The word toxic is having quite a moment on social media these days. And understandably so. The term toxic behavior, as it is used in psychological discourse, often refers to behaviors like the following:
Refusing to think about how our behavior affects other people.
Refusing to recognize other people’s needs and values.
Consistently prioritizing our preferences, opinions, and beliefs over other people and demanding they do the same.
These are just a few of the behaviors people might have in mind when they refer to toxic behavior. People who exhibit behaviors like the ones above can be cruel, stubborn, controlling, and even violent towards other people. As you can imagine, none of this makes for a loving or flourishing relationship in the home, at work, or in our political lives.
And it is understandable why people might refer to such behavior as toxic. When a substance is toxic, it can poison and even corrode anything it touches. Similarly, toxic behavior can poison relationships, corrode trust, or corrode the self-confidence and peace of folks exposed to it.
Lately, as I have been teaching ethics and reading about toxic behavior in the world, I have been thinking about the connection between the two. And I have been thinking about how ethics can help us better understand the nature of toxic behavior.
Kant and Ethics
One of my favorite ethical philosophers is Immanuel Kant. Kant’s ethics suggest that every human being is a bearer of the moral law. That is, every person can figure out how to act ethically and rationally and bring goodness and justice into their corner of the world. Therefore, they have dignity and are valuable in themselves.
Photo by Shelly P. Johnson
Most toxic behavior stems from a failure to understand that people are valuable in themselves. That is, when we engage in toxic behavior, it is because we think that some people (often ourselves) are more valuable. And we also think that other people (usually people who don’t please us) are less valuable.
We may think this way because of thoughtless habit or because of personal pain that makes us egocentric. Either way, when we believe that we are more valuable than other people, we act as though we are the rulers of them. In doing so, we make ourselves the exception to the rule.
Drawing and painting by Shelly P. Johnson
Kant argues that the moral law tells us that we should act on principles that we can will everyone to do universally and that we should avoid making ourselves the exception to the rule. Why is this?
Well, consider what we do when we make ourselves the exception to the rule: 1) We act as though everyone else must obey the rules, but we don’t have to. In doing so, we treat other people as though they exist solely to serve us.
And 2) we act on principles that we could not rationally will everyone else to follow.
Line cutting is a great example of this. Line cutting only works if everyone else obeys the rules and stays in line, but we make ourselves the exception to the rule and cut in line. And when we act like this, we act as though everyone must obey the rules to enable our rule-breaking behavior. Accordingly we treat people as though their purpose is solely to serve us.
Psychologists might call such behavior toxic (especially when it is repetitive.) However, it is also possible to view such behavior from the perspective of ethics.
For example, Kant would argue that line cutting is irrational because it is not connected to any consistent, universal good. His point becomes clear when we consider that if everyone followed our rule of line cutting, there would be no more lines, and we wouldn’t be able to achieve the important goals that lines enable us to achieve. (Like being able to buy tickets for a movie or tacos at Qdoba.)
Drawing and Painting by Shelly P. Johnson
Littering also provides another helpful example of why it is a problem when we make ourselves the exception to the rule. Imagine if everyone littered all the time. This would entail that people would throw litter in your yard until it piled up. In this case, everyone would treat everyone else’s property as a garbage can for their own personal waste products.
No one wants their yard to be a garbage can. So notice, when we litter, we in fact hope that everyone else behaves rationally and does not litter in our yard. But we treat ourselves as the exception to the rule and believe we can litter as we please, wherever we please. That is, we want everyone to behave rationally so that we can behave irrationally. We want to rule the universe according to our whims and preferences.
Kant’s ethics highlights the nature of toxic behavior. When we exhibit toxic behavior, we treat people (and the world) as though they exist solely to serve us. And furthermore, we adopt principles for acting that we could not rationally will everyone to adopt. That is because such principles aren’t connected to any consistent, universal human good.
Some Questions for Us to Consider
For example, do we interrupt people because they bore us and we want to talk about something that interests us?
Or, do we insist that people listen to our beliefs and opinions but are unwilling to listen to theirs?
Do we make messes without thinking about how they will affect other people?
Or do we drive recklessly without thinking about how our driving could endanger other people?
Do we refuse to apologize or take responsibility for our behavior?
