The Means are the End: Simple Stories and Distal Effects

There’s a concept that I use a lot that somehow I’ve managed to have not written about yet, so today we’re going to rectify that. Today, we’re going to be discussing how “the means are the end,” as well as why the end does not justify the means. In the process, we’re going to explore the nature of second (+) order effects, interconnectedness, and the role that ethics play in our actions.

Let’s get started.

The easiest place to begin is going to be with the relatively well-known statement, “the ends justify the means.” From my cursory research, while this is often attributed to Machiavelli, in all likelihood it probably originates with Roman poet Ovid’s “Exitus acta probat,” which is “the results justify the deed.” Now, if you’re not familiar with the idea that the ends justify the means, that’s good, because historically, it’s a great excuse for terrible people to do awful things in the pursuit of some abstract concept that’s divorced from their actions.

Think about it- let’s say you have a tail light out on your car, and the likelihood of you getting pulled over is pretty high if you drive at night. Your “end” here is to not get pulled over, so if you’re a normal, sensical person, you’re going to fix your tail light. On the other hand, you could just choose to not pull over and let the cops chase you, right? You could choose to build some James Bond style weapons into your car to fight back, since your goal is just to not get pulled over. This sounds like a stupid argument, and it most definitely is, but the point I’m trying to emphasize is that the simple solution here is to fix the actual problem instead of finding a complicated alternative route to avoid the symptoms of said problem. This sounds like a bunch of fun and games until you realize that some variation on “the ends justify the means” fuel most people and structures in our society.

Don’t believe me? Consider that virtually no one goes to college to get an education without expecting to get a job with said education. Consider that we go to the doctor not to learn how to be routinely well, but to fix us when we’ve spent years fucking ourselves up. Consider that we don’t get involved in our communities directly, but we expect politicians who don’t even live there to fix the problems they’re full of. We take pills for symptoms, both literal and metaphorical, without any regard to the causes of the disease.

Why is this?

The underlying assumption within the notion that “the ends justify the means” is that there is a separation between what you do and what you get, which is (you guessed it) something a fucking crazy person thinks. This insanity is the reason that communism ends up killing everyone every time they try it, because people do not understand that you cannot get a magical utopia (at all, but that’s a topic for another article) by stealing money from/murdering all the people who make more than you. Theft begets theft, murder begets murder, and chaos begets chaos.

You reap what you sow.

That being said, it’s not so simple as that, because chaos also begets order, or perhaps more accurately, chaos engenders the response in people that then create order from it. At any rate, one of the major issues in the ends justify means thinking is that these sorts of people do not ever consider what we’re going to call distal effects. (I’m using distal here to encompass second-order, third-order, and nth-order effects, which are super cumbersome terms to write about in the way I’m about to.) For a bit more clarification, if I knock over a domino, that’s a proximal cause, while if I plug in a fan that then blows a balloon across the room which then knocks over said domino, then that’s a distal cause. (It’s also a Rube Goldberg machine, probably.)

Most people intuitively or explicitly understand proximal causes- if this, then that.

If I get too drunk during the week, I’ll be late for work.

Most people do not intuitively understand sufficiently complex distal causes and effects-

if the moral foundations of society decay to the point that ennui and malaise are widespread, and, as a result, depression is on the rise, and to cope with this depression in the lack of some sort of collectively agreed-upon meaning we call culture we decide to drink during the week, then we probably don’t care if we’re late for work.

Because we don’t understand the complex, primarily distal-effect-driven systems of society and culture, we only see the symptoms and miss the disease. This is fundamentally the underlying logic that all of modern politics is built on.

Let’s imagine we have a neighborhood where the kids are tagging graffiti on some of the buildings. The proximal approach to problem solving here would be to make graffiti illegal, and arrest the kids for doing it. Ironically, proximal solutions have many distal effects that get ignored- in this case, that means you now have to divert police resources away from other (likely more important) issues, as well as have some kind of facility specifically to jail these kids, and while you’re jailing them, they’re not going to be getting educated in the same way as other kids, so you’re socially isolating them into a delinquent class that you’ve created.

If you approach this problem as a symptom (a distal effect) of a larger issue, then you can take a totally different approach. First, why are the kids not supervised in the first place? If the graffiti is taking place when they should be in school, there’s a hint in the right direction. These kids are skipping school, which is an indication that there’s a problem in their education, which is likely an indication that there’s a problem in their home life- maybe a parent who isn’t invested for some reason. That’s when you really open up the can of worms, though, because virtually all of these problems are systemic problems.

