DRMacIver's Notebook

Consensually treating people as things

Consensually treating people as things

Here's a section from a post that I didn't manage to get any of the real meat of written:

"There's no greys, only white that's got grubby. I'm surprised you don't know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people like things. Including yourself. That's what sin is."

"It's a lot more complicated than that--"

"No. It ain't. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they're getting worried that they won't like the truth. People as things, that's where it starts."

"Oh, I'm sure there are worse crimes--"

"But they starts with thinking about people as things..."

- the Reverend Mightily Oats and Granny Weatherwax, in conversation in Terry Pratchett's "Carpe Jugulum"

In this post I will be going "Yes, people as things, very bad. Quite sinful. But... sure is useful, isn't it?"

Moreover, if we take this definition seriously, I think most of modern civilization can reasonably be considered a technology of sin. The whole point of markets and supply chains is that we can treat these complex systems that are made mostly of people as things to achieve a particular purpose. A supermarket is a thing for acquiring stuff we want, and we get to mostly ignore the fact that it's made up of people. Sure, we interact with supermarket staff a bit, and we hopefully treat them well, but this ignores the giant invisible mass of people behind them - delivery, warehouse workers, factories, etc.

I've written about this before in The usefulness of bad people:

The core of this problem is is that the price system works as a black box, hiding the implementation of where things come from from its consumers.

Modern supply chains and commodity markets are an incredibly intricate system of interdependent parts that is far too complex to really understand. This complexity is, in fact, part of the benefit, because it grants us plausible deniability around the ethics of our actions. If everything is too complex to track then we don't have to notice all of the bad people downstream of our decisions.

Importantly, as with the sales people, we never ask those people to be bad, we just say "I want this thing at this price, the details are up to you" and get to be shocked, shocked I say, when the only way to provide the thing at that price is slavery.

And yet, for all its flaws, I'm not quite prepared to say "Well, modern civilization is built on sin, burn it to the ground". I like modern civilization and, more importantly, don't actually think this is a net increase in treating people like things. The past was pretty bad for this too.

Also, for the most part, being treated as a thing in this way can be perfectly fine. A lot of the nice thing about a job is that you don't have to bring your whole self to work. You can narrowly act in a specific capacity for achieving a well defined goal, without your customers having to worry about what you get done outside of the job, or you having to worry about the whole giant tangled mess of your life there.

But this is only true if you got to choose that. Being a thing that is a high priced software consultant is a very different experience than being a thing that is an exploited worker in a cocoa plantation. The latter might theoretically have consented (in that it's better than the alternative), or they might be literal slaves who have no choice but to be there, but either way

I think the moral resolution to this is something along the following: The problem with treating people as things is not that you are treating them as things, it is one of consent. When your conception of someone as a thing combines with your power over them, you force thingness upon them. It's quite literally a form of objectification.


This was in fact meant to be a post about the use of "Focus" in Vernor Vinge's novel "A Deepness in the Sky", and what this tells us about group dynamics. But I didn't write any of that bit, because I got too caught up in justifying that the thing I wanted to write about wasn't morally bad, honest.