When planning or strategizing in everyday life, it's useful to distinguish between goals ("ends") and the tools or techniques one will apply to try to achieve them ("means"). For example, if one's end is to eat hamburgers for dinner tonight, then one's means will likely involve walking to the supermarket, purchasing meat, storing it one's refrigerator until near-dinnertime, and forming and then cooking the patties. Very rarely do any of those individual steps carry value in their own right. More importantly, a change of plans might involve different means (driving to the supermarket?), but not different ends (eggs for dinner).

In my (very limited) experience, most Western moral philosophy since Aristotle imports this distinction relatively uncritically. That is, the theories assume that one can distinguish between terminal goals and instrumental checkpoints.

But on longer time horizons in everyday life, multiple goals interlock, and the distinction between means and ends disappears. For example, I think many people value bodily integrity, happy friends and family, and the power to change the world.1 And yet:

  • Few activities can take place in a hospital room; bodily integrity eases bonding with friends and family.
  • A supportive family environment de-risks high-yielding career moves to acquire power.
  • And power to change the world can also be redirected to protect one's safety and health, ensuring bodily integrity.

In value web, there is no clear partial ordering to separate out which values are ends and which are means.

Have any famous philosophers developed a moral philosophy resilient to such cycles? (Although I am only familiar with Western philosophy, I expect most such philosophers will come from other traditions, and welcome such answers.) If not, what is the conventional argument for why some means-ends distinction ought hold?

1 "…for the better," they'd say, but I'm trying not to prematurely import value judgements.

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    The SEP article on practical reason and the structure of actions contrasts a "calculative" view, as a holdover from instrumentalism, with multiple other views. Commented May 29 at 21:59
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    Aristotle and others typically take the means-end distinction in a relativized sense, for the purposes of some activity under consideration E is an end and M is means. It does not mean that E is a "terminal" (ultimate) moral end, it may well be a means in some broader context. As for ultimate moral ends, they are usually associated with intrinsic values, and those are formulated very abstractly. Can they collide? This is controversial, see vast literature on moral dilemmas.
    – Conifold
    Commented May 30 at 6:12
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    As @Conifold has (politely) commented, Aristotelian end goals (in teleology) has nothing to do with morality. Could you clarify your question more! Commented May 30 at 17:18
  • This reminds me of the one where Phoebe hates PBS. Commented May 31 at 14:45
  • I do not really get the three bullet point examples. How do they go against the idea of valuing bodily integrity, happy friends and family, and the power to change the world? Commented May 31 at 14:54

8 Answers 8


Means and ends exist in a hierarchy. Each end is part of the means for some higher-level end.

Consider your example of the goal of eating hamburgers for dinner. The means describes a series of actions. But each of these actions can be considered a goal of its own. For instance, "go to the supermarket" is an end that's implemented using the means "get in the car, start the car, drive to the supermarket, park the car, walk into the supermarket". And "driver to the supermarket" can be broken down into the precise route you take (streets and turns, stopping at lights, etc.).

And we can also go the other way. Your goal of eating hamburgers tonight is just one of the many steps required for staying alive. And staying alive is necessary to fulfill the purpose of your life, whatever you may feel that is.

There may be some ultimate goal that all this is leading to, but we don't know what it is. Indeed, determining this ultimate goal is one of the purposes of philosophy itself.

  • Staying Alive - it's got a beat, you can dance to it... Might as well be happy!
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 30 at 18:28

The ends may be illusory, but the means must be practical.

In the process of implementing the means, it may be discovered that the ends are impossible, or undesirable, and accordingly have to change.

Suppose you have something (say a Genie) in an old bottle, and you want to release it and preserve the bottle too. It turns out that there is no way to open the bottle without breaking it. The goals need to be changed, and prioritised. Which is more important – keeping the bottle intact, or releasing the Genie?

Along with that, there must be a decision as to whether bottle really does contain a Genie, and whether it will be wise to release it.

In this case the means and the ends are not distinct.

