Liberty – Ends or Means?

If you’ve ever had a moral debate with anyone, invariably the argument will come down to an idea of the Ends and the Means.  The case is laid out something like this:

In one camp, the person has a final goal / utopia in mind.  Because you know it’s a righteous goal, getting to your destination by any means necessary is permissible.  So for example, if your ultimate goal is to ensure every human being has food to eat and clean drinking water, then anything it takes to achieve that goal is of secondary importance, as long as you able to feed every person on earth.  Your END defines your morality.

The other side of the argument is that the Means is of utmost importance.  You may have a standard of morality which defines good and bad behavior.  Wherever your morality takes you is secondary because you believe if you honor your moral code, the resulting society will be, by definition, just and moral.  So for example, if your morals forbid you from stealing property that belongs to someone else, then theft will never be a part of your utopian road map, even if that potentially means some people would suffer when theft is no longer on the table as a solution.

Now, as much as we’d like to believe in our own moral purity or consistency of beliefs, and although most people will generally favor one over the other (the Means or the Ends), oftentimes we find ourselves in a little bit of both camps.  That’s to say, though philosophically these sound pretty cut and dry and mutually exclusive, in reality moral arguments are hardly ever so black and white.

When you are debating morality, you can usually tell whether your opponent has a Means or and Ends worldview by the evidence that they use to support their argument.  And Political Party lines do not fall one way or the other.  Democrats, Republicans, Green Party, Libertarians, Anarchists.  You’ll find Ends and Means proponents across the board.

I’ve found that many of those that favor the End have little or no problem with inconsistency of behavior or decisions they support.  For this reason, pointing out inconsistencies does very little in changing their opinions because they are marching toward an END.  One might say they’re illogical / irrational at times.  Critics will also point out the unintended consequences of their END but again, these usually don’t matter to someone driven to a goal.

I’ve also found that those that favor the Means are oftentimes accused of being rigid or overly-calculated.  Each decision, each idea must pass through a series of evaluations against one’s moral code of conduct.  The downside is that these people get caught up in analysis-paralysis.  They can quickly tell you what’s wrong (morally) with your proposal, but they might not have a well-defined alternative.  For these reasons, arguing against advocates of the Means can be frustrating for End advocates because there’s no guarantees the Means will get you where you want to be.

If you’ve read any of my posts, it should be abundantly clear that I tend to favor pure Means and allow the End chips to fall where they land.  The pursuit of Liberty can only come about through righteous Means.  To me, I can’t simply ignore illogical or inconsistent behavior in pursuit of an End because how we get there is of equal, or even greater, value.  Here are just a few examples of inconsistent and illogical behavior –

  • if you advocate “equality of rights” by giving preferential / protected treatment to one group over another
  • if you support “open markets” but shut out competition (including foreign competition) and use the government to subsidize some of your costs
  • if you favor “smaller, fiscally responsible government” but you want to increase military spending and our global footprint
  • if you want to advocate “freedom of speech” but you censor racist, sexist, religious, blasphemous, obscene, or anti-American rhetoric
  • if you support “our bodies / our choice” but won’t allow grown adults to choose to drink, smoke, take drugs, drive without seatbelts, eat trans fats and super double Big Gulps of Jolt cola

Then there are my critics.  But, but but . . .

  • Roads may fall into disrepair or never even get built.
  • Children will become illiterate or go hungry in the streets. 
  • Pregnant mothers will die in labor because doctors were not allowed to perform 39th week abortions. 
  • ISIS and Al-Qaeda will be running free throughout the world recruiting and bombing homeless animal shelters. 
  • The polar ice caps will melt from all the greenhouse gases we create, literally out of thin air, and the third rock from the sun will be Kevin Costner’s Water World.

As silly as this all sounds, particularly in light of the fact that these tongue-in-cheek, doomsday scenarios are no less likely to happen under the End advocates’ plans, these absurd “but what about __” Straw Men are realities that most of you probably have to deal with every day you engage in thoughtful conversation.

Understanding whether your opponent values Means or Ends can help you overcome their objections.  But the great thing about Liberty is that it is both.  Liberty is an End and a Means.  I don’t see how you could pursue Liberty as one and not the other.  In this way, I’m pretty sure Liberty is unique.  For example, Equality may be something that’s important to some.  But you can’t pursue Equality as an End by using it as a Means.  As I pointed out above, the only way to pursue Equality as an End requires some exertion of force over some people for the benefit of others.  (Psst. That’s the opposite of Equality.)

The mechanism and resulting end of Liberty are just and righteous.  And in pursuing Liberty, there’s no contradiction or conflict between the Ends and the Means.  You have to decide whether you are a Means or an End kind of person, but I challenge you to pursue something that is consistent in both views.


One thought on “Liberty – Ends or Means?

  1. This can be boiled down to your view on people (if we are not discussing justice fundamentally). Most do subscribe that people are a means to an end without considering it. That is in fact consistent with how most act…utilitarians…Jeremy Bentham. Those who have thought about this or those who do not thirst for authority over others tend to the constructionalist view that people are an ends and not just a means to their scheme that shapes the world to their view. Excellent post again Tim. You do a wonderful job of creating and maintaining the conversation. Thanks!


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