It’s the nature of this systemic failure that explains why we’re all so broadly miserable, and why the reasons for it are so vague. We’re grasping at straws trying to find a cause- and a lot of these are actually pretty distal, so I’ll give people credit for that. Some people think that we’re straying from traditional values, and as such we’re a bunch of degenerates. Others think the outdated mores of the past are stifling, and we’re moving to a more equal world. As I’ve covered many times here on the site, these are two sides of the same wrong coin. They’re each tied to one another as proximate explanations that demonize their opposite without understanding why their counterpart exists. The solution here isn’t picking one of the two wrong sides, it’s to figure out what kind of disease presents with paradoxical symptoms.

We have to go deeper.

…wait a minute, that won’t work- if people already can’t see super-complex distal consequences, how would going deeper help? What’s needed is a way of simplifying these complex problems into a straightforward, coherent thing that can be easily understood and acted upon. This is one of the reasons that the Ten Commandments worked pretty well, as well as why there are an abundance of self-help books/click-bait articles (he said, with a hint of smug self-awareness) that are formatted like “X [adjective] tips to [verb] your life!”

Hold on, though, if the problem is more complex than we think, but the solution has to be simple, how are we supposed to deal with that?

The human mind just so happens to have a way to deal with this that you may be familiar with- we call these methods of simplifying a massive system of cause and effects down into stories.

Think about what a story is. You have two basic kinds of plot, comedy and tragedy, which originally just meant a story that starts sad and ends happy, and a story that starts happy and ends sad, respectively. This means that the two kinds of stories are what to do and what not to do, on the most basic level.

Next, we have some basic kinds of characters- heroes and villains. Heroes are role models, and their actions tell us how to operate in the world. Villains are what not to do, and they show us how bad actions cause problems for people who are attempting to operate ethically. It’s a testament to the fact that we’re pretty messed up as a society that we very frequently glorify villains and have stories where they beat the heroes- the message this conveys on a fundamental level is that you cannot succeed by acting correctly in the world, which is a cowardly attitude and quite nihilistic, in my opinion.

I’ll save the complete analysis of the mechanisms that make stories work for another article (or several, who knows), but for now, all you have to understand is this:

Stories are the way we condense complicated systems of distal causes and effects into an easily digestible format.

The reason this matters in the context of this article is that our old stories are too outdated to keep up with modernity. While there are certainly timeless themes in lots of old works, you can’t reasonably expect that centuries old stories have tangible solutions for action in the face of modern problems, like the working world, geopolitics, the internet, or other such novelties. This is not a wholesale dismissal, however, because human themes are and will likely always be the same- love, hate, war, peace, brotherhood, family, struggle, betrayal, and so on, will be the same so long as our biology continues the way it has.

However, our issue is not so much dealing with those human themes, it’s dealing with these human themes in the face of a relatively unnatural, new world that us humans have built. This is the core reason that those who tend towards conservatism have misplaced their blame on their opposition- it’s not the decay of values that made society the way it is, it’s the birth of technological novelty that has made a society which those values no longer serve correctly. In the same vein, progressive tendencies aren’t generally* a calculated attack on the old way so much as they are a blind running forward to explore the new, unbounded territory created by the technology.

*(I do have to put a caveat in here that there are people like Bernays and Gramsci and the hardcore Marxist/Nihilist/Anti-Natalist types that are actively attempting to destroy the society w live in, but that’s most definitely the minority. I also think they, too, are a symptom. It’s very easy to fall into the self-righteousness that comes with having an obvious adversary if you attribute malice to the progressive types rather than ignorance, and you get the insufferable “back in my day” Boomers as a result- hey, asshat, if you guys did everything so right, why the fuck is everything fucked up? Hashtag end rant.)

The critical takeaways thus far are that people do not understand complicated systems, so we need to have stories that can condense the information in a sufficiently simple way that can show us how to act. However, our old stories are now too outdated to deal with the novel problems of modernity, and the two camps that emerge as a result of these emergent problems are the one that says, “nah, the old stories still work,” and the other that says, “old stories are stupid.” The nuanced position apparent here is that we can at least imagine that there’s a possible new story that could incorporate the old stories while still addressing modern life, but that’s seemingly too hard for most people to envision.

