One common objection that is given against businesspeople and those interested in going into business goes along the lines of this: “But you can’t go into the business world! Everybody will just use you to get ahead, and if you actually want to succeed, you’ll have to just use everybody else to get ahead! You’d just be treating people as a means to an end!”
It is possible that this objection is motivated by caricature businesspeople, like the Monopoly Man, the Wolf of Wall Street, and Gordon Gekko. It is also possible that this objection is motivated by how some people view the act of doing business. In order to run a business, an owner must hire other people to work for the business, must convince consumers to shop at the business, and must convince other businesspeople to take the business seriously. Even less obviously, consider how some people react to the idea of networking events: “Well, you know that everybody you meet there is just using you, right?”
Chances are, this objection is tied to an intuition that most people share, and one that is deeply rooted in western philosophy. It was perhaps best articulated by 19th Century Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant, when explaining his maxims for morality:
Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.
— Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals
It’s easy to see this intuition at work. When somebody lies to another person to prevent a bad outcome, or when one forces somebody else to work for them, we share an instant reaction telling us that’s wrong and unfair to the person being treated that way. That person is just being treated as a means to an end (or, imagine how Frank Underwood treats Peter Russo in the Netflix series House of Cards, as a pawn in a scheme to become Vice President).
It would be absurd to claim that we should never treat another person as a means to an end. We treat people as means to ends all the time. A student treats her teacher as a means to an education. A TV-news viewer treats the newscaster as a means to information about local happenings.
It’s easy to see what we ought not do. But what it means to treat somebody “at the same time as an end,” isn’t particularly clear. To treat somebody as an end, in the simplest sense, has to do with whether or not the person can agree to the agreement.
Consider the teacher and student once more. The situation seems fine if the student happily joins the class and if the teacher happily teaches the class. Both are being used as a means to an end by the other, but they maintain their own goals and objectives and understand the situation they are in. In a variation in the situation, imagine that the teacher wants to teach the class, but the student, for whatever reason, does not want to enroll. Perhaps she wants to learn about something else, or maybe the teacher isn’t particularly good at his job. The teacher then goes about forcing the student to join the class, despite not possibly agreeing to join. This situation seems objectionable. The only factor that could have been changed to affect how we react is whether or not both parties desire to be in the classroom and could possibly agree to being there.
This can help explain why some people view business as exploitative. If I go to a networking event thinking that every person there sincerely wants to be my friend (it’s very possibly some of them do, but that’s not why we go), then I’m going to be shocked when I find out they want to use me as a connection. I wouldn’t agree to go if I knew that, while also thinking that it’s just an event to meet friends. However, if I go to the networking event knowing what it is about — that it is about getting to know people who can be valuable connections — then it seems hard to see how it could be considered exploitative. That is the nature of the relationship in business, and is one that is set by the members of the business community.
If somebody expects business to be something it isn’t, then it is possible that they may feel exploited going into it. But this is all the same as if somebody expects a party to be something it isn’t, or if dating to be something it isn’t. By having standards that everybody understands going into a particular trade, these trades make certain things more or less acceptable.
So rejoice at the networking event! Everybody who goes knows that everybody they meet may not want to become their child’s godmother or godfather, but everybody who goes there leaves happy, knowing what they came for and what they wanted. Rejoice at the worker who gets paid after a long day at work. Rejoice at business, for it is one of the most humane environments.