Saturday, 6 November 2010

An end in itself

“What do you want?” a friend repeated to me last night across a sticky pub table. “Happiness,” was my reply. He was exasperated. “But what is happiness to you?”
“Happiness is happiness,” I said unhelpfully. “That is my end; I can’t identify the means.”
He passed me a pad and paper, instructing me, “While I get the drinks, draw your happiness.”

You can’t draw happiness. Or at least, I can’t. But he was really asking me to represent the means to the end of happiness, what it was that would make me happy, whilst hoping that expressing it in shapes rather than words would free me up.

I am fascinated by the ends/means distinction, and the fallacies we fall into when we muddle the two. When we forget the ends and focus on the means, they can appear to have certain valences in and of themselves.

Democracy is a good example. What was thought by some to be the best means to a free and equal society – this being a good thing – has come to be thought of by many as good in itself. But democracy is an idea, a concept of a system. As such it is not good in itself, it is only good in as far as it works. If it stops leading to the ends it was designed to create, especially if another system is doing better, it is no longer even a good means, but they key distinction is the means/ends one. Democracy is a means to something else. We should not desire democracy for its own sake.

Likewise what people believe they want, and thus in effect do want. Looking around contemporary Britain, it’s easy to believe that many people desire, for example, home ownership for its own sake. We have got so used to the idea that owning our own home is a good thing that we have forgotten the silent second half of the sentence – i.e. it is a good thing because it brings stability, is (or used to be) a good investment, and will mean your progeny inherit something of value. These things in turn are the means to something else: contentment, or happiness, perhaps.

Home ownership is a means to something, then; it is not a good in itself, nor an end in itself. Hence the confusion and frustration of those with negative equity, staring at four-figure roof repair bills, trapped in jobs in order to pay the mortgage. They wonder why they did it.

The same argument can be applied to wealth in general, or to anything we set our sights on. Why do we choose a particular path? Many of us don’t really think about it. ‘It’s the done thing,’ ‘It’s expected,’ are sometimes trotted out eventually as reasons. How does an individual know which kind of life will make him or her happy? A person looks around and perceives happiness in the single or the married, the endlessly travelling or the cosily settled, and sees the state they are in as the goal.

I haven’t mentioned status in this rant, which is often seen as an end in itself, to be achieved through whatever means work in a given society. But like most things, this can be construed as a means to a kind of happiness too. I won’t even start on freedom and equality and other abstract notions, or I’ll be here all night.

By the time my friend returned with the drinks, I had drawn a grapevine, and a landscape of hills and trees seen through the frame of a window. What is happening on the inside of the window I still don’t know, but a beautiful view and the promise of wine are definitely the means to some happiness for me.

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