Saturday, December 30, 2006

"The means determine the ends."

So says Alan Bock. Read on:
All this is another way of saying that the relationship many perceive between ends and means misses the point. We debate and speculate endlessly, we hominids, about whether, when or where the ends can justify the means. If the desired end is valuable or desirable or high-minded enough, is it all right to use dubious or even evil methods and means to arrive at a desirable destination?
I first ran across a systematic discussion of why these are not appropriate questions to ask years ago in an essay by Aldous Huxley in a book I loaned to somebody and never got back. In most human activities – though the causal chain may be difficult to perceive – the means determine the ends. No matter how worthy your end, if you use unworthy means you are unlikely to get there. Violence begets violence and violent means will lead to a violent end. Hatred begets hatred. Coercion begets tyranny, and on and on.
We can see the general rule working in Iraq. Assume that President Bush’s motives in launching the war on Iraq were noble, having to do with eliminating what he perceived as a serious potential threat and a terrible ruler. The means he chose to achieve the noble goal involved unprovoked aggression on a sovereign state. Using such means led to consequences, some predictable, some not, and we have the chaos we see now. Violent means led to a violent end.
This dovetails with something I said back in May:
I also tend to focus more on the consequences of behaviors rather than on intentions. Many atrocities have occurred in which the perpetrators ostensibly had "good intentions" or "meant well." Maddie Albright certainly "meant well" in defending a US policy against the Iraqi people that led during the 1990s to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children due to starvation and disease. Eichmann seems to have been a "nice guy" and a "well-intentioned true believer" in the Nazi cause whose actions as a bureaucrat led to mass extermination of human beings who just happened to belong to the "wrong" ethnic group. The various corporate technocrats and bureaucrats whose actions cause displacement, starvation, disease, death in many corners of the Third and Fourth Worlds likewise might have "good intentions" (think about Churchill's usage of the phrase "little Eichmanns" in that context). I can guarantee you that the victims and potential victims of such "good intentions" don't really care about the perps' motivations for doing harm. There's that old saying, you see, about the road to Hell being paved with good intentions.
Granted, there's a certain level of sarcasm in my use of the term "good intentions", but what both Bock and I are saying pretty well cuts to the chase: a lousy process will not produce a good outcome. Certainly to the victims, no high-minded talk of "democracy" or whatever will matter as they bury their dead, tend to their wounds, and try to clear the debris. The reason that I used the term "ostensibly" in characterizing allegations of "good intentions" is simple: typically all we have are the avowals of "good intentions" from the perpetrators. Determining the extent to which those avowals are honest or disingenuous turns out to be a rather tricky business as we humans are rather lousy at reading minds (and although the research on deception and its detection has come a long way in the last couple decades - read some of Bella DePaola's work for example - there are way too many unknowns to ascertain the validity of an avowal of "good intentions").

Undoubtedly, if you read through the remainder of Bock's essay, you'll figure that he and I are coming from somewhat different angles - I don't quite buy into the usual Eurocentric and "free market" perspectives that characterize his work. That said, Bock, like a lot of libertarians, seems to consistently get it when it comes to waging war. On that topic at least we would do well to listen.

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