Do the Ends Justify the Means?

topic posted Fri, April 27, 2007 - 7:10 PM by  ScreamBrian
Hey people, this is the topic of Sunday's gathering in Santa Monica at 2pm (see the event listing I put up a few days ago on this tribe page). Here's the "official" wording of this topic, which was the winner of the email vote this week:


We can approach this question by way of any number of examples, so bring your own favorite hypothetical case. Consider this (admittedly extreme) legal example. In a criminal trial, it's clear that "Fred" is guilty of murder. He freely gives a detailed confession of details that only the actual murderer could know. Yet the court has no other evidence sufficient to convict Fred. Unfortunately, he gave his confession without being read his Miranda rights ("you have the right to remain silent..."). Legally, our judge, Judge Wopner, should throw out the confession, freeing the murderer (who may, of course, commit further crimes). Assuming that the situation is as simple as described, and there are no other relevant facts, what should the judge do? Should Wopner ignore the rule of law and convict the murderer or respect the rule of law and toss out the confession?

Imagine that the procedural justice violation was more extreme than failing to follow the Miranda rule, e.g., coaching a witness, suppressing evidence that might get the defendant freed, or even torturing a confession out of the murderer. Would that change your mind on whether the ends justify the means? What if, instead of murder, the defendant was guilty only of car theft or shoplifting? What if he were not simply a murderer but a murderous terrorist who might have information about upcoming terrorist acts?

In legal or philosophical terms, this sort of dilemma is often framed as a question of procedural justice (good and just means) versus substantive justice (good and just ends). Procedural justice requires that just procedures are followed, e.g., following the same rules for everyone, adhering to the rule of law, playing fair. It also requires that we not allow good ends (imprisoning a murderer) to justify bad means (refusing to give a defendant all rights-- such as the Miranda rights-- and the full protection of the law). Substantive justice requires that a just outcome occurs-- in this case, that the murderer is imprisoned.

I hope to see you there! Also, you can start a discussion of "Do the Ends Justify the Means?" in this thread, too.
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  • Re: Do the Ends Justify the Means?

    Fri, April 27, 2007 - 7:52 PM
    Here are the OPTIONAL READINGS for this Sunday's dicussion and for this thread. If you would like to read something to stimulate your interest or thinking on the subject or clarify the ideas involved, I found three very short ones, and a longer one. Read any of them, all of them, or none of them:

    1. 888 words long (about 1.5 or 2 pages): "Do The Ends Justify The Means" is the brief entry on the matter from,

    2. 935 words long (about 2 pages): "The Means/Ends Principle," on a philosopher's blog, is D.T. Stain's solution to the issue, which is from a deontological (principle or duty-based ethics) point of view. Here's the link:

    3. 908 words (just under 2 pages): "Political Ethics: Ends, Means, Violence" is an excerpt from an article on the philosopher Isaiah Berlin from one of our usual sources, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Read only section 5.2 ( ), which deals with his thoughts on whether the ends justify the means.

    4. 3000 words (about 6 pages): if you want a longer reading that gives a very general overview of the major ethical theories in western philosophy, including how each theory deals with the issue of the means justifying the ends, then check out this excerpt from the article on Ethics in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. In general, Utilitarians (and other consequentialists) tend to agree that the ends sometimes justify the means. Most principle-based moral systems (like Kant's) and religion-based moral systems tend to argue that the ends do not justify the means. The relevant part to read is section 2 ("Normative Ethics"),

    Our discussion is not at all limited to these readings. They are merely a take-off points and trigger for inspiration, and you may be inspired to agree or disagree. As always, feel free to read or skim this reading... or not, or anything else you find. Most importantly, post your ideas to this thread and/or come to our discussion with your own ideas, musings, questions, and paper on which to jot down your thoughts!

    As a reminder for next month, we are departing from our usual format for our May 20 (5:00 pm) meeting. Ron Sharrin, psychologist at UCLA and Buddhist Meditation teacher, will give a presentation on Buddhist Psychology and Theories of Mind. Afterwards, we will have a question and answer session with him and then, time permitting, we will do our usual back-and-forth on those (and related) philosophical issues.

