Ends or Means

By the time they reach their twenties, at least a few people have been confronted, in some form or another, with the question of whether the ends justify the means.  For students, that’s usually in the form of cheating – does cheating to get a high grade in order to get into a better college [hopefully] justify the lack of ethics?  In business, it’s often more along the lines of whether focusing on short-term success, which may result in a promotion or bonus [or merely keeping your job in some corporations], is justified if it creates long-term problems or injuries to others.

On the other hand, I’ve seldom seen the question raised in a slightly different context.  That is, are there situations where the emphasis should be on the means? For example, on vacation, shouldn’t the emphasis be on the vacation, not on getting to the end of it?  Likewise, in listening to your favorite music, shouldn’t the emphasis be on the listening and not getting to the end?

I suppose there must be some few situations where the end is so vital that the means don’t matter, but the older I get, the fewer examples of that I’ve been able to cite because I’ve discovered that the means so affect the ends that you can seldom accomplish the ends without a disproportionate cost in collateral damage.

This leads to those situations where one needs to concentrate on perfection in accomplishing the means, because, if you don’t, you won’t get to the end.  Some instances such as these are piloting, downhill ski racing, Grand Prix driving [or driving in Los Angles or Washington, D.C., rush hour traffic], or undertaking all manner of professional tasks, such as brain or heart surgery, law enforcement, or fire fighting.

The problem that many people, particularly students, have is a failure to understand that, in the vast majority of cases, learning the process is as critical [if not more so] as the result.  Education, for example, despite all the hype about tests and evaluations, is not about tests, grades, and credentials [degrees/certification].  Even if you get the degree or certification or other credential, unless you’ve learned enough in the process, you’re going to fail sooner or later – or you’ll have to learn all over what you should have learned the first time.  Unfortunately, because many entry-level jobs don’t require the full skill set those who were trying to provide the education were attempting to instill, that failure may not come for years… and when it does, the results will be far more catastrophic.  And, of course, some people will escape those results, because there are always those who do… and, unfortunately, for some reasons, those “evaders” are almost invariably the ones those who don’t want to do the work to learn the process pick as examples and reasons why they shouldn’t work on learning the processes behind the skills.

Studies done on college graduates two generations ago “discovered” that such graduates made far more income over their lifetimes than did those without a college degree.  Unfortunately, the message became that a degree was what mattered, not the skills represented by that degree, and ever since then people have focused on the credential, rather than on the skills, a fact emphasized by rampant grade and degree inflation and documental by the noted scholar Jacques Barzun, in his book, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present , where he observed that one of the reasons for the present and continuing decline of Western Civilization is the fact that our culture now exalts credentials over skills and real accomplishments.

One of the most notable examples of this is the emphasis on monetary gain, as exemplified by developments in the stock and securities markets over the past two years.  The “credential” of the highest profit at any cost has so distorted the process of underwriting housing and business investment that the profit levels reaped by various sectors of the economy bear no relationship to their contribution to either the economy or culture.  People whose decisions in pursuit of ever higher and unrealistic profit levels destroyed millions of jobs are rewarded with the “credential” of high incomes, while those who police our streets, fight our fires, protect our nation, and educate our children face salary freezes and layoffs – all because ends justify any means.

6 thoughts on “Ends or Means”

  1. Bob says:

    The end can never justify the means. A morality taught in many of your stories…and well.

    While in our society an honorable means may not be rewarded or “justified” by society that does not devalue the means, but our society and its values.

    Is it not a mark of maturity and intelligence when an individual commits himself/herself to the path and the journey rather than pursuing a destination regardless of means?


  2. nate says:

    This is far from the first time I have noticed this, but I especially appreciate how well you articulate the necessity to balance the ends and means. Because while the ends rarely justify the means, neither do the means justify the ends.

    So whether you focus on ends or on means, it is imperative to at least make a cursory attempt to reconcile what it is you plan on doing and what you want the outcome to be.

  3. Caitlin says:

    Its important to note that the majority of college students were not the ones who created this focus on paperwork versus real achievement. They may buy into it but when they are told degree = financial security why wouldn’t they? High schools here pretty much require you in final year to apply for university and much less help is given to those who wish to take alternate pathways. The change in attitude has to come from the top down, from employers and education administrators, and unfortunately that change doesn’t seem to be happening any time soon. If the system isn’t producing the quality of skills required for industry then quite simply it needs to change its policies. If only it were not so hard to make useful changes.

  4. Great comments Lee. I think what bothers me, however, is that this discussion is often treat as an either/or equation. Either we have absolute “capitalist” pursuit of profit, or we have to become a Euro socialist clone country where “capitalism run amuck” is regulated by overt federal control, also often run amuck. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of a middle ground, at least when you talk to activist-defenders of either raw capitalism or structured socialism.

    I have only a HS education, with approx 120 credits of odd college experience. So far I’ve managed to achieve at roughly the same financial level as most people my age who have a Bachelors, and in the case of certain types of degrees — even Masters, such as the MSW — I am making far in excess of what some peers are making.

    My father — who is retired — spent most of his career as a regional manager for a company that sold business forms. His chief complaint when interviewing recent business school grads, was that almost no one had any clue how to understand, sell or do business. He’d hunt for the rare applicant with a degree and some kind of internship or other practical experience, because he knew from experience that the grad straight out of business school was practically useless, and it was much more cost effective to go with the experienced candidate, than the educated candidate.

    Which begs the question: what the hell are our colleges and universities for, if they can’t create people who can do the jobs that need doing?

    I’d love to see us (somehow) move towards some sort of hybridized apprenticeship situation, where college and university students of all stripes spend more time learning, “On the job,” than they do in the classroom. Tests and book learning are important, but more important is the practical, hands-on quotient. I see this emphasized so often through common example, I am amazed more people in academia aren’t doing more to forge relationships with business and industry — and vice versa.

  5. Zappala says:

    I am about to enroll for a School of Business Online, and I am a bit worried about my studying habits. I have historically been a slacker. Normally in the past I would wait for the end of the semester to do all of my assignments, but if I attend online schooling that is not going to be an option because all assignments and tests have a deadline through the course of the semester.

  6. Brian Medal says:

    I’m such a newbie when it comes to all this, thanks for taking the time to write this up, keep them coming! Ends or Means L.E. Modesitt, Jr. – The Official Website was a wonderful read.

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