Do we treat other people cruelly to make ourselves feel powerful?
Such behavior does not bring about any consistent, human good. In fact, if people were to adopt these behaviors universally, it would undermine everyone’s good, including our own. So when we do things like this, we treat ourselves as though we are the king or queen of the universe. We act as though we get to live according to special rules, while everyone must follow normal rules.
And that is indeed toxic. But I like to use the word unethical to describe such behavior because it is a more specific and definable word than toxic. Unethical behavior specifically treats people as objects rather than treating people as bearers of the moral law and as valuable in themselves.
On the other hand, when we behave ethically, we consistently act according to a principle that aims for a higher good both for ourselves and others. Higher goods are those that help us actualize our positive human potential. These are goods like love, generosity, compassion, and wisdom, to name a few.
Kant has a very specifically principle that he believes must guide our ethics. He argues that we must “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in any other person, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.”
Photo by Shelly P. Johnson
To be honest, we aren’t very accustomed to thinking about people as valuable, or as ends, in themselves. Rather, we are used to valuing people only if they please us. Or we are used to valuing people if we believe they are talented, smart, good-looking, or useful to us in some way. Or we are used to valuing people if they meet our preconceived notion of how they should act.
This kind of self-focused thinking comes naturally to us. That’s because it takes practice to think consistently from other people’s perspective and to try to understand them. It also takes practice to care about other people’s goals and projects, whether they please us or not. This is what it means to value people as an end in themselves. It requires us to relinquish some control, and that feels threatening sometimes.
So, instead, we tend to prioritize our worldview over other people, and we expect them to do the same. We treat them as a means to our end. But the more we behave this way, the more we exhibit toxic or unethical behavior.
So, what is the remedy to this?
One of the best ways to become an ethical person and avoid toxic behavior is to recognize that all of us have a tendency to treat people as a means to our end. After all, every single one of us, deep down, would like to be the king or queen of the universe. We would like to have everything go our way. And we would like people to cater to our whims, plans, and impulses.
We are also often very good at disguising this fact to ourselves. For instance, we disguise controlling behavior as “concern”. Or we disguise selfish behavior as “being in a hurry” or “forgetting”. Or we disguise rude behavior as “not tolerating people’s stupidity”. Or we disguise ego-centrism as “being free” or “not caring what people think”.
But these are little or big lies we tell ourselves. Because in fact, we just really want the world to support our preferences and whims. Surprise! We really do think we are the king or queen of the world.
Image by K. Mitch Hodge, Courtesy of Unsplash
So, we take a giant step towards ethical behavior simply by realizing and desiring to change this tendency of ours.
We also take a giant step towards ethical behavior when we realize that every human being is valuable in themselves and equal in terms of human dignity.
One Way We are All Equal
Now, on the one hand, we are unequal in a lot of things. Some of us are taller, shorter, better at music, or better at math or art. Some of us are great with technical skills. And some of us are better with words. Some of us are visionaries, and some of us are very practical.
But despite our differences, we are all equal in terms of human dignity. Each of us can learn to act morally and to honor each other’s dignity. We can all learn to act on principles that if universally adopted create a good, just, and beautiful world.
And really, when you think of it, that is what each of us does with our actions: we create and recreate our world. That is because our actions can spread kindness, joy, love, and hope. Or they can spread cruelty, selfishness and condescension.
Stop the Toxic
When we treat ourselves and others as an end, and never just a means to an end, we help create a good, just, and beautiful world. And we dramatically decrease toxic behavior in the world.
Kant tells us, “Act only on a maxim through which the will could regard itself at the same time as enacting universal law.” Or as I like to tell my students, “Make sure that your actions are the kinds of actions a Wise, Supreme ruler of the universe would enact as law for everyone.”
You are valuable in yourself. I am, too. So is everyone. Understanding this basic ethical truth is one of the best ways we avoid perpetuating or enabling toxic behavior.
You might also like this post about respecting ourselves as people and not objects.
Guess what!? I am almost finished with my first online course, the subject of which is the worthiness of each individual. In a few weeks I will be writing more about this.
Footnotes, Works Cited, Et Cetera
 We often equate the word rational with intelligence, logic, and analysis. And someone who behaves rationally does often behave intelligently, logically, and analytically– like Mr. Spock perhaps.