Have you ever been caught up in one of those ethical arguments about the "right way" forward? Surely you have tossed around the question about whether or not the "ends justify the means."
With all the strife in the world these days, this might be a good time to revisit this age old dilemma. The argument has been around for quite some time, going back at least as far as Ovid Heroides ii. 85 (exitus acta probat, the outcome justifies the deeds). The concept has been attributed and misinterpreted most frequently to Niccolo Machiavelli, who authored his version of this time worn notion in "The Prince" ("Il Principe").
A common misinterpretation is to argue that any action can be justified when measured against some kind of desirable outcome. Machiavelli focused primarily on actions taken for the purpose of creating stability or improving government. He also pointed out that the argument could not apply to individuals in search personal aggrandizement. Of course, the challenge often comes down to what looks like desirability or improvement to me may not look so good to you.
Leon Trotsky put it this way: "The end may justify the means as long as there is something that justifies the end." The question may turn on something as deceptively simple as defining the end.
As is my wont, I'd like to offer a personal improvement twist on the subject, something that you can read as anything from pie-in-the-sky to down in the dirt practical. Not surprisingly, I'm of the mind that what follows is on the practical side. Rather than seeking to apply what follows to a turbulent world full of injustice and cruelty, how about thinking about these thoughts could be helpful in your own day-to-day experience of life?
Years ago, I was facilitating a personal growth seminar with my friend, Terry Tillman. One of the participants was struggling with what he wanted out of life and how to produce it. Terry coined a terrific twist on the cube when he said, "if you know what you really want, then the ends are the means." That was 30 years ago, give or take a year or two, and the power of what Terry said still reverberates in my daily life.
The power of the ends becoming the means can be found in blending the potent philosophies of two insightful thinkers who influenced my life when I was looking for what I wanted to be when I grew up. Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman philosopher, wrote, "You can never get enough of what you don't need to make you happy," which I paraphrase in my work as "you can never get enough of what you don't really want."
Fritz Perls, the gestalt psychologist, counseled that simple awareness can often be curative. A simplified view of this notion would suggest that if you were to consider the challenges, difficulties or pain you experience in your life, you may discover that at least some part of the struggle can be attributed to your own choices, or lack thereof. Hence, simple awareness can be curative by opening you up to other choices you can make to improve your experience.
(This one opens a large can of worms for those who prefer to approach life from the point of view that experience is solely a function of what happens to you. As Oscar Wilde wrote: "It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you place the blame." If you want to learn more about the power of awareness and choice, consider reading either "Gestalt Therapy Verbatim" or "It's Not What Happens to You, It's What You Do About It.")
Building on Messrs Hoffer and Perls, a key to living life more fully is to discover what you truly seek in life. In my first article on The Huffington Post (and several that followed), I gave some suggestions on how to examine the difference between what you might be pursuing in life compared to what you would hope to experience as a result. A simplified example: people often pursue money hoping that at the end of rainbow they will find security, well-being and peace of mind. But do you know of anyone with loads of money who lacks security, well-being and peace of mind?
In my work with thousands of people in 24 countries around the world, I have found that regardless of culture, most people are after greater peace, love and joy in their lives. Of course, it's pretty unlikely that anyone is going to live in perfect peace, love and joy all of the time. However, what might happen if you were a bit more peaceful, loving and joyous right now? Not perfectly loving, joyous or at peace, just doing what you can with what you have and choosing to bring a bit more peace, love and joy to whatever you happen to be doing today.
Simple stated, Terry's little twist on the notion of the ends being the means would be: if what you're after is greater peace, joy and loving, how about being more peaceful, joyous and loving?
Of course, there's nothing particularly easy about making these choices day in and day out. I find that I struggle with them daily, perhaps even hourly. It's so easy to become distracted by circumstances, emotions and judgments of what's right or fair; yet, if you are going to rise above what befalls you, it will surely be a result of your choice to do so.
So, what do you want? Really? What could you do today to begin producing more of that experience, regardless of your circumstances?
"Thinking is easy, acting is difficult, and to put one's thoughts into action is the most difficult thing in the world."
--Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
"Anyone can give up, it's the easiest thing in the world to do. But to hold it together when everyone else would understand if you fell apart, that's true strength."
What about you? I'd love to hear from you about the value you have been able to extract from these articles. Please leave a comment here or drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life, or how you can take a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, download a free chapter from Russell's new book, "Workarounds That Work."
Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about his work by visiting his website at www.RussellBishop.com. You can contact him by email at Russell@russellbishop.com.