When do ends justify means?


Sooner or later everyone – individuals, governments, companies – has to make choices about whether to put aside certain values to achieve a desired end. Michael Pascoe, an Australian financial journalist, has recently discussed this at http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/business/comment-and-analysis/abandon-principles-and-pay-the-price-20140331-35tz4.html

Thor May
Brisbane, 2014



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This is an initial starter list for discussing the "Ends and Means " topic. The list makes no special claim to quality, and additions are welcome. Note that this is a topic which can go in many directions (perhaps unsuspected by the original proposer).






Notes by Thor on ends and means


1. Actual Vs hypothetical choices of ends and means

In the real world of events, as opposed to philosophical statements of “should”, decisions about ends and means always come down to who, if anybody, is responsible for consequences. Where consequences are not clear for actors, and especially if consequences are not personal, almost any ends can be argued for, and almost any means might be rationalized. For this reason, the reading list at the end of these notes is slanted towards a focus on real world situations.


2. The spectrum of human actions used to achieve ends

Action affecting other people can be usefully put in a means=>end frame. That is, how do means (actions) which the actor(s) initiates contribute to some end, and what are the consequences for other people? The range of actions available usually depends upon the relationship between the actor(s) and the affected party (or parties), and also whether that party is the main target of the action, or merely a collateral participant. Of course, not all actions are intended to affect other people, but they usually do in some way. Human targeted actions to achieve some end can be seen as a continuum ranging from cooperation > co-option > corruption > intimidation > coercion > extortion >violence.


3. The displacement of responsibility when people act in groups

As individuals most of us (but not all of us) prefer to dwell at the gentler end of the continuum of targeted actions. As we move up the scale towards violence, our rationale for action becomes more difficult to justify to ourselves and to others. However, humans also act as groups, delegating responsibility and culpability for their actions to leaders, or even to abstractions like regulations and laws. The groups might be quite intimate, they might be mobs, they might be religious, related to employment, or devolved to governments at various levels, or even trans-national organizations. As these groups become more abstracted from the individual, most people feel much less difficult in justifying actions which they perhaps could not contemplate as individuals. This is because they generally become less responsible for consequences, less likely to be punished for poor judgement, and are quite likely to have no personal acquaintance with the people who will be affected by their actions.


4. The industrialization of remote and official actions targeting individuals

The displacement of responsibility to groups has always existed in human societies. However, the 20th Century saw an “advance” in the removal of personal responsibility with the emergence of mass political movements, and then total warfare. The early 21st Century has seen another ominous “advance” of this kind. Whatever the depredations of earlier mass abuses, they tended to be somewhat uneven because of the sheer inefficiency, not to say the stupidity of individual agents within organizations. World War II gave rise to an expressive acronym: SNAFU => situation normal, all fucked up. In the 21st Century this accidentally benevolent incompetence has been drastically reduced though the relentless penetration of computing and the Internet into all of our lives. That is, computing has automated millions of actions which used to depend upon routine but unreliable human intervention.

On the other hand, the number of people rapidly affected by single acts of incompetence or malice has exponentially increased. A simple example would be a computer virus with which one rogue operator can affect millions of people. When the rogue operator is an organization or government, the outcomes can be catastrophic. That is, group actions, especially at the worst end of the spectrum, have been industrialized, while negative consequences for the actors are almost eliminated. Even warfare is conducted as a computer game remote from individuals who are targeted to be assassinated by aerial drones. Our privacy, our personal freedoms and our powers to react to abuse are teetering on extinction. The popular imagination has not really grasped the nature or extent of this loss.

These notes will look first at the compromises which we all make between means and ends. It will go on to outline and document the increasing subordination of ends we think we are pursuing by organizational agencies mindlessly pursuing means with industrial efficiency while evading all responsibility for the carnage resulting from their actions.


5. Mary-Lou and the pitch for a rich guy

Mary-Lou has decided to pitch for a rich guy. Really, she doesn’t love the rich guy, and in fact there is not much to love about him. On the other hand he can provide the material life to which she aspires, and even if things fall apart, she can walk away with enough gold coins to keep her in comfort for life. For that matter, the rich guy thinks he is getting a trophy wife and a sex slave in one package. That is, at least for a while, both parties are satisfied that their personal objectives justify a (sham?) public marriage. Ends justify the means. OK, this scenario is a cliché – or is it? Pick your scandal story of the hour. Perhaps Wendi Deng and Rupert Murdoch. Or even find the Internet site to help it all happen. In Australia in 2013, through the website SeekingArrangement.com, according to company figures, there are roughly 7680 sugar babies in Queensland seeking various types of arrangements, and 530 "sugar daddies" and "sugar mommies" willing to offer their support.  The numbers were far greater in Sydney, where there were 14,500 sugar babies, 800 sugar daddies and mommies last year. Melbourne had 9210 sugar babies, and 640 sugar daddies and mommies….  Company spokeswoman Jennifer Gwynn said that … these “sugar babies” stood to receive approximately $3000 a month in allowances and gifts from a willing Sugar Daddy to help cover tuition and living expenses…. But she said it was not prostitution” (Feeney, 2013). Yes, quite. But whatever we think of Mary-Lou and her sugar daddy, it is a personal compromise between consenting adults. As far as we can tell, nobody else is going to get hurt.


