According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Ethically disapproving judgements that a person is ‘just using’ or sometimes simply ‘using’ another are common in everyday discourse.” One of the primary targets chosen for such disapproval is capitalism, better defined as a private property-based system of voluntary arrangements. And it has long been the case.
For instance, one review of a performance of Arthur Miller’s classic “Death of a Salesman” I have read described it as an “America Tragedy,” in which “Willy Loman has been used by the capitalistic system and discarded when he is no longer useful.”
Most recently, the best-known purveyor of such accusations is self-described democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, best known as AOC (Avatar Opposing Capitalism?). She has described capitalism as “not a redeemable system” because “capitalism at its core…is the absolute pursuit of profit at all human, environmental, and social cost.”
Such statements express a view that capitalism means “loving things and using people,” in a world where we should “love people and use things.” As Paul Heyne once expressed it, “such a system seems somehow to violate our profound moral conviction that nothing is more valuable than individual persons, and that each person ought to be treated as a unique end, never as a means to some further end.”
However, such feelings, and the increasing government dictation that is the almost universal “solution” prescribed, are ironic, because those who believe in liberty do so because of the primacy of individuals, not as a mechanism to ignore or over-ride their humanity. As Leonard Read once put it, “An individualist…looks upon society as the upshot, outcome, effect, recapitulation incidental to what is valued above all else, namely, each distinctive individual human being.”
That leads us to the question of why “market arrangements use people” epithets have persisted, despite the fact that the central apologia of such arrangements is that they advance the interests of the individuals involved.
A major reason is that rhetoric has often mis-used the word “use.”
“Use” can mean “to utilize or employ,” with no additional implication of harm to others. That is what we mean when we say someone uses a hammer. That same usage applies when people voluntarily provide their services to advance others’ purposes in markets. In contrast, “use” can also mean “abuse or harm,” particularly as a result of force or fraud. That is what someone means when they say “you pretended to care about me, but you were just using me.” That is also what anti-capitalist critics portray “use” to mean. The first meaning is consistent with benefiting others (as in mutually acceptable market arrangements, which individuals would not otherwise enter into); the second meaning requires that others are harmed. The difference between the two introduces the logical fallacy of equivocation, “calling two different things by the same name,” into people’s understanding.
Say you heard someone say, “You use others in markets; using people harms them; therefore markets harm people.” Such a syllogism may sound convincing to someone not considering the logic carefully (the target audience of rationally ignorant voters). But that is far less likely to be the case if they clarified which “use” they meant. “You utilized others’ willingly supplied services; willing participants to arrangements expect to gain from them; therefore you harmed them,” will convince far fewer people, by making the transformation of mutual benefits from uncoerced market exchanges into the fantasy of exploitation theory far more difficult.
That confusion also has deep roots, tracing back to Immanuel Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, where he wrote, “So act that you treat humanity…always and at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.” When someone cites Kant today (partly to show off, of course) they typically use the distorted middle of the syllogism above—using people harms them—to get to their implications. But we should note carefully Kant’s use of “at the same time” and “merely.”
That is because the simplistic take on Kant, often expressed as “we should treat people solely as ends in themselves and never as means for our purposes,” implies that individuals face an either-or choice between using people or not. But that is not accurate. Those we deal with voluntarily are both ends in themselves and the means by which we advance our ends.
What someone offers us in voluntary arrangements are means to better advance our ends. But treating goods and services others’ provide us voluntarily as means to our ends does not demean them as individuals; it is simply inherent in mutually beneficial arrangements. And we must remember that most exchanges involve means for both parties, rather than ends. You offer me means to advance my ultimate ends, not my ultimate ends themselves. I offer you resources in exchange, but those are also means to your ultimate ends, not your ultimate ends themselves (sometimes disguised by saying or implying that money is what people ultimately want, when that is seldom true). The result is that we both have greater means to advance our ultimate ends. It is hard to see damage as a consequence of that.
To overlook such an issue, and so condemn such arrangements as the unethical use of others, comes very close to the self-contradictory assertion that nothing mutually beneficial is allowable. Instead, we should applaud rather than condemn a system that can dovetail the often incompatible plans and purposes of multitudes of different individuals, without abusing them or their rights, to expand what can actually be achieved.
Further, when people freely choose their arrangements, we need to notice that doing so respects others as important ends in themselves in a crucial way that is absent whenever others dictate what is allowable for individuals. Under freedom, every individual controls the choices of how to best use the means they have at their disposal to advance their own ends. When freedom is shouldered aside with someone else’s dictation, those choices are narrowed or even eliminated. And one cannot choose more morally when one is not allowed to choose.
Mutually voluntary arrangements are those each participant believes best advances their ends, without violating others’ similar pursuit of their ends. And what can better advance others’ ends than letting them choose how to use their current means most productively as they see it?
In addition, the supposed ideal of treating people solely as objects of benevolence (i.e. ends in themselves) rather than utilizing their services through mutually beneficial exchanges is unattainable. In any society larger than an immediate family, we cannot know enough to effectively organize relationships based on benevolence. Consider the volume of transactors and transactions involved in our economic arrangements. Vast numbers of people are involved in even the simplest products, as Leonard Read famously wrote in “I, Pencil,” and even more so for more complex products. In such circumstances, the alternatives are not coordinating relationships via exchange (another name for persuasion) or via charity, but between coordinating relationships via exchange or coordinating them very poorly, if at all, because it exceeds our knowledge and capabilities.
As Paul Heyne summarized this issue:
When money prices, rather than concern for each other as persons, coordinate social transactions, social cooperation becomes possible on a more extensive scale. Those who would like to force all social transactions into the personal mode do not realize how much of what they now take for granted would become wholly impossible in the world of their ideals…They are ignoring the incredible complexity of the system of social cooperation by means of which we are fed, clothed, housed, warned, healed, transported, comforted, entertained, challenged, inspired, educated and generally serve
In sum, claims that market arrangements involve the unethical “using” of others are of lengthy pedigree but of questionable merit. They rhetorically transform the utilization of other individuals’ services in ways that benefit all parties involved into “using” others to their imagined detriment. They treat the issue as a choice between treating others as means or as ends, when people are both ends in themselves and the providers of the means for others to best advance their ends. Honoring others as ends in themselves also means letting them choose which use of their means can best achieve their ends, with far more productive results toward all parties’ ends. If, as the alternative, we relied solely on benevolence as the basis of all our relationships, in our complex world, it would destroy rather than advance much of the good we do for one another through voluntary exchange arrangements that have proven so dependable that we rely on them daily with scarcely a thought. In fact, if we accept the premise that individuals and their development are our ultimate ends, the voluntary arrangements individuals have evolved—using people the right way–are among society’s greatest creations, not its Achilles’ heel.