Human nature is naturally focused on outcomes. We can deal with a difficult, sad story if it has a happy ending. We love when our favorite team wins even if the game was “ugly” at times. Conflict that is effectively resolved, or peace that has been accomplished, often has a way of overshadowing some really challenging times.
But as young kids, we learned that the “end doesn’t justify the means.” In other words, a positive outcome isn’t, well, a good thing if the methods used were dishonest or harmful to others. If a team won a big game (of which winning is good), but used dishonest means (perhaps by deflating footballs), the outcome itself is tarnished. If people gave gifts to the underprivileged, but did so by stealing them from others, stealing would undermine the charitable act.
Ultimately, the underlying message of the adage is that only one thing matters more than outcome. And that is how we got there, including the reasons and processes we used to accomplish what we did. Although society has a way of still rewarding and idolizing those who succeed despite dubious, or downright despicable means, the saying itself still rings true, and science supports that reinforcing good means versus preferred outcomes does pay off. For example, studies indicate that when we praise effort over performance in the classroom, students end up actually doing better academically and psychologically. On the contrary, cheating or avoiding hard classes might keep your GPA high, but using these means never justifies the end result.
Yet as often occurs, one principle can suggest a related one. Thus, I make the case that although the “end doesn’t justify the means”, the “means can always justify the end.” To further explain, I must first elaborate on the word “means.” By means, I am not just talking about the behavioral methods by which something is accomplished, but also the underlying purpose(s) that is undertaken. Let’s use an example of a longstanding, serious personal conflict with someone else. Many people, especially guys in relationships, are taught that it is best to “avoid the conflict” [means] to keep the peace [end]. On the surface, this might seem like a noble, wise route to take. But for most people and circumstances, this strategy backfires because people become more bitter, disengaged, and ultimately unable to effectively resolve an issue that is central to their well-being and that of their relationship. So, although it is difficult (and can often increase conflict and uneasiness in the short-term), addressing the conflict respectfully, transparently, and empathetically [means] to improve the well-being of the individuals and relationship involved [purpose] is often the key to resolving a conflict [end].
As the example denotes, the key to effective “means” are utilizing respectful, transparent, and empathetic methods for an underlying purpose of bettering not just self, but others and the situation as a whole. Certain areas of service or action necessitate a specific level of competence (e.g., rewiring a home or performing surgery), and part of using virtuous means is being transparent and responsible when taking on these tasks. But many of our daily undertakings involve a deed that requires no level of expertise, but behooves us to consider the “means” we are using. And if we are using means that adhere to the guidelines I mentioned, then no matter how horrible the outcome, the “means do justify the end”. For example, if an adolescent feels called to speak to his father honestly, respectfully, and compassionately about how the father’s drinking is affecting family members, there is no guarantee the outcome will be good; in fact, the father might physically or verbally lash out towards him or others, and the outcome might seem anything but positive. But the means for what was done would justify any end that occurs.
In saying all this, what we are ultimately trying to teach our kids (and embrace ourselves) are the virtues of courage and altruism (unselfishness). Both often require the spirit of one to enable the other, but they also entail a deep abiding pursuit of what is honest, true, and good. Sometimes this pursuit leads to what are seemingly negative and uncomfortable outcomes, and so it is easy to be tempted to take a different course. I remember as a high school senior standing by as classmates teased and bullied a younger peer; I did nothing because I was afraid of how it might affect my own social life. My means [i.e., doing nothing] didn’t justify my end [remaining in good social standing].
But as I look back, what I lacked was real courage, and a deep sense of empathy for another person’s plight. I was too concerned about myself to be willing to use the means that could have made the difference for him. The thing was, too, I had the status and respect at this point in my high school career to impact the situation, and yet I just stood idly by and acted as if it was just part of what happens. And although it is a memory that has somewhat faded, when it does resurface, it still burns because I know I did wrong in doing nothing at all.
In the end, I want my kids to do better than I did, and respond transparently, respectfully, empathetically, and ultimately courageously in whatever way they are called, even if the outcome is uncertain. There is no guarantee it won’t result in heartache and tragedy. But if as a community, we focused less on outcomes, and more on the process, I believe the means would not only justify the end, but the end would justify the means, and both would look a whole lot better. When a good “end” connects with a good “means”, it is a beautiful, rich reality because the parameter for success is no longer predicated on much of what we can’t control, but just on what we can. It doesn’t mean that people stop winning or losing, or achieving or failing, or thriving or struggling. It just means that everyone can all unite on a more transcendent goal—doing what’s right for the right reasons in hope of a better end.
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