Welcome to Mythic Deviant with Sea Gabriel.
Today a cultural myth: The Ends Justify the Means.
Apparently, we think that Machiavelli said this, but he didn’t. He said that we should keep the results in mind when choosing our methods . . . which is entirely different.
The ends justify the means informs us that it’s all right to do something questionable if it is in the service of ‘the greater good’ as Edgar Wright would say. For example, registering ‘qualified’ individuals, while normally perverse, may be worth it if it thwarts later terrorist activity. It’s sort of a ‘first strike defense’. Let’s look.
‘The End’ says that the story’s over. But any sequel writer knows that stories are circular. The end of a story is most often the beginning of the story. Remember, myths have a beginning, in the ‘normal world’ a middle in the ‘mythic world’ and an end back in the ‘normal world’ that demonstrates what has been learned. The beginning and the end are the same. We go on quests to learn things and then we come home and start again. Ends are beginnings.
As human beings, we like to pretend that some arbitrary moment in 5, 10, 2.000, years, is an ‘end’, but really, time has never ended (And I can’t say that I predict that it will, at least not before we do). Time just keeps going. And so does matter . . .
One of the tenets of the Science, one of our favorite contemporary Gods, is the Conservation of Mass, which states that nothing is lost, only transformed: there is no end. And this also applies to experience.
Things that are done are never undone. The repercussions go on eternally. In the end, there’s no end. There are only means: life affirming means and death affirming means; courageous means and fearful means; honest means and deceitful means. But only means . . .
Because life is change, not completion. So, let’s look at life. Most of us agree that life ends. If the ends justify the means then the point of our lives is to die and we should whatever it takes to do so as quickly and expediently as possible.
But the point of life is not really death: it’s end, but is life itself: it’s mean. The way we live and the things we do while we are alive are the actual point. The moment we die, while potentially interesting, is neither the place where we gain meaning, nor the reason, we live.
A life is, well, alive. It has constant growth: gain and loss, fun and pain, peace and anger. Only death is stagnant and risk free. Life is risky. Death is secure. Life is the means. Death is the closest thing we come to an end (and even then all our bits go on. It’s really just a change we don’t understand, so we tend to unreasonably empower it).
To illustrate repercussions of the cultural myth of ’the ends justify the means', I’m going with Oedipus the King. I kind of love this bit of the Oedipus story, but not for the reasons Freud did. You’ll notice that this is not about Oedipus being hot for his mom. In Oedipus' opinion, his identified ‘end’: to avoid his horrific fate, justified his ‘means' of abandoning his family and duties as upcoming prince.
Once upon a time there was a king, Laius, and a queen, Jocasta. They have a baby, Oedipus, and take him to the local seer for a quick blessing. The seer tells them that the baby will kill his father and marry his mother, which they find a bit pervy and disturbing. So they ask a herdsman to take the baby and klil him, cause that’s what you do.
The shepherd takes that baby away, but does not kill him because, well, he’s a decent human being. Instead he gives the baby to the king and queen in the next town and they raise him as their own. Oedipus grows up believing Polybus and Merope are his real parents (the actual moral of this story may be ‘don’t lie to your children’). When he is an adult he goes to an oracle who tells him he will kill his father and marry his mother. He freaks. He immediately leaves town never to return. On the way out, he meets a man at the crossroads and they dual, thus he kills his father, then he gets to the next town, which he does not know is his original home.
The city is being besieged by a Sphinx who is asking riddles, casue that’s the kind of plagues they had then. He correctly answers the riddle: what walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three at night. It’s a human who first crawls, then walks, then uses a cane. He saves the city and wins the grand prize: the queen (who he does not know is his mother). He marries her and has four children, two boys and two girls. Woohoo. Prophecy fulfilled.
He then states that he will banish whoever had the bad grace to kill her husband, the prior king, oblivious to the fact that it was him. Eventually the truth comes out and tragedy ensues leaving Jocasta dead and Oedipus wandering the country blind, each at their own hand.
There’s more—two sequels, because things don’t end, but for now we’ll pause here.
