Ends and Means

I’ve recently started reading (at last) Anand Giridharadas’s Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. It’s easily one of the most provocative books/theses of 2018, for my money.

There’s plenty to explore there, but one thing that jumped out to me in the first chapter was how a young college student’s exposure to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics alerted her to one of the fundamental conundrums of the human experience: the problem of confusing means and ends.

Writing specifically about money, Aristotle notes how the pursuit of wealth for its own sake warps people and society. He does not ignore the reality or utility of money (which is threaded through the Ethics, the Economics, and the Politics); rather, he offers strong caution against directing our lives to its acquisition.

This is an old idea — surely older than Aristotle, and repackaged in modern sources from the New Testament to This is Water.

But you don’t have to look very hard to find people who seem hell-bent on being the richest guy or gal in the cemetery. Or people blinded by the pursuit of power for its own sake without any clue about what to do with it. Or even people more committed to virtue-signaling than to doing truly virtuous work — by words only when necessary.

Any ethical code that can’t usefully tell ends from means can’t have much practical use. Ditto an ethic that is silent on how to employ means in service of ends.

We all have deep ideas about ends and means. They’re worth surfacing, discerning, examining — and, if necessary, editing — from time to time.

Next time you consider making a purchase or casting a vote, ask yourself what kind of story about ends and means you’re about to endorse, and whether you’d wish that on yourself and those you care about.