    For those interested, here are the full voting results from the email vote this week:

    1) When, If Ever, Do The Ends Justify The Means? (16.75 Votes)-- mostly men voted for this one
    2) Memory-Suppression Drugs? Is It Wrong? (11.25 Votes)
    3) Are Numbers Real And Independent Of People, Or Are They Human Constructs? (11.50 Votes)
    4) Friendship: What Does It Mean To Be A Good Friend? What Is The Nature Of Friendship? (13.50 Votes)
    5) What Is The Scariest Or Worst Thing (Psychologically) That Could Happen To A Human? (9.75 Votes) -- mostly women voted for this one

    You may have noticed that the votes do not come in whole numbers. This is not because fractions of a person turn in votes, but because you receive one vote for your top choice, a half vote for your 2nd choice (if you have one), a quarter vote for your 3rd choice, and so on.
    • Re: Do the Ends Justify the Means?

      Fri, April 27, 2007 - 8:03 PM
      I think I'll post the full text of the three short articles in this thread.

      Here's the first one, clocking in at a mere 888 words long (about 1.5 or 2 pages), called "Do The Ends Justify The Means." It is the brief entry on our topic from,


      "The ends justify the means" is a phrase encompassing two beliefs:

      Morally wrong actions are sometimes necessary to achieve morally right outcomes.
      Actions can only be considered morally right or wrong by virtue of the morality of the outcome.
      Conversely, people who believe that the consequences of an immoral action are greater than those of the expected outcome will often say that the ends do not justify the means.

      Morally wrong actions are sometimes considered necessary to achieve morally right outcomes
      The implication is that good ends justify questionable means.

      Theories supporting this view
      A commonly held opinion is that persons are willing to commit small moral transgressions in the service of a greater good; such a view is implicit in consequentialist moral theories such as utilitarianism. It is the philosophy that it is acceptable or necessary to use illegal, immoral, or unethical means to achieve a beneficial result, or "the greater good". The theory is subsequently used to support the position that any action in the service of an important enough cause is justified. This view is often attributed to many radical political ideologies, and historical atrocities committed by such groups are said to be caused by 'moral blindness' in which an ultimate goal is used to overrule moral considerations.

      A possible example of trying to justify a good end by bad means
      In some applications at least, this argument is related to the question of serving the greater good. This implies the means is detrimental to an individual or a small (i.e., minority) group but appears to benefit the majority or the vaguely defined society. For example, faced with a bomb hidden in a metropolitan area, it could be considered morally justifiable to torture the person who knows where it is (assuming that under torture he would truthfully reveal information which could save the citizens). See Controversy over Guantanamo Bay detainment camp. Given the belief that torture is wrong, one could consider it moral to commit that wrong in the interest of saving thousands of lives. As is often, but certainly not always, the case with this dilemma, this is a Lesser of two evils principle situation.

      Considering all outcomes of the means
      Utilitarian use of the ends justify the means must consider the ends to include all outcomes from the means, not just the goal outcomes. In reality innocent suspects may be tortured due to faulty intelligence. In the above dilemma perfect intelligence on this question is assumed. The ends would include one or more definitely tortured suspects, the possible saving of a thousand civilian lives, the possible future resentment of the various suspects, their families, and the groups that identify with them, the possible appreciation of the saved civilians, their families and groups, the psychological effects on the immediate torturers, their superiors and supporters, their families, the erosion of respect for human rights and dignity among all those who try to justify or even know of this use of torture, plus other un-anticipated side-effects that could last as long as the memory of this event. Also, a precedent is created and after this case sadists might be more inclined to use torture where there is little or no likelihood of a good outcome.

      How the term, the ends justify the means is used
      Few people will use the ends justify the means to describe their own views; instead, the phrase is often used to cast suspicion on the actions or motivations of others.

      Some free-market libertarians, following Robert Nozick, characterize their views using the reversed slogan the means justify the ends.

      This phrase the ends justify the means is closely associated with Machiavelli and The Prince, credited with helping to advance the colonial and modern forms of imperialism. Though it should be noted, Machiavelli never wrote the phrase. A more literal translation is "One must consider the final result." (See List of famous misquotations) Also, most experts agree that Machiavelli wasn't necessarily advocating such an outlook in The Prince.

