What does it mean to act in a moral way?
One of the answers the philosopher Immanuel Kant formulated to this question can be paraphrased this way:
“Never treat people merely as a means to an end, but always as an end in and of themselves, too.”
We all treat people as means sometimes, and that’s okay. But others don’t exist solely to meet our needs. Each individual possesses their own rationality, agency, and dignity. Each has their own purpose, destiny, telos — their own ultimate end.
If someone makes you think they really care about you when they were just looking for sex or invites you to what seems like a social lunch but turns out to be a business pitch, you’re apt to feel used — that you were treated as an object, an instrument, instead of a human being.
Most of us avoid acting like a tool by outright treating others as such. But we can all, especially in close relationships, lose sight of the fact that others have their own ends, apart from what we want from them.
You want your kid to take over the family business. But is that what’s right for him?
You want your girlfriend to move across the country for you. But is that what’s best for her?
You want your spouse to change some trait, but what if it’s part of what makes them, them and helps carry them towards their life’s purpose?
Of course, in relationships, people have a common end, and each person makes compromises so that they can reach that place together.
But even as you journey towards this shared destination, you should never approach someone solely through the lens of “What can you do for me?” but also ask, “How can I help you become who you’re supposed to be?”