Missing the Point

It is all too common for discussions, debates, and all other forms of communication to go nowhere. What is interesting to me is why they go nowhere. How is it possible to invest that much time and energy, and achieve no result?

While this problem has several possible causes, the one I’ll focus on here is understanding the difference between ends and means, especially in discussion. Ends are the goals we want to accomplish by engaging in discussion – for example, you may want your roommate to not blast music at 4 AM. Means are the path we take to get to our goal. The problem of unproductive discussions very often comes from our inability to distinguish the two. Generally, we tend to have a good sense of what we want to accomplish.

Unfortunately, we also have too good of an idea how we want to accomplish it. That is, we have an idea of what motivates us to action, or how we understand the world. As a result, when we discuss ideas with others, we try to change their beliefs about the world to match our own. We do this because, if they would see the world the way we do, they would naturally act like us – problem solved. But, assuming that we all see the world the same way makes no sense: if we did, there would be no need for discussion, because we would already agree on everything.

This attitude of trying to force our perspective and means on others, unfortunately, is a fallacy (a glitch in thinking that gives us wrong conclusions). You cannot change the beliefs of others, no matter how good an argument you may have. Jesus raised the dead, and that wasn’t good enough; is your argument better than raising the dead?[i] What works for one person, may not work for others. This is where the discussion hits a dead-end: both sides are trying to convince each other to change their view of the world, instead of focusing on getting people to act a certain way. However, if we recognize that what matters is the ends, not the means, then we can get unstuck. Fact of the matter is, there is always a wide variety of ways to get to the same place. If getting there is what’s important, then how we get there is irrelevant.

When we look at the difference between means and ends in other situations, the “need” to make people see things our way becomes silly. Consider the following:

  • Would you turn down a job, if the employer’s idea of why you’re a good fit for the company was different than your idea why you might be a good fit? (If you get the exact job you wanted)
  • Would you turn down money for your project to feed the homeless, because the donor’s primary concern was the tax write-off, instead of helping the needy?
  • Would you turn down a life-saving bone-marrow transplant for your child, because the donor was doing it out of their “Christian duty,” instead of your religious/non-religious ethical standard?[ii]

Clearly, what matters is the agreement on what to do. We might prefer that we are all on the same page, and got to our conclusions the same way, but that’s rarely a necessity. Just because people agree on how things are, does not mean they will agree on what to do – and then you’re back to square one. Certainly, there are people who agree that climate change is man-made, but have a total disregard for the environment – since they don’t care what happens when they’re dead.

The best way of getting to our ends is not by pushing our agenda on others, but by recognizing the context, preferences, and goals of others, and figuring out how to work with their motivations to get them to do what we want. That sounds a bit sinister, but it’s really not: the point is to work with other people’s goals and values to find a way of making your idea meaningful to them. It’s not about forcing people to do things that are against their interest, or tricking them into things they do not agree with. By understanding the world through the eyes of others, we can work with that perception and find a way to make our goals part of their goals. By trying to force our worldview on them, we end up with a hostile and defensive person, who is rejecting our ideas because our way of getting there does not match theirs.

This approach allows us to speak to people in their language – for lack of a better term. While we may be concerned about helping the needy, major corporations are concerned about profits. Trying to force the corporations to change their focus will not work. Instead, if we can make helping the needy into a financial investment for the corporation (tax write-off, public relations, etc.), we can present the idea to them in their language. It’s no use complaining that the other side does not speak your language; if you want to do business, go learn theirs. It also does not matter whether you agree with their perception; the point is to work with their perception to get things done.

When I make the case to my students to commit to their studies, I use a wide range of possible motivations, precisely because not everyone sees the world the same way. Some are motivated by a reminder of the cost of taking the course, others by their GPA, others still wanting a good letter of recommendation, and rarely are they motivated by the motivation I think they should have; the pursuit of knowledge. What matters to me is that my students commit to their studies and do well – those are my ends. The means vary from course to course, student to student. Some students want to be intellectually challenged, others want to be entertained; as long as the content sticks, these means are irrelevant.

As an example of where things go wrong, consider the conversation on climate change. The spokespeople for man-made climate change keep harping on specific data, projections, etc. while the opposition keeps on challenging the veracity of that data, of the interpretations, etc. However, all that was merely the means of getting to the climate-change ends – pushing for a change of human behavior to be more eco-friendly. Consider the fact that some 2.2 billion people describe themselves as Christians, and another 1.6 billion describe themselves as Muslim. That’s more than half the global population, right there. Christianity has produced some strong theological arguments for taking care of the environment, and Islam has eco-protection as a core tenet. Instead of arguing about the means, the climate change community would be far better off focusing on their ends, and dealing with this enormous chunk of the global population on their own terms. That is, forget the intricacies of data – they mean nothing to most people anyway – and just focus on making the case through Islamic and Christian theology for committing people to specific behaviors. All sides agree on the ends, yet the division starts when some of the means are introduced. If we’re worried about long-term health of the planet (and us on it), then what matters is what we do, not how or why we decided to do it.

The key takeaway is this: you have to make a clear distinction between your ends and your means, before engaging in discussion; and you have to understand and work within the context of the other person. If you don’t, all you’re really engaging in is a waste of your time and effort.[iii]


[i]The specific religious miracle, or secular genius, is irrelevant. What matters is that the event never magically makes the opposing side switch to your position.

[ii]If you are a Christian, imagine they’re doing it out of Hindu duty, etc.

[iii]As a prime example, despite all the debates and claims of victory by both the New Atheists and their interlocutors, neither religion nor atheism is dead.

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