Adler On

Ends and Means

In most contexts, the meaning of the words "ends and means" is clear. But when these two words are used in moral philosophy, further clarification is needed.

On the side of means, we must distinguish means, that are merely means, and means that may be both means and ends -- means to a proximate end and, in turn, means to an end that is itself a means to some further end.

We must also distinguish between constitutive means and operative means. When the final end is the totum bonum -- the complete whole of goods, all real goods -- each of the real goods involved is a constitutive or component of the totum bonum. The factors that function as means to leading a morally good life (moral virtue and good fortune) are operative means. They are not parts of happiness, but productive of it.

On the side of ends, we must recognize that the final end of ultimate good is that which leaves nothing more to be desired. It is not one good among many, but is itself the completely satisfying good. It is also a normative, not a terminal end.

A terminal end is one that can be reached and rested in. If one is planning a trip to Vienna, that city is a terminal end. When all the means to getting there are employed and Vienna is reached, the means-end sequence stop. But a morally good human life is a whole that cannot be realized in any time sequence; nevertheless it can be held in mind as a goal to be aimed at.

In all the performing arts, the good to be aimed at is normative, not terminal. The conductor of a symphony orchestra has in mind a certain rendition of the symphony's four movements as he rehearses the music, but the symphony as a whole does not exist and cannot be heard at any moment in time. It can be said that it was well played only after it is finished.

The same is true of living. It cannot be said of an individual that he or she has succeeded to some degree in leading a good life until a whole life has been lived. At any period during living, the only comment that can be made is that the individual is on his or her way to leading a good life. If what happens in the time remaining is like what has happened in the time so far elapsed, it can be said in a funeral oration that he or she succeeded in having led a good life. Otherwise, changes of fortune and even collapses of virtue can occur at any time and render the life disastrous or demeaned.

If the character of normative ends is understood in this way, it will also be understood that at every moment the means chosen are the end in the process of becoming. (See Happiness.)

Adapted from
Adler's Philosophical Dictionary (1995)

Revised 17 December 2000