When the end justifies the means

Former Australian cricket captain Steve Smith admits ball tampering on March 29.

In 1513, Niccolo Machiavelli, arguably the finest political theorist of his time, used his famous work The Prince to tease out “means and ends” theory. He concluded that when it came to the exercise of power, a ruler should use any methods available to maintain stability. The means are irrelevant if the ends are positive enough to trump them.

A century later, Shakespeare stuck with the theme of "the end justifying the means". It is one of the most important themes in Julius Caesar and Lady Macbeth was prepared to do whatever it took to get her man into the top job. Shakespeare loved the theme so much he devoted an entire play to its exploration. Not one of his biggest hits it must be said, All’s Well that Ends Well has had a hard time making itself understood. No one is really sure it did end well; and for 400 years scholars have been arguing about whether it is a tragedy or a comedy.

The line between comedy and tragedy can be as blurry and opaque as the line between right and wrong, and between justified and unjustified means to achieve often questionable ends. Dozens of writers, philosophers and ethicists have devoted their lives to the exploration of this fundamental dichotomy for centuries.

Of late, less well-credentialed thinkers, such as disgraced cricketer David Warner and Victorian Opposition Leader Matthew Guy, have publicly stretched the sinews of means and ends logic, when each was caught tampering with centuries of tradition.  

Cricket shame

This brings me to the delightfully digestible celebrity drama that is the Australian cricket team’s ball tampering fiasco. The play has started and the apologies are well scripted but the ending is yet to be written. It is sensational television; and we are only at the end of Act One of this neo-Shakespearean classic.

Comic aspects of this debacle abound. That the transgressing triumvirate thought nobody was noticing is laughable in a “he’s behind you” pantomime sense. The saccharin statements of regret were comically inept, coming as they did through nostrils which once breathed fire and pride, but which were now clogged with relentless, raw shame.

But it is the tragic elements of the fiasco that have really captivated our collective attention. The size and scope of the tragedy has been measured in tears, dollars, and careers. Hundreds of millions of dollars have reportedly been lost in sponsorship and broadcast rights deals. Australian Cricket as a stock has nose-dived on international markets.

The loss has been measured in cultural terms too. Everyone and their dog has had a shot at estimating how much international shame, reputational damage, financial, trade, diplomatic and other damage has been caused; and how much remedial diplomacy is required to fix it. Some have even declared the death of the Aussie Fair Go, apparently sandpapered to death.

The weight of the burden of all that damage to “Brand Australia” has taken a toll on the individuals involved. It was hard to watch, but we all did — a public humiliation and fall from grace the likes of which we have never seen in Australian sport. It has been captivatingly brutal, and will be life defining if not life ruining for the three men involved.

The exact who, what, where, why, how often and who else details will emerge, or not, over the months and even years ahead. The more important question is to understand how the team got both their means and their ends so screwed up.

Ends and means

Let’s start with the ends part. The end in the case of the Australian Cricket Team seems to be simple, uncomplicated, and singular — winning. Win the session, win the day, win the match, win the series. Win the verbal, deliver the best sledge, do whatever it takes — just win.

If and when that becomes the only objective, the only goal of any organisation — sporting, business, government, community — nothing else matters to those within that organisation. It is not a goal that needs to be shared with other goals, like being a team (or bank, or employer, or Lord Mayor) that plays with integrity, or a team that is known for respecting the game, its history, and its traditions. There is just one goal — winning.

If the end is out of whack, is distorted, overblown, disproportionate or misguided, the means will follow. When individuals in organisations that have unambiguous, singular goals, like profit making, game winning, sales target meeting, are encouraged to achieve that singular goal, the ground for poor decision making about means becomes very fertile.  

Ethics go out the window when “means justify the end” forms the framing rationale of political decision making and public debate. The mandatory detention of those who arrive in Australia by boat is a means and ends policy. We need to keep these poor souls locked up indefinitely to ensure more do not come, the argument goes. The ongoing torture of thousands of people is a necessary means to an end that is better for us all apparently.

On the flip side, sometimes the end does not seem to matter, so only minimum means are devoted to their achievement. Think of Indigenous disadvantage and health and justice outcomes. We have the means, in terms of our national financial and intellectual capital, to address these issues and make an enormous difference to the lives of First Australians. But it seems the end does not justify additional means in this case.

Parliamentary tricks

There are also instances all around us when the ends are not so significant or weighty, but where the means to achieve them are disproportionate, expensive and damaging.

Victorian Opposition Leader Matthew Guy cheated the spirit of fair play, if not the letter of the law, when he and his parliamentary colleagues conspired to play an underhanded trick to defeat a government bill it did not approve of. He breached long established protocol, potentially killing pairing arrangements, a core element of parliamentary civility.

In a sensational break from parliamentary convention, two Liberal MPs begged to be excused from Victoria's Legislative Council for religious reasons on Good Friday. Leave was granted and, under pairing arrangements, two government MPs left so the Coalition would not be disadvantaged. But when Liberal MPs Bernie Finn and Craig Ondarchie unexpectedly reappeared, it was the Opposition that had the numbers to defeat The Fire Services Bill. They could do it, so they did.

Guy thinks the bill gives too much control to the United Firefighters Union and for him that is all the justification required. “I’d do it all again tomorrow” he later told the press declaring that the “end justifies the means”. Really? All the benefits of the pairing arrangements, of respecting tradition, of personal integrity and honesty, are all worth jettisoning to stop an organisational restructure of the fire services?

Price too high

Our propensity to pay way too high a price for our means to achieve ends of questionable value is on the increase. We do it all the time.

Let’s think about means and ends as they apply to workers’ rights in the gig economy. With Uber, Deliveroo or Airtasker the ends are around convenience and cost. People can get rides in a convenient way and have their food delivered at a relatively low cost. Yet to achieve these “benefits” we are trading off 150 years of workers’ rights — rights to organise, to fair pay and conditions, to workers compensation protections and superannuation. Is that really who we are?

We are paying an enormous price. A price that is not only too high, it will be paid by generations to come. And we are paying it not for a great and noble end. We are not overthrowing a dictator, waging a war for freedom, or even “protecting” our borders. We are trading away a century of hard won rights for cheap pizza and the ability to track our driver’s progress on our smart phone when it’s time to go home.  

Watching Steve Smith give his now famous press conference, it was easy to see that the clear voice of bad choice was now crowding all others from his mind. It was as though he could only now see what we already knew, and had known for days — that the full price of his chosen means, was enormous, ruinous. The end he had been fed, sold and incentivised to achieve by the Australian Cricket Board, the coaches, the success-hungry masses, was misguided, and the means of their achievement even more so. The pain of this realisation was real and very public.

Whatever edge in advantage the sandpaper gave was never going to match the gravity of the penalty for cheating. Matthew Guy may find that he pays an electoral price for his choice to utilise very expensive means to achieve a cheap end.

As a community with a seemingly endless appetite for gig economy convenience, we will have a Steve Smith moment. We will realise that the price we have paid for all this flexibility and convenience, for cheap home-delivered dinner, is way too high, and we may never get back what we have given up.

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