Never merely as a means

I’ve seen but haven’t read Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck mostly because I’ve read enough self-help that I figured I didn’t need another. His recent book, Everything is F*cked, sounded more interesting because it claimed to look at the larger situation and how we can have everything we have and still be unhappy.

While Manson comes across as a sort of foul-mouthed stand-up act, the footnotes and general coherence suggests that the f*cked part of the book’s tone is all a bit of a nudge-and-wink joke. There’s actually quite a bit going on here, and so I’ll probably make several posts on this book.

Manson loves Immanuel Kant, which was a nice trip down memory lane for me. My freshman college philosophy professor taught a survey of philosophy course that was basically one long argument that Kant was the end-all, be-all of philosophy, and Manson takes the same position. At the core of Kant’s philosophy is his Formula of Humanity:

The Formula of Humanity states, “Act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.”

I remember being very impressed with this in college and am even more impressed with it now. As I think about what this means at work, it refocuses me on how I should be managing my team. I should not focus as a manager on what my team can do for me or even for our mutual employer, but on what I can do for them, how I can help them be successful in their work, coach them in their careers, support them in their personal lives and goals.

Equally, when I interact with our clients (external or internal), my goal should be to help them succeed. This formula works for my internal clients (the parts of the business I support). In all honesty, it generates some tension with external clients or customers. Yes the best companies treat their customers as ends, knowing that doing so will lead to a successful business model. But if we’re all honest with ourselves, that’s a bit of a whitewash (especially in publicly-traded companies). The goal is still to make money off the customer, and preferably more money than in the past or more money than the other team does. Still, I would suggest that a company can measure it’s level of ethics by the degree to which it can maintain the fiction that it is first helping its customers and the only second profiting from them.

The other thing I like about Manson’s interpretation of Kant, is that he tells you how to apply it to yourself:

When we pursue a life full of pleasure and simple satisfaction, we are treating ourselves as a means to our pleasurable ends. Therefore, self-improvement is not the cultivation of greater happiness but, rather, a cultivation of greater self-respect. Telling ourselves that we are worthless and shitty is just as wrong as telling others that they are worthless and shitty. Lying to ourselves is just as unethical as lying to others. Harming ourselves is just as repugnant as harming others. Self-love and self-care are therefore not something you learn about or practice. They are something you are ethically called to cultivate within yourself, even if they are all that you have left.

This is a powerful reminder that self-improvement and, even more importantly, self-awareness are ethical imperatives. Not just nice to haves, but necessities to be a fully-functioning, ethical human being.

And who wouldn’t want to be one of those.

Published by William Gerke

William Gerke is a Boston-based talent professional, author, and human being.

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