Do Ends Justify the Means?
Most people, in my view, believe (although wrongly) that a desired result is so good or important that any method, even a morally bad one, may be used to achieve it.
However, except in some special/extreme circumstances where ends may justify means, the achievement of desired or cherished goal can never be used as an excuse to employ immoral or illegal means.
The US government sent young men to their death in Iraq, because the ends were supposed to justify the means.
The US government drafted young men to fight in Vietnam, because the ends supposedly justified the means.
Patients with kidney disease suffer greatly because the benefit of banning kidney sales supposedly outweighs the benefits of ending the transplant kidney shortage.
There are many such examples of “ends justify the means” arguments.
However, the question is: Can a “Rotten Egg” make a “Good Omelette?”
It is also pitiable that in politics and government lying and cheating has become so much a norm that nobody gives it a damn and ends vs. means philosophy is used to shamelessly justify every other abominable act.
Regardless, the end/means dilemma is an old and popular scenario and can be traced back to Niccolo Machiavelli. The closest he came to it was when he expressed his view in Chapter XVIII of The Prince:
“There is nothing more necessary to appear to have than this last quality (appearing to be religious), inasmuch as men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you.”
Explaining this quote from Chapter 18 of The Prince about keeping faith, or being true to your word, Blogger Steven Mintz postulates that Machiavelli is instructing a Prince on how to behave and how to keep up appearances. He says it’s very important to appear merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. He also says that one must be prepared to act in a manner contrary to the appearance to keep up the appearance. This is because everyone can see what you appear to be, and only a few will get close enough to touch you and actually find out what happened.
Thus, it is not surprising that most of the people have been brainwashed in to believing that “ ends justify the means.
The believers of “Consequentialism” hold that the consequences of one’s conduct provide ultimate basis for any judgement about the rightness or wrongness of that conduct. While on the other hand Deontological Ethics places main emphasis on the moral rules. It derives the rightness or wrongness of one’s conduct from the character of the behaviours itself rather than the so called (intended) outcome that does not always turn out as expected.
The weak point of the Consequentialism is that it always justifies the means (that are evidently wrong) to achieve a supposed (and uncertain too) outcome.
In “Ends and Means: An enquiry into the Nature of Ideals and into the Methods Employed for their Realisation”, Aldous Huxley (who visibly seems to be a proponent of Deontology), thus , opines:
“The remedy for social disorder must be sought simultaneously in many different fields. Accordingly, in every field (beginning with a political and economic to the field of personal behaviour). I suggest the kind of change that must be made if men are to realize the ideal ends at which they all profess to be aiming. This involves us, incidentally, in a discussion of the relations of means to ends. Good end, as I have frequently pointed out, can be achieved only by the employment of appropriate means. The end can not justify the means, for the simple and obvious reason that the means employed determine the nature of end product.
Violence and war always beget more violence and war and not vice versa so believed the Tolstoy and Huxley. However, some proponents of the war and violence argue that “sometimes war is necessary to restore the peace and order”. But, can we justify the killing of people (whom America considers terrorists) in the name of War against Terror” which also entails the killing of many non-violent civilians who are (callously) considered as “Collateral Damage” that is even more shameful and abhorring than the ideology of Consequentialism itself.
In this context, Huxley very aptly remarks: “What sort of world is this, in which men aspire to good and yet so frequently achieve evil? What is the sense and point of the whole affair? What is man’s place in it and how are his ideals, his system of values, relate to the universe at large?” At another place he points out the fallacy of Consequentialists in these words: “About the goals, there has, for long, been an agreement. We know what sort of society we should like to to be. But, when it comes to deciding how to reach the goal, the babel of conflicting opinions breaks loose. Quot homines, tot sententiae: Where ultimate ends are concerned, the statement is false; in regard to means, its is nearly true. Everyone has his own patent medicine, guaranteed to cure all ills of humanity; and so passionate, in many cases, is belief in the efficiency of panacea that men are prepared, on its behalf, to kill and be prepared to be killed.”
Another point of view is that “means are not given in the universe; in the universe, there exist only things. A thing becomes a means when human reason plans to employ it for the attainment of some (supposed) end and human action really employs it for this purpose. Thinking man sees the serviceability of things i.e. their ability to minster to their ends, and acting man makes them mean.”
Another interesting point is that sometimes what is an end for someone becomes a mean for another. For instance, for an unemployed person a “job” is and end, but for the employer that “job” is a mean to achieve another end.
Furthermore, sometimes this question is so much perplexing that you can not know what really is the truth. For instance, justifying the abortion of a baby to save the life of a mother. But these are very rare situations and not pre-planned efforts to achieve good ends by using bad means. Form a Utilitarian point of view, “good” or “moral” acts are those that yield the greatest amount of happiness and least amount of suffering for the greatest amount of people. But this point of view is a generalization, ambiguous and full of suppositions. There is no proper/universal definition of happiness and neither can it be determined on the scientific scale that the so called good action is producing the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people with the least amount of suffering, because “happiness”, “suffering” and “greatest number of people” are all abstract concepts.
The last, but not the least. point is that we can never be sure of an outcome, however, prestigious/beneficial or noble that may look when it has been planned to be achieved. For instance, If someone steals some food form a bakery to help a hungry and the food turns out to be contaminated/expired and instead of solving the problem makes the poor man sick, in addition. Or he may even die because of your so called good deed.
One is always sure about the validity (and goodness) of means being employed, but the end (how good it might supposed to be) is never even guaranteed in the first place. As simple as that.