“I’m just doing my job,” she said to me.

In frustration, I responded. “Then let me talk to someone who will do more than just her job.”

Perhaps I was cruel, but it was clear that the customer service operator on the phone was not prepared to service my customer-self. Her utility company had mis-billed me—outrageously—causing my American Express card to flag the charge and cancel my card for reasons of security. While American Express immediately reinstituted a new account for me, this company was now claiming that since my card denied the charge, my utility would be cancelled. Not willing to change my method of payment, I told her that her company caused the problem by triple-charging me (a fact she admitted to) and that my new card would be available to charge again in a week’s time. She was sorry, she said, but she would either have to enter my account as “delinquent” (which would affect my credit rating) or drop the service. She was simply (and I used this modifier deliberately) doing the job prescribed to her.

Funny how the real world merges with the academic at the most opportune moments….

I’ve been reading some Immanuel Kant for fun, recently.

Okay, I understand that reading about Kantian ethics is not everyone’s idea of fun (especially in a culture which celebrates the anti-intellectualism of Dumb and Dumber,Jackass, Nicole Ritchie, and the Team Edward/Team Jacob debate), but perhaps that is exactly why I decided to blow the dust off that text which I simply could not bring myself to purge from my shelf last summer.

Kant celebrates humans for our uniqueness, however, and that’s what has me thinking: our ability to reason. Unlike frogs and billiard balls, we think about means and ends, about steps to accomplish goals, about lives driven by purpose. (And yes, my LWW students, Kant anticipated Camus’ later distinction between en soi and pour soi.)

A frog does not distinguish between right and wrong (except in Disney movies); a billiard ball cannot decide for itself in which pocket to fall. And, Kant, says, it is just this distinction which helps us understand by which principles to live. In other words, when we honor and respect each other as reasoning beings (Aristotle would call us “rational animals”), we are moral. Any other action which fails this categorical imperative is not moral. And true freedom, he says, is acting morally.

For Kant, then, our reason, freedom, purpose, and morality are all bound together in the nature of our humanity: we cannot abdicate one for another, and to give up (or fail to use) any is to reduce ourselves to the level of billiard balls and t-shirt logos.

This is no small order, I think. If I fail to reason and act freely according to my moral imperative, I give up what it means to be human. If I spend my time aligning myself with rules and procedures despite reason, what is my human purpose? This is not to say that I will never concur with rules and procedures, but that these are not directly relevant to the moral imperative to be human. For Kant, social obligations are not imperatives but only factors influencing my freedom to choose. For Kant, my motivation alone matters.

Take the woman on the phone: “I’m just doing my job.” Such a statement is as much as saying, “I am disavowing my choice and giving up my humanity; I am no more than a machine.” To use this line as a defense for behavior is simply . . . morally reprehensible.

Perhaps this is harsh. We muddle along and do the best we can. Decisions are hard, times are tough, and we cannot decide what to do next. But these factors, says Kant, are only distractions, outside influences which threaten to compromise the categorical imperative.

As a teacher, then, what is “just my job”? As an educator, what is my categorical imperative?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and I have been coming to some conclusions. To do so, I’ve borrowed John Rawls, a 20th century philosopher. He said that in order to discover the categorical imperative, we must first imagine that our decisions—whatever they are about—should be made assuming that we eliminate all distinctions: race, class, religion, geography, etc.

Assume, for instance, that I wish to pass a health care bill for our country. Rawls would argue that, whatever bill is passed in the end, any of us would be happy to be any American in the country living with its consequences. I imagine myself suddenly as a pregnant teen, a homeless vet, Donald Trump, or a child in a family whose house in undergoing foreclosure. If I still see the bill as fair and just, we should pass the bill. This, he would argue, is how we honor and respect humanity and our own humanity.

And now I apply this to what I do as a teacher. What should be my task (not merely my job) and for whom?

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