We confuse means and ends in personal relationships when we focus on what we want other people to do, rather than what we ultimately need and want. For example, we might badger a partner to travel less, take on fewer commitments, simply learn to say no when the real issue is that we want to spend more time together as a family.
At the institutional level, means crowd out ends in universities when publishing, building bigger endowments or networking are valued above increasing knowledge for students and society. Means crowd out ends in medicine when doctors are incentivized to take on ever more patients and spend less time with them in order to maximize profit instead of maximizing patient wellbeing.
At the societal level, we may follow the herd, without questioning whether what we value is contributing to our well being. We may constantly strive for attention on social media, obsess over celebrity culture, or care more about net worth than character. The economic/social policies of most countries focus on maximizing GDP. Instead they would be maximizing human dignity.
How do we achieve the clarity we need to distinguish between means and ends? We ask ourselves whether we value something as an end in and of itself, or as a means to a valuable end. Distinguishing between ends and means keeps us focussed on what matters, on what is likely to increase our wellbeing.
“The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.” – Carl Jung