“The end justifies the means” is a phrase attributed to Niccolo Machiavelli (1469–1527) from "The Prince." He may not have said exactly these words, but he would have endorsed the meaning, defined this way on Wikipedia: “Morally wrong actions are sometimes necessary to achieve morally right outcomes; actions can only be considered morally right or wrong by virtue of the morality of the outcome.”
It’s challenging to consider the truth of this. Whose morality? And what would constitute a moral outcome? Would everyone agree on it?
I like to add in a reworking of that phrase, not to replace it but to temper it. The problem with slogans is that we can easily assume they always apply. Not so. Ultimately, we are charged with full responsibility for our actions, not excusing ourselves because of any truth-ism. My rework is: “The means determine the end.”
I suggest that this principle is more generally true. Any chef knows it. Ingredients matter. Try substituting salt for sugar and see how the cake tastes!
The problem with “end justifies means” thinking is that it opens the door for hypocrisy. “There are some people who do not love their fellow man… and I hate people like that!” is a quote from '60s satirist Tom Lehrer that deftly describes what I mean. And relative to peace, does it really make sense to fight for peace?
Veterans would argue "yes" and it would be disrespectful to disagree. Any sane person would naturally feel gratitude for anyone who sacrificed to safeguard the freedoms we enjoy. But I’m sure those same veterans would agree that it would have been better to have found a peaceful solution before the fighting started!
In the seminal book, "Getting to Yes," co-author Roger Fisher advises, “People listen better if they feel that you have understood them. They tend to think that those who understand them are intelligent and sympathetic people whose own opinions may be worth listening to. So if you want the other side to appreciate your interests, begin by demonstrating that you appreciate theirs.”
I recently found myself on a two-day adventure with a small group of businessmen who made it immediately clear that they had strong opinions about politics, the economy, and religion — views that were polar opposites from my own. They knew it and our conversations quickly headed towards argument or at least debate.
Fortunately, I remembered a useful technique for diffusing tension in situations like this: trading positions for interests. It’s a simple process that relies on listening and asking questions, rather than defending or explaining. So, for instance, when one of these gentlemen stated something that I disagreed with, instead of confronting his position with mine, I asked for more details. In other words, I showed an interest in what he had said and it led to clarifications.
Time and time again as we spoke, once in a four-hour marathon fortified only by iced tea, I’d use this approach and it worked every time to ease tension and build friendship. I wasn’t being deceitful or manipulating; I actually was interested in learning why these guys believed so strongly about things that seemed to make no sense to me.
As we explored deeper, I came to understand that actually their interests were very similar to my own. We wanted the same outcomes, in many cases. They just had very different ways of getting there.
This explains why peace will remain elusive as long as we lead with our positions instead of our interests. Fortunately, it’s easy to be curious and respectful of others, to listen to them and show an interest in finding out more. And those moments of inquiry matter, they can demonstrate the truth of my reworked statement: “The means determine the end.”
For me and my new business friends, the “end” was an increase of agreement between us. And by the end of our time together they even showed interest in my viewpoints!
—Will Wilkinson is a senior consultant for Luminary Communications. He has authored eight books and is currently translating one of them, "Thriving in Business in Life," into an on-line course for small business leaders. For more, go to www.willtwilkinson.com.