      Religious outlook
      Most religions do not endorse the utilitarian philosophy. For example, the golden rule, held by Jesus, and the Hindu doctrine of karma would both discourage actions based on a purely utilitarian justification. The rationale behind this is the doctrine that all will come to light (all will be known, discovered) in the end and that good begets good, and also the doctrine stating that this life on earth is not the primary life.

      In Roman Catholic moral theology, Thomas Aquinas states explicitly that an end which is good does not justify the use of evil means to attain that end. Summa Theologiae I-II question 18 article 4

      Necessary evil
      A Necessary evil is a situation or act considered evil but necessary to ensure good in other areas or to prevent greater wrong. For example, those who believe that a war can be just consider a Just war a necessary evil.

      Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise. Thomas Paine 1737-1809: Common Sense (1776)

      Little Oxford Dictionary of Quotations
      Search Results for “Necessary evil” "The Ends Justify the Means"

      See also
      • Re: Do the Ends Justify the Means?

        Fri, April 27, 2007 - 8:10 PM
        Here's the second brief article. At 935 words long (about 2 pages) is "The Means/Ends Principle," on a philosopher's blog. This is D.T. Stain's solution to the issue, which is from a deontological (principle or duty-based ethics) point of view. Here's the link:

        Section 2.13
        The Means/Ends Principle

        2.13.1 Do the ends justify the means? The implied answer to this common question is most often an unqualified no. However, in reality, it is clear that sometimes the ends do justify the means. Take the following situation for example...

        2.13.2 Two people are in the middle of nowhere. One of them is injured and needs to get to the hospital quickly or die. There is no phone but there is an unlocked car with the keys left inside. The obvious thing to do would be to "borrow" the car and take the injured person to the hospital, being sure to get the car back to its owner afterwards. Nevertheless, this would technically qualify as grand theft auto. Do the ends (saving a life) justify the means (theft)? The clear morally correct answer is yes. (For the sake of brevity, I will assume the reader can imagine any number of details to the story which would place the people in such a situation and limit all other options, as such is possible in principle).

        2.13.3 Now that I’ve shown an obvious instance where "the ends justify the means" we must formalize this, so that we are careful not to give a free ticket for people to do whatever they want, no matter what principles they have to violate to do so. In what cases do the ends justify the means? In what cases do they not? Why so? Is there some general overriding IES-like principle that acts as a guideline to solving such dilemmas?

        2.13.4 The answer is in cost/benefit analysis. In general, the question of ends and means only arises when there is a conflict of values as in our previous example, saving a life vs. not stealing. Other dilemmas might include not killing vs. stopping a killing, honesty vs. compassion, or mercy vs. justice. In all of these cases we are forced into a situation where, if we uphold one value, we betray another - a catch 22 of sorts. It is only in these cases where the idea of ends and means arises in a moral sense.

        2.13.5 Once framed as such, the obvious course of action is to choose the option that will violate the least important of the two principles. If in reaching the end, you must violate a value that is more important than that gained in the end, then the ends do not justify the means in that case. For example, the enjoyment of one person eating chocolate is not as valuable as the value of not stealing, so stealing candy bars is wrong. The prioritization of "desire for chocolate" under "right to property" is in line with the prioritization described in the Principle of Impartiality (2.12).

        2.13.6 If, on the other hand, the value violated in the means is less important than that gained in the end, then in that case the end does justify the means. For example, saving a life is of higher value than not stealing (and especially "borrowing") as in our first example.

        2.13.7 There are at least two chief dangers in this area of moral deliberation, however. One is that, as in a lot of moral reasoning, the undisciplined or self deceiving thinker runs the risk of rationalizing misconduct. One key is to remember the Principle of Impartiality (2.12). Another is to recall the admonitions in 2.7.11 against rationalization. In difficult moral dilemmas, it is always helpful to seek out the advice of friends, loved ones, associates, and possibly professionals. Tell them your thinking on the matter, your main moral concerns, and then ask for a fair evaluation on whether or not you are rationalizing. Of course, noble intentions are a must and this goes without saying. The issue is making sure that intentions translate into results and that our own unconscious biases aren’t getting in the way. Sometimes, asking advice may not be practical or possible in a situation. In any case, life requires that we try our best to be honest with ourselves, which is all that is humanly possible (if your intentions are not noble, then I refer you back to the many reasons supporting ethical living in 2.4).

