One of my favourite scenes from the 1998 movie You’ve Got Mail is the conversation between Kathleen Kelly (played by Meg Ryan) and Joe Fox (played by Tom Hanks) after Joe has put Kathleen out of business:
Joe: It wasn’t… personal.
Kathleen: What is that supposed to mean? I am so sick of that. All that means is that it wasn’t personal to you. But it was personal to me. It’s personal to a lot of people. And what’s so wrong with being personal, anyway?
Joe: Uh, nothing.
Kathleen: Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.
Kathleen got it right.
The most valuable things in the world are persons and the relationships between them. And so the primary measure of any action is its effect upon persons.
(I don’t think that persons are the only things of value; certainly non-human but sentient animals and their experiences matter. But they are not capable of the kind of experiences persons have. [Philosophers distinguish ‘persons’ from other sentient things by saying they are intelligent and self-aware.] And it’s not clear how anything can be valuable without being valued by someone or something. So other things matter as well. But it’s our actions’ effects upon persons which matters most.)
All our actions effect persons—ourselves, certainly, but inevitably many others as well. And so the primary thing we are obligated to think about when we do anything is ‘How will it effect other persons, or ourselves?’ Will it have a positive effect? Will it have a negative effect? The primary measure of our actions is personal.
Our actions should be primarily about persons, and for persons.
We say, ‘It’s not personal,’ when we’re trying to distance ourselves from the effects our actions have had on others. Or we want to convey that we didn’t do it with the intent of hurting them, even if it did hurt them (and we may even have known this); it was a side-effect that was not our goal.
But we are responsible nonetheless for the effects our actions have on others. We can sometimes be justified in doing something that harms someone when its overall effects are positive. But we’re responsible for those effects nonetheless. And they matter to whether the action ought have been done.
I’m not saying that we ought to ‘take’ everything ‘personally.’
But everything we do is personal.
As it ought to be.
Kathleen was right.