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«Paulus Kaufmann Introduction In this paper I approach the topic of well-being by analysing its relation to the idea that it is morally wrong to use ...»

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Well-being and using persons

Paulus Kaufmann


In this paper I approach the topic of well-being by analysing its relation to the idea that it

is morally wrong to use persons merely as means. The assumption that it is morally wrong

to use a person is deeply entrenched in common sense morality. The prohibition against

using people plays an important role in the theoretical discussions of moral philosophy, and

in Applied Ethics diverse practices are judged by asking if they involve the use of persons.

The common employment and broad acceptance of the prohibition notwithstanding, many intriguing questions with regard to scope, role, and justification of the prohibition come into mind: First, we have to know what practices actually fall within the scope of the prohibition to use people. Second, it is unclear what exact role the prohibition can play within moral theory. Third, it still needs to be explained why using people is morally wrong.

We can actually get at a good explication of the idea of using persons, however, if we focus on paradigmatic examples. The example I am going to start with is taken from a short

story by Vladimir Nabokov and is a very clear case of using a person:

More than 15 years before publishing his world-famous novel Lolita Vladimir Nabokov wrote a short-story with a similar plot. The story that the novella entitled The Enchanter narrates summarises as follows: A paedophile man marries a terminally ill woman in order to obtain custody over her daughter. Shortly after the marriage the mother dies and the eponymous ‘enchanter’ takes his stepdaughter on a trip by car. In a hotel he masturbates looking at the half-naked girl supposing that she is asleep. The girl wakes up though, begins to scream and thereby attracts the other guests of the hotel. The enchanter escapes Paulus Kaufmann from the hotel and throws himself in front of a truck. I think everyone who listens to the events of Nabokov’s novella is shocked by its protagonist’s behaviour. The game he plays with mother and daughter is abhorrent and only the end of the story alleviates our indignation when the ‘cynical, contemptible protagonist’ (D. Nabokov 2009, p.74) receives a due punishment. But while it is clear that the enchanter’s behaviour is wrong, it is not obvious why we find it so repelling. In fact, the enchanter does not kill or rape or physically violate the girl or her mother. He does not commit any of the crimes that easily come to our minds when we think of the atrocities committed by human beings. But we certainly find his behaviour strongly despicable. What, then, explains our indignation towards the events that Nabokov relates? To my opinion, the most convincing characterization of the moral wrongs that are depicted in the story is offered by Nabokov’s son Dmitri in the postscript to his edition of the text. He criticizes the enchanter by saying that the woman is to him ‘a repellent means to a criminal end and the girl an instrument for his gratification’ (D.

Nabokov 2009, p.75). To my opinion, this description captures well our intuitions towards the summary of the story given above. It seems very convincing to say that the protagonist’s treatment of both the mother and the daughter is repelling because he uses them merely as means and tools in his sneaky plan.

Using tools and using persons

But what do we mean by the expression ‘to use somebody merely as a means’? The most typical use of ‘use’ is the use of material objects, objects that were often build to be used such as tools, pens or machines. It therefore suggests itself to analyse the expression ‘to use a person’ by comparing it with the expression ‘to use a tool’. Unsurprisingly both expressions have many features in common. According to my analysis to say that somebody

uses a person or a tool basically three conditions have to be fulfilled:

First, I only use a tool if I do something with the tool. If I only look at a hammer or talk about it I do not thereby use it. Similarly I only use a person if I interact with that person.

This condition should be understood to imply that an act of mine has some foreseeable effect on that other person.

I have to admit, though, that natural language is rather vague on this point. Imagine the

following case:

Well-being and using persons 5 Helicopter: A helicopter is looking for a place to land. The pilot knows the region to be very muddy. He therefore looks for people strolling around and lands close to where they had been walking.

It is not unnatural to say that the pilot uses the people as points of orientation. But then the example seems to conflict with the first condition as he is not interacting with them in the relevant sense: His action is not likely to affect them in any way. But we can respond to this objection that we in fact do hesitate to say that the pilot uses the walkers even if we feel more comfortable to say that he uses them as points of orientation. It is in connection with expressions of the form ‘as an A’ that the interaction condition can be violated. This is a common phenomenon, as gets clear when we think of using tools. I do not use a knife when I only look at it. But although I’m only looking at it I might use it as a model for drawing. Our ambiguous reaction towards examples such as Helicopter are thus due to the peculiarities of the expression ‘to use something as something’ and it is unnecessary to cover these examples in a definition of the expression ‘to use a person’.

Second, in our interaction we pursue a goal that is not directed towards a state of the tool itself. That is, we do not use a knife if we sharpen it because the sharpness we are aiming at is a state of the knife itself. Similarly, A does not use a person B if in interacting with him she is finally aiming at a state that is supposed to be good or even at a state that is supposed

to be bad for B. Consider the following two examples:

Christmas: In December Ron and Jill are doing some shopping. Jill gets enthusiastic about a scarf but doesn’t buy it. Half an hour later Ron pretends that he forgot something. But in fact he goes back to the shop and buys the scarf as a Christmas present for Jill.

Insult: A young man on a bicycle drives in the middle of the road thereby preventing a car to take over. When the car finally manages to pass the bicycle the car driver opens the window and shouts derogatory words to the cyclist.

–  –  –

goal that points away from B1. A is then neither acting to bring about a state that is good for B, nor to bring about a state that is bad for her. He is thus not acting for B’s sake at all and his end can be spelled out without essentially referring to B.

