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Means and Ends

In regards to my post from earlier thinking about a novel tactic to use on businesses that post, it brings up the issue of means and ends. Saul Alinsky, the great leftist organizer of the 20th century, had so much to say on means and ends that he wrote a whole chapter in Rules for Radicals about it. Alinsky was certainly not an advocate of any means justifying any end, but that activists who wished to organize for mass power had to think about means and ends in a realistic and pragmatic manner, and whether the means available were worth a specific end. In many cases he was brutal toward those who fretted over means and ends to the degree of paralyzation:

Whenever we think of social change, the question of means and ends arises. The man of action views the issue of means and ends in pragmatic and strategic terms. He has no other problem; he thinks only of his actual resources and the possibilities of various choices of action. He asks of ends only whether they are achievable and worth the cost; of means, only whether they will work. To say that corrupt means corrupt the ends is to believe in the immaculate conception of ends and principles. The real arena is corrupt and bloody. Life is a corrupting process from the time a child learns to play his mother off against his father in the politics of when to go to bed; he who fears corruption fears life.

Alinsky’s examples are difficult, from the options available to those who resisted the Nazis, to our founding fathers in separating from England, to Lincoln’s prosecution of the civil war and the freeing of the slaves, all of which involved an amount of deception and deceit and unscrupulous means. He also relays some of his own experience:

To me ethics is doing what is best for the most. During a conflict with a major corporation I was confronted with a threat of public exposure of a photograph of a motel “Mr. & Mrs.” registration and photographs of my girl and myself. I said, “Go ahead and give it to the press. I think she’s beautiful and I have never claimed to be celibate. Go Ahead!” That ended the threat.

Almost on the heels of this encounter, one of the corporation’s minor executives came to see me. It turned out that he was a secret sympathizer with our side. Pointing to his briefcase, he said “In there is plenty of proof that so and so [leader of the opposition] prefers boys to girls.” I said, “Thanks, but forget it. I don’t fight that way. I don’t want to see it. Goodbye.” He protested, “But they just tried to hang you on that girl.” I replied, “The fact that they fight that way doesn’t mean I have to do it. To me, dragging a person’s private life into this muck is loathsome and nauseous.” He left.

So far, so noble; but, if I had been convinced that the only way we could win was to use it, then without any reservations I would have used it. What was my alternative? To draw myself up into righteous “moral” indignation saying, “I would rather lose than corrupt my principles,” and then go home with my ethical hymen intact? The fact that 40,000 poor would lose their war against hopelessness and despair was just too tragic.

I have never been an advocate of making a political struggle personal, and I believe in offering the anti-gun people dignity and respect, as fellow citizens, provided the same courtesy is paid in return. But I also see Alinsky’s point about ends and means, and it’s important to remember that this is a struggle to hold government and society to the values enshrined in our Bill of Rights against people who want to destroy them. Neither side is going to come out morally clean out of this. Not us, not them.

NRA sending Mary McFate to spy on the Brady Campaign was hardly a paragon of ethics and virtue, but was it the only means available to find out their legislative plans so we could be prepared to counter them? Politics and activism are not an ethical game. It is a dirty, underhanded game. You can not struggle in this arena and come out clean, and at the same time be effective. We must always be searching for novel ideas. Not all of those ideas will be good. Some might even be bad. But the proper frame of argument is whether the tactic will work, and whether the ends are worth it.

9 Responses to “Means and Ends”

  1. Sean Sorrentino says:

    i think the issue was how you phrased your statement,

    “Considering what’s at stake, yes winning trumps integrity.”

    The problem is that there seems to be a confusion between little “i” integrity and big “I” Integrity. the tactic you suggested was designed to introduce doubt into the mind of a person who may have unthinkingly joined the side of our opponents. it’s hardly the sort of “lie, cheat, and steal” approach that would bring us discredit.

    in order to change somene’s mind, you first have to open it up to the possiblity that it is wrong in the first place. you have to inject doubt to do that. for those who are unable to be less than perfectly truthful in their dealings with others, by all means, don’t bother trying. I, on the other hand, have no problem saying

    “It makes me uncomfortable that you think you have to put a sign up like that. What does it say about the kind of place? They don’t have a sign up at , maybe that’s a safer place.”

    because i know that others really feel that way. i’m just helping them out in a way that helps me out too. we don’t need to convince everyone. we only need to prevent the property owners signalling us that we cannot legally arm ourselves.

  2. dustydog says:

    That’s a mightily steep and slippery slope. Civilization is built on trust and respect. When the only thing preventing people from robbing, enslaving and murdering is a fear that they can’t get away with it, that way lies civil war. Alinsky clearly states that he would ‘if I had been convinced that the only way we could win’.

  3. Sebastian says:

    dustydog:

    Exactly. Alinsky was not a fan of using violence as a means because we had not exhausted the use of other means of achieving an end that would be effective and also ethical. But Alinsky would probably agree that the only thing that keeps civilization together is the fact that “the only thing preventing people from robbing, enslaving and murdering is a fear that they can’t get away with it.” He had very few delusions about human nature.

    I doubt I would agree with Alinsky’s politics much. In fact, I would likely be his enemy. But he was a serious man, a serious thinker, and very, very effective and influential, and for that I have to respect him and his ideas.

  4. Sebastian

    I may have misunderstood your earlier comments about offering another consequence to a ‘no guns’ sign, for it sounded as of you were doing it without letting the establishment know you were a 2A supporter – which I believe to be dishonest.

    But your reply to Bob_S about backlash leaves me confused.

    I think it’s incumbent on us (if we’re trying to expand someone’s thinking) to be upfront. We can let people know that we’re firearm owners, but also point them to an alternate perception they may not have thought of.

  5. Sebastian says:

    I was suggesting doing it without the establishment knowing you were interested in carrying a gun on their premises, as an alternate tactic to think about if we notice a more direct approach not being effective.

    Certainly you can try expressing those ideas using a more direct and honest approach. If it works, then that’s the ethical means to use, but what if it doesn’t?

  6. Bob S. says:

    Sebastian,

    Certainly you can try expressing those ideas using a more direct and honest approach. If it works, then that’s the ethical means to use, but what if it doesn’t?

    Then we use alternate means that are still honest, open, and in line our principles. Why not try a boycott or taking your business to places that do support our rights.

    Or a letter to the editor stating why we wouldn’t give business to a place that doesn’t support our rights.

    There are other ways that aren’t dishonest.

    As others have said, I want people who haven’t made up their mind to know, not just think, but to know there is a clear and distinct difference between pro-rights and anti-rights group. For me, that distinct difference is the ethical nature of our behavior.

  7. Sebastian says:

    Then we use alternate means that are still honest, open, and in line our principles. Why not try a boycott or taking your business to places that do support our rights.

    Do we have the numbers to matter? I tend to doubt it. Boycotts are notoriously ineffective. You have to represent a significant portion of an establishment’s business for a Boycott to even be noticed, and if it’s not noticed, it’s not going to work.

    Or a letter to the editor stating why we wouldn’t give business to a place that doesn’t support our rights.

    Perfectly acceptable to do, but again, will it achieve the end? Ultimately what a business cares about is losing money. But they also care about bad publicity, because it usually leads to the former. I wouldn’t pooh pooh this tactic. It’s worth trying.

    As others have said, I want people who haven’t made up their mind to know, not just think, but to know there is a clear and distinct difference between pro-rights and anti-rights group. For me, that distinct difference is the ethical nature of our behavior.

    it may have been unethical for HCI and the other gun control groups to confuse the American Public about all manner of things such as plastic guns, “cop killer” bullets, “assault weapons,” and what have you. But in the 90s, they were surely nursing their conscious through legislative victory after legislative victory in state after state.

    If you believe in the Bill of Rights, and truly believe in preserving them, you’ll resort to unethical means to preserve it if there’s no other means at your disposal. As I said, I am not interested in feeling good about myself, or patting myself on the back for my upstandingness, I’m interested in preserving the Second Amendment and the shooting culture for future generations. If I have to play dirty to do that, I will. I won’t unless I have to, but I will if there is no other alternative.

  8. Bob S. says:

    If you believe in the Bill of Rights, and truly believe in preserving them, you’ll resort to unethical means to preserve it if there’s no other means at your disposal.

    And nothing you’ve said has convinced me that there are not other means available other then lying or distortion.

    Nor am I sure that an approach that resorts to deception would ensure that our rights are protected.

    Look at the backlash anti-gun advocates are suffering now as their lies are exposed. People are learning that semi-automatic rifles aren’t “assault weapons”, aren’t scary “spray and pray”, aren’t being used in many crimes. Risking that sort of backlash could result in greater restrictions, not fewer.

  9. Sebastian says:

    There’s a difference, I think, between misrepresenting facts, which are easily discoverable if people are willing to actually look at them, and trying a different line of argument, even one you don’t fully believe in, to try to convince someone to see something a different way.

    Misrepresenting facts is one of those things that will catch up with you eventually. In the example I outlined, I’m not asking anyone to misrepresent facts. Whether or not an establishment posts because they’ve had a problem with that kind of thing is a reasonable perception. The integrity issue is purely a personal one, as to whether you’re comfortable using a line of argument you don’t really believe in.

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