Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Means and Ends

The means we choose define us more than do the ends we seek. For the means we choose are how we directly affect other people and the world around us. Any given end that motivates our chosen means may never be realised.

Our acts usually have purposes, and there is the issue of whether any particular act are likely to achieve their motivating purpose, but such purely instrumental judgments are not about moral justification, but causal efficacy.

Morality is more about constraining and directing our acts than our purposes precisely because acts matter more directly. Injunctions such as do not murder, do not steal and do not lie constrain our actions towards others: they are all about what means are legitimate, when and where given that we do such things to achieve other purposes (even if only for the thrill). Any care we have for why you wish to do these things is usually either very general (was it accidental or intended?) or an extreme case (self-defense, avoiding starvation).

To proclaim “the ends justifies the means” is to demand release from some or all of the normal constraints of morality. (Read more at Critical Thinking Applied.)


  1. Interesting piece (and the new blog will be worth following). It reminds me of Adam Smith as moral philosopher and anthropologist, and Isaiah Berlin as Berlin.

    I was always surprised that John Howard revelled in the “Man of Steel” designation, does no one remember who the original was. In so many cases of strong opinions strongly held it becomes a matter of degree and opportunity. My two least favourite Australian leaders of late have been Howard and Hawke, both knew better than me what was best for me and worse, what I really wanted for myself. Rant over.

    Revolutions so often lead to replacing one tyranny with another. You frequently find leaders who feel that they have the truth and the “masses” must be taught what liberty really is, we will force you to be free! Tyranny in the name of liberty is not real tyranny. And so it goes on. We have the demonstrable horrors of Robespierre and Lenin, and the potential dangers of the followers of Leo Straus (Paul Wolfowitz who think it is their god given duty to spread freedom and democracy. Just as Lenin had his own interpretation of freedom (the recognition of necessity) so the definition of freedom and democracy is limited to what they believe it to be.

  2. Entech: Odd, Howard and Hawke are my two preferred PMs of recent times, on grounds of competence. They also seemed to me to be less inclined to claim special knowledge than other leaders.

    As for 'Man of Steel': no, folk do not remember. Howard, as it happens, probably does but read it in terms of current politics, as projecting strength when democratic pollies have a reputation for being wishy-washy compromisers.

    Revolution is a deeply chancy beast, as you say. The Glorious Revolution was a Good Thing. The American Revolution mostly so. After that, it is pretty thin until the more recent revolutions in the former Soviet bloc. Though the 1948 Costa Rica Revolution and (brief) civil war remains one of my picks for Good Things, despite the loss of life, since the victorious junta did step aside for the democratically elected President and it did establish decades of democratic rule that continue to the present.