This is thus the first thing we can record about the relation between well-being and using persons: Behaviour that aims at the well-being of a person falls into another category as using a person. Behaviour that aims at the well-being can be wrong, to be sure, – paternalism is a pertinent example – but it is wrong for other reasons.

The third condition for using a tool or a person is that we only use something if we interact with it because we believe it to be useful for our purposes. We don’t use a hammer for example, if we take it out of the tool box to have more space to look for the screw driver.

In this case the hammer is not useful to us but an obstacle in pursuing our goal. We are also not using a can on the street that we kick away because we are angry. Similarly, A only uses a person B if A believes that B can contribute to his goal. B’s presence or participation2

must thus play a role in A’s plan towards his ends as the following examples may illustrate:

Pollution: The chemistry company Chisso introduces industrial waste polluted with mercury into the open sea close to the city of Minamata. Approximately 10,000 people are severely harmed.

Chisso certainly interacts with the people of Minamata and pursues a goal that does not refer to these people. It would have been a lot easier for the responsible managers of Chisso, though, to realize their goal without these people. Thus Chisso didn’t use them.

The definition that I have adopted from common sense thus consists of three conditions:

For A to use B, A must interact with B, he must believe that B can be helpful in achieving one of A’s ends and A’s ends must point away from B. We should notice, however, that this

definition includes cases like the following one:

Crossing the River: A has to cross a river to escape from his persecutors. The river is too deep and broad to wade through or to jump over, but it would be sufficient to get something I am borrowing this expression from Norvin Richards, “Using People”, Mind 87, no. 1 (1978): p.99.

The distinction between presence and participation was first brought forward by Arthur Flemming, “Using a Man as a Means,” Ethics 88, no. 4 (July 1978): 283-298; the distinction was also adopted in the definition of Warren S. Quinn, “Actions, Intentions, and Consequences: The Doctrine of Double Effect,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 18, no. 4 (Autumn 1989): 334-351; and by Thomas Scanlon in his Moral dimensions, Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008, p.106.

Well-being and using persons 7 in the river that A could use as a bridge. A therefore shoots a person B standing at the riverbank, B falls into the river and A walks on B’s back to the other side.

In this example A interacts with B, he believes B to contribute to his plan and he pursues a goal that points away from B. A therefore uses B according to the definition that I proposed so far. But examples such as Crossing the River hardly come to mind when we think about using people in a moral sense. Nevertheless, many of the examples discussed in the philosophical literature as cases of using people make use of the presence and not of the participation of the other person. Two very famous examples are two variations on the even more famous Trolley Case3. In the Trolley Case a bystander sees a driverless train out of control running towards a tunnel where five people are working. His only chance to save these people’s lives is to operate a turnout. Unfortunately there is one other person working on the track to which he could redirect the train. There is great discussion about the moral evaluation of the options open to the bystander. In some arguments it is stressed that the bystander would not be using the one person on the second track and would therefore be

justified in sacrificing him. This argument can be backed up by the following case4 :

Bridge: A driverless, runaway train is heading for a tunnel. In the tunnel five people are working who will be killed if the train runs on. Person A is a bystander and has only one chance to stop the train: There is one other person B standing on a bridge above the track.

A opens a trap-door, so that B falls in front of the train and triggers its automatic brake.

Proponents of the argument that the bystander is allowed to save the five workers in the original Trolley Case because he would not be using the one person, feel confirmed by this example and the typical intuition that it is wrong to throw the man in front of the train. They can argue that this negative intuition is due to the fact that we would use the man in Bridge, but we would not be using the one person in the Trolley Case. In Bridge the presence of the man plays a role in achieving our aim, whereas the presence of the one person on the side track in the Trolley Case is a hindrance rather than a means in our plan. The question of The case was first presented by Philippa Foot, “The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of Double Effect,” Oxford Review, 1967.

The following two problems are presented by Judith Thomson, “The Trolley Problem,” Yale Law Journal 94, no. 6 (1985): p.120. Thomson presents Bridge 2 - often called the Fat Man Case - as an argument in favour of explaining the Trolley Case with help of the concept of use. She then rejects the whole argument, though, because of examples like Loop Case; Scanlon also refers to this latter case as a serious problem for the “use”-account; cf. Scanlon, Moral dimensions, p.120.

Paulus Kaufmann whether a person is used or not therefore seems to be crucial for judging the permissibility of

the respective actions. But critics of this argument point to the following counter-example:

Loop Case: The scenario is identical to the Trolley Case with the only exception that the tracks after the one person have the form of a loop and return to the main track heading to the tunnel again.

It is generally argued that in this case we are also using the one person because we now need her presence to save the five workers. If the person were not there, the train would equally run into the tunnel and kill these people. But it is implausible to conclude that in this case the bystander would be acting wrongly, the argument goes, because it is unclear why the form of the tracks should make a moral difference. For all the participants of this discussion it is out of question that Bridge and the Loop Case are typical examples of using people. I want to argue, in contrast, that although these cases fit the definition that can be extracted from our employing the expression ‘to use’ in natural language, they are not relevant as examples of our moral claim that it is wrong to use people. It does not matter morally – or it does not matter in the same way5 – that in these examples persons are used in the sense of the above definition of using people. Using people is morally relevant only when we make

use of the participation of that person. This claim can be supported by two considerations:

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