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The Ends and the Means
Which justifies which?

By:David K. Every
©Copyright 1999

One of the toughest things I deal with (philosophically) is when I am discussing things with people and they do not understand the concept that "the ends can not justify the means" -- or even worse, when they just believe that it can. They want their goals so bad that they will compromise their beliefs to get there (and probably achieve the wrong goals in the process).

The Past

Put yourself into any "evil" tyrants head in the world throughout history -- and they believed that the ends justified the means. I have a hard time believing that most of them THOUGHT they were just pure evil (whether they were or not is a separate issue). I imagine that most of them just thought they were doing good -- they just believed that the ends (their utopia) justified the means with which they got there (usually taking rights and freedoms, tyrannized the innocent and so on). They wanted harmony and control at all costs and believed that would be good for society (and themselves) -- and the means was just a necessary reality.

Think of Adolph Hitler -- what did he really believe? He believed that the rights of the many outweighed the rights of the few (the tyranny of the masses). That Europe and the Jews were responsible for the depression and Germany's situation. So he felt that taking over was necessary. That eliminating the enemies through fear and even murder was acceptable. He probably believed that the final solution was justified because of the great harmony a homogenous society would offer. Of course we know him as a murdering genocidal threat to humanity -- but why? Because the ends can not justify the means -- his good intents (to empower Germany and his ideals) are irrelevant -- his actions are what mattered, and they were wrong.

This gets into my other little philosophical altruism -- that "you are what you do". It doesn't matter what you think are, or wish you were -- it matters what you are doing. If you steal, for whatever reasons, then you are a thief. If you assault someone, or intimidate someone, then you are those actions as well. All of your actions define who you are at a given time in your life. The trick is to stop doing those actions that you don't like, or that aren't the actions of a person that you want to be. Do the actions of a person that you want to be (charity, compassion, forgiveness) and you are that kind of person too. You are what you do.

I imagine that Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Hirohito (and his Government), Mussolini, and so on, also believed as Hitler did -- that they were saving their people and doing what was ultimately good for their culture/country/people. Short term they often were too. They had noble ends -- from their point of view -- as humans always do. Humans have the ability to rationalize anything, for the sake of the greater good -- it is just that their actions (not their ends) is how we measure them.

We (the Americans) have been wrong in how we invaded Mexico, dealt with the Indians, and even how the founding fathers both revolted and how our revolution and Government didn't go far enough (and agree that ALL men, black and white were equal). Many of our founding Fathers knew that slavery was wrong, and believed it -- they just felt that it would destroy the nation to stand up for what was right. They needed slavery to keep the economy going -- and so the freedom of the many (the ends) justified their means (in their minds). They were wrong. It cost us many lives later, and we continue to bear the shame of our heritage. We pay for every year that we tolerated a wrong in the name of the greater good or a "noble" ends. The cost was a civil war, and the shame of civil rights protests 200 years after they should have been granted.

This is what made so many great men truly great -- they didn't compromise the means to achieve their ends. No matter how strongly they believed in the ends, they didn't give in to the shortcuts (which usually involved violating others rights to get there). Look at Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., and just about any others that you should truly recognize as good humans. I bet all were internally mad as hell at the injustices being done -- but they never gave into that, and stuck to their beliefs (that the means matters).

The Present

You can look at Ho Chi Mihn, Castro, Pol Pot, Kim, Sadam Hussein or any present day tyrant (or past one) and it almost always comes down to the same thing -- they tried to do good (in their minds), but their means sucked. They freed themselves from one tyranny by creating a worse one. They believed that the first tyranny was wrong, and needed to be stopped, that the people were downtrodden, that the evil rich were taking more than what they thought was fair, the masses were exploited, that wrongs were being done, and so on. According to many their ends (goals) were noble. They were righteous. Yet they rationalized their actions -- war, extermination of their enemies (who would take them back to that "bad" place), fear, murder -- whatever means it took to achieve their ends -- usually to stop the same. They were hypocrites that believed that the actions of the other side justified their own actions -- or worse. Once they started down a path it was hard to stop. They had to compromise their beliefs (in compassion, humanity, etc. -- the MEANS) -- and by the time they achieved their ends, they had no principles/beliefs left (if they even started with them). They failed because they believed their ends justified the means -- and that corruption ate them alive.

People have asked why I don't try to become a politician -- it is for that reason. To be a successful politician you must compromise your beliefs to achieve anything. The pragmatics of using any means to achieve your ends whittles away at your soul. So they have to start by believing the ends will justify the means -- which means that by definition we shouldn't trust them. If they are not morally corrupted to begin with, they soon will be by the process. Very few men have walked this moral tightrope effectively. I'd have to go back quite a few generations to find a President that I truly admired as a person (though there are a few more that I can admire as effective leaders).

Look at the failures and violence being perpetuated today. This is all around the world. The Jews were wrong in how they took over Israel -- and the Palestinians were wrong in how they fought back. Look at the IRA. They are rightly protesting against what they see as an enslavement (or occupation) by a foreign government. You may not agree with their view -- but the point is that they do. Their goals aren't wrong -- freeing North Ireland -- it is the means which is wrong. The bombing of innocents (even the innocent soldiers of that occupying force) is a means with which they are trying to achieve the ends (and many other nefarious and ugly means). They feel justified because of the means with which the other side (England) has used to keep what it sees as a noble ends (protecting the rights of its citizens, civilizing Ireland, protecting it's property and so on). Both sides goals may be noble -- but that can not forgive the actions done in the name of their respective goals. They are the sum of their actions -- not the sum of their goals.

