What Are My Moral Obligations Toward My Barista?

This afternoon, like every other afternoon, I went to Peet’s Coffee on the corner of Telegraph and Blake, ordered my usual–a large coffee with room for cream–from the barista who usually works there at this time of the day: an attractive brunette who is way out of my league.

Maybe that is the reason I keep going there at that time…hmm…

Anyways, after getting my coffee, I sat down and started re-reading Kant’s Groundworks for the Metaphysics of Morals in preparation for my seminar paper. And I came upon Kant’s Formula of Humanity as End In Itself:

Act so that you use humanity, as much in your own person as in the person of every other, always at the same time as end and never merely as means.

And that’s when it struck me that in most of my daily interactions with other people, I have failed to live up to this particular formulation of the categorical imperative. This, of course, led to further thinking about what this formulation actually entails.

First, this formulation of the CI is a positive formulation because it states that a moral agent can never treat other people as merely means, which implies that there is something additional that the moral agent must do in order to satisfy the formula of the humanity as end in itself.

Now, the problem for me is this: what does this “additional” act entail? In other words, what is the substance of treating someone as an end in himself? What must we actually do to satisfy the requirement of the CI?

This is problematic because most of our interactions with other people, at least from my phenomenological observations, do not satisfy this requirement.

Take my interaction with the barista: this is hardly an isolated incident. People like me all across the country deal with their baristas this way: they pay the barista to make them a caffine-based drink, using the barista as a means. The same can be said to almost everyone working in the service industry: bus drivers, dry-cleaners, bus boys, waiters, teachers, masseuses, janitors, cashiers, the list goes on.

In these interactions, it is very unclear how we have treated these people as ends in themselves. On the surface, these interactions are almost purely instrumental: we engage with these people to get something for ourselves, whether it’s a service or a good. Similarly, they engage with us in an instrumental manner: they get financial compensation for the services/goods they provide us.

So in these cases, how do we treat them as ends in themselves?

The easier solution might be simply to bite the bullet and concede that these kind of interactions are immoral because they failed to satisfy the categorical imperative. But I suspect that intuitively, we would not characterize such interactions as immoral.

Now the question becomes: why not? In other words, can we interpret the formulation of humanity as end in itself in a way as to render these interactions moral in the Kantian sense?

I think there is, but this interpretation is entirely abstract. We can think of ourselves as treating our baristas, dry-cleaners, waiters, etc. as ends in themselves by acknowledging, in a conceptual sense, their autonomy as human beings. That is, we conceptually accept that these people have their own interests and ends, that they lead substantial lives outside of this limited context in which we interact with them, that their person is inviolate. I say that this is an abstract interpretation because in reality, we really have no idea what their personal interests and ends are, we have no way of seeing them as fully human because our only interactive context with them is one of service and exchange.

But even this interpretation is inadequate for me, because we have still not cashed out the substantive notion of the formula of humanity as end in itself that the formulation implies. In fact it is not clear to me how a substantive conception is possible. Notice that in my abstract intrepretation of the formulation, we only treat people as ends in themselves in a negative sense: by NOT thinking of them as purely means.

So now, I have no idea what my actual, substantive moral obligations are to the barista at Peet’s Coffee.


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