By Julie Fitz-Gerald
Checking in with our motives is a good way to keep ourselves on the right side of morality.
Done any good deeds lately? You may be on your way to work, tunes cranked, smiling with self-satisfaction as you think about how you just brought in your neighbor’s garbage bins and shoveled his sidewalk. Sure, the guy may have called the by-law officer to complain about your barking dog. Sure, he’s always peering out of his window just waiting for you to play your music too loud. But now you have the upper hand. Instead of having a heated argument at the end of the driveway and giving that smug guy a piece of your mind, you’ve caught him by surprise. You’ll pile the good deeds on and gain moral superiority in the process. Next week when you’re having a beer in your buddy’s garage across the street, you can mention your altruistic acts —that’ll be another person on your side. Ah yes, life is good. You’re going to win this one.
Wait a minute. Hold up. There’s something sinister going on here and it’s not your neighbor. Well, maybe it is, but it’s also you. A good deed needs to come from the right place for it to be considered good at all. A good deed needs to be done for no other reason than the deed itself. Making it a means to some other end, like getting the one-up on your looney neighbor, cancels out the entire act of goodness. Eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant hung his hat on this principle. In Mark Manson’s article, The One Rule for Life, he puts Kant’s philosophy into simpler terms so that us laymen can understand: “Each person must never be treated only as a means to some other end, but must also be treated as an end themselves.”
Let’s break this down for clarity’s sake. If you want a pizza from your favourite pizza joint and you get in your car, drive across town and sink your teeth into that piping hot, cheesy goodness, the car was your means and the pizza was your end. Here’s another example: if you tell your boss you need next Saturday off for a “personal issue” but in reality you have tickets to the concert of the year, you’ve just used your little white lie and your boss as a means to the end, which is going to the concert.
Manson breaks down Kant’s principle for moral living by applying it to common pitfalls that many of us succumb to, including laziness, addiction, people pleasing and seeking approval, manipulation or coercion (as in our concert scenario), and bigotry. Basically, the human condition. To overcome it, he identifies two areas that all of us should pay attention to: the duty of self-improvement and the duty of self-respect.
If everyone is treated as an end, including ourselves, we can find a moral ground that is unshakable for every circumstance in life. Turning the spotlight on ourselves for a minute, “Kant would argue that telling ourselves that we are worthless and shitty is just as wrong as telling others that they are worthless and shitty,” explains Manson. “Lying to ourselves is just as unethical as lying to others. Harming ourselves is just as repugnant as harming others. Self-love and self-care are therefore not something you learn about or practice. They are something you are ethically called to cultivate within yourself. Even if they are all that you have left.”
Let that sink in for a moment. As firefighters, we’re intrinsic helpers. Rescuing people from disaster for no other reason than to save lives is at the core of our beings. But, we’re also human. Sometimes we feel shortchanged by others and we lash out. Sometimes we shortchange ourselves. While Kant’s theory of never treating anyone, including ourselves, as a means to an end often comes naturally to us, it’s a great rule to remember when our actions may fall out of line with our innate tendencies to help.
Checking in with our motives is a good way to keep ourselves on the right side of morality. Did you buy your wife that Pandora bracelet to show your appreciation and love or did you buy it so she’s more likely to say “yes” to that guys’ weekend away? Was it an end in itself or a means to an end for something you want in the future? Our motives matter and if we’re not doing things for the right reasons, Kant would argue that it’s no good deed at all.
Photo By Giammarco Boscaro