Ends and Means

October 4, 2020

In recent years I’ve started to fear that, politically, people have lost sight of the difference between the ends and means in politics. Democracy and the rule of law are not ends; they don’t always turn out well. We cannot be sure the right people are always elected or the law is always fair. Democracy and the rule of law are means; they are a way to achieve our ends. Democracy is a set of rules for who takes power, justified by the way it allows peaceful transitions and gives rulers an incentive to pay attention to the ruled, rather than a way to ensure that the best people are always in power. The rule of law is not preferable because of any claim that laws are always beneficial, fair and well drafted. The rule of law is preferable because it prevents the arbitrary use of power and allows legal challenges to those who would exceed their powers. A similar argument can be made for those human rights that apply in the political sphere. The rights to hold our own beliefs, to have freedom of speech and to associate with people of our choosing are not rights that will always be used to achieve good things, but they are a means that should be available to all. It is only by giving those rights to everyone that we can ensure they are always available to those who would use them to achieve good things. Finally, we could also consider virtues and behaviours we might wish for from the participants in a democracy, like thoughtfulness, honesty and moderation. I could add to these a preference for rational debate over personal attacks and a tolerance for disagreement. These things often seem lacking at the moment from politicians and public alike. But again, if they are desirable in political life, they are means rather than ends. We should see them as something we want from everybody (or nobody); those we agree with and those we disagree with. They shouldn’t be something we attack our opponents for lacking, while being unembarrassed to see that those we support also lack them.

Obviously this is an education blog rather than a political blog, but before I apply the idea of a difference between ends and means in politics to education, I’ll apply it to politics generally. I should point out that I’m biased about the places where I’ve noticed this distinction is lacking. It stands out to me most in debates where I may agree with people about political ends, but not their means, so this is mainly a gripe about others I see on the left of centre. It concerns me that up until last December, many of my fellow “remain” voters were arguing that the result of the EU referendum be ignored even though they’d never have argued this if they hadn’t lost. It concerns me that there are campaigns to put newspapers I disagree with out of business through corporate pressure via advertising, even though we’d never think it was fair if corporate power was used to silence people we agreed with. It concerns me that there are now people on my end of the political spectrum arguing that certain types of speech should be banned for being offensive, even though we would argue for our own rights to offend the sensibilities of those we disagree with. And don’t get me started on those who make excuses for violent protests when they sympathise with the cause, and are horrified by violence, or even protest, from those they feel are less enlightened.

We need to be able to consider means apart from ends. We cannot say “this is a good way to achieve a political end, because it will enable us to get our way” if we would never accept that it was fair for others to use it for their ends. If getting our way is the only thing that matters, we should not complain when those we disagree with are equally ruthless in pursuit of their goals. There is a fallacy of special pleading, where people make arbitrary exceptions to general principles. If we think it is desirable for our opponents to follow certain rules, or adhere to certain standards of behaviour, then it is “special pleading” to say that we needn’t bother with that because our cause is just. And, if that doesn’t seem right to you, then you perhaps need to ask if you really want a political system where there are no universal rules or universal principles.

There’s been a few debates in education in the last year or so that have worried me because teachers seemed unaware that in a democracy we should all play by the same rules. The first, was the debate over the climate strikes. People argued that it was acceptable for schoolchildren to truant from school in order to protest over climate change. When asked whether it would be acceptable for children to be absent from school to protest about other causes, particularly ones they disagreed with, that was invariably “different”. It was simply to be accepted that those with strong beliefs about the importance and urgency of climate change did not have to follow the same principles as those less enlightened people with different concerns. Then there was an outbreak of debate about racism, after the death of George Floyd and we saw the same argument again that this issue was “different”. Particular views about race, whether that was the existence of white privilege or systemic racism; the rightness of the Black Lives Matters movement, or the effectiveness of implicit bias training were not open to debate. These views could be imposed on schools without debate, or the need to find any kind of consensus, because racism was a special case. Opinions were to be treated as facts when they were the right opinions according to those who would never tolerate the imposition of a wide variety of other viewpoints that are equally, or less, controversial. Those who argued that teaching British values in British schools was outrageous, argued that teaching Critical Race Theory was essential.

Finally, there was a fuss over recent SRE guidance. There’s enough controversial elements of that guidance that I hope to blog about it properly, but incredibly there were teachers arguing against it, not because of the controversial parts, but because they felt entitled to push their political views, and even extreme political views, in the classroom. People who would complain if a teacher expressed right-wing views on social media, were happy to argue that left-wing views should be preached in the classroom. Apparently many had no idea that the Education Act 1996 requires schools to forbid “the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school” and “secure that where political issues are brought to the attention of pupils… they are offered a balanced presentation of opposing views”. Some even argued that this, a legal requirement, was impossible and should be ignored.

We need to remember that however deeply we hold our views, those who disagree are not so different that they need to be given different rights, or held to different standards. Teachers tend to be more left-wing than the electorate. If we argue that schools are to be used for indoctrination, we will find that the precedent this sets won’t actually favour the views of the teaching profession, but the views of the government of the day. If you don’t want British governments to use schools to indoctrinate our students, we need to stop arguing that we should be doing the same thing ourselves.


