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The End Doesn't Justify the Means

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Human nature is naturally focused on outcomes. We can deal with a difficult, sad story if it has a happy ending. We love when our favourite team wins even if the game was ‘ugly’ at times. Conflict that is effectively resolved, or peace that has been accomplished, often has a way of overshadowing some really challenging times.

But as young kids, we learned that the “end doesn’t justify the means.” In other words, a positive outcome isn’t a good thing if the methods used were dishonest or harmful to others. If a team won a big game, but used dishonest means such as deflating the balls, the outcome itself is tarnished. If people gave gifts to the underprivileged, but stole these gifts from others, stealing would undermine the charitable act.

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The Marxists coined this phrase, and ultimately, the underlying message is that only one thing matters more than outcome, and that is how we got there. This includes the reasons and processes we used to accomplish what we did. Although society has a way of still rewarding and idolizing those who succeed despite downright despicable means, the saying itself still rings true, and reinforcing good means versus preferred outcomes does pay off. For example, studies indicate that when we praise effort over performance in the classroom, students end up actually doing better academically and psychologically. On the other hand, cheating or avoiding hard classes might keep your performance up in class, but using these means never justifies the end result.

Yet as often occurs, one principle can suggest a related one. Thus, I make the case that although the “end doesn’t justify the means”, the “means can always justify the end.” But what does ‘means’ translate into? By means, I am not just talking about the behavioural methods by which something is accomplished, but also the underlying purpose that is undertaken. Let’s use an example of a longstanding, serious personal conflict with someone else. Many people, are taught that it is best to ‘avoid the conflict’, the means to keep the peace, the end. On the surface, this might seem like a noble, wise route to take, but for most people and circumstances, this strategy backfires because people become more bitter, disengaged, and ultimately unable to effectively resolve an issue that is central to their well-being and that of their relationship. So, although it is difficult and can often increase conflict and uneasiness in the short-term, addressing the conflict respectfully, transparently, and empathetically, the means to improve the well-being of the individuals and relationship involved, the purpose is often the key to resolving a conflict, the end.

As the example denotes, the key to effective ‘means’ are utilizing respectful, transparent, and empathetic methods for an underlying purpose of bettering not just yourself, but others and the situation as a whole. Many of our daily undertakings involve a deed that requires no level of expertise, but always makes us consider the “means” we are using, and if we are using means that adhere to the guidelines I mentioned, then no matter how horrible the outcome, the “means do justify the end”.

In saying all this, what we are ultimately trying embrace ourselves with are the virtues of courage and altruism, unselfishness. Both often require the spirit of one to enable the other, but they also entail a deep abiding pursuit of what is honest, true, and good. Sometimes this pursuit leads to what are seemingly negative and uncomfortable outcomes, and so it is easy to be tempted to take a different course. I remember standing by as classmates teased and bullied a younger peer; I did nothing because I was afraid of how it might affect my own social life. My means, doing nothing didn’t justify my end, remaining in a good social standing.

Thus, the end doesn’t justify the means, but the means can always justify the end.

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