        2.13.8 The second concern about weighing values in cases where we are forced into choosing one over the other, is that some cases may not be clear cut. Comparing the importance of opposing values can be a very subjective and fuzzy art. A warning though: often people over emphasize how blurry a distinction is because they don’t like the logical conclusion that would follow from viewing the dilemma in black in white. Often, issues are quite clear and the ones trying to "gray it up" are up to no good. Again, we must have noble intentions first, and self honesty next, in order to help avoid falling into this trap. That said, it is also a fact that many issues get quite difficult to determine accurately. Remember here the Socio-Personal Principle (2.11) in evaluating the relative importance of values. Keep in mind too that your options may not necessarily be limited to one extreme or the other. There may be novel approaches that get you out of the either/or dilemma. However, if you are indeed in such a dilemma, you are being truly impartial, you have sought out advice where possible, and determining which way to go is still too difficult to call, then remember that you are only human and trying one’s best is all that can be expected. Keep in mind also that inaction is a choice and you are often just as morally responsible for the results.
        • Re: Do the Ends Justify the Means?

          Fri, April 27, 2007 - 8:17 PM
          This is the third short reading. This one is 908 words (just under 2 pages), and is called, "Political Ethics: Ends, Means, Violence." It is an excerpt from an article on the philosopher Isaiah Berlin from one of our usual sources, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The only relevant section is part 5.2 ( ), which deals with his thoughts on whether the ends justify the means.

          5.2 Political Ethics: Ends, Means, Violence

          While Berlin emphasised the place of questions about the proper ends of political action in the subject-matter of political theory, he also recognised the importance of discussions of the proper means to employ, and the relationship between these and the ends at which they aim. Berlin did not treat this question—the question of political ethics—directly in his work; nor did he offer simple or confident answers to the perennial questions of the morality of political action. Nevertheless, he did advance some theses about this branch of morality; and these were among his most heartfelt, and indeed passionate, pronouncements.

          Berlin's primary mouthpiece for these messages was Alexander Herzen, the nineteenth-century Russian radical publicist.[22] The words of Herzen that Berlin repeated most insistently were those condemning the sacrifice of human beings on the altar of abstractions, the subordination of the realities of individual happiness or unhappiness in the present to glorious dreams of the future (Berlin also quoted similar sentiments from Benjamin Constant: see Berlin 1990, 16 and 2002, 3, as well as 1978a, 82–113 and 186–209 passim). The first principle of Berlin's political ethics was an opposition to such subordination, which Berlin viewed as the essence of fanaticism, and a recipe for inhumanity that was as futile as it was horrible.

          Berlin, like Herzen, believed that ‘the end of life is life itself’, and that each life and each age should be regarded as its own end and not as a means to some future goal. To this Berlin added a caution (evocative as much of Max Weber as of Herzen) about the unpredictability of the future. Berlin's belief in the power of human agency was qualified by an awareness of how the consequences of any course of action are unknowable, and likely to be quite different from what was intended. This led Berlin, on the one hand, to stress the need for caution and moderation; and, on the other, to insist that uncertainty is inescapable, so that all action, however carefully undertaken, involves the risk of error and disastrous, or at least unexpected and troubling, consequences. The result was an ethic of political humility, similar to Weber's ethic of responsibility, but lacking its tone of grim, stoic grandeur.