6. Dagwood wants a promotion

The high school debating hero brimming with ideals is usually a very different individual from his reincarnation at 30, now with a wife and child, a mortgage, and his feet on the promotion escalator which nourishes career ambition. In other words, for the teen the prime end of his actions and expressed opinions was peer respect and female admiration. With those ends in mind he had every incentive to pose as something which the ideals of his peer group would share. Displaced to a war situation, he might even rush out of his fox hole to collect either a bullet or a medal for bravery.

As a 30 year old organization-man, our ex-teenage hero is trapped in layered institutional agendas over which he has little control. He finds himself being required to do things which affect strangers outside of the company, and perhaps do them damage. He learns not to think too hard about this. He perceives a road map to higher earnings, higher status and, he tells himself, one day he will have the actual power to do things as his teenage alter ego thought they should be done. However there are obstacles, and they mostly take the form of other people in his workplace. His peers are now his competitors, and his stupid superiors are persons of influence to be cultivated. Dagwood knows that Axlerod, whom he went to school with, is his only serious competitor for the upcoming line manager’s job. He has the dirt on Axlerod; they used to be friends. It is so easy to let slip a little interesting gossip about the guy that will surely reach HR. Nobody else needs to know where the damage came from.

Dagwood has taken his first slippery step on the long, greasy road to the top. When he finally gets there he will no longer have those teenage values from long ago, but he doesn’t know this yet. Nor does he know that at 40 he will pass a hidden red traffic light, and be considered “over the hill”. It is a perverse fact of life that the very attributes and behaviours which Dagwood’s teenage alter ego thought should be a barrier to achieving ends - incompetence, arrogance, ruthlessness and selfishness, together with spinelessness, laggardness and drunkenness - are apparently necessary qualifications for achieving success in most Australian organizations (Colquhoun 2013).


7. The killing fields of invisible unemployment

Smith is good at what he does, and at 45 he is at the top of his game. For twenty years he has developed expertise for the IT needs of a large organization. He is a technologist, not a politician or a bean counter, but he knows that without people like him the whole organization would grind to a halt. Therefore he was shocked when following a board shuffle nine months ago he was sent off with a redundancy package. The new board members were confident that outsourcing was the way to go, would save a large chunk of operating costs, would devolve responsibility for implementation failures to contractors, and would burnish their reputations as hot-shot directors. The simple means to so many desirable ends was a slam-dunk for them. Nine months down the track the company is teetering for a cascading collection of reasons, but the directors are too insulated to have grasped this yet, and Smith, well he is sitting in his pyjamas at home writing job application letters.

If Smith was shocked by the perverse behaviour of his employers, he has been demoralized to find that the large number of very well-paying positions advertised for just someone with his skills have actually evaporated when it came down to the nitty-gritty of applying for them. Smith has even obtained professional assistance to polish his CV. Regardless, companies and employment agencies have demanded extensive, time-consuming documentation to come with any application. They have demanded the contacts of referees, a depreciating resource if they are contacted too often.

In spite of jumping through all the hoops, Smith has received only a handful of responses to many applications. Several agencies have told him candidly that he is “too old”, and a couple of others that his is “overqualified”, whatever that means. He did manage to get a couple of interviews, only to realize that the interviewing panels not only had not read his CV, but that they were treating him as a fill-in to justify the hiring process for an insider they had already selected.

At last, sadder but wiser, he researched the market and learned that the majority of advertised positions were fakes. Government departments and universities with their elaborate compliance regulations were the worst offenders in this fake job charade. The means to an end for them was to tick the boxes they needed to tick before following their true intention. The employment agencies were indistinguishable in their methods from real estate agencies. For such businesses the means for putting up a public front of enormous demand and activity was to churn advertisements for obsolete job vacancies constantly.  The needs of the long suffering unemployed who had the least available resources, figured nowhere in the calculations of businesses, agencies or governments (Featherston 2014, “How Many Job Ads Are Fake?”).


8. The killing fields of invisible enemies

This section looks at the 9/11 Attack and the ensuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as examples of the extreme corruption of ends and means in human behaviour. Countless other examples could have been chosen, but these particular wars are familiar to many readers from the contemporary political narrative.