What does this have to do with the whole “end justifies the means” thing? When people don’t have good stories to explain how cause and effect works in a way that they can use to live, then they act in ways that have negative distal effects because most people do not understand sufficiently distal consequences. Why should they? Are you going to sit here and tell me that you know where every single element in the chips powering the device you’re using to read this came from, and that they were ethically sourced? No, you fucking don’t know that, and who would expect you to? It’s a ridiculous ask, yet if your device is built on some rare earth metals that child soldiers fought over, then you funded it by purchasing and you have some sort of responsibility there.

There is no historical precedent for us to address the vagaries of global supply chain ethics, or how much an individual needs to feel responsible if their lifestyle is built on the backs of slave labor in a third world country somewhere on the other side of the world. We don’t know how to feel about these things, and there’s no verse in Leviticus about whether buying Chinese imports is haram, or whatever. (If you got mad about that, you better not be wearing any mixed fabrics in your clothes, you degenerate- Lev. 19:19, Deut. 22:11.)

Wait a minute- if trying to solve the systemic problems in a complicated way is wrong, how can we approach this from a simpler angle? Well, instead of worrying about the nuances of commercial logistics, we could simplify things significantly-

Let’s start with the individual.

Instead of trying to handle everything from the top down (re: the Candlemaker’s Fallacy), we can start figuring out how you and I, individual people that we are, operate internally, how we relate to the world, and how we should relate to each other ethically.

Oh, shit, almost forgot, that’s what this whole site is about.

This brings us to the most important point I’ll make here today:

The means are the end.

What you do is what you get.

You can try and get rich in the hopes of it making you happy, but really you’ll just be miserable with money. You can try and get power in the hopes of making the world better, but you’ll really just end up having power and trying to solve symptoms instead of the disease (since that’s obviously what everyone with power ends up doing with it). The problems of the world may seem massive and impossible to solve, but in reality, they’re just the same problems that you have, just at scale and multiplied by interaction. One crazy person isn’t that hard to deal with, but if 80% of society is insane, inevitably some of those inmates end up running the asylum.

For now, forget about the world’s big problems, and just focus on the things in front of you. Get your health in check, physically and mentally. Work on your relationships with your family, and bring your friends together. Appreciate the extreme gravity of the effect you have on other people, and take responsibility for your influence on others seriously- are you making the lives of others better, or worse?

Want to know the real secret here?

Because the means are the end, because what you do is what you get, you can solve all of the complicated problems from this point. The kind of person who understands themselves and who understands how they fit into the world at large is the same kind of person that’s going to be able to fix these complicated problems at the root level, instead of looking at the symptoms and treating them with band-aids and pills. Instead of pointing fingers at the other side, point the finger at yourself and when you’ve fixed everything you can, then you can start telling everyone else where they’re wrong.

Imagine if, instead of politicians telling you how they’re going to be different (which they all do) and how they’re really going to fix it this time, promise, you had public figures who talked about how they made themselves better today, or how they found a new way to improve their community. Imagine if we didn’t fetishize the massive abdication of personal responsibility we call politics, and instead of the time we spend watching people talk about doing stuff, we actually did stuff ourselves. It’s a testament to how far we’ve fallen that this sounds like some sort of unbelievable utopian ideal, but it’s not even a complicated thing to do. Hard, maybe, but not complicated- honest self-reflection is hard and people don’t like doing it because of the petty narcissism that is our society’s chief export, along with misery and nihilism.

We need to reject the myriad, countless voices that screech for blame and blood. Look within, seek first the blame within yourself, fix it, and then when you get done, you can reassess. (Hint: it’s a constant process, there is no end.)

Remember this- the means are the end, and what you do is what you get. You can defer your dreams all you want, but when they’ve festered, remember that you have no one but yourself to blame. No, instead, act as if the world you want to create already exists, and hold yourself to the standard that it asks of you.

Chase the dream of the beautiful world.

Garrett Dailey

Garrett Dailey is a formerly homeless D.I.Y. philosopher who believes that one cannot understand the universe without first understanding themselves. To that end, he has committed to a lifelong journey to become the best version of himself, and in the process, create a community for others who wish to do the same. May we all be led from ignorance to the truth. Pros aion Aletheia aionios.

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