Being Polite: Some Help From Kant

“The cashier is not part of the cash register,” my philosophy professor declared as she explained Kant’s principle of autonomy.

This simple yet clear example from my undergraduate years echoed in my mind as I waited in line at Subway this afternoon.  A young lady in front of me snapped at the man putting her sandwich orders together.  Arms crossed, phone in hand she blurted,  “Um, I want more pieces of turkey on that one.  You have more on those other two.”  He checked his work and looked at her uncomfortably.  She pressed, “That one only has four slices. Those have five.”

He gave a friendly smile and pointed to the sandwiches to show that they were in fact even: “One, two, three, four.  One, two, three…”

Cutting him off, she huffed, “Okaaaaaay.  I get it.”  Then she returned her attention to her phone.

Kant’s principle of autonomy states: Treat humanity, whether in your own person or in another, always as an end, never a means only.  According to Kant, because human beings are rational, autonomous agents, their humanity must be respected.  One cannot “use” another or treat a person as a tool.

This young lady in front of me, however, behaved as though the employee existed solely to craft her sandwiches.  Judging by her demeanor, she believed him to be a “means only.” There was no hint of “please,”  “thank you,” or sense of graciousness in her tone. Cue my frustration!

One might reply, well she wasn’t aware that she was doing this.  Indeed!  That is the point!  The lack of consciousness is precisely what makes the scene problematic.  A person is more than a cash register!

My philosophy professor did employ grander approaches to exploring Kant’s principle, but the one that stuck was this very real means of using it in day-to-day life. For many jobs the work environment extends beyond the employer and employees to the interaction with customers or people of other businesses.  As a patron or customer one is essentially part of another’s work environment.  That is, when you go into a store or restaurant, even though you are not working, you are participating in someone else’s work day.

Just a friendly tip: turn off the phone, take the music out of your ears, and see the person with whom you are interacting.  Smile and take a moment to know that you are part of their work day.  The worker has a dream, a family, looks forward to the end of her/his day.  She/he is more than a servant.  The cashier is not part of the cash register!

About unsolicitedtidbits

Philosophy, books, coffee, Mexican food enthusiast. View all posts by unsolicitedtidbits

8 responses to “Being Polite: Some Help From Kant

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