“People as things, that’s where it starts.”

“People as things, that’s where it starts.” June 23, 2010

For an explanation of what Weatherwax Wednesdays are all about, read the introduction post.

This week’s Weatherwax quote, like last week’s is from Carpe Jugulum. The first speaker is the Omnian missionary, the second speaker is Granny Weatherwax. The two of them alternate speaking throughout the dialogue.

“There is a very interesting debate raging at the moment about the nature of sin, for example.”

“And what do they think? Against it, are they?”

“It’s not as simple as that. It’s not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray.”



“There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”

“It’s a lot more complicated than that—”

“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they are getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”

“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes—”

“But they starts with thinking about people as things . . .”

Sometimes we pass over points of commonality with the idea that the ideas are too basic or foundational to merit much discussion. I don’t think that there are many people who think Granny Weatherwax’s prescription for behavior is wrong, but there is considerable difference about why we ought to follow it.

In my younger, Kantian days, I followed the Golden Rule and anything else that seemed to fall under the purview of the Categorical Imperative in an attitude of pure duty. The primary satisfaction I got from behaving rightly was like the quiet click of a Rubik’s cube sliding through its final sequence or the sound of a pencil being laid down at the end of a proof.

My mistake when I was younger was: in my utter detachment from the people affected by my actions, I was still treating people as things. Instead of ‘ends in themselves’ I treated them as means to an abstracted kind of righteousness for myself, their needs as tasks to be completed.

Moving away from Kantianism hasn’t caused a radical shift in the actions I take, but it has changed the attitude I try to cultivate when I make moral choices. The goal is not simply to reasonably consider my imperatives and minimize the objectification of others, but to reach the point where ‘not thinking of people as things’ is my default mindset. I want to engrain it into my habits and character so that it is not my guide solely when I am making consciously identified Moral Decisions, but so that it becomes a constant constraint on even my most quotidian actions.

P.S. Speaking of universal moral truths, Matt Shafer from Sword and Cross has a great post up titled “The Single Ethical Principle?” which argues that “ethical action consists in reciprocity and mutuality of action.” (This post is a follow up to another  piece “Agnostic Faith” which is well worth a read).

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