  • In order for the mean to even exist, there must be an end that is equally as real as the mean. If this cannot be done, then the mean should be redefined as something other than a mean. To say that the ends may be illusory is not wrong when we understand the existence of fiction and non-fiction, however, we cannot be reasonable and suggest that the ends are always illusory while the means must be practical, for the practicality would be exercised for no genuine reason. Commented May 29 at 21:38
  • @Sebastianjoseph333 I was trying to say that the end may appear to be real (achievable) at first, until one tries to get there. Perhaps the Genie example was misleading: there are other goals that may seem to be attainable, but prove not to be so, or not even valid ends at all. IOW the means are inextricably linked to the ends, rather than "that is what I want, and this is how I shall do it." Commented May 29 at 21:42
  • Understandable. I agree the means are linked to the ends without a doubt. It is important to have reasonable, achievable ends, so that the means themselves serve as a proper exercise for attaining such ends. Commented May 29 at 21:45
  • Some portion of the means are pure luck or chance as you see them - most survivors put it down to courage, skill and knowledge - from the earliest cave painting, carved or raised stone, pride has been present and doesn't pride want legacy.
    – civitas
    Commented May 31 at 2:28

Ego is Latin for I. Sigmund Freud describes the ego as the conscious and unconscious effort to govern action in a biological organism. The end or goal of the ego in any dramatic context is to change the perceptions of the ego in the dramatic context. The ego might feel intense pleasure and make efforts to persist that pleasure. Or the ego might feel intense pain and make efforts to eliminate or moderate or attenuate that pain. The end or goal of the ego is to persist or change ego perceptions. The means to the end is the effort of the ego to govern action in the sensory context. This is why you are having trouble with means and ends in the context of human desire: the biological ego or conscious I only makes efforts to modify its own perceptions. The change of ego perceptions is the ends. The efforts of the ego are means to the ends.

The ego wants to change the world and makes efforts to accomplish that end or goal. But every other ego makes similar efforts. The world is the interaction, cooperation, and conflict generated by all those individual efforts to change the world.

I would say that ends or goals really exist; and means to those ends really exist; but they are related by the desires, perceptions, memories, talents, and efforts of the biological organism.

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    I couldn't have said it better myself!
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 30 at 0:46
  • And the other living things and the natural world combine as well. And the asteroid plunging in gravity's field downwards onto the dinosaurs world and some unfeathered furry ones among the fern fronds, while at sea . . .
    – civitas
    Commented May 31 at 2:21

The ends, or the reason and purpose, are the scaffolding of our reality from the very small (one day in human life) to the largest (the purpose of human experiment).

Every day when we go to sleep, we can feel if we managed to make our day (fulfill our purpose, achieve daily end). Our reality clearly gives us rewards or pain in this regard.

And from those small ends, achieving something every day, building big ends - the purpose of our life.


Very rarely do any of those individual steps carry value in their own right.

I would challenge that. Any of the individual steps can and will carry all kinds of value. It's only from the perspective of a particular end that they may be "just" a means to an end. For instance, walking to the store can itself be enjoyable and more enjoyable than driving, even when it's a means to the end of "grocery shopping".

But on longer time horizons in everyday life, multiple goals interlock, and the distinction between means and ends disappears.

Yes. Simply consider everything in the light of your own death. Or ask yourself: What is the purpose of anything I (or we) do? Whatever end I (or we) achieve, what does it all matter? Was Pink Floyd right:

The Lord is my shepherd / I shall not want / He converteth me to lamb cutlets / For lo, He hath great power and great hunger

Have any famous philosophers developed a moral philosophy resilient to such cycles?

I think some have tried. Consider Kant's conviction that we should treat every human being as an end in itself. So, this is, as I understand it, in a Kantian perspective, part of what it means to act morally good: never treat another human being as merely a means to a end. (You can generalize this in an ecological perspective. Perhaps Arne Naess' late philosophy is like that.)

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    "A chicken is an egg's way of making another egg."
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 30 at 18:20

No, they don't, not really. Our minds have evolved to follow causality backwards (Rain! I am getting wet. Do not want to get wet. Put banana leaf above head, rain now falls on leaf, not on head. Head not get wet.) Evolutionary spandrels of this are (1) that we believe there is such a thing as causation / causality [philosophers make much of the distinction] and (2) that we believe in ends. Both are common delusions that will persist for 1000s of years after you and I are gone.

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    And yet, some people saw through these delusions thousands of years ago. Humanity could do a lot better. But that doesn't seem to be its goal.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 31 at 12:12

One does not need to be aware of end goals to execute instrumental ones. Our machines work for us, unawares of why they exist or what they work towards. Instead it is the creators of the machines which are aware of those goals. Similarly, humans need not be aware of the end goal of human specie, life in general or the universe itself. It is foolish to think that "bodily integrity, happy friends and family, and the power to change the world" are complete end goals by themselves, rather than instrumental ones.


Maybe it's an end if I call it one? Whether or not something is intrinsically or extrinsically valuable is different, and more objective, than whether or not it has final and non-instrumental value, which is about how we treat an intrinsic or extrinsic good. Think of the rarity of a stamp (or creative insight).

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