Wikipedia tells us that “"The September 11 attacks (also referred to as September 11, September 11th, or 9/11) were a series of four coordinated terrorist attacks launched by the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda upon the United States in New York City and the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area on Tuesday, September 11, 2001" (Wikipedia 2014, “September 11 attacks”). The world has not been the same since. The real origins of the 9/11 attacks have been hotly disputed (Fic 2013, Wikipedia 2014 “0/11 Conspiracy Theories”).

I am personally agnostic about whether the events of 9/11 were purely an Al Qaeda operation, and it will probably take a generation to learn the whole story (or maybe never). What is beyond doubt however is that 9/11 set in train a cornucopia of agendas within America and beyond it. If Osama bin Laden set out to disrupt the prevailing cultures of Western civilization he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, not from Al Qaeda’s actions per se,  but by the self-destruction of America’s claimed values through American own responses, both nationally and internationally.

Of all human behaviours warfare always engages the most advanced technology of the age at the service of the most primitive instincts. It is a cliché that the first casualty of war is the truth. This is a way of saying that publicly announced ends become tactical lies, altered to justify the employed means of destruction.

The 9/11 attacks gave rise to two wars against sovereign nations, Iraq and Afghanistan, by the United States. Neither of those states were paragons of good government, but neither were either of them a significant threat to the United States. War was declared against them by the United States in the name of crushing Al Qaeda. The overwhelming source for Al Qaeda recruits, Saudi Arabia received no sanction at all. Indeed its leaders deepened their intimacy with the American president of the day and visited his ranch.

The case for war was fabricated, and later shown to be entirely based on lies. There were no consequences for actors in the American administration, but civil society in Iraq was destroyed and estimates of death from the conflict range from 110,600 to over a million (Wikipedia 2014, “Casualties of the Iraq War”), entirely dwarfing the 3,000 lost in the 9/11 attack. All of this for a population which had no connection whatsoever with Al Qaeda’s operations. In Afghanistan, tens of thousands of people have become casualties in an indefensible war (Wikipedia 2014 "Civilian casualties in the War in Afghanistan (2001–present)".  America has not won these wars, nor achieved strategic objectives even using the blood and iron rationale of empire building. By any reasonable metric, these wars were gruesome American war crimes, yet this is a verdict unacceptable to the American public’s self-image and hence cannot be real to them. This kind of psychological denial by large groups of people is familiar enough. For other contemporary examples we could, for example, turn to China, Japan or Korea, amongst others.

Have the post 9/11 wars in fact reduced terrorist threats in continental America or worldwide? No, they have amplified the threats by recruiting whole populations now antagonistic to America, and domestically they have led to the emasculation of so-called American freedoms in the name of the Patriot Act, as well as the growth of an out-of-control surveillance culture through the NSA (National Security Agency) – spying on all the personal communications of ordinary Americans, the citizens of other nations worldwide, and even members of Congress in Washington. That is, actions in the name of security have generated ever greater insecurity for everyone (for example, Grandoni 2014).   

If we follow the money of course, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have depleted the public Treasury of the United States, almost fatally, but immeasurably enriched an elite group of arms manufacturers, contractors, and their camp followers of prostituted politicians.

For our discussion purposes here, warfare of the kind just described poses a puzzle for any assumption of defensible ends and rational means. It is only explicable, to me at least, by recognizing that many thousands of individuals acting within the shell of organizations, have abandoned personal responsibility for the ways that their behaviour has impacted upon strangers with whom they have no connection except through a narrative of imaginary terror. They have learned to fear fear itself, and in attacking their nightmares have wreaked havoc upon innocent others.




Reading List


Axestopper, Pete (14 October 2013) "Means VsEnds". Asexuality.org website, online @ http://www.asexuality.org/en/topic/93799-means-vs-ends/

Bainbridge, Stephen M. (February 2002) "Director Primacy: The Means and Ends of Corporate Governance". Social Science Research Network website, online @ http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=300860

Colquhoun, Steve (October 22, 2013) "Is our workplace culture broken?". Brisbane Times online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/executive-style/management/comment-is-our-workplace-culture-broken-20131022-2vxhe.html#ixzz2iOvigpFw

Engelhardt, Tom (05/07/2013) "And Then There Was One - Imperial Gigantism and the Decline of Planet Earth". Huffington Post online @ http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tom-engelhardt/american-power_b_3229338.html?utm_hp_ref=world

Featherston, Tony (April 10, 2014) "How many job ads are fake?". [recommended article, especially the comments] Brisbane Times online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/small-business/managing/blogs/the-venture/how-many-job-ads-are-fake-20140409-36crh.html#ixzz2yTOBWmJy

Feeney, Catherine (February 1, 2013) "'Sugar daddies' a learning experience for students". Brisbane Times online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/queensland/sugar-daddies-a-learning-experience-for-students-20130130-2dk7z.html#ixzz2Jn460xAv

