On End-Setting For Others

On End-Setting For Others

On End-Setting for Others

While the concept of a human being can be captured scientifically, the concept of a person arguably cannot be. To say that human beings are persons is, therefore, to point to one or more of our properties that escapes scientific determination. Although human beings have a variety of properties that distinguish them from other animals the trait which permits the appellation of “person” is generally held to be freedom.

But what it means to suggest that persons are free is unclear. The notion of human freedom can be understood negatively, as non-compulsion. So to choose freely, is to make a choice without being compelled to do so. Explaining freedom positively, as some kind of power, is somewhat more complicated. The philosopher Immanuel Kant  explained freedom as autonomy of the will; that is, as the power of the will to set ends in accordance with laws that it gives to itself.

in terms of our ability to set ends. Although persons possess a variety of unique capacities relative to “the animals”, the historical favourite is reason.[1] According to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, while animals act directly and instinctively on their desires, we have to determine what to do in order to attain our desires. Hence, Aristotle places this distinguishing feature between desire and action. Generally speaking, therefore, in the case of animals, both their ends and the means to attain them are set by nature, while, in the case of human beings, by contrast, neither the ends nor the means to attain them are set by nature.

Of course, this feature of humanity is the basis of moral responsibility, since for any end that we wish to set we must always first ask ourselves whether it is an end that we ought to set (i.e., whether it is morally permissible). But the fact the human beings must freely set ends in order act is significant in other ways as well,[2] for it is this feature of humanity that permits a potentially infinite number human beings to be orchestrated in ways that other animals simply cannot be. Through making requests, issuing commands, and establishing objectives for others, it is possible for one human being to mobilize many others to cooperate in everything from the execution of a formal dinner party to the completion of great feats of engineering. But while this method of organizing humans has much to recommend it, it also has certain underappreciated limitations and drawbacks.

Strictly speaking, one person cannot force another person to adopt any end, even on pain of death. So, if a person wishes that you adopt one of their ends as your own – for example, to cut their grass – then, unless you feel yourself to be under some obligation to adopt that end or you believe that realizing their end will somehow further ends of your own, then the person in question will need to offer an incentive to you, which they contingently connect with the actualization of their end; such that, to continue with our example, if you cut their grass then you receive some form of payment. This method of motivation, of course, is ubiquitous. Studies suggest, however, that while incentives work well for tasks that people have mastered, they do not work well for tasks that require people to reflect, learn something, or somehow be innovative.[3] So, while incentives work well for lawn cutting and assembling computers (when one has mastered all of the relevant skills) they do not work well for motivating designers of robotic lawn mowers.

A further and closely related limitation with the use of incentives was observed by Plato nearly 2500 years ago. Plato noted that “if a man does something for the sake of something else, he wills not that which he does, but that for the sake of which he does it” (Gorgias). So, persons who adopt ends on the basis of incentives, do so not for the sake of the end which they have agreed to adopt, but rather for the sake of the attainment of the incentive. Since the adopted end serves merely as a means to the attainment of the incentive, there is a general tendency to complete the necessary tasks only to the minimum standard required to obtain the incentive. Thus, the use of incentives goes hand-in-hand with systems of assessment, feedback, monitoring, and further incentives (such as the threat of firing).

A third problem with organizing people by setting ends for them is that it tends to hinder the development of their capacity to govern themselves. As we noted, human beings have ultimately no choice but to govern themselves. So, even when ends are set for them, they must ultimately still choose to whether adopt those ends as their own. The imposition of ends, however, tends to focus individuals, not on the difficult problem of determining what ought to be done for a given situation at hand, for this has already been decided by another, but it tends rather to focus their attention on the much easier problem of deciding whether the incentive offered provides adequate compensation for completing the tasks required to realize the end that has been proposed to them. As a result, by persistently setting ends for others one tends to perpetuate an immaturity and concomitant reliance upon the understanding of others.[4] One also simply fails to provide them with occasions in which they must judge matters for themselves; and, since judgment is a particular talent that requires practice in order to develop, persistently setting ends for others is a hindrance to the development of their capacity for self-governance.

Finally, persistently setting ends for others is a hindrance to the development of their sense of dignity. The capacity by means of which we are able to govern ourselves has inner worth, that is, dignity, since it is by means of this capacity that we are responsible for our actions.[5] The development this capacity is, therefore, intimately tied to the development of our sense of dignity. But, as we have argued, persistently setting ends for others is a hindrance to the development of the capacity for self-governance. So persistently setting ends for others is a hindrance to the development of a person’s sense of dignity.[6] For these reasons, I advocate that, whenever possible, ends be set with people instead of for them.

[1] This rational element, he declares, has two parts: “one is rational in that it obeys the rules of reason, the other in that it possess and conceives rational rules” (NE 1098a2-5).

[2] If you are a follower of Benjamin Libet’s experiments on free will, you might object that even in the case of human beings our actions are somehow determined before we choose them. The truth or falsity of such a claim poses no particular difficulty for the argument, since one still must posit the freedom to stop from following through on any given act that one postulates to be initiated by a preceding cause.

[3] See, for a review of this literature, Pink, Daniel H. Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. Penguin, 2011. See also for an illustration: https://www.ted.com/talks/tom_wujec_build_a_tower?language=en and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc

[4] I. Kant, What is Enlightenment?, 1784. Berlinische Monatsschrift. Retrieved from: https://bdfwia.github.io/bdfwia.html

[5] I. Kant, The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, 1785, GMS 4:453.

[6] If one wishes for some empirical evidence to support this argument see, for example, 2014, The Power of Dignity in the Workplace, Harvard Business Review, retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2014/04/the-power-of-dignity-in-the-workplace, and Chochinov, Harvey Max, et al. “Dignity in the terminally ill: a developing empirical model.” Social science & medicine 54.3 (2002): 433-443, and Paul Verhaeghe, 2014. “Neoliberalism has brought out the worst in us” retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/29/neoliberalism-economic-system-ethics-personality-psychopathicsthic



© 2016 Michael D. Kurak

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