Ends & Means
(March 21, 2001)
A good portion of the world's problems occurs when ends or goals become confused with the means to accomplish them. As the great Einstein observed: "Perfection of means and confusion of goals seem, in my opinion, to characterize our age."
Yet confusion of ends and means is nothing new. It has been said of the ancient Epicureans, like today's gourmets, that instead of "eating to live", they "lived to eat." So what is so new about all this? Is it simply the perfection of our technology, ranging from microwave ovens to nuclear bombs, or is it something more than that?
It seems to me to be a more fundamental problem than just that. If one observes the natural world apart from humankind there appears to exist a kind of natural balance between the ends or purposes of nature (survival) and the means of survival ‑ food, shelter, self‑defense and sex. It only seems that when we reach the human level of existence that we find creatures like ourselves habitually over‑eating, or eating or drinking things that destroy our health, overcrowding or greedily destroying our environment, or developing means of destruction that could wipe out the whole human race.
But I think this difference is only apparent. Even if the drama of evolution can be described as the "survival of the fittest", then the struggle involves a lot more than mere survival. A species either finds a secure means of survival or it will not survive at all in the long run, and for most species this means the continuous invention of better or more efficient ways to survive. And generally speaking, this invention takes brains. Hence it is that humans, with the most complex brains of all creatures, have more than merely survived. We've ended up dominating the whole scene. The problem is, what is to be the next act?
This is where Einstein's observation comes in — for if we have run out of goals or purposes for our existence, that more than anything else will ensure our eventual self‑destruction, not simply as individuals who have nothing more to live for but as a whole species or race. More of the same is not an adequate answer. Multiplication of means (more food, more comfort, more pleasure, more sex) spells simply more problems, unless, in the long run, we can find an ultimate purpose or meaning for all of this.
Historically speaking, this has always been the function of religion. The great historian Arnold Toynbee went so far as to claim that no great civilization has ever come about without this organizing and motivating principle that we find in religion, nor has any civilization lasted for long once it abandoned it. This is not to say that people haven't managed to survive the destruction of their culture or civilization in the past — but the price they paid was the stagnation of their civilization or its replacement by another.
But that was in the past. Perhaps this is the point where we need to be reminded of another, more well‑known observation by Einstein, the one where he pointed out (after the atom bomb was invented) that "Everything has changed except our thinking." Perhaps so, and after having escaped (at least so far) nuclear self‑destruction, how sad or perhaps even more ridiculous if we end up self‑indulgencing or pampering ourselves to death.