Pop Theory 23: Using People (as Things)
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I’ve been feeling used more than usual lately, readers, have you? Rather than wallow in victimhood-feelings, I’d like to think about why humans use other humans—as things.
There are people in the world who really do believe that the primary function of relationships, and intimate relationships in particular, is to use people. The rationale is typically, dryly articulated somewhere along the lines of, “People come together, use each other for what they need (emotionally, physically, psychologically) at that period of time and then, when the desired need is met, they move on.”
This may seem a cynical, ego-driven philosophy—and it is. Vapid. Heartless.
But is there something to “using” people and, specifically, using people as things?
In the history of philosophy, the idea of using people was often deliberated by those thinkers interested in the ethics of interpersonal relations. For Aristotle, friends and slaves alike could be conceived as “instrumental” to one’s happiness and success: “In many actions we use friends and riches and political power as instruments…” (Nichomachean Ethics). Whereas, for Cicero, these types of instrumental relations between people were different from the relation that he called “friendship,” which is, for him, a specifically intimate type of relation. In De Amicitia, Cicero explains friendship is not regarded as an act of kindness or as an investment, but “follow[s as] a natural inclination to liberality; so we look on friendship as worth trying for,” not because we are attracted to it by the expectation of ulterior gain, but in the conviction that what it has to give us is from first to last included in the feeling itself. He elaborates on the benefits of friendship in De Officiis—take note of how he describes the intimacy inherent in this type of “friendship”:
But of all the bonds of fellowship, there is none more noble, none more powerful than when good men of congenial character are joined in intimate friendship; for really, if we discover in another that moral goodness on which I dwell so much, it attracts us and makes us friends to the one in whose character it seems to dwell. And while every virtue attracts us and makes us love those who seem to possess it, still justice and generosity do