Do Ends Justify the Means?
I think the U.S. citizenry is being afflicted by a sort of mass insanity at the moment. There are no good outcomes if this continues. As a result, I feel compelled to provide a voice for those of us lost in the political wilderness. We must persevere and not be manipulated into the obvious and nefarious divide and conquer tactics being aggressively unleashed across the societal spectrum. If we lose our grounding and our fortitude, who will be left to speak for those of us who simply don’t fit into any of the currently ascendant political ideologies?
– From February’s post: Lost in the Political Wilderness
Given our increasingly hysterical, polarized and downright rabid political environment, I think it’s important for those of us who see ourselves as relatively conscious individuals to reflect upon our principles and how they play a role in our everyday lives. As such, today’s piece will examine the concept of whether “the ends justify the means” when it comes to achieving ones objectives, political or otherwise. It’s an extraordinarily important philosophical exercise to undertake, particularly since the turbulent period we inhabit is likely to get far more insane and divisive before it gets better.
I think many people will quickly answer the question “do the ends justify the means” without putting enough thought into it. The question is meant to be considered when it comes to premeditated voluntary actions of questionable ethics taken with a defined objective in mind. It has nothing to do with matters of self-defense, or anything in that category. For example, if someone is coming at your family with an intent to inflict harm, the ethical decision might be to harm the aggressor to protect your family despite the fact that harming another person in itself is an immoral act. Pretty much everyone can agree with this, so it doesn’t add anything to the argument of whether the ends justify the means.
That case is obvious. What about if you’re walking down the street and you see someone come from behind an old lady, hit her on the head and then struggle with her on the ground in an attempt to take her purse. You aren’t being directly attacked, so should you intervene with violence if necessary against the perpetrator to help an innocent bystander? Again, I think the right and ethical decision here is to step in to try to help the victim if possible.
In both these cases the negative “means” of violence you might be required to use against violent aggressors do indeed justify the ends — in the first instance the protection of your family, and in the second a vulnerable old lady. Given these examples, one might be led to believe that the ends can often justify the means, but I would argue that this only holds true in extreme examples such as the ones described above, and that for a principled person, the ends almost never justify the means.
When people seriously consider whether the ends of a particular action justify the means, it’s almost never in relation to scenarios like the ones described above for two reasons. First, those are extremely rare situations that many people (in the developed world at least) will only experience a few of times in the course of a lifetime, if that. On the other hand, many of us face constant but often overlooked ethical dilemmas on a daily or weekly basis. We all face situations where we are confronted with the choice to do something we know is wrong, but perhaps do it anyway either for instant gratification or in the pursuit of a larger goal. This post is focused on the latter.
Many people involved in politics swear by the notion that “the ends justify the means,” which is typically the sign of a self-serving actor attempting to justify questionable if not downright evil action in order to get what he or she wants. While pursuit of “the greater good” is often put up for public consumption, the driving force behind this sort of action is almost always personal gain of some sort. This is what most politicians do for a living, which is why they are justifiably hated by the general public.
One of my favorite books of all time is The Bhagavad Gita According to Gandhi. In the introduction, he writes:
He who is ever brooding after result often loses nerve in the performance of his duty. He becomes impatient and then gives vent to anger and begins to do unworthy things; he jumps from action to action, never remaining faithful to any…When there is no desire for fruit, there is no temptation for untruth or hisma. Take any instance of untruth or violence, and it will be found that at its back was the desire to attain the cherished end.
A few pages later he expounds upon the subject.
We should do no work with attachment. Attachment to good work, is that too wrong? Yes, it is. If we are attached to our goal of winning liberty, we shall not hesitate to adopt bad means.
Gandhi clearly did not believe that ends justify the means, and I agree with this conclusion in something like 99% of the ethical dilemmas we regularly face as human beings.
Someone who wants to make the opposite argument might selectively pick certain historical instances where questionable action led to a favorable outcome overall. I don’t dispute that such instances exist, but I’d argue that for each such instance there are hundreds of examples of the exact opposite. In fact, much of the tragic state of the world as it is today can be directly linked to scores of humans constantly justifying unethical behavior in order to advance their own self interests and goals. A primary driver of so much of the unnecessary suffering in the world relates to individuals making immoral decisions they justify to themselves and others as being a necessary part of a larger goal. Notice how these “larger goals” almost always end up benefiting the person taking and justifying the questionable action? That’s your red flag.
To those of you who still disagree with my argument, think about it from the slippery slope perspective. The moment you justify one very wrong action to achieve a noble goal, what’s to stop you from next even more unethical action, or the next and the next? Nothing. This is what’s so dangerous about going down such a path. Indeed, those who fight monsters often end up becoming the exact thing they claim to be fighting. The world doesn’t benefit from this, only the person who has gained power as a result does, at least superficially. Ultimately, even that person doesn’t benefit when all is said and done. A person who attains their goal by sacrificing principles is a tormented, miserable person. They may seem to “have it all” from the outside, but deep down they hate themselves and what they’ve become. There is no peace. I believe karma eventually catches up to everybody one way or the other.
Indeed, so many of the wars, massacres and bloodshed around the world can be directly linked to “ends justify the means” type thinking. That’s exactly what America’s insane neocons use to justify their endless wars of intervention that end up making the world a worse place than it was before. Notice how they always claim their action is to achieve good, yet it always ends up making things worse. Notice how it doesn’t stop them from making the same ridiculous argument over and over again?
Unfortunately, many people don’t have any principles to begin with and simply live their lives in the pursuit of their own superficial, materialistic or egotistical goals. These are the types of people who most often employ “ends justify the means” thinking, which is exactly why those of us who do have principles must reject this way of thinking and pursue a more conscious manner of achieving our ends. If that means our ends aren’t achieved in our lifetime that’s something that must be accepted. The means we use will reverberate in the universe forever and will benefit the world whether we’re able to point to definitive results or not.
As Gandhi also wrote:
If we take a total view, we shall see that it is not wickedness but goodness which rules the world. The wicked can prevail only when they number multitudes, but goodness will rule when embodied to perfection even in one person. Nonviolence has been described as so powerful that all forces of violence subside in its presence. Under its influence, even beasts forget their nature. Even one good person can change the world. Such a one enjoys an empire over people’s hearts…
Where wickedness prevails, there is disorder in every field of life, but where goodness rules, order prevails and people are happy. They are happy not in the sense that their material needs are satisfied, but in the sense that they lead virtuous and contented lives. As for material possessions, some men have fortunes in rupees and yet have a distracted life. That is no sign of being happy.
Gandhi was himself a victim of the violence he so despised, but his timeless message lives on and he wouldn’t harbor any bitterness or anger to those who gunned him down. I first read the words above nearly a decade ago, and they’ve stayed closely beside me ever since. I hope they connect with you as well.
Keep striving, keep learning and keep growing. Thanks for joining me on this wild ride that is life.