technology

Ellul on Self-Justifying Means

This entry is part 19 of 23 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.)

Ellul on the Disappearing End

This entry is part 18 of 23 in the series Presence in the Modern World

As we begin at long last Chapter 3 of Ellul’s Presence in the Modern World, we come to his first exploration on technique, that for which he became best known and which he later explored in multiple books, most famously The Technological Society.

When one thinks of “means and ends,” the questions that come to mind are philosophical: Can the end justify the means? Are these the “right means for the right ends”? Ellul says that these questions are no longer relevant, or that at least they cannot be asked in the same way, because they no longer represent philosophical abstractions but the concrete fact of “technique.”

Ellul argues that modern life has become concretely, and specifically, about means; there is no longer any “end” in sight. With enormous and innovative means at their disposal, our modern societies have turned the human beings they were meant to serve into mere servants themselves. Politicians pay lip service to “men and women” as the beneficiaries of their programs, but who are these men and women?

What, for example, is the role of the individual human being in America today? We all know the answer: to participate in the economy. We must make things that can be bought so that we can buy things. “Thus, humanity is transformed into an instrument of these modern gods that are our means,” Ellul writes, “and we do it with the good intention of making humanity happy.” But who is this humanity we are told will benefit from our work, from the programs of politicians, bureaucrats and corporations? It doesn’t exist, and never will, as anything other than an abstraction.

But lest you think I (or Ellul) am specifically criticizing the market economy here, there is no difference to be found in socialism, either. Writing as he was in the 1940s, Ellul found as strong an example for his ideas in communism as he did in Western capitalism. In communism, he wrote that “we have an admirable political machine that perpetuates itself by means (because the dictatorship of the proletariat is also a means), with a view to illusory and hypothetical ends. And to produce the happiness of future people, those of the present day are sacrificed.”

Though I try to avoid social media these days, one can’t avoid the lust for “socialism” among many on the left today. They criticize the market for the same reasons Ellul does, that it turns humans into mere producers and consumers. But they have embraced the same mistaken notion of means versus ends. Whether capitalist or socialist or somewhere in between, everyone accepts the same abstract ends (happiness, justice, “humanity”) without question, so that they can focus on their own preferred concrete means.

But these ends (and I repeat myself here, for emphasis) simply do not exist. “We do still talk about happiness, freedom, or justice,” Ellul writes, “but we no longer know their content or conditions … Once these ends have become implicit in people’s hearts and minds, they no longer have any formative power. They no longer have any creative capacity. They are dead illusions that have been stored away among the props of the contemporary scene.”

Think about the state of AI, and the latest pointless kerfuffles over related corporate leadership. Just a few months ago, I might have used the (equally content-less) phrase “cryptocurrency” instead of AI. “Social media” would also work in exactly the same way. None of these things can be said to “matter” in any meaningful way. They are created because they can be created, not because they are doing any good. That is the nature of modern means, Ellul points out, which cannot lead to ends, but only create more means: “genius is no longer necessary for the majority of technical discoveries, but having arrived at a certain stage the next discovery comes along almost as a matter of course…”

This is true in every field — technical, financial, political, industrial. “It doesn’t matter that people do not need these new products,” Ellul wrote nearly eighty years ago, “or that these new creations are completely useless. One means generates another. A particular one is used, for why would it not be? Why would it be called useless?”

Ellul uses airplanes and medicine as further examples of the abstraction of means and ends. We congratulate ourselves when speed records are shattered, but what is the point of saving time? (I can only look through my long and extensive Amazon purchase history, or all of the unused apps in my Mac’s Applications folder, and ask myself what all the time-saving things I’ve purchased have actually meant for me.)

Or medical research that produces new cures. Ellul asks, “[W]hat is the point of the life that we take so much care to preserve? What is time for? What is life worth, when precisely through the interplay of the means set in motion through this civilization, time and life no longer have any meaning, when human beings really do not know what to do with their time, and when life is more absurd than ever, because the spiritual foundations of time and life have been destroyed in their hearts?”

In a world with a will toward suicide, whose relentless drive toward its own destruction becomes more apparent all the time, is it any wonder that “ends” have been turned into happy abstractions by those who can only see history as a series of random occurrences? “Human beings,” Ellul writes, “have set off at astronomically high speeds toward nowhere.”