Understanding Mahatma Gandhi's philosophy of ends and means

Gandhi said, means are foreseeable, ends are not. Thus, means can be controlled, managed and guaranteed, writes Ram Krishna Sinha for South Asia Monitor

Ram Krishna Sinha Oct 01, 2020

Unless “mainstreamed” as means, some worthy ends will remain as lofty ideals and their realizations will either be distant or elusive. A morally worthy end, according to Mahatma Gandhi,  whose 151st birth anniversary is celebrated as Gandhi Jayanti on October 2, can be achieved only by adopting morally pure means. 

He did not agree with those who said means are after all means. For Gandhi, means are after all everything.

Control over means 

The problems with not prioritizing or undervaluing means, in contrast to ends, according to Gandhi, are many. First, a man is always obsessed with anxiety about the result of his action (ends). Gandhi had said, if our means are pure and our course is just and clear, all anxieties are removed. This way a man can also develop an attitude of detachment from ‘fruits’ and attachment with actions and their consequence, that is 'karma', as the Bhagavad Gita, a 700-verse Hindu scripture that is part of the epic Mahabharata, commonly dated to the second century BCE, teaches us all. 

Secondly, a man may think fulfilment of ends is the real reward. Ends will after all justify means. Gandhi maintained a moral means is almost an end in itself because virtue is its own reward. Thirdly, all focus and energies may get disproportionately concentrated on the ends, which is unforeseeable.

Gandhi said means are foreseeable, ends are not. Thus, means can be controlled, managed and guaranteed. “If one takes care of the means the end will take care of itself.” 

Last, but not the least, more often than not, the ends changes in character as a result of the means adopted in its attainment. Gandhi, therefore, lays stress on the “organic connection” between ends and means.

Now, there are many worthy and aspirational ends or goals which mankind strives for. Still, there are a few, which are critical to the sustenance and welfare of mankind. These are peace, sustainability and empathy. In all three, we need convergence of ends and means. Unless ends is “mainstreamed” as means, the ends will remain as lofty ideals and their real realizations will either be distant or elusive.

Is peace elusive?

Peace, as an end, is hugely worthy and aspirational. “Emotional disarmament,” as Dalai Lama points out, “is the dire need of the hour to cleanse us from evils of rage, anger, vengeance, and selfishness and foster happiness, harmony and brotherhood.” Yet, we cannot attain peace unless it is reflected in our day-to-day thoughts and actions, public policies and doctrines of sovereign governments. Peace has to be mainstreamed in emotions, actions and mindsets at all levels-home, schools, institutions, and nations. Just having a discourse on peace or setting it as a worthy goal will never bring or ensure peace. Eleanor Roosevelt, a noted human rights advocate, rightly remarked “It isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.”  

The fate of only setting big goals and pronouncements without mainstreaming it as means is for all of us to see. The kind of humanitarian crisis the world is facing due to war, insecurity and violence is unprecedented. The conflict zones of Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and Somalia are some reminders to our distant dreams about peace.

Unless the basic systems, policies and governance systems of superpowers and institutions, which are grossly unjust and unfair, are radically shaped and structured, the conflict and war will continue unabated, with attendant geopolitical games and commercial ventures promoting arms trade and build-up of lethal weapons.

Sustainable development                                                 

Sustainability is a profound goal that would ensure that nobody is left behind in our planet. But it would be tough to attain the goal if it is not mainstreamed in the design and implementation of every developmental projects, policy instruments, institutional programs and mechanisms, governance and, indeed, every aspect of human lives and lifestyles. All our means-choices, actions, practices- need to be chosen carefully, prudently and wisely. In doing so, we can very well set in a virtuous cycle and thus create more. As the late C. K. Prahalad - a visionary on corporate strategy - was fond of saying, “we need to move from seeing sustainability as a cost or hindrance to realizing that it’s a key driver of innovation.” 

It was in 1992 that more than 170 countries came together at the Rio Earth Summit and agreed to pursue sustainable development, protect biological diversity, prevent dangerous interference with climate systems, and conserve forests.

But, after about three decades later, the natural systems on which humanity relies continue to be degraded. Be it ecological footprint, biodiversity index, greenhouse gas emissions, loss of tropical and subtropical forests, we have slipped on all key indicators. Now, the efforts towards meeting the ends of sustainability are taken forward through the UN-mandated seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But if the elements of sustainability are not mainstreamed through changes in market-based economy, business/production models, communicative approaches with local communities and their leaders, the goals will remain elusive.

Need for empathy

Empathy is the base of compassion - a highly cherished dharma. But moral virtue should not find occurrences and be confined to only scriptures, texts, and preaching. Empathy must be revealed in all our motives and actions. Unless we place empathy, as a universal value, at the center of everything we pursue and make it a driving force in all our endeavors, we cannot hope to transform the world. 

Indeed, this unique quality is all the more required in the new knowledge economy and human-Artificial Intelligence (AI) world. In his book Hit Refresh, Satya Nadella, the Microsoft’s CEO, writes, “If we hope to harness technology to serve human needs, we humans must lead the way by developing a deeper understanding and respect for one another’s values, cultures, emotions, and drives.”

Yet, we are witness to gross absence of empathy, even during the ongoing pandemic. The plight of migrant labors during the turbulent times is just one classic example. Our ability to care for, help and cooperate with each other is the cornerstone of human culture and one of the keys to cultural transformation - for a thriving civil society, respectful debates and discourses, and a humane world.

For this end, empathy needs to be mainstreamed as a crucial ingredient in development of designs of all curriculum, products, services, public policies and corporate actions.

Working ceaselessly on a path of non-violence, selfless service, compassion, and caring for the environment, Gandhi demonstrated to the world, through personal examples, how one can internalize peace, sustainability, and empathy in one’s thoughts, words and actions.

(The writer is a former bank executive who has authored the book X Factor @Workplace. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at rkrishnasinha@hotmail.com)

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