Over winter break I went on a beautiful vacation to see my mom’s side of the family. Coming home, however, was not so idyllic. Snow and covid compounded, resulting in many flight delays and cancellations causing my mom and I to end up needing to spend three days and two nights in Orlando. Despite the great trip, needless to say, this was not the most joyous experience. And one of the primary reasons for the tedium of air travel is the lack of humanity that characterizes all of our personal interactions.
Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals is widely considered one of — if not the greatest work of ethics of all time. It is, in its simplest summation, an attempt to rebuild Christian ethics without a Christian God. While Kant ultimately fails in this project, his work has likely influenced every single ethicist to follow him. What I believe to be the most valuable line from the masterpiece is “treat people as ends in themselves and never solely as means to an end.”
This idea is as profound and earth-shattering as it is seemingly vague and possibly even meaningless. The best way, I believe, to begin to grasp the concept is by way of example. And my personal favorite counter example of Kant’s maxim is maneuvering an airport. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that a desk worker, TSA agent, or flight attendant wouldn’t recognize you five minutes after your interaction. And why would they? It’s not their job to treat you as a human being (although emotional labor can be good for business). Their job is to treat you as a cog in a capitalist machine to maximize profits. In this way, unless one goes the extra mile, each person is treated as a means to profit and not as an end in themselves. Lack of respect, dignity, and humanity — this is what it means to treat a human being solely as a means and not as an end in themselves. To Kant, this is a grave moral violation.
On the third day in Orlando, we had a flight to Boston at six in the morning before coming home to RDU. Following a sleepless night, I was starving. Needless to say, no one in the airport at 4 AM is the happiest camper. At first, it seemed I was in store for the generic, cold and emotionless airport experience. Being the cynical philosophy nerd that I am, I couldn’t help but think about Kant as the TSA agent begrudgingly droned the same command to the indistinct flood of faces.
After making it through security, I beelined for the nearest breakfast bar to buy a bagel. That’s when the morning took a drastic turn for the better. The cashier, a generic middle-aged man, was so remarkably kind. He treated me with humanity. The airport was not a dark place, but he was a burst of light in an otherwise apathetic and disinterested environment. I was elated speaking to him.
After finishing my breakfast, I went back to the store to get a drink. Well, actually just to see him again — perhaps to see if I had imagined such a wonderful human being. He may have been, quite literally, the most pleasant AM airport service worker 4 of all time. We chatted for a brief moment and my heart was screaming! I wanted to thank him. I wanted to tell him I love him. I wanted to let him know that his mere presence was making the world a little bit more beautiful. Even thinking about the man now brings me to tears. I didn’t know how to tell him all this, so I can just hope he miraculously understood. It’s a cliché I don’t think I understood until a few months ago, but it’s amazing how the most insignificant moments can make such a lasting impact.
I’m not sure if this makes sense, but my first thought was, “Talk about using your station to make the world a better place.” Usually when we think of using one’s position to improve the world, we imagine wealthy people or those in places of strong political influence. The problem with this is that the few people in these positions feel so far removed from ourselves that we feel absolved of our responsibility to better the world ourselves. I don’t wish for this essay to diminish the value of large-scale political action — far from it. I merely wish to remind people of the small-scale ways in which one’s few powers can better the lives of those immediately closest to oneself.
This man, like us all, approximately speaking, had three ways he could’ve confronted the world. He could’ve been yet another mindless drone, treating me as a means to profits, and I treating him as a means to bagels. He could’ve been resentful (and Lord knows we all have things worth being resentful over), and allowed himself to turn into the most miserable airport service bastard imaginable. He could’ve carved his own little slice of hell in the middle of Orlando International Airport. But instead, he shouldered his burdens in life and became a beacon of joy and light. He was kind, respectful, and saw me as a man and not as a machine. Perhaps I was the only one who noticed his efforts that day or that week or that month, nevertheless he was humbly bettering the world.
Once more, this is not to argue that everyone should merely accept the status quo, nor am I saying that political action is superfluous. I am merely noting that politics has taken the vast majority of air in the discussion regarding world betterment, whereas minor, individual efforts seem to have gone the wayside. I fear that bettering the world has become important, only in a vague, abstract notion, and not in the ways we interact with those closest to us. I hope that this doesn’t come across as moral finger-wagging, as Lord knows I need as much work as anyone else.
I recognize that I am a very fortunate person, and perhaps it’s not reasonable of me to hope that every middle-aged man would be this powerful. But it is certainly something I wish for myself and for every person for whom I sincerely desire what is best. I hope that I can use my position as an employee to better the lives of my customers. I wish to use my station as a student, family member, peer, and friend to do the same. I wish this for my friends, for the strangers I pass — and if I truly focus, for my enemies. Despite not considering myself a Christian, I don’t find it unreasonable or hyperbolic to describe the bagel cashier man as bringing us slightly closer to establishing Heaven on Earth. And what more could you wish for a fellow human being than that?