The problem is not just the actions -- but the ideals. This bothers me a lot. Look in our modern day society and what do we have? We have people with polarized agendas believing in their causes. I support their desire to believe in something, and to fight for it. I may even agree with their ends (or not). But to me the ends are always less important than the means they advocate. I KNOW they mean well -- even when I don't agree with their goals. I can look at any issue and see what the other side (or my side) is trying to do. So the ends themselves are unimportant. What really matters is how they want to get there, and what we will learn from that. The problem is that many extremists on all side seem to be advocating that the ends justifies the means. The problem is that people are starting to believe that. Some think that cheating is fine if you don't get caught. That lying or twisting the truth to make the other side look bad is OK. That polarizing the people, or fostering hate (even if it is hate of hate) is acceptable -- anything to achieve the noble ends. The more they believe in the ends, the more readily they are to compromise anything to achieve it.

I talk with people about the means which are wrong even though they only have the highest goals in mind:

  1. Like taking away civil liberties prophylactically, as a way to protect the masses. Like outlawing guns, many drugs, Alchohol (at some points in time), many chemicals that have legitimate purposes, and so on.
  2. Government force should only be used against those violating others rights -- not just doing something you don't like. Like outlawing cigarettes (or persecuting tobacco companies or smokers) because you want a healthier society is another noble goal -- and failed means (if you value freedom -- since freedom is most important when you allow others to do things you don't agree with). Sure the ends are good -- but smokers actions are not a crime (certainly not in their own home, or for individuals to set rules for their own place of business).
  3. Welfare, Subjective Taxation (to redistribute wealth) and Social Security -- again, noble goals, helping out the less fortunate, providing for others. But the means is using Government (which is a tool of force) to intimidate others (under penalty of death, imprisonment, or having their property stolen) to achieve that lofty goal (a compassionate society). So charity at gunpoint is deemed acceptable behavior, because it is "too hard" to teach societal responsibility and to get people to give what they should. So instead of giving society a chance to learn and grow and letting people see the consequences of callousness (which would be long term good)-- our society is fractionalized into special interests and groups where both sides resent the other (one because they are being robbed from, and the other because they are not getting to rob enough) -- because the means are wrong.

There is always an excuse -- "but many more would suffer" if we paid attention to the right means. Of course that is what Ghandi, MLK's, and Christ's friends were probably telling them too. It is saying, "if we just take this shortcut", "if we just ignore our means", or "if we just violate their rights" then we can get to our goals (ends) a little quicker. Always the rationalization, "their lack of response/action makes us do wrong / choose these means", or "by doing this wrong we will save others from suffering injustice (by perpetuating it)". Of course we know that isn't true -- or we should -- that everyone has to be held accountable for their actions, and that two wrongs do not make a right. I think even the advocates of the wrong policies may understand it at some sub-conscious level -- it is just our responsibility to drag it kicking and screaming into the societal consciousness.

The Future

We as humans must always have the humility and self-doubt to question ourselves (and not let go of the means) and to challenge ourselves by listening to others and trying to learn -- but we must also have the self-confidence to try to make a difference and influence others and enlighten them. (This is one of the key balances in life). Everyone thinks they are right (even when they aren't) or they wouldn't have their beliefs in the first place -- but that self righteousness (belief) is not the point. All the great wrongs have been perpetuated by self-righteous people who believed they were doing good -- so much so that they forgave themselves their means of achieving those goals. We must not follow that road even though it is paved with good intentions We must try to hold ourselves to our own standards -- and stand up for the means, if for no other reason to keep our own hubris in check.

The way to reach our "utopia" -- or at least a reasonable facsimile -- is to resist bad means. Especially when we agree with the ends. It is easy to to attack the OTHER sides means -- the tougher part is turning what we know on ourselves (and those with whom we agree). It is always scary to shining the light of knowledge into the shadowy recesses of our beliefs or our allies -- but we can learn a lot more from it. Face it -- you have little influence over others, and a lot more influence over yourself (or those that listen to you). So Doctors heal thyselves! First you demand of yourself what you demand of others -- then you can try to lead by example (or try), instead of being a persecutory finger-pointing hypocrite. You may not be able to influence all of society, or all of a particular group -- but you do have the power to make a small difference by standing up for what you believe in, all by yourself. Say to those who you mostly agree with, "I have the same goals -- but can not advocate those means" and explain why. Many (especially the extremists) will hate you more than they hate those on the other side -- but that is the cost of doing what is right. We all have less influence over the outcomes than we would like -- so the very least we can do is demand that our own means are proper (or that those of groups we support are). Whether they follow you are not, you know that you are doing right -- and you are what you do.

What is going to define who your life is NOT what you've achieved (like some naively think), those are like possessions (that you can't take with you). What is going to define you is how you achieved those things. On your deathbed you are going to want to look back at your life and realize that it is better to have tried and failed using the right means, than to have succeeded using the wrong ones.

The best thing about the future is that it isn't here yet. It is a clean slate, and we get to define as individuals and as a society what it will be. Are we going to stand up not only for our agendas but for the methods in which we will achieve them -- or will we cave to shortcuts and "easier means" to try to achieve our ends? What are you doing to do from here on? Those actions will define you.

Created: 06/25/99
Updated: 11/09/02

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