Means and Ends: Opening a can (and can’t) of worms.

Means and Ends: Opening a can (and can’t) of worms.

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Q: Why do dogs lick their genitals?

A: Because they can.

As with all jokes, this one is a bait and switch. We were expecting a motive and got a de-constraint instead. The question led us to think about the dog’s ends (no pun intended), and instead we’re shunted to consideration of the dog’s means. Implicit in this short and vulgar joke is a “who wouldn’t if they could?” aside.

I bring this joke up because . . . I can.

No really, I bring it up because I can (means), and I want to (ends), because it lets me make some points about means and ends. The primary point is that the relationship between these two deserves a whole lot more attention than it gets.

We pay enormous amounts of careless attention to each. Means and ends are the currency exchanged in all analysis of behavior – from why wars happen to why that coworker is obnoxious, from why the global climate is changing to why dogs lick themselves. But for all our fuss over means and ends, we don’t think as much as we should about how they interact.

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We have a strong tendency toward fast and economical thinking about motives. Though people rarely if ever do anything for just one reason, we typically seek a single answer to the question “why?” – asking “what is the reason?” more often than “what are the reasons?” We say “the reason is . . . ” more often than we say “the reasons are. . . . ” Our default strategy is to wonder casually about why something happened, and as soon as we come up with one sufficient reason – either a means or an end – our modest curiosity is satisfied and we move it elsewhere before we get muddled on multiple motives. As a result we often end up with just one means or just one end.

If we were to stop and reflect on the relationship between means and ends, we would acknowledge that they are both necessary conditions and you need at least one of each to explain anything. To make money you’ve got to have both a way and a will. To get one “did” you need to mix together at least one “could” with one “would.” He did it because he could and because he wanted to, or because he didn’t find it important enough to avoid doing.

We tend to assume that the will comes first. First you want something, and then you find out if you can get it. We say necessity is the mother of invention. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. This assumption taken to its logical extreme leads to the conventional assumption about the origins of life and the universe itself. If will always comes first and then finds a way, then the origins must have been in someone or something wanting life and the universe to exist. God willed it, though what would have willed a God is persistently unclear.

Looking around at the mixed bag of life, we wonder about God’s ends, and cycle through a limited set of options for explaining what would will the evil we see all around us.

God wills everything, even evil, for reasons we can’t understand.

If we can’t understand his reasons, how can we claim to know anything about his works and workings?

Well, we do know some. God created us with free will as part of a test to see whether we would choose right.

That doesn’t make any sense. He didn’t give us complete free will or else we could do anything. Why would he, with his infinite power, create a creature capable of doing evil, test him, and then punish him if he fails. It’s like a master engineer deliberately designing a faulty product, putting it to the test, and then smashing it to bits when it fails to work right. What does that say about God’s will?

God’s will is mysterious.

You said that before. If it’s so mysterious, how can you say anything at all about his will?

Well, then perhaps God didn’t create evil – the devil did.

And how did this devil come into being?

God created him.

But that’s got the same problem as God creating a man capable of evil. You’ve just added a middle-man. You still have to explain why God would have created the devil.

He didn’t mean to. The devil just slipped free.

Free from God? How could anything be free from the all-powerful creator of everything?

Look, you’re out of line with all of your questioning. Are you going to be faithful or not?

I’m trying to decide. Can’t you help me understand why the creator of everything would will evil into being?

Free will itself is interesting with respect to means and ends. Though it’s a modified noun related to ends (what one wills) it’s really about means. To say that people have free will is to say that they can do what they want. It says nothing about what people would want to do, just that they can. Like the joke, it’s a bait and switch.

Why do people do evil things?

Because they can.

Like the dog-joke it implies that of course we would want to do what we’re capable of doing. But unlike the implicit pleasure of the dog’s self-massage, the pleasure of doing evil things is not obvious.

This is just one of many examples of means and ends deserving better explanations than we’ve got. As dependent upon them as we are, we should will a better understanding of how they really interact. And fortunately we live at a moment in intellectual history when we finally have the means to understand them at least much better than we have. So keep reading in the weeks to come. If you can and so desire.

For a nice summary of thinking about God’s ends and evil (theodicy) here’s a great article from a recent New Yorker as text, and as audio