To me, this is the most dangerous repercussion of 'the ends justify the means' myth. I think of it as shadow-casting. It’s the concept (proven again and again in both story and life) that if we fear something enough, we will pretend it’s an ‘end’: a terminal destination. We then build our lives around combatting a thing that doesn’t exist until we make it so., thus actually creating the situation we were trying to thwart. It’s like pulling up all our plants so we don’t have weeds. We will invariably get weeds because we’ve created a bit of soil with no plants in it, which is weed nirvana.
Oedipus does this with his fate. In his desperate attempt to avoid it, he creates it. Hitler did this as well. He was terrified that the German way of life would be diffused by the subcultures with it, so he attempted to get rid of them. in doing so, he started a war that left his own people devastated and broken. Germany now atones by accepting people from all over the world, thus diffusing the German way of life. Like Oedipus, Hitler created exactly what he was trying to avoid.
However, there was a point in there where he was winning. Around 1940, Hitler was leading Germany to world domination. And he made a great case about the ends justifying the means. But, it wasn’t the end. 70 years later it still hasn’t ended. And it never will. World War II, just like everything else in history, will have repercussions until the end of time, should that manage to occur (you can’t rule anything completely out, but it does seem improbable).
So why do we have a cultural myth that clearly doesn’t work most of the time, because it’s built on false premisses?
Because, it’s great if we want to do something short-sighted that will harm people—which, for some people, is often. There’s always that subversion thing, where a few people like to get the masses to serve only them rather than ourselves There’s nothing a coward likes better than to get other people to do stuff so they can pretend they’re brave and strong leaders.
This myth is great when what we want to do is subvert other’s power and take advantage of people. But is there a way we might actually use it for good?
To me, the key here is determining what an actual long-term end might look like: it would have to be sustainable; it would have to be an actual solution; it would have to have a unified vision and structure that would support it indefinitely. Because any other type of end isn’t one. So, how do we create and end, that is honest and stable, that has no backlash and is, therefore, an actual end (as far as our limited lives can tell)?
I’m using vaccinations as an example. Right now, in my ‘hood, vaccinations are strongly recommended for children, but not enforced. We can opt-out, with enough paperwork. Arguably, our vaccination rate is around 89%. Some people want them to be mandatory for everyone, some people choose not to vaccinate, and some people choose to vaccinate for some things but not others.
Vaccinations do quell outbreaks. When we can predict that someone will die (they have lower immunities) we recommend that they not be immunized. And a small percentage still die (or arguably have other negative ramifications). This is a complex issue and the details are not the point. The point is that many people have an ‘ends justify the means’ attitude toward this practice.
Here are some thoughts: The reason we have a two-person procreation system is to ensure the greatest number of variations in personal genetics so that, in case of tragedy, like plague, we have some individuals who survive.
If we uniformly (even accidentally) kill off a subset of the population that falls outside the norm we are limiting the variations in our species genepool. Yet, when we don’t vaccinate, we are permitting an otherwise avoidable number of tragedies.
Which is more important: my child not getting sick, or my species not going extinct (cause that would be a big bummer for him, too, right)?
Do we prioritize individuals, communities, or the species? Do we want to create a single immortal guy (who will probably kill himself because he is so lonely)?
What, in essence, is the end we are trying to achieve, when we understand that the only legetimate definition of ‘end’ is ‘sustainable ongoing means’? (If it lasts longer than we live it can actually seem like a real ‘end’)
How does this apply to subcultures? What are the sustainable ongoing means we are hoping to create by doing things like registering groups of people? We pretend that our ‘end’ is to reduce terrorism, but most two year olds have a good understanding of what happens when we escalate tension.
Segregation is not an actual ‘end’, it needs constant maintenance, and even then it’s just a means to backlash and violence. Is that the best we can hope for? Or might we be better off if we worked toward another end, like peaceful co-habitation? What if our end was something like trust and respect?
How do we, in our lives, identify ‘ends’ that are really means to a better life? How do we avoid ‘ends’ that are really just fear-based tricks to get us to do stuff that enslaves us when we feel overwhelmed or weak?
I think we need to remember that the real point is a life well lived, not a life well died, that a ‘good life’ is a life lived through ‘good’ means, not necessarily one in which the protagonist dies with finesse, though that could be fun, too.
And one day we will need to address ‘good’ and ‘bad’ but not today.
Next time, back to finish the Shapeshifter. Until then, our live are stories: author responsibly.