Which is more important, the means or the ends?
This is a question which encompasses almost every endeavor of our life ranging from business to politics, from families to nations, from students of schools to Presidents of countries, from peace times to war times, from the past to the present and to the future which is yet to come. The question runs on the thin lines and slippery slopes of moral and ethical continuums of our times.
Does it matter what the means were if the goal is achieved? Is the path important so long as one is victorious?
Ask a salesperson that has to meet the monthly targets at all cost, and he shall tell one story. Ask a politician who has to win a state or a constituency and he shall tell another. Ask a Director who has to run an organization and he shall tell a third.
And in order to meet the stringent targets, a lot of professionals would confess to adopting means of all natures and varieties. Pressure of sustaining ourselves and our loved ones takes a lot out of us and makes us do series of compromises in a lot of situations.
What would you say if this question is posed? Does means matter or the end?
Since this question covers the moral and ethical boundaries of our laws, in order to come up with an answer, here’s a little diagram I created.
Ethics & Morality Continuum
For any project we undertake, we begin from the beginning, the first step along the road, the Start point. With the start point come the Goal or the End. For a salesperson, the decision of the monthly sales targets would be the start point, achieving the targets would be the goal. For a student, the date of exam is the start point, acing the exam is the goal. For the President, the date of the following elections would be the start, winning them of course is the goal.
Once the start point and the goal are set, then come into picture the paths or the means to achieve that goal. In between the start point and the goal, encompassing the means are the ethical and moral boundaries set by the rule of law prevailing in the land we are in. This rule of law may vary with national boundaries. It may also differ with religious boundaries, familial boundaries, organizational boundaries and even personal boundaries.
Acts such as bribery, extortion, murder, blackmail and the like to achieve one’s goal are commonly unacceptable under rule of law of almost all nations. At the same time, certain other acts such as consuming animal meat to achieve the goal of satiating one’s hunger might not be acceptable under some religious circles while there may not be any restrictions under others.
In this manner, a lot of our endeavors cross through the boundary of Ethical & Moral Continuum. In this continuum, some means are in sync with the present ethical and moral boundaries and therefore pass smoothly through the continuum (Means I) while for some others there is a blockage and the continuum must be broken to achieve the goal with those means (Means II & Means III).
So what do we see?
Means I passes continuously through the Ethics & Moral Continuum and is therefore the most natural path to achieve the goal.
Means II and Means III are stopped on the way and therefore will have to unnaturally break the Ethical & Moral boundaries for the goal to be achieved. This is where a lot of our questions and judgments about ethics and morality lie.
Further note that Means II is the shortest path to achieve the goal. Shortest yes, and yet not the best one when it comes to working within the ethical and moral boundaries.
And such are the situations which we face on an everyday basis. Should we sell low quality cheap product to the market because it is rotting in our warehouses? Should we make too much effort on educating the customer or focus on meeting the targets without which our jobs and our companies are at stake? Should we forge the data a bit and prepare that report because submission is due and there’s paucity of time?
My take is End is important. Without achieving the goal, the work which began isn’t complete, and no real progress can be made with loose ends. It is absolutely essential to achieve one’s goal.
As for the Means, all means are acceptable so long as they comply with the Ethical & Moral Boundaries of our times. The means of writing a report, selling to a customer, acing an exam, playing music et al may be different for different people. In fact so long as we the people are different, they will be. It matters little what means are employed to achieve these ends so long as they fall within the ethical and moral boundaries.
Within these boundaries, too much attention on the means take focus away from the goal. At the same time the moment these boundaries are being breached, the focus should immediately shift towards the means to make amendments and get back to the boundaries.