Pieces of the puzzle #1: Means, ends; means are ends

I’ve been thinking a lot about things that are both means and ends lately.

This idea spins off of a book by Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom. Sen is a Nobel Prize-winning economist and national development expert who has proposed the idea of development as freedom over the course of his career. In a nutshell, he says that the ultimate purpose of national development should be to enlarge the scope of freedoms enjoyed by all citizens. He says that economic development often enriches a small elite but does nothing for other citizens, and that this kind of development fails to provide widespread benefits, even in the long run. He proposes that the appropriate measure of development is whether it enhances the scope of freedom and agency that can realistically be exercised by ordinary people. He uses the example of women’s rights in developing countries, and shows how supporting the advancement of women both increases their life prospects, but also promotes social and economic development in the country generally.

So, he says that freedom should be both the means and ends of development. (Martha Nussbaum has built on Sen’s ideas by proposing a set of “human capabilities” that she says are foundational. She is absolutely brilliant, I think.)

I’m really intrigued by this idea, and it got me to thinking that there are probably other principles that have the same character of being both means and ends. Justice, engagement, caring and kindness, seem like some more. What others are there?

The reason I think these are important is that, to take on the most difficult and global issues, such as climate change, simply avoiding catastrophe is not enough. I don’t think a vision of a society of drones who live constricted lives in order to minimize our carbon footprints is very attractive. Rather, an attractive vision is to creatively develop a future that is better for everyone.

I saw a TED talk recently by a chemist (I wish I could find it now) who said that we’re looking at environmental issues all wrong–that we should be finding ways to live that are good for the environment, rather than merely trying to mitigate harms. That seems like the basis of a great way to reframe the whole issue. Ultimately we need to bring our lives into alignment with what’s good for us. And I think this is somehow related to the idea of supporting activities that recognize this means and ends unity. It seems like we want to create approaches that are both+and, rather than either/or.

So, there’s a thought for the morning. What are your thoughts?

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