Saturday, September 09, 2006

On Means and Ends: A Confusion

You may have heard that tired old saw about "the ends not justifying the means." It's bunk. Sure, not all good ends can justify all bad means. But certainly some good ends justify some bad means. However, it seems to me that, in many areas of discussion and debate currently, especially in politics, there is a confusion and conflation of means and ends.

The egregious example that brought this to mind recently concerns the idea of Adam Smith's "free market". As Brad DeLong put it:

...arguing with center-right reality-based technocrats about whether it is center-left or center-right policies that have the best odds of moving us toward goals that we all share--world peace, world prosperity, equality of opportunity, safety nets, long and happy lifespans, rapid scientific and technological progress, and personal safety.

One would like to think that something like this was an agreed set of goals, and certain policies were means to achieve them, possibly one among many, possibly the optimal of all possibilities. However, it seems that many in our discourse have come to believe that various ideologies which were originally espoused in pursuit of these ends, are themselves goals, to be pursued even at the cost of other, more ultimate goals, such as those listed above. They'd sacrifice the equality, the safety nets, the progress, the fairness, if they conflict with the "goal" of, for example, having free markets.

One of the motivations for the development of free markets during the 19th century was that it was believed that they would promote peace, since free trade amongst the states implied that if you attacked your trading partners, you damaged your own economy. They were also intended to make societies richer as a whole. But, as judges have recently said (much less deservedly) about our Constitution, they aren't a suicide pact. When market failures destroy access to entire segments of our economy, e.g. the current health care crisis, there are still those who insist that the Invisible Hand of the Free Market will cure all, if given the chance. They've forgotten the reasons why free markets were proposed in the first place, and taken them up as a standard to be supported for its own sake, like those who would defend the flag by forbidding burning it, tarnishing that which it stands for.

Perhaps even more pervasive is the equation of democracy with freedom & liberty. (For an interesting study on the comparative origins of the terms "freedom" & "liberty" themselves, read poputonian here and here at Hullabaloo.) Despite the phrase "the tyranny of the majority" having been in use for over a century and a half now, many people assume that democracy automatically conveys freedom along with it. But this certainly isn't so. Witness the wishes of at least a plurality of those in Iraq, planning to impose their own version of a theocracy on the state (one could hardly call it a nation, really) through democracy. Or the current leadership of Iran, elected to bring them back to a more conservative Islamic democracy by cracking down on excesses of freedom. On the other hand, although I don't know if there are any concrete historical examples, one could hypothetically have a monarchy or some such in which the ruler granted near–perfect freedom to his or her subjects. Essentially, the principles of democracy and liberty may not be completely orthogonal to each other, but they certainly aren't perfectly parallel, either. Yet our current President constantly conflates the two concepts in speeches and strategies, and no one calls him on it.

In his Gettysburg Address, President Lincoln promised "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." Breaking that down, the first part might lead to some semantic confusion: Does "gevernment of the people" mean the government belongs to the people, or that the people are being governed? Regardless, the latter two are clear enough to make my point. Democracy is pretty literally "government by the people." But this does not guarantee "government for the people," by any interpretation. Even if you define "the people" to mean the majority, they can still be convinced to vote (or otherwise participate in government) in ways that are not in their own best interests. And when it comes to people who aren't in the majority, all bets are off.

Democracy does not even guarantee liberty or freedom for the majority, let alone minorities. And liberty and freedom could, hypothetically, be had without democracy. In my view, democracy is "merely" a means to achieving a government that governs in the people's best interests, including their freedom. But some seem to view democracy as a goal to aim for in and of itself, regardless of the oppression, inefficency, or other malfeasance that may follow from it if the people choose poorly, or are misled. Certainly it is a worthy object to pursue, but it is not the ultimate goal.

A more simple and concrete, if more trivial, example might be the automobile and, to a lesser degree, related internal combustion vehicles (e.g., trucks, trailers, busses, etc.). Essentially, it is a means of transportation, of getting oneself, possibly some passengers, possibly some cargo, from point A to point B. Yet, especially here in the United States, we've grown a culture that venerates the automobile as though it were an end itself. This manifests itself in a general reluctance to use mass transit, and looking down our noses at those who do. There are also movies that "worship" the car to some degree, such as The Fast and the Furious and Days of Thunder and so forth. These, along with other examples, contribute to the overall impression that American society views the automobile as an end itself, rather than a means to achieve a necessary end. Thus, people are reluctant to consider transportation options that don't involve the automobile.

Now of course, I'm somewhat more concerned at present about the first two examples than that last one. These confusions lead to a fundamental failure of common sense, morality, and logic when people come to assume that what was originally a means to achieve a certain end is now a goal worthy of pursuit for its own sake. It becomes unthinkable to question its rightness, because while the means of achieving a goal might be debated, and alternatives considered, when one comes to think of it as an end, then any doubt cast upon its rightness calls large portions of one's belief structure into question, something with which most people are rather uncomfortable.

The next question would be, how can we make this clear to people, that what they've been considering to be goals, aren't actually? And how to prevent concepts that are currently considered means from being confusedly thought to be ends? At that point, my thinking on the matter is rather lacking so far. I'm open to suggestions and discussion, either here or on other blogs (with more traffic than this one!). Let's just try to remember whether this reminder of where things actually stand is, itself, a means or an end.


I'll post more on this as I find more examples and evidence for the examples, especially as I try to track down just how means are transformed into apparent ends. I'll add links to new posts here, so we can find them all together.

  • Meanwhile, here's another relevant post: Sadly, No!, on technocrat centrists, "propertarians," and free markets.
  • The Empire Links Back, with one word, "interesting." Ironically, Retardo of Sadly, No! linked to this (at my humble behest) shortly after a discussion in comments on another of his posts in which he was taking the opposing view that democracy was a noble goal for its own sake. I think he'd agree on my first example of the free markets, though, at least.
  • As an afterthought: I should have brought into the discussion of automobiles the fact that they also serve as status symbols, a form of conspicuous consumption that Brad DeLong was discussing recently, as I'd already linked to below. That would certainly be a big part of the demand for automobiles above and beyond needing a means to get from one place to another.
  • I found a a couple more examples related to torture.

1 comment:

grampaw said...

Oh, dear god, thank you.

I was beginning to think I was completely alone.

I've been making almost identical arguments over at Sadly, No! in the comments to a more recent, and rather unfortunately titled post, wherein Retardo claims that the one principle he holds dearly enough to escape his blanket suspicion of any and all dogmatism is "democracy."

There is a third relevant post by Retardo over there, too.

The debate in the comments to the two posts I've linked, and in the one you linked, suggests to me that it's not easy to get people to put aside the almost sacred status they assign to the word "democracy," and examine the unstated moral principles that they harbor when they hear or use a word that, stripped of its rather variable connatative baggage, simply denotes an administrative system.