The following will be elementary to many of you, and for that I must explain that this idea popped into my head fully formed and I need to improve my writing habit, so here goes. Hopefully this will be insightful for someone!

Political opinions can be framed as a set of three components: Cause, Means, and Ends (consequences).

Example: Poor people can’t afford rent in this town on minimum wage, so you should vote for a Democrat to enact higher minimum wage laws.

Let’s unpack this as follows:

Cause: Poor people can’t afford rent in this town on minimum wage

Means: vote for a Democrat to enact higher minimum wage laws

Ends: Unstated! But we can infer that the claim is that higher minimum wage laws create a world in which poor people can afford rent in this town.

I used this example specifically because it’s a common argument, and the ends are unclear. I have noticed that the majority of political movements and ideologies have very vague Ends. This is in part due to how difficult it is to predict the future and the outcomes of different government policies. But part of it is to prevent disagreements from occurring regarding the Ends.

So you may be in an argument with someone who agrees with you about the Cause, agrees about the Ends, but disagrees about the Means, and any other combination.

I’ve been in political movements where everyone allied with a Cause, but then it fell apart from infighting about Means, and we barely even touched Ends! It’s very rare that we meet people who match our beliefs on all three components.

Another element of this is that our minds create meaning by finding patterns and matching those patterns to categories which we then label. We use those labels often without realizing how fuzzy the borders of our categories are, and then sometimes we argue about labels instead of realizing that we’re arguing about where the boundaries of the categories are, or whether a Thing belongs in the category or not.

Here are some examples to illustrate what I mean. When I was part of Occupy Wall Street, we surveyed the attendees to determine what causes people agreed with. We found a huge array of different causes brought us together, but a few stood out as central issues. Then we attempted to discuss solutions and quickly realized how many different worldviews were held by our group members. Eventually, the fundamental disagreements were insurmountable, and the movement fizzled.

I advocate for being as clear as possible in your arguments both for good rhetorical reasons, but also for signaling reasons. If you’re trying to change the world, you want to attract like-minded people who agree with you on as many portions of the three components as possible. This isn’t usually possible, and getting work done is ultimately more important than agreeing on what work needs to be done. And I don’t think people usually talk about Ends in anything other than vagueries like “making the world a better place.” However, successful movements have centered around visionary leaders. So to attract the right people to your cause you should be expressing your vision of the future (Ends) and advocating the actions (Means) most likely to get us there while being open to disagreement about the prioritization of Causes.


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