Sunday, March 8, 2009

Means and Ends

The expresssion, "the ends don't justify the means," makes sense.

I sometimes wonder, though, whether we aren't today guilty of a reverse approach: We assume that the means justify the end. For example, money (which has no instrinsic value, i.e., it is not an end in itself) drives industrial production. It is not the things produced, but "the bottom line" that drives production and the concrete outcome is really not considered intrinsically important.

Maybe that's not quite right. Who's to say what's intrinsically valuable (valuable in itself, valuable as an end) and what's valuable only as a means to an end? Values are subjective, right?

I think you can pretty much prove that there are some things that are valuable, but that are not intrinsically valuable, but only valuable for something else. Money is the archetypical example. Considered in itself, "money has no value apart from the paper it's written on." Can it stand alone as the goal of all action? No, it's only worth pursuing if you can spend it, or do something else with it, like purchase things that you need or want or gather social power or prestige.

Conversely, I don't think it's that easy to prove what is intrinsically valuable. Maslow thought certain experiences tied to self-actualization were intrinsically valuable, as opposed to things that were the conditions for that (i.e., life's necessities). Creativity, art, that kind of thing, are considered of intrinsic value, ends-in-themselves.

There's a logic to it: Would you create an organization, for instance, whose sole objective was to audit itself? Even if somebody wanted to create such an organization, everyone would think they were a bit squirrelly (or perhaps totally bureaucratic) ;) and with good reason. That shows that fiscal responsibility is not an end in itself, it is only a means, a way of doing things. On the other hand, it would not be bureaucratic at all to create an institution whose sole objective was to give people opportunities to do curiosity-based research or develop artistic talent.

In the last blog, Jack Martin was quoted as saying that it was a mistake to put the methodological cart before the ontological horse, i.e., to assume that the method or means by which information is obtained is the only criterion by which the reality of what it's about is assessed. This ties back to the mistaken idea that all that is real is measurable because there is, of course, plenty that is real that is not measurable...and much of it considered "subjective" as a result. There's plenty that we don't know, and plenty that we don't know that we don't know. To think that the methods we've come up with so far provide adequate parameters for ascertaining the limits of possible existence is nevertheless a very common assumption.*

Another example of putting means before ends is in the idea that it is a given good that citizens should be "productive". What should they produce? There are plenty of products that aren't worth producing. What about our own reasoning capacity to evaluate the worth of the products we produce? Do we value that less or more than our "productivity"?

*But beware the fallacy of arguing anything from a lack of knowledge ;).

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