Site icon Jacob Robinson

People as Means

We tend to see treating people as a “means to an end” as a bad thing… but what if it’s the only way we treat others?

[Note: This is meant to be the release for 7/4, but since I’ll be traveling during that time (and the WordPress schedule feature has often failed me) I’m releasing it on 7/2 instead.]

Hearing someone treat someone else as a means to an end automatically draws up Machiavellian imagery to our minds, and so it can be hard to see this as a universal constant. With that in mind, let’s try applying this in a different way. As we learned from Social Game Theory, the main reasons people socialize with one another are to 1) feel respected, and 2) feel good. Well, wouldn’t this mean – in all our social interactions – we are using people as a means to these two ends? Even in conversations with parents and loved ones, our goals aren’t always so altruistic. We talk with these people because we expect them to uplift our spirits – if we don’t think they’ll do that, we aren’t interested in talking to them.

Before you begin to have an existential moral panic about how you’ve been using people all this time, don’t worry – it’s not as bad as it seems. After all, this means everyone has been using you instead! But no, really, this transactional measure of conversation is what makes our social situation morally justifiable. Just as you use others as a means of feeling better, others expect you to make them feel better as well. As long as both of you hold up your ends of the bargain, everyone leaves happy. Communication is not a zero-sum game – in fact, to play the game optimally is to make everyone win!

The moral of the story: Understand how the game is played, but don’t let the game worry you too much. Just make sure the person on the other side of the table is getting a piece of the pie as well.

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