In I and Thou, Martin Buber’s central thesis is the distinction between what he calls the I-You and the I-It worlds. For Buber, a Jewish philosopher, a distinction between these two worlds is crucial, because it is this alone that determines the spiritual life or death of every human being. In order to understand what is meant by his I-You and I-It distinction, one must thoroughly examine the nature of Buber’s thinking with comparison and contrast of other views. First the theory of classical Utilitarianism will be explained in order to provide not only a clearer understanding of Buber’s comparison between the two worlds, but also to demonstrate its likeness to the I-It and the dangers of the theory itself. Then, along with a Biblical critique of the It-world and that of Buber’s, the focus will shift to discuss whether or not Buber’s thought is properly Jewish.
By explaining the idea of classical utilitarianism, one will have a better understanding of what Buber means by the It-world. In Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill defines the theory as “the creed which accepts as the foundation of morals “utility” or the “greatest happiness principle” [and] holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness” ( Mill 7). For utilitarianism, an act must be performed if it promotes more general happiness than another act or if the act was not performed. Utilitarianism’s treatment of objects and human beings is what allows one to see its relevance to the It-world so clearly. For example, one might think of a person who took a trip to Niagara Falls. If that person were to, while observing the falls, recognize its beauty and grandeur as part of Divine creation, one might say that the person observing was living in an understanding of the I-You world. But, if instead, the person observing only recognized that he could build a dam in the falls in order to harness the water as an energy source for the city, Buber would say that the person was only living in the It-world. For that person would merely be utilizing creation, ignoring its beauty and divine origin, and allowing further dominance of the It in one’s life (Class Notes). Mill would say that by building a dam and providing energy for the city, it would produce greater general happiness; therefore we would not be exploiting the beauty of the falls, but instead utilizing the falls in order to promote more happiness for more people. More dangerous though, might be the treatment of people that utilitarianism often requires. For example, suppose there were three patients, all critically injured in an automobile accident, and all being cared for by the same doctor. Then suppose that two of the patients, both well-known benefactors in their communities, needed new organs in order to survive. But the other patient, an unmarried, department store employee would recover with standard treatment and would not need an organ transplant in order to survive. Finally suppose that the only way for the first two patients to get organs was through an emergency transplant from another patient in the hospital. If the doctor were a utilitarian or living only in the It-world, it seems that the doctor would be obligated to secretly deny treatment to the one patient in order to sacrifice him and save the other two patients, thus promoting greater overall happiness. This way of thinking is extremely limited, very dangerous and denies the You completely. It seems that by merely exchanging the life of one person for that of two others (as if it were money being exchanged for food), one would only be utilizing human beings, treating God’s creation as things, not lives or souls.
Several passages in the Bible critique It-thinking and emphasize man as being in relation to God and to others. For example, God creates Eve, because it is not good for Adam to be alone (Genesis 2:18). All previous creation had been deemed “good,” and this was the first instance when “not good” was used. God created Eve to be in marital relation to Adam, which mirrors man’s relation to God (Class Notes). And in 2 Samuel 11, when David orders Uriah to the front lines so that he will inevitably be killed, he is treating a human as a disposable object (New Living Translation). To treat a human being, an individual life, as a thing is to treat one as part of the It-world. There is no responsibility taken for this life, thus no relation to the You. Also, the examination of the role of language is crucial in the Biblical critique. God created the world and man through language. He walks with Adam in the garden and speaks with him. Man’s distinction from all other creation is that he is able to use language to relate; therefore only a You can speak and obtain this personal God-given status. Language cannot be used merely as a tool as in the ego-centric It-world (Class Notes).
For Buber, the I-It world is not inherently evil, but dangerous when it becomes one’s sole orientation. Buber states, “The basic word I-It does not come from evil- anymore than matter comes from evil. It comes from evil-like matter that presumes to be that which has being” (Buber 95). By this, Buber means that it is not the things that the It-world consists of that make it evil, but instead it is the worship of these things. For example, a creation such as stars and its scientific study, astronomy, is used properly in that it furthers the understanding of the operations of the universe. But it is when this inquiry is manipulated and we form institutions such as astrology when stars control individual destiny, that it becomes evil. But what is most dangerous is when I-It thinking is translated into one’s I-You relations. For example, Buber discusses employment and how the individual workers (“He+He+He”) add up to only an It of profits and efficiency. An employer’s world would come “crashing down” if each employee were treated as an “inexperienceable You” (Buber 96). Or in the realm of politics, where democracy is said to be a government for and of the people, politicians only view their constituents as a vote. Even marriage has become the union of two people who provide happy feelings to each other, rather than “two human beings [that] reveal the You to one another” (Buber 95). From business to politics to even the most sacred of relationships, marriage, the It-world “grows…like weeds” until all idea of You relationships and their necessity is lost among things.
After the process of examination and comparison, one sees that both the Biblical critique and Buber’s critique are consistent in criticizing the utilitarian view of human relations. In order to live spiritually, we must relate to one another, for it is through these relations that people find themselves in the You-world. Biblically, God created man through language, something that not only enabled man to relate to one another, but also to relate to God, which inevitably gives freedom. Even from the first sentence of Torah, the importance of covenant relation is established. Man is betrothed to God, set apart from all other creation by his ability to recognize this necessary relationship (Class Notes). Buber’s critique of It-thinking is undoubtedly Jewish because relation is also the core of his thought.
Buber, Martin. I and Thou. New York: Simon Schuster, 1996.
Class Notes. Jewish Thought I. Fall 2005.
Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Inc., 2001.
New Living Translation. Wheaton, Il: Tyndale House, 1996.