Fic, Victor (5 April 2012 ) "Revisiting the science behind 9/11". Asia Times online @ http://atimes.com/atimes/Global_Economy/ND06Dj02.html

Goodreads (2014) "Quotes about Means and Ends". Goodreads website, online @ http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/means-and-ends

Got Questions Ministries (2014) "Do the ends justify the means?". [Christian Bible site], Got Questions Ministries website online @ http://www.gotquestions.org/ends-justify-means.html

Gregory, Robin et.al (2012) "Separating Means from Ends". Structured Decision Making website, online @ http://www.structureddecisionmaking.org/steps/objectives/objectives2b/

Griffin, Rebecca(April 8, 2014) "I hope Dianne Feinstein is emotional about torture".
Of Means and Ends blog - an organizer's take on progressive politics and strategy, website online @ http://ofmeansandends.com/

Hoare, Barry (n.d.) "Ends 'n Means Comic". EndsnMeans blog, online @ http://www.endsnmeans.com/update-the-first/ 

Huxley, Aldous (1946) Ends and Means [novel]. Full text at Archive.org website, online @ http://archive.org/stream/endsandmeans035237mbp/endsandmeans035237mbp_djvu.txt

Jarche, Harold (2007) "Confusing Means and Ends". Harold Jarche blog, online @ http://www.jarche.com/2007/07/confusing-means-and-ends/

May, Thor (1998) "Finding Truth: The Human Mind as an Error-Checking Mechanism". The Passionate Skeptic website, online @ http://thormay.net/unwiseideas/errorcheck.html

May, Thor (29 January 2001) "Why Grasshoppers Don't Have A Problem". The Passionate Skeptic website, online @ http://thormay.net/unwiseideas/hownessofwhy.html

May, Thor (26 March 2001) "Student Activism : Truth and False Prophets". The Passionate Skeptic website, online @ http://thormay.net/unwiseideas/student.html

May, Thor (2003) "The Case for Favoritism". The Passionate Skeptic website, online @ http://thormay.net/unwiseideas/favoritism.html

May, Thor (2008) "Corruption and Other Distortions as Variables in Language Education" ; TESOL Law Journal, Vol.2 March 2008; ( also on thormay.net   and academia.edu) online @ http://thormay.net/lxesl/corruptioninlxed.html 

May, Thor (28 March, 2010) "Somebody Else’s Problem – Decision Making in China". Thor's New China Diary, online @ http://thormay.net/ChinaDiary2/somebody-elses-problem

May, Thor (13 July 2011) "Why Write A PhD?". The Passionate Skeptic website, online @ http://thormay.net/unwiseideas/whywriteaphd.html

May, Thor (12 April 2012) "Déjà Vu and Wicked Stories". The Passionate Skeptic website, online @ http://thormay.net/unwiseideas/dejavu.htm

May, Thor (August 2013) "The Freedom Enterprise and Other Yarns". The Passionate Skeptic website, online @ http://thormay.net/unwiseideas/Freedom-enterprise.htm

Mises, Ludwig von (n.d.) "Chapter IV. A First Analysis of the Category of Action - 1. Ends and Means". Ludwig von Mises Institute website, online @ https://mises.org/humanaction/chap4sec1.asp

Pruss, Alexander (Tuesday, August 5, 2008) "Means-end reasoning". Alexander Pruss's blog, online @ http://alexanderpruss.blogspot.com.au/2008/08/means-end-reasoning.html

SeekingArrangement.com (2014) “The Elite Sugar Daddy Dating Site for those Seeking Mutually Beneficial Relationships® & Mutually Beneficial Arrangements". SeekingArrangement.com website online @ https://www.seekingarrangement.com/

West, Michael (April 12, 2014) "A ban is no deterrent for bad behaviour". Sydney Morning Herald online @ http://www.smh.com.au/business/a-ban-is-no-deterrent-for-bad-behaviour-20140411-36ih9.html#ixzz2yeYKDQP5

Weinberger, Eliot (3 February 2005) "What I Heard about Iraq". London Review of Books, Vol. 27 No. 3 · 3, pages 3-11. online @ http://www.lrb.co.uk/v27/n03/eliot-weinberger/what-i-heard-about-iraq

Wikipedia (2014) "Means to an End". Wikipedia online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Means_to_an_end

Wikiquote (2014) "Means and Ends". Wikiquote website online @ http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Means_and_ends

Wikipedia (2014) "September 11 Attacks". Wikipedia online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/September_11_attacks

Wikipedia (2014) “0/11 Conspiracy Theories”. Wikipedia online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/?title=9/11_conspiracy_theories

Zinn, Howard (1991) "Machiavellian Realism and U.S. Foreign Policy: Means and Ends". Information Clearing House website, online @ http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article12349.htm



When Do Ends Justify Means ? (c) Thor May 2014




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