Do the ends justify the means?

I’ve always thought that one should reach one’s ends in a moral way. But as I went on towards my goals I found myself lying, cheating, manipulating others. While the motivation to do so would usually be to use people and then run them over, my own motivation was to keep them out of my way and to not interfere.

I was manipulated by my parents ever since I can remember. When they wanted something done, they wouldn’t stop at anything. For them, the end justified any means, including squashing the dreams of a dreamy-eyed child. Their child. So, when they thought I could be used for their ends, they used me for their ends. Whether that included screaming, beating, shaming, or forcing me into a role I didn’t want to play or to pose for family photos for local newspapers, it didn’t matter.

When my dreams and my wishes were on the line, however, they would get ignored, ridiculed, and I was shamed for ever thinking I could succeed with a simplistic attitude such as I had. I was routinely interrupted when working toward making those dreams come true, and I was yelled at unless I was doing things they thought I ought to be doing. As a result, I never trusted people. I would rather not let anyone know what I was doing than let them in in order to have them help improve my understanding of whatever I was working on, much less to let them help me in some more direct way.

So, when I was working on something, I lied about it. I said I was working on something else. Something everyone was expecting I was working on. I would pretend that what I was expected to do was a much bigger problem than I thought initially. In truth, I was completely ignoring the work everyone was expecting me to do and I was instead working on my own pet projects. They never were formally projects because I always felt too pressed for time to make room for formalities. But there was always something else that I was working on, something I felt I ought to keep hidden from everyone lest they interfere.

My motivation, however, went beyond just leaving them out of what I was doing; beyond just interfering and letting them change it. It was to avoid ridicule, and shaming that I was receiving since time immemorial about anything I did. It was also to avoid being put down for trying. I don’t need to be demotivated by others; I have plenty of internal inner critics and I don’t need external ones, even if they are ultimately helpful. At least, I don’t need any until I’m ready for them. I also consequently saw any criticism of what I did as ridicule and often feel I need to justify any and all decisions I make while working on anything. I believe that if I could just make people see the reasoning behind those decisions, they would understand that my efforts are worthwhile. And if I failed to make them see it, if I failed to provoke in them the same kind of enthusiasm that I had for the thing, then my own interest would wane. The only thing that would keep me going was my stubbornness, but if the criticism was constant, or harsh enough, I’d ultimately drop everything.

For a long time I wouldn’t admit that I held the opinions of others in any kind of regard. They, however, would affect me deeply on a subconscious level. Something that I found enormously exciting one day would suddenly lose its appeal overnight and all it took was one look from someone, or a couple of words. And I would perceive mockery even in kindness. It’s no wonder I often felt I would work best as a recluse, since it seems any interaction I had with others had a detrimental effect on my motivation.

When I think about the ends that I’m after and about the means I’m using to reach them, I’m noticing that the question about whether my ends justify my means is moot. Somewhat, at least. The means I use to reach those ends are my own. If I take into account that I also use the means of manipulation and lying to others in order to keep them out of the loop about what I’m doing, my ends couldn’t justify those means even if ends did justify means, because those means – more often than not – are detrimental to those ends. It’s questionable if I can ever reach those ends when I use such powerful means to work against them.

Not only this, they are also detrimental to other, unrelated ends. For example, lying to my wife is detrimental to my marriage; lying to my colleagues is detrimental to my work.

The question is, thus, not that simple as far as I’m concerned, because at any one moment we have a multitude of goals in multiple aspects of our lives. And each action we take to the fulfillment (or detriment) of one of our goals has effects on other goals as well – if nothing else, it either puts the moment when we actually reach those goals further, or sooner in the future. Even if we were able to put ourselves into such a perspective where we could see how each action affected all of our goals, we would still have a hard time determining whether any of our ends justified any particular action, particularly because that same action could have a detrimental effect on our other ends.

“Do the ends justify the means” is a wrong question to ask. There is no telling. Even in a chess game, if we analyze the game of the winning player, we can’t say that every single move he made was justified by his victory. There could have been bad moves, counterbalanced by even worse moves of his opponent. A queen sacrifice might have proven unnecessary, or it might have proven positively brilliant, or positively disastrous (and yes, I’ve seen games in which a queen sacrifice was positively disastrous, and still the player who made it won the game – because his opponent was just that bad at chess).

The correct question is whether a given action puts you in an overall better position regarding all your goals – whether short-term, long-term, or anything in between and beyond. Does it give you more power, or are you giving it away by taking that action?

In my case in particular, when I lie to everyone about what I’m doing, does that give me power, or do I give my power away?

I believe that for me it’s a trade-off between what I think are likely consequences of telling the truth, and likely consequences of lying. When my mother read some of the posts I wrote on my parenting blog, she was extremely critical and she ridiculed my blog’s title and my parenting methods. I thought that it was a mistake that I’d told her about my blog. I knew I would get her opinion about it sooner or later, and I knew she would be critical. So, why did I tell her the truth? Why didn’t I just hide it from her? It would have been a lot easier to do that than to hear yet another lecture from her.

On the other hand, my parenting blog and style is – in a way – a criticism of her own parenting. Hearing her criticize my way of parenting is basically her trying to justify her own style to me, and I can’t say there isn’t an aspect of that that isn’t satisfying.

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