Sunday, July 25, 2010

Kant Touch This

Yesterday's post may have been a bit of a cheat for a Friday update, so here is something else that I was thinking about today.

On a telephone call with a representative for my credit card company, I realized that I have trouble following the categorical imperative where telephone customer service representatives are concerned. For those of you who are bereft of a solid foundation in ethical theory, I shall briefly explain Kant's categorical imperative.

Philosopher Immanuel Kant was upset by the state of ethics. He felt that most ethical systems were grounded in conditional imperatives, which are statements in the form, "If you desire this result, you must pursue this course of action." While these were useful for achieving said results, they lacked the power to explain why something, such as murder, would be wrong even for a sociopath, who had no interest in achieving the same results as most of humanity. In order to extend the rule of ethics over those with "skewed" desires, Kant attempted to formulate a categorical imperative, that is, one which should be followed always, regardless of the results one desires.

What he came up with can be explained as the imperative that we treat other people as an ends in themselves, never only as a means to an ends. Whether this is a categorical imperative is debatable, I tend to think no, but it certainly is good manners and I try to live by it. However, I do encounter troubles when interacting over the telephone with customer service representatives.

One problem is that I have a clear, "me-centric," goal for the interaction, and I am calling the company explicitly to achieve this goal. So certainly I am using the representative as a means to an end, but this is permissible as long as I am also keeping them as an ends in themselves as well. Cooperation is one of the most powerful behaviors humans exhibit, and Kant would not want us to stop having others help us achieve our goals. However, as we use the help of others we must always remember that the humans assisting us have their own lived experience, their own goals, and act accordingly.

Other problems I face are that, when calling in to a customer service representative, I am usually not in the best frame of mind. Rarely do I call when everything is going well to issue a congratulations, I call when something has gone wrong and I want someone to fix it, albeit sometimes what has gone wrong is my own fault, though that is not really going to make my mood better. Furthermore, although I am polite, I worry that my politeness is in furtherance of my own goal, rather than out of respect for the person on the other end of the connection.

I also must contend with the alienating nature of our interaction. Speaking over a phone to a voice that belongs to a person that I have never, and will never, meet. Often reinforcing this sense of "the other" about the voice from the call center is their accent. Whether they sound like they are from the Southern USA or from Asia, this voice is "not from around here." The impersonal nature of the conversation serves to further alienate me from the voice, as regulations prohibit their volunteering personal information about themselves, for good reason, and common sense discourages me from sharing myself, for similar reasons.

In the end, once our conversation is done, I feel it is extra important to end the conversation in a respectful manner, thanking them for their assistance. While it is their job, they did just spend time from their life attempting to solve my problem, and deserve my gratitude. One reason I think it is especially important is that, at this point, I want nothing further from them, so I can feel less suspicious about the motives for my politeness, it is an acknowledgement of their important humanity, not a means to a desirable conclusion for myself. The other reason is that they have a job that requires them to spend all day dealing with frustrated callers and the problems that frustrated callers have, I should do my best to ease the burden these heroic helpers face by expressing my heartfelt gratitude for their assistance.


Cameo said...

I always thank the customer service people I talk to on the phone too.

But what about when you get the automated voice that asks you to say things. Obviously someone recorded that message, but when one's responses are given via touch tone or listened to by a voice recognition program, are you still polite? I know I get extremely frustrated and always ask to "speak to a representative/agent/associate" rather than jump through their hoops.

Kenny said...

Well Cameo, I would be surprised if anyone who knows us both would argue against the proposition that you radiate a lot more positive energy than I do ;) When I get a recording I usually jump through its hoops, but usually do not anthropomorphize it enough to be polite to it. When a recording calls me I tend to ask, "are you a recording?" then hang up if there is no answer. Unfortunately, this leads to me talking with non-recordings, then sometimes lying to them to get them to leave me alone :( Kant would not approve!

Karen said...

Just a thought... Sometimes when I deal with people I don't know, I try to encourage humor in the conversation. Somehow laughing with someone makes me feel immediately closer to the person which in turn reminds me of their humanity. I think it puts both parties at ease. I do this on the phone and in person, and it works both ways for me.

Kenny said...

This is an excellent example of being treated as an ends, rather than just a means. Fie on you spambot, and double fie on your programmer. The only good that you have done here is to serve as an example of ignoring the humanity of your fellow people!

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