Tuesday, 14 July 2015

The Means of the End of Means as Means.

So, Mr Osborne has recently announced the new UK Budget.  You may agree with some, all or none of it, and I certainly know where my own opinion sits, but a lot of the talk and reporting that’s surrounded it has made me realise something, and, since you appear to be reading this blog, I will assume that you are interested in what that is.  If you’re not, then I don’t mind at all; you’ve already been on the site and boosted my page views, which is what is important.

Which acts as a very neat introduction to what I want to discuss, which is the human (I’d be tempted to say ‘modern’, but I’m actually not sure that it is) tendency to substitute ends for means, and turn the latter into the former.

I’ve heard an awful lot recently about ways to boost the economy, whether austerity is good or bad for it, what can be done to improve it, what might hurt it.  Will slashing benefits help the economy?  Will cracking down on tax evaders?  Raising wages and lowering taxes?  What can we do to help the economy?

Except that haven’t we got that the wrong way round?  To imitate Kennedy, “Ask not what you can do for your economy, but what your economy can do for you.”  After all, surely the whole point of a national economy is that it can support people and ensure that there’s enough money available for things like hospitals, transport, law enforcement, defence etc etc etc.  Now, this economy needs to be carefully worked out, based on tax revenues, and expenditures and so forth, and carefully managed to ensure that it can carry out those plans, but it is (or rather, ought to be) a means to the end of greater prosperity, security and happiness of the population.  At some point along the line, language and perception seem to have shifted, like looking at an outline picture of a hollow cube.  Suddenly, what looked like the inside of the back wall becomes the outside of the front, and what was the inside of the bottom looked at from above is now the outside from underneath.

Gradually, people have become a way of boosting the economy.  After all, if happy, prosperous people equal a strong economy, then the opposite must also be true, and anything that boosts the economy must improve the wellbeing of the people.  Thus improving the economy should be everybody’s goal.  Right?  Strangely though, and in stubborn defiance of logic, it does not appear to have worked out like that.  The means by which the end is measured has gradually become the end in and of itself, and this had happened numerous times in numerous different areas.

One of my hobbies is fencing, and as a sport it has changed vastly over the last hundred years.  During the 20th century, electric scoring apparatus was introduced.  The idea was that it would reduce referee subjectivity, make it obvious who had landed a hit and encourage good swordsmanship and sportsmanship.  You may not be surprised to discover that this is not how it turned out.  Instead, fencers increasingly began to fence ‘to the box’, attempting manoeuvers that a referee would never allow and that constitute very poor swordsmanship.  However, under the rules, and the inscrutable and emotionless eye of the box, these manoeuvers were permitted and valid.  The most (in)famous (but not the only example) is the ‘flick attack’, in which the fencer makes a whipping motion that flicks the point of his sword in a curve, striking the opponent on the top of the shoulder, or even on the back and depressing the button enough for the box to count it as valid.  Traditionally, such a hit would never be allowed, let alone be considered ‘good’ fencing, but it was undeniably effective in competitions, and very quickly caught on, completely altering the nature of the sport.

I’ve heard numerous complaints, both from friends who teach, and from friends with children, amongst others, that schools nowadays don’t teach children; they coach them to pass exams.  Various exams and tests were introduced to measure how effectively schools were teaching and encourage improvement, but because schools were being assessed, rated and ranked on how many pupils were passing the exams, it became more important to make sure that they passed than it was to make sure they actually received a good education.  Exam rankings started as a means to improving education, and finished as the ends, as a result of which education has suffered.

Similarly (And I’m afraid I’m going to sound even stuffier and more judgemental than hitherto), sex used to be seen as something that people did within a relationship, and which increased intimacy and love between them.  It was a means to an end, and a very pleasant one it was too.  Increasingly though, it seems to be viewed as an end in itself and devalued to the point where it is treated as just another fun activity, an entertainment to be indulged in in the same way as alcohol or dancing.  Instead of people getting together and having sex, people are getting together to have sex. I’m still sufficiently romantic to believe that it ought to be something more.  In the same way, I suppose, drinking was once something one did as part of an evening, to act as a social lubricant and help people relax and enjoy themselves.  Often nowadays, people seem to go out to get drunk, rather than going out and getting drunk.

And yes, I’m aware exactly how old the preceding paragraph makes me sound.  (Youth of today, no respect muttermutter in my day we really knew how to have a good time mumblemumble…)

And of course money itself went down the same route a long time ago.  Once, it was a measure of prosperity, and your ability to buy things and live a comfortable life.  Gradually, the acquisition of money became the end in itself, not the means to that comfort.

As I said before, I’m sure that none of these are necessarily recent developments (except possibly the economy one), and I may well be making the classic mistake of harking back to a golden age that never existed, when things like money and sex and even power were valued not for themselves, but for what they lead to.  And I’m afraid that if you were hoping for some stunning insight that would reverse this trend and set the world to rights, you are going to be disappointed.  I am merely making an observation, and while I can try to resolve that in my own life, I will not allow the means to become ends, I have no suggestions for anybody else.

But you’ve viewed my page, and bumped up the blog’s viewing stats, and that’s all that matters really, right?

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