  1. That’s both eloquent and important. Thanks Andrew.

  2. Wish you hadn’t used that second referendum example. Your reasoning is logically incorrect as the positions can’t be reversed. This is because one is clearly defined (remaining) but the other has a multitude of outcomes (leaving). This is true even if there are a lot of sensible reasons to avoid a second referendum.
    Also it is an irritating but long held tradition that the losing party in any political debate can start advocating for a rematch immediately. Rarely they can even succedd when new circumstances change the political field.

    Considering the nature of your argument here i would have avoided this example.

    • Nope. The point is to hammer out these issues is before a referendum. You can’t fairly decide after losing that implementing the decision is just too complicated and you can renege.

      • Agreed. We saw this happen in Canada after the Quebec secession referendum 30 years ago. When they lost what did the secessionists do? Did they take their ball and go home? No, they redoubled efforts, put people into power, formed political movements and agitated for another referendum. Many expressed the notion that if they lose another referendum there should be another and another until the “right” outcome is achieved. This is clearly not how referenda should work. Not that one should never revisit a momentous decision, but re-rolling the dice until double-sixes come up is not an appropriate a priori strategy and despite the appeal to the mechanisms of democracy it is antidemocratic at the core. Worse even is the notion that those in government, in response to street-level activism, ought to ignore the results of a democratic election or referendum on national policy.

        • Its not this point. Andrew is arguing the positions are reversible. For your analogy to be accurate Quebec would have seceded. I assume little provision for what that would look like would have been made.

      • But we didn’t hammer out the issues before hand that’s the issue. It was Cameron that had the choice on how to phrase the referendum but he didn’t imagine losing and so took no steps to clarify the details. Again I am not saying we should have a second referendum only that your logic is flawed as the positions are not converse.
        Again though democracies can change their mind though usually a strong consensus is needed. Ironically that could come from the brexiteers under Farage.
        This isn’t a clear example of the ends being more important then the means. It can in fact be the reverse. That poorly executed democracy brings more confusion if we don’t acknowledge that both sides could win going in. That’s a poor means that doesn’t achieve its ends.

        • Cameron advocated a remain vote, so saying he was the one that stopped the situations being reversible hardly undermines the point about remainers playing by different rules. There really isn’t a way round this. Whatever the excuses, people lost a referendum and didn’t accept the result and nobody believes that had they won they’d have seen it as legitimate for the result to be ignored.

  3. Well laid out Andrew. Your description of the specific function of Democracy in providing an incentive to leaders to pay attention to the electorate reminds me of an old dictum of the great libertarian and Nobel-Prize winning economist Milton Friedman, who said (paraphrase, I hope it’s close) “The way to effect change in society is NOT to elect the right people into office. It is to create conditions under which the wrong people in office find it politically profitable to do the right things.”

    For the most part, the hard Left has lived by Friedman’s dictum. They generally know they are unlikely to gain a majority or get the right people into power but they know that a small group of people who are loud enough, determined enough and organized enough, can change the political environment sufficiently as to effect the change they want.

    That, in a nutshell, is why I believe you see activists like BLM and Antifa acting as you do. A casual observer might say “what do they think they are doing? They cannot get to power like this! They are only losing the sympathy of a majority”. But what if they don’t particularly care if they actually gain a majority? What if they understand that they can force the hand of democratically elected leaders merely by turning up the heat with more and more outrageous demands and behaviour.

    “Defund the police!” — should this ever become a popular demand, particularly in communities already ravaged by crime? It very nearly did in many US localities, and it had suffient sway as to cause a good many in political positions to change their position on the funding of law enforcement. Though in only a few places (including, unfortunately the largest city in the nation) we saw governing authorities make significant draw-downs of funding and resources for law enforcement — in the midst of a quasi-insurrection that was taxing those very resources.

    Arguably the minds behind Antifa and cognate movements are effectively leveraging the democratic principle behind Friedman’s dictum although they are no friends to democracy. Perhaps lovers of democracy ought also to consider how they can change the political environment to more desirable ends. Your work and that of ResearchED as a whole strikes me as one way to do so.

  4. Applying your argument to the context of Oak Academy’s funding without going through the normal processes, it seems reasonable to hold concerns about it, does it not? Special pleading seems to be what a load of those involved with Oak have done.

    • Does it? Did you have the same concerns about the Chartered College of Teaching getting millions?

      • I did have the same concerns, though this may stem from a personal bias I’m aware I possess: as well as being a teacher, I’m a former accountant and member of the ICAEW. The idea that the CCT is a comparable chartered institute is something I find laughable.

        • That’s a fair point. the Gel-Mann effect strikes again.

        • I’m being slightly facetious, because I think they’d be an interesting venn diagram over which funding people found controversial. More seriously, with regard to Oak, I’m not convinced there are “normal processes” for emergency pandemic planning, or any serious competitors for the role.

  5. Politics should be taught at school. Not in a partisan way, of course, but what the ‘technical’ terms mean.

    A ‘politics curricula’ may include, for example, the concepts of absolute monarchy, oligarchy, control of the press, the authoritarian mindset, the corruption of democracy by vested interests, the scapegoating of minorities as a distraction mechanism, press ownership and propaganda.

    It is not as if world history cannot provide stark examples.

    Is power maintained by deception,force or consent? The list is endless, teaching the nature of politics cannot do any harm and generally people may make better decisions as a result, and be better able to recognize, and respond to, the lies painted on the side of a bus.

  6. […] Teaching in British schools « Ends and Means […]

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