          Berlin often noted the dangers of Utopianism, and stressed the need for a measure of political pragmatism. He may therefore appear to have been staunchly in the tradition of political realism. Yet this was not quite the case: Berlin sought to warn against the dangers of idealism, and chasten it, so as to save it from itself and better defend it against cynicism. Berlin's pluralism points the way to a politics of compromise; yet Berlin also warned against the dangers of certain types of compromise, particularly those involving the employment of dubious means to achieve desired ends. Indeed, the problem of the relationship between ends and means runs through Berlin's writings. Berlin, characteristically, warned both against an insistence on total political purity—for, when values conflict and consequences are often unexpected, purity is an impossible ideal—and against a disregard for the ethical niceties of political means. Berlin regarded such an attitude as not only morally ugly, but foolish: for good ends have a tendency to be corrupted and undermined by being pursued through unscrupulous means. Furthermore, since the consequences of actions are so uncertain, it is often the case that political actors don't achieve their goals, or achieve them imperfectly; it is best not to make too many sacrifices along the way to accomplishing one's political goals, since that accomplishment is uncertain. To the realist argument that ‘You cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs’, Berlin responded: “The one thing we can be sure of is the reality of the sacrifice, the dying and the dead. But the ideal for which they die remains unrealised. The eggs are broken, and the habit of breaking them grows, but the omelette remains invisible” (1990, 16).

          Berlin was thoroughly anti-absolutist; but he did insist that there were certain actions that were, except in the most drastic of situations, unacceptable. Foremost among these were the manipulation and humiliation of individuals by others, to the extent that those who are ‘got at’ or ‘tampered with’ by others are deprived of their humanity (see 2002, 339–43). Berlin warned particularly against the use of violence. He acknowledged that the use of force was sometimes necessary and justified; but he also reminded his readers that violence has particularly volatile and unpredictable consequences, and tends to spiral out of control, leading to terrible destruction and suffering, and undermining the noble goals it seeks to achieve. He also stressed the dangers of paternalistic, or otherwise humiliating and disempowering, attempts to institute reform or achieve improvement, which had a tendency to inspire a backlash of hatred and resistance.

          Berlin's political ethics are best summarised in his own words:
          Let us have the courage of our admitted ignorance, of our doubts and uncertainties. At least we can try to discover what others […] require, by […] making it possible for ourselves to know men as they truly are, by listening to them carefully and sympathetically, and understanding them and their lives and their needs, one by one individually. Let us try to provide them with what they ask for, and leave them as free as possible (1978a, 258).

          For Berlin the acceptance of uncertainty was a call not only to cultivate humility, but to foster liberty.
          • Re: Do the Ends Justify the Means?

            Sun, April 29, 2007 - 12:39 PM
            A few of my own thoughts on the matter of when the ends justify the means

            1. I think there's no cut and dried answer to this question. In general, I’d say, the ends do not justify "bad" means. (By "bad" I'm referring to means that would, if stated as a goal or end, be considered by you or nearly everyone to be bad—typically these are actions that cause harm to people). However, in extreme situations, when your ends are to prevent tremendous harm, then otherwise horrible means may be justified. E.g., imagine that a madman told you that you must torture to death several people (including innocent infants, children and adults) or he'll set off a massive nuclear bomb in the middle of New York city, killing millions. Let's assume that you have every reason to believe the madman can and will do this. In this case, the regrettable means are justified by the worthy goal of saving millions of people. You can think of any number of examples of this type.

            2. Yet I'm not sure how else to justify this idea that the ends can sometimes justify the means, other than by the observation that, in certain situations, not letting the ends justify the means results in absurd, horrible results. Depending on the model of ethics you follow, you can give a further justification within that model.

            3. As a consequentialist or utilitarian, as a minimum criteria, the good done by the ends must clearly and strongly outweigh the bad done by the means.

            4. You don’t have to be a utilitarian or consequentialist to think that the ends can sometimes justify the means. Deontological (principle-based, rights-based or duty-based ethics) reasoning can also get you there, especially if your style of principle ethics are not absolutist. The absolutist believes that moral principles can never be violated. The non-absolutist thinks that principles can sometimes be violated, e.g., when a principle is in conflict with a more important principle, or when the bad consequences of not violating a principle is too high (the “threshold” concept).

            Similarly, if your ethics virtue-ethics based, you can arrive at the same conclusion, e.g., "the wise and virtuous person would be savvy enough to realize that moral judgment must not be absolutistic-- we must not be prisoner to following our normal moral principles without exception. Instead, the virtuous person has enough compassion and caring to prevent great harm, even when that requires horrible actions we'd never normally want to do. The wise person also knows when to follow Thoