Ellul on Self-Justifying Means

This entry is part 19 of 24 in the series Presence in the Modern World

There was a time when society might grapple honestly with whether or not particular means were appropriate to a desired end. But ends have vanished into abstraction and are no longer necessary to justify means, which justify themselves in the answer to a simple question: Do they work?

“In reality, what justifies the means today is whatever succeeds,” Ellul writes as we continue Chapter 3 of Presence. “Whatever is effective, whatever possesses in itself an ‘efficiency,’ is justified. By applying means, a result is produced. This result is judged by these simplistic criteria of ‘more’: larger, faster, more precise, and so on … What succeeds is good, what fails is bad.” (emphasis added)

Value judgments relate to ends, not means. “Once the means becomes a matter of technique it knows no bounds.” Certainly some technical achievements — like atomic weapons, concentration camps, painless euthanasia of the disabled and depressed — are considered shocking and awful to most people. But not to all; as Ellul points out, a “Russian communist does not recoil from camps in Siberia, or a Nazi from extermination camps.” Citizens tend to accept whatever means are normalized within their own particular society or sub-culture, as long as those means are successful and meet their technical objectives (which are not ends, Ellul carefully points out).

The self-justification of means results, Ellul says, in three outcomes:

  1. Human beings are no longer able to choose between means. Technique chooses instead, demonstrating which means is truly effective, and there is no reason for people to refuse it.
  2. Technique is considered neutral, and so extends into all areas. His example: if a table is neutral, then so must be a machine; then so must be the state, the division of labor, propaganda, and on to nuclear missiles and concentration camps. When we say something is neutral, we mean that it is good.
  3. Since means no longer require ends, the ends that get proposed are “useless or inadequate” ones. Technique moves itself forward, step by step, and with each step, human beings create new ends to justify those means. Remember when the Internet was going to make citizens more knowledgeable, connect communities, ease loneliness, etc.? It doesn’t matter if you do or don’t; with each step technique takes, we create new ends to explain those means, which will only create new means for which we create new ends.

“Technical human beings do not need goals in life,” Ellul writes, “they are content with the instant success of means. In fact, we have got hold here of the primary reason … that the church and Christianity have lost ground. If the church no longer seems relevant in the world, it is because of the new situation of the problem of means.”

Never mind that some self-consciously moralistic people are still “scandalized” by the idea that a brutal or alienating technique might be excused by its loftily stated goal. I can’t help but return once again to the (already exhausted) example of AI. Politicians, bureaucrats, corporate leaders pretend to “grapple” with the “ramifications” of this technology. They hold conferences, issue memos, testify before Congress, propose regulations — but who has said, why should we do any of this at all? (And if they do, how can the response be anything but an eye-rolling dismissal of their naiveté? Genies, bottles, toothpaste, tubes.)

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