On Philosophy

February 15, 2007

Ends In Themselves

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:06 am

What is an end in itself? Well an end in itself (abbreviated simply as End from this point forwards) is something that is not pursued because of some motive, but that is itself a motive with no further reasons. For example, a desire to drive to the store is not an End because you desire to do it only because you want something from the store. And you want something from the store only because you want to eat, … and so on. An example of an End might be something like happiness, as happiness is pursued by many for no other reason besides the fact that they want to be happy.

I think everyone agrees that happiness is an End in this sense for many people. But are there other Ends as well, or is everything ultimately justified by happiness? Well we might consider self-preservation as a candidate, but perhaps that is too instinctual to count. I think that many people pursue Ends other than happiness, such as the happiness of people they care about, certain life goals, and so on. Now some will say that these things are pursued only because they make the person pursuing them happy, meaning that you work towards the happiness of some other person only because doing that makes you happy. And this may be true for some people, but I doubt that it is true for everyone. Just observe how people act when they are near their deaths. If people only had one End, their own happiness, they would stop pursuing many of these other pseudo-Ends when they were near the end of their lives, after all they can’t expect to see the effects of many of their actions at this point. And yet many people continue to pursue these goals even until their last moments. Why would they do this if they weren’t Ends? Now my imaginary opponent will here say that simply acting in this way makes them happy, even if they don’t expect to see the results. But there are two problems with this explanation of their behavior. Firstly that happiness is better explained by saying that people become happy when furthering their Ends, that the happiness is a side effect not the primary motivation. And secondly many people seem to pursue these ends even when it is to their detriment. Now admittedly the person who firmly believes that happiness is the only End might still find some way to justify every action in terms of it, but simply accepting that people have other Ends besides happiness is a much simpler explanation that fits the data without any contortions.

Now given that people have several Ends, which differ from person to person, there are several questions that naturally arise. First are these Ends rational? Well it is certainly possible for Ends to be directly opposed (or pursing a single End may prevent you from reaching that same End). And if one End you pursue directly conflicts with another then you, and your Ends, are best described as irrational. Of course having more than one End means that there will always be some pull of one against the other, as the time and resources that are used to pursue one End are time and resources that can’t be used to pursue another. But this simply means that the Ends must be prioritized so that each one gets attention in proportion to its importance. Beyond this I think that rationality has little to do with Ends. Admittedly they are arbitrary, but this doesn’t make them irrational. Now of course some Ends, such as happiness and self-preservation, we are probably predisposed towards because of evolutionary pressures (beings that didn’t have their own survival as an End wouldn’t do too well), but this doesn’t make them better or worse than other Ends, nor does it make them more rational or justified in any way. It might make them more common or more understandable, and we might be surprised when people don’t have them, but this doesn’t have a bearing on whether we should have them. Indeed Ends seem like the bedrock on which all justifications rest, meaning that they in turn cannot be justified, in general, by more fundamental considerations.

But this doesn’t mean that we don’t have an influence upon which Ends we have. Certainly having or not having an End is something that is part of our psychological structure, but it is not like a belief that we can gain or loose at will. However, in the long term we do have control over our Ends; by systematically ignoring an End we can reduce its hold over us until it vanishes altogether, and by systematically treating something as important, for some reason, will eventually turn it into an End that needs no justification. Why might we want to change our Ends? Well, as I mentioned above our Ends can pull on each other, and sometimes if one End is more important to us than some conflicting End we might be motivated to do our best to loose that End. Likewise an existing End may motivate us to adopt a new one. Lets say that happiness is our End. Now if we want to live in a community we will need to act ethically, otherwise the community will punish us or expel us. Thus the best way to pursue our end of happiness will be to adopt ethics as an End. Why as an End? Well if we acted ethically just because we wanted to fit into the community then we would be unhappy, because our ethical behavior occasionally prevented us from pursuing our End of happiness. But if we adopt ethics as an End then when ethics compels us to act in a certain way we will still feel happy because we are furthering our End of being ethical (assuming that furthering our Ends makes us happy, which I see as a reasonable assumption). Ironically then the best way to pursue the End of happiness may, in certain circumstances, be to adopt an End that occasionally conflicts with the End of happiness.

Of course Ends can be unsuitable for other reasons as well, for example certain kinds of Ends may lead to nihilism or other mindsets that lead to unhappiness. And thus if we already had Ends that motivate us to avoid these mindsets we are thus motivated to modify those Ends accordingly. Obviously how Ends interact and pull against each other can be complicated, and depends on which Ends are more important, and to what extent. But I won’t go into the details here, because I think you get the idea.

One final observation I would like to make here is that Ends are only modified, gained, or lost, because of other Ends. A being with no Ends would not acquire them (or do much of anything). So the fact that we have certain Ends instinctually is responsible for whatever Ends we ultimately end up having, even if those Ends have nothing in common with the ones we were born with.

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