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Do you view people as means, or ends?

Asma Khan is quite a phenomenon. A Bengali Muslim immigrant in the UK, she is a trained lawyer with a PhD in constitutional law. Yet her accomplishment is not in the field of her training. Asma is famous simply for cooking the dishes of her childhood. She had never learned to cook when she got married and moved to England, and only started learning because she missed the food she had grown up eating.

After succeeding in a small way by running supper clubs from her home, she finally opened her restaurant, the Darjeeling Express, in central London with an all-woman kitchen, naming it after a train she rode as a child during her summer holidays. Her book, Asma’s Indian Cooking, became a big seller, and she featured in Netflix’s Chef’s Table series. After that her fame was sealed.

In a recent profile run in the Guardian, she confirmed her status as a principled heckler on the sidelines of her industry, rather than one of its elite chefs. She railed against a restaurant culture that revels in workplace bullying and abuse. In her scathing words:

“My deep concern during the pandemic is seeing very prominent people with considerable wealth remove the entire workforce without a safety net…it is so shameful, my heart bleeds for the industry, it is immoral. I don’t want restaurants to be ranked by Michelin stars for the fluff and edible herbs they put on a plate. I want to know how they treat their people, they should be ranked on that. Where there is bullying and racism, where there is sexual harassment, where staff don’t feel safe, people should boycott those restaurants. I don’t want to see them prosper.”

An impassioned denunciation indeed. It should make all those businesses, not just restaurants, that wilfully and knowingly mistreat their staff and exploit their labour, hang their heads in shame.

Permit me to take you on a philosophical detour. Asma Khan is echoing the sentiments of the renowned philosopher Immanuel Kant, who offered this famous maxim: “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.”

Let’s unpack that a little. Kant’s principle emphasises the intrinsic value of human beings. It warns us against using other people as mere tools or instruments for achieving our own goals. Every human has inherent worth, and should be accorded all the respect and dignity that we accord ourselves. 

Asma Khan may be echoing Kant’s maxim in her own life and pursuits, but how badly the world has forgotten it. Wherever you look, humans are being used as means to someone else’s ends. In the workplace, humans are resources, mere inputs to create an output for someone else’s benefit. In relationships, our friends, siblings and even spouses become the means with which to deliver our own happiness, not theirs. How many of us can claim to be treating those around us as ends, not means?

Look at the sheer carnage that ensues when Kant’s principle is violated on a larger scale. Leaders suppress the development of the many while enriching themselves to the point of engorgement. Politicians incite hatred in their followers for their own ends, and send them to fight and kill on their behalf. Soldiers and civilians are obliterated in their thousands and no one blinks, for they were just cannon fodder and expendable. Are they fighting and dying for their own ends? No, they are mostly used as the means to achieve someone else’s purpose. 

When we view our fellow humans as means, not ends, we reduce them to the status of instruments and pawns. We condemn them to poverty and poor mental and physical health. We make them cynical about the value of their lives. We create fractured societies, always with a few lords controlling the ends and everyone else reduced to being the means. And the crash always comes.

What if we listened to Kant? We would be listeners rather than manipulators. We would value empathy over apathy and antipathy. We would have fairer workplaces that recognize the contribution of all and offer genuine advancement to the many. We would shun those whose riches come from exploitation and the plunder of the public purse. We would not run an educational system that cleaves children into winners and losers every year. We would be mindful of the welfare of every citizen and not just discover their value at election time.

Many of you will read that paragraph as a set of lofty ideals, unachievable by humans. That itself tells us that we live in a world increasingly bereft of genuine compassion and shared respect. We will perhaps only gain those values once we are chastened by catastrophe.

We can, of course, be like Asma and just start with ourselves and apply the maxim to our own lives. Look around you. How many of those close to you do you view as ends in themselves—in that you actually care about their wellbeing and happiness—and how many are just the means for your personal ends?

(Sunday Nation, 28 April 2024)

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