(About a 7 minute read)
“Upon returning from his journey, the gentleman learned that his stable of expensive race horses had burnt down in his absence. The first question he asked was whether the stable boy, who slept in the stable, had been injured. The second question he asked was whether anyone who had fought to contain the fire had been injured.
“It was only after he’d been reassured that no human had been injured that he asked after the horses. ”
— Paraphrase of a passage from The Analects of Confucius.
We seem to be living in an age of rudeness. That is, ours seems an age in which large numbers of us are habitually rude — even callous — towards each other. Some of us, at least, seem to put more thought into slighting other people than into treating others with consideration. And anger — it’s as if each year, people are a little less hesitant to show it, often over the most petty things.
I was thinking of that yesterday while observing someone mistreat the clerk at a nearby corner convenience store. Obviously, he was in a hurry, and apparently the fact he was in a hurry, and she wasn’t, was quite enough to him to justify in his mind telling her in the rudest tones to move faster.
I know the clerk. She works long hours at two jobs, never has a day off, and “tired” was printed in bold all across her face and in her mannerisms yesterday.
Most of us intuitively know without thinking about it that he should have treated her with much greater consideration. But why should he have done so?
It’s an interesting question. There are various answers to it, but the answers are not meant to be used in persuading rude people to treat others less rudely. In my experience, no reasonable arguments can do that. People who are rude tend to stay rude regardless of whether or not you try to reason with them.
No, the real reason for asking such a question is to find answers that help decent people to better understand how to be decent people. For instance, is it permissible to be rude to a waiter if he or she accidentally dumps a tray of food on you? Of course, in those circumstances, it would be understandable if you were rude. But should you strive to do better than that? If so, why? If not, why not?
So what we’re looking for here is a principle — or set of principles — that can be consistently applied to a wide range of situations in order to help us understand when we should not be rude, and when, if ever, we might be justified in being rude.
I think one principle that readily comes to mind for many of us is the Golden Rule. “Treat others as you yourself would want to be treated.” But I have problems with the Rule.
I admire the spirit of it, which I take to be treat others at least as well as you would treat yourself. But I believe that, literally applied, it would lead to some strange outcomes. For instance, would I be justified in pressuring someone into having sex with me simply because I’d love for a woman to aggressively pursue sex with me, all else being equal?
The so called Silver Rule that was espoused by Confucius does little better here. “Do not treat others as you would not want to be treated by them.” If I pressure a woman into sex I would not be violating the Silver Rule, for I’d want her to do the same to me.
“Treat others as they treat you.”? I hear that one quite often. And yet it seems close to “an eye for an eye”, which I recall both Gandhi and Martin Luther King, jr. criticized along the lines that — if it were consistently and always applied — would result in “the whole world being blinded”.
At this point, I would like to turn to Immanuel Kant. Kant offered as a guiding principle of morality that we should “always treat others as ends in themselves, and never only as means to an end”.
What he meant by that was we should always treat them first and foremost as persons in their own right. That is, as people who should be treated with respect, kindness, dignity, and so forth — first and foremost. Following that, it is permissible to treat them as a means to an end, just so long as in dong so, we do not negate treating them with respect, etc.
For instance, the waiter spills a tray on us. Whatever else we do, we should treat the waiter with respect, kindness, dignity, etc. In the case of sex, our obligation to treat others well would prohibit us from pressuring the woman — or anyone — into having sex with us.
Kant’s principle strikes me as a good one, but it does not apply to all moral questions. Suppose we were a prison guard working on death row. The principle would urge us to treat the prisoners with humane values, even if we must also treat them as means to an end by eventually executing them. But the principle cannot decide whether it is right or wrong for the state to kill people.
In the same way, it can tell us to treat a woman who has had an abortion humanely, but it cannot tell us whether abortions are good or bad. So, at best, Kant’s principle can only be one of the principles in our tool chest.
Returning now to the general rudeness of society today, I think that — if Kant’s principle suddenly became widely applied — it would greatly reduce the rudeness we see. Yet I don’t believe it is likely to be widely applied in our day and age. The problem with our age seems to me to go much deeper than ignorance of a few moral principles.
To illustrate, I have heard that people on death row in Texas are no longer treated as humanely as they once were by the guards and policies of the prisons. That is, they are dehumanized compared to how they were routinely treated a few decades ago.
To me, that speaks volumes about our attitude these days — not towards them — but towards ourselves. People are always thinking the ultimate reason you should treat others humanely is for their sake. That’s not true in my book. In my book, you ultimately treat others humanely for your own sake.
Consider. A man murders his wife, is placed on death row. If you treat him like dirt, you are basically saying at least two things. First, you are obviously stating that you yourself are the sort of person who would treat others like dirt.
But second, you are saying something much greater than that. You are saying, in effect, that he is right and you are wrong. That his treating his wife like dirt is the right way to treat people. After all, if it were not the right way to treat people why are you yourself doing it?
It’s not just death row, of course, it’s society in general. Over the past few decades we have been treating people in general with less and less humaneness. And to my way of thinking that is precisely because so many of us nowadays no longer believe in our own worth as humans.