Can the ends ever justify the means?

09/09/2011 § 1 Comment

“A good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving” Tao te Ching

I could be wrong but it seems to me that the statement “the ends justify the means” is the absolute antithesis of sustainability. Faith in this mantra, explicitly or implicitly, underlies an awful lot of what is done in our society in the name of progress.  Overpaying bankers is justified because they will deliver a more healthy economy (ha ha). We invade countries because we want peace. We lobby for more nuclear plants because we want green energy. We let rich criminals (tax evaders) off the hook as part of a shady deal with the Swiss banking authorities because it may (possibly) bring in some unpaid tax. No wonder we find ourselves in a state of fragmentation, economic volatility, and relentless ecological destruction.

The folly of this approach first occurred to me when I was protesting against the second Gulf war. I noticed a fellow marcher with a wonderful banner that read: “Bombing for peace is like shagging for virginity” (my other favourite was “Make tea, not war.”).  Later on I read a comment on-line that has stayed with me “The trouble with using a peaceful end as a justification for destructive means is that you may not achieve the peaceful ends you want, and so all you are left with is the destruction.” This is of course pretty much how the invasion of Iraq has turned out. Is Iraq, or the world, really better off, more secure, happier, after all this killing and bombing?

I thought about this again the other night after convening another dialogue session at the Royal Festival Hall.  I am really enjoying these sessions – it feels very creative to explore different ways of being with and relating to other people.

What I found particularly interesting this time was that I didn’t experience anything new, that we didn’t reach great depths. We had a good conversation – we sat round in a circle, listened to each other respectfully, shared insights we had picked up from reading or speaking to others. But was it dialogue, I asked at the end? No, we all agreed, although we felt that we may have “dipped into it” once or twice. It is a subtle thing, commented one participant, and is hard to pin down.

So what did I learn? Firstly that dialogue doesn’t just happen if you simply create the space and bring some people together, even if those people have experienced this sort of work before.  It would surely have helped if I had spent more time at the beginning reminding us all of the practices that encourage dialogue – deep listening, voicing (speaking up for yourself) and suspending (temporarily letting go of your need to be right).

What I also noticed, on further reflection, is that there were at least a couple of occasions when I could have spoken out and invited the group to go deeper. But I chose not to, mainly because I felt uncomfortable about challenging the group in that way.  It was easier to go with the flow. Yet in doing so I missed an opportunity for a richer, more profound experience.

This led me to think that we probably all, every day, get these inner promptings – to speak up for what we believe, to reach out to an estranged friend, to challenge someone close to us, to challenge ourselves, to turn down (or say yes to!) that extra piece of chocolate cake. Yet too often we let those opportunities pass us by.

And it seems to me that the path to sanity, to wholeness, to integral health, to peace, to a life worth living, is to pay more attention to that inner voice that calls us out.  So long as we allow ourselves to be carried along with the rush of day-to-day existence, making it a priority not to upset others or ourselves, then we are going to miss out.

Thus my surprising (to me) conclusion is that if we genuinely seek environmental sustainability as a goal, we need to pay less attention to the goal itself and instead pay attention to the means. And by means I don’t mean wind turbines, or solar panels, or hydrogen powered cars, important as these may be. I am talking about the ways in which we live, work, talk, think and make decisions together.  After all, how can we expect to establish a healthy relationship with the planet if we have unhealthy relations with each other (this, by the way, is not an original insight. The German philosopher Theordo Adorno in 1955 explicitly linked the exploitation of man by man and the exploitation of nature by man, as indeed did Karl Marx before him.  But I suppose I am just starting to understand it properly.).

The conclusion?  Don’t spend your time fretting about recycling your bottles and paper – spend your time reaching out to that neighbour you rarely speak to, that business colleague you dislike. Pay less attention to your organic vegetables and more attention to how you interact with your family. Focus less on what you communicate with others about, and more time on the way in which you go about your communication. We will never achieve environmental sustainability without social sustainability. It is as simple as that.


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