"There is no maxim in my opinion which is more liable to be misapplied, and which therefore needs elucidation than the current one that the interest of the majority is the political standard of right and wrong...." ~ James Madison
The End? But We're Still Here
Exclusive to STR
January 9, 2007
Do the ends justify the means? That is one of the fundamental questions of ethics and morality. But how does one answer? First, define the end. For most purposes, that end is a quantitative event. The soccer ball goes into the net. The business posts record-breaking quarterly profits. The resistance abandons its violence and the invaders return to their homes, victorious. These are the landmarks by which we measure our lives. These are the things that we want to occur, and we do things to make them happen. But is it really meaningful to compare them? Can one be measured against the other? I think perhaps we, as humans and ethical beings, may simply be fooling ourselves. These "ends" that we define--our meaningful goals, our life-defining events--what if they are just illusions of psychology? As mortal creatures, we are guaranteed at least two--the beginnings of our lives, and our deaths. What use is it for us to chop up that span into smaller segments? It is a trick. It is the very same petty deception used by accountants and statisticians. They take a line graph, mark a tick on the left, one on the right, and tell you that from one to the other, the line increased by 150%. And you think to yourself, "My, what powerful growth potential this mathematical abstract has!" It does not occur to you, and perhaps not even to the person taking the measurements, that this number is almost completely dependent upon where the tick marks lie. It is almost as if humans were pre-programmed to locate and identify significant events in a stream of what would otherwise be random noise. I think, perhaps, that our great and meaningful events are just arbitrary tick marks, chosen by our own self-deluding subconscious minds for the purpose of making a randomized world seem a little more orderly. We see patterns where they do not exist. We see design and volition in everyday chaos and coincidence. And we apply this to our own lives. We do bad things, and feel bad about doing them. So we invent noble causes. Once we achieve that invented goal, everything will be ok, because then everything we do will be in pursuit of the next tick mark after that. It will all be placed in a different karmic pigeonhole. Our noble intentions cancel out our baser actions, and all is forgiven and forgotten because of it. Just think, for a moment, about what life is like without arbitrary tick marks. What if everything you do, rather than being in pursuit of some goal, was simply added on to the enormous summation of moments in your life? If you had no ends, would your means justify your means? Sadly, for many people, the answer to this question is no, and that is why the self-delusion persists. Chopping up your life into smaller bits allows you to throw away the bad parts and show off the good. So perhaps it is time to stop asking whether the ends justify the means, because there are no ends. We pick them out of the air as mythical boundaries for the express purpose of cordoning off the means. For any given action, there is often another close at hand that tends to moderate it when both are considered together. In my opinion, the vast majority of evil acts committed on this planet are not born out of malice, but from the mistaken impression that a small wrong can create a greater good. A little bit of theft can allow us to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless--we shall call it "tax". A little bit of murder can allow us to make everyone else safe from killings--we shall call it "war". A little bit of fraud can allow us to stimulate the economy to greater glory-- we shall call it "standard accounting practices," or perhaps "fractional reserve banking." The tax-collectors, soldiers, and number-crunchers--or at least many of them--believe they are actually doing the world a favor. They must believe that their means justify some end, otherwise they could not continue to pursue those means with a clear conscience. And this is aptly illustrated by the recent protests of soldiers posted in Iraq, regarding the progress of Bush's war there. Those soldiers have not been presented with enough tick marks to make them feel good about all the people that have died. They have 9/11 followed by an eternal, unending, undifferentiated struggle against "terror". Every so often, the propaganda office tries to create one, but they come and go faster than tissue paper in a tornado. That's a good start. Let us knock down those tick marks, one by one, and see how the armies react. Stop tracking the monthly death tolls. Don't even count the numbers killed since the start of this war. Put up the big board, of all deaths, caused by all wars, in all of recorded history. Put up the value of destroyed and looted property, measured by today's money. Over the centuries, the value of what could have been done based upon the peaceful trade in the produce of a single farm can really start to add up. The olive tree bulldozed last week may seem of little consequence today, but one untimely felling from 1000 B.C. may have lost many amphora of good oil production, which lost many hours of cheap evening lamplight, which lost some amount of scholarly study, which lost one minor engineering achievement, which in turn wasted millions of man-hours of unnecessary effort. We cannot know what exactly has been lost, but even a conservative estimate of 0.5% annual economic growth makes that single 3000-year old tree worth 3 million trees today. History continues on, long after the barbarians are conquered, and the opportunities lost as a result of destroyed savings and capital mount up exponentially. The unintended consequences continue long after "mission accomplished" is uttered. The dead do not work, or create, or consume. And demolished capital does not reduce production costs. What is destroyed today hurts all of us, forever after. That thing can be replaced, of course, but were the original not destroyed, there would be two instead of just one, and if two are not needed, the effort could have been spent on making one of something else. That is the essence of the explanation of the "broken window" fallacy. But there is even more to it. The person that did the damage could have been doing something constructive instead of destructive. A soldier, perhaps one that specializes in demolishing bridges, could have been an engineer that specializes in building them. The opportunity cost of human-caused mayhem in pursuit of supposedly constructive ends is enormous. That isn't to say that demolitions specialists are not needed for a healthy economy, but in general, the sort of demolitions undertaken by armies are not the beneficial kind. An electrical power station with decades of useful future generating capacity and no viable replacements does not need a 500-pound bomb dropped into the dynamo. If we want it to stop, and finally enjoy the benefits of exponential growth of humanity's capital, we must remove that capacity for self-denial. As a species, we must stop balancing means against ends, and start vehemently denying the validity of the question. If there are no ends at all, it makes no sense to ask if they can be justified. And those things that cannot be justified are more easily opposed.