers are being used as a means to solve our wider social problem. Even though it is not in their individual interest to fight (because fighting makes it much more likely that they specifically will be killed), we nonetheless are requiring them to do so in order so that other people may be saved. In order to do this, we must have a view of ethics that is not agent-specific. We look at net goods rather than individual goods, and in order to do so we necessarily dismiss the universal value and agency of all people individually.

Other systems of ethics baulk at this notion–surely, they say, the prospective soldiers must consent to soldiering, must be made to reasonably understand and agree to the task. It is unfair to force some of our people to undergo horrible consequences in order to produce good consequences for others. Morality is not communal or social, they say, but must be justified on a person to person basis. Every person must be an end of the moral procedure, not a means to the ends of others. If we cannot convince enough people to join the military of their own volition, then too bad.

It is to this sort of argument that I wish to make my response.

Firstly, it should be noted that we treat other people as means more or less constantly in our society. When you go to visit the doctor, you are using the doctor as a means to improving your health. You do not visit the doctor for the doctor’s own benefit. It happens that the doctor is going to be paid (by you, by an insurance company, by the state, it matters not), but that isn’t relevant to your decision to see the doctor. You do not go for that purpose. If you could get the same medical treatment for free, you would do so. If the doctor were to be replaced by a fully functional medical robot that dispensed medical care and advice with the same skill and ability, you would use that robot in the same way you presently use human doctors. The same is true with most of the people we encounter on a day to day basis that we are not friends with or do not know well. We do not treat most of the people we meet as full-fledged human agents; we use them to get what we want.

In and of itself, this is not convincing. Just because we constantly use people all the time does not mean that doing so is good or justified–arguing that would amount to the is-ought fallacy. It does, however, shed light on a larger idea. If you and I are constantly using the people around us, it stands to reason that, in our own professions, we are in turn being used. Why do we accept being used? Typically, it is because we receive a payment for our being used. Is the difference then between the normal state of affairs and my invasion case the fact that many of the prospective soldiers will die without compensation so that others may live? Not exactly.

In our day to day affairs, we accept being used by others in exchange for money on the basis that others will accept being used by us in exchange for money. Because everyone is treated equally, the system is acceptable. If some of us had to agree to be used for no money and/or could not demand the use of others in return (i.e. the condition of slavery), the system would not be morally acceptable. However, if all of us agreed to be used by one another for free, the state of affairs would again be equal–you would have the use of me, and I the use of you. Such a state of affairs doesn’t work in real society because we cannot trust people to honour debts incurred through use, but it sheds light on what makes the system moral. It is not the fact of compensation that denotes the morality, it is the fact of equal treatment. If I want to use everyone, I must allow myself to be used by everyone.

It’s true that our prospective soldiers will never be compensated, but they were not unfairly selected for the soldiering task. A communal need presented itself, and they happened to be best suited to fulfilling that need. When we agree to a consequentialist moral system, we receive no promise of ourselves individually receiving a good outcome. We merely are promised that, on balance, most of us will get good consequences most of the time, provided that all of us are willing to consent to being used from time to time, even when there is no obvious pay-off to ourselves as individuals. What is important is consequently not that we avoid using people, but that we avoid using people unfairly.  The requirement then is that when a situation arises in which we demand that some of us sacrifice their interests for the good of all, we select those people without bias on the basis purely of need and qualification. As long as everyone’s suitability for use is considered, everyone is treated fairly by the system.

It is important that we accept this argument, because we simply must use people sometimes. Going back to our invasion example, imagine if in order to force the invader to vacate the territory, we must use some number of soldiers as a decoy to lure the enemy into a trap. However, these soldiers will certainly be killed if used in this way, and without the decoy the enemy will win and subjugate our people. In movies, it always works out that you happen to have some altruistic hero willing to lay his life on the line in these kind of scenarios (and invariably, the hero miraculously survives the “suicide mission”). In real life, there’s no reason to assume any heroes are present, and the reality of death is just that–reality. The soldiers who act as decoys will be killed. Say no one wants to do the job, that the only way to carry out the strategy is to force some number of the soldiers to do this against their will, to use them as a means to our communal ends. I submit to you that we can do this–we can morally coerce some soldiers to serve as decoys and be means to our ends, but only provided that we select them fairly, either on the basis of suitability to the task or, if there is no significant difference in suitability, by random draw. As long as we use people as means fairly and impartially, we can nonetheless submit to people that the best course of action will be taken for most of our people.

If what you really are concerned with is your own outcome, moral systems are really a kind of bet, a gamble, if you will. The moral system that produces the best consequences will, most of the time and for most people, produce a winning bet. Other moral systems will not impose lost bets on people as a means to protecting the winning bets of others, but in so doing they will still produce more lost bets. We must accept that sometimes we will lose the game of life, that the goal of any good moral system is to minimise losing and maximise winning, and that sometimes you have to generate a few lost bets in order to prevent the creation of many more. A person in ignorance of their life outcome, behind a veil of ignorance as to whether or not their life will turn out well or poorly with the opportunity to decide under which system to place their bet, can only logically choose a system designed to minimise lost bets and maximise won bets, even knowing that there is a chance, however small, that such a system will determine that said individual will be one of those losers. As long as that chance of being made a loser is determined fairly–as long as everyone is subjected to it–there is truly no cause for complaint.