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Ends Versus Means

2017 October 6
by Ian Welsh

You want something.

You have to do things to get that something.

Because most of our ends are never-ending: money, happiness, sex, love, and so on, including at the social level, means quickly become as important as ends.

If we want a prosperous society, say, we must keep creating that prosperous society, day in and day out. Even if we were to one day reach a society which was prosperous enough for everyone (possible in principle), that day does not allow rest: the crops must still be planted, new goods and services created, all of it must be brought to the people who need it.

(Note that I don’t say “brought to market”, because markets are only one way of distributing what people need.)

So HOW you are creating a prosperous society matters. The means by which you create the society are the actual daily life of the society.

If your means include poisoning the water table or degrading the quality of the soil, for example, your means are destroying your prosperity in the long term.

If your means include damaging the ecosystem to the point of collapse, your means are destroying prosperity in the long term.

If your means include changing the climate system in ways which will lead to sea level rises, changes in rainfall patters and so on, your means are destroying prosperity in the long term.

If your means include using aquifer water far faster than it is replaced, then your emans are are destroying prosperity in the long term.

If your means include dumping vast amounts of largely non-bio-degradable substances (plastic, among others) into the environment, your means are destroying prosperity in the long term.

And one day, the long term becomes the short term, and another day the short term becomes today.


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All means are, in effect, systems.  A system which does not make both people and the world better will destroy its own ends.

If a system is meant to create prosperity, but the means by which it creates prosperity destroy the basis of prosperity, then that system is is not a good one.

Beyond the obvious physical issues, such as the environmental issues discussed above, there is pollution of people.

Greed and selfishness are bad. They are bad because they make people bad people.  Our current system runs on greed and selfishness. If you have a lot of money, you have responded to monetary incentives, and in most cases (yes, you’re the exception) that degrades you as a person. Innumerable studies show that the more money someone has, the less empathy and compassion they have, the more cruel they are and the less they help other people proportionate to their means.

A means of “be greedy and selfish” creates a people who suck to be around, and who cannot actually deal with any of the other problems created by the system, such as all those listed above, because they have been trained, by their everyday life, to be selfish and greedy.

Further, all systems fail. No system works all the time. When a system has good means, if it fails, it still does good. If it has bad means, and it fails, it just does evil.

Your means are as important as your ends, and means which work in the short run, often have long run consequences which are absolutely terrible.

This is, by the way, as true in one’s personal life as in the structure of society.


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17 Responses
  1. nihil obstet permalink
    October 6, 2017

    Sometimes bad means may temporarily be necessary. Heroin addiction is bad long term, but we may need temporarily to take pain meds. That creates two problems. First, we need the judgment to tell when to choose the bad means, when to phase them out, and when to reject them altogether. Second, it’s wide open for abuse by those who profit from it, in the drugs example, the medical industrial complex.

    On the politics of the past year, Clinton supporters are largely guilty of the second problem, profiting from control of the party. But it seems to me that many people are caught in the first problem. They think that failure to vote for Clinton makes anyone who abstained or voted third party guilty of every failure of governance of the year, from seating of Gorsuch on the Supreme Court to the current treatment of Puerto Rico. A lot of the problem is that everybody now treats politics as cults of personality, and Trump is an excruciatingly awful personality for the liberal mind-set. I don’t want to argue about Trump’s personality, although I’m not above pointing out that Trump has been in office a year and hasn’t given $14 trillion to bankers, or created a commission to cut Social Security, or expanded the killer drone program into even more countries, as some unnamed predecessor did. But I’m having no success in getting any understanding that continuing to legitimize neoliberal politicians is ultimately ruinous.

  2. Adams permalink
    October 6, 2017

    Great topic and post. The ends/means dichotomy is misconstrued almost universally in the MSM. Fundamental to how we think (as opposed to what we think), your specific realm of depth. Check’s in the mail . Salute.

  3. October 6, 2017

    One would think conserving for the future would be a “conservative” value.

  4. atcooper permalink
    October 6, 2017

    Means always matters because it’s always the now, whereas ends is always some far off fiction. This is a lesson, a pearl, I often fail on. It’s a tough one.

  5. October 6, 2017

    > One would think conserving for the future would be a “conservative” value.

    A better word for the GOP is “reactionary”.

  6. Some Guy permalink
    October 7, 2017

    “If your means include damaging the ecosystem to the point of collapse, your means are destroying prosperity in the long term.”

    You are failing to escape the consequentialist box on your thinking.

    “If your means include damaging the ecosystem to the point of collapse, your means are wrong and impermissible, regardless of the impact on prosperity in the long term.”

    Thou shalt not kill.

    Not, “Thou shalt not kill because it damages our prosperity in the long term.”

  7. V. Arnold permalink
    October 7, 2017

    Ten Bears
    October 6, 2017

    Indeed, the word conservative has lost its traditional meaning; as have so many meaningful traditions…
    If I had to describe my political bent (which I resist); I’m a Tom McCall conservative; that may ring a bell with you; depending on how long you’ve been around…
    That will be lost on most…

  8. October 7, 2017

    I’m a big fan of Tom McCall. Local boy. A homie.

  9. V. Arnold permalink
    October 7, 2017

    Ten Bears
    October 7, 2017

    What a pleasent surprise; kudos to you.

  10. Ivory Bill Woodpecker permalink
    October 7, 2017

    “Thou shalt not kill”

    “Because thou dost not want to be beaten unto death with stones, yea verily, and burneth in ye eternal hell-fire, ouchie, ouchie, after being beaten unto death, or at least burneth etc. even if thou dost getteth ye away with thy killing activities in this thy mortal life.”

    Still consequentialist, is it not? 😉

  11. Hugh permalink
    October 7, 2017

    In economics, there is the concept of externality. An externality is an unforeseen cost. In reality, I think most such costs are known but are discounted, ignored, or hidden, because profits, until circumstances force them to be taken into account.

    Depending upon when you want to start running the clock: Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 or Reagan’s Inauguration in 1981, (or if you want to go way back, FDR’s decision to end much of the New Deal in 1936), we have had a long string of bad Presidents who have embraced disastrous policies which have harmed the lower 80% of our population. Not only have these Presidents been bad, but both they and the quality of their parties have deteriorated over time. Kennedy (sexual predator), Johnson (Vietnam), and Nixon (Watergate) were all fatally flawed. Ford was a place holder. Carter was a bad and perhaps the first of the neoliberal Democratic Presidents though still a good ex-President. Reagan was the first of the empty suit Presidents, and the first who should have been disqualified in his second term for medical reasons (his dementia). Bush was a continuation of Reagan, as in many ways, was Clinton. Dubya was an even emptier suit than Reagan while Obama was a spiffier one. As godawful as all these were, it could be argued that they had some minimal qualification for the office. I say this because Trump. With Trump, we have crossed a line. We have gone beyond empty suitdom. While previous Presidents were bad to very bad, they all were fit to be President. Reflect for a moment how very low that makes the bar for the office. What distinguishes Trump from other Presidents is that while they were bad, he is unfit. Previous Presidents had the capacity to do good things, they just chose to do bad ones. In Trump, that capacity is absent. With Trump, everything is about Trump, and nothing else, and he is at heart a very small, stupid, pathetic creature. He is a walking, talking danger to the country, not for anything he says, but for where he is. And the thing is our whole political Establishment knows this, everyone close to Trump sees this everyday, his whole family must have known this for years, but they all are so corrupt, complicit, bankrupt, that not one of them will act. The truth is that while Trump is a new and unpredictable menace to the country, the rest of them represent a much older and much more predictable one.

  12. October 7, 2017

    We should tea. Tpwnsends, on Bond, is a favored haunt.

  13. V. Arnold permalink
    October 8, 2017

    Indeed, sounds lovely.

  14. DMC permalink
    October 8, 2017

    Been a fan of Tom McCall since he appointed my dad chairman of the OLCC. Oregon Republicans used to have a state party they could be proud of. Then, as dad put it, “they let the gawdamn preachers take over”.

  15. Willy permalink
    October 8, 2017

    I once told an evangelical that Satan wouldn’t be walking around with red horns and a sinister laugh. He’d probably just do what the Bible said and be a “master trickster”. You know, do stuff like hollow the spirituality out of churches and replace it with selfish-materialistic politics. And then the spiritual seeker noticing the hypocrisy would say: “Well, fuck that place”. Of course he responded to me like a cult zombie.

    But lately his health is failing. His meds are astronomically priced. He sees the price gouging in his own clinic, the corruption scandals in competing ones. Some have said these people have to die before there’s change. But I don’t think so. Some will get to experience just how expensive it is to die slow under the care of Satan.

    Sometimes the seeds we plant really do sprout.

  16. Charlie permalink
    October 8, 2017

    “A means of “be greedy and selfish” creates a people who suck to be around, and who cannot actually deal with any of the other problems created by the system, such as all those listed above, because they have been trained, by their everyday life, to be selfish and greedy.”

    I know this is not going to be believable, but I’m not generally greedy or selfish. I give without prejudice to whomever is in need with whatever I have, but I do generally suck to be around. I don’t know whether that is merely a byproduct of living in a greedy, selfish society and internalizing its values, or because I have to deal with so many greedy, selfish people that I come off as a black sheep, but not many people wish to be around me generally.

    Just thought I should point that out, both for the truth inherent in your original statement and the proposition that outliers feel pretty shitty too.

  17. V. Arnold permalink
    October 8, 2017

    DMC
    October 8, 2017

    Yes, that was time of sanity. I was on staff at Outside – In street clinic, when McCall supported the infamous concert (the name escapes), with all its drugs and counter culture participants.
    McCall was also knwn for his saying; Come to Oregon for a visit, but don’t stay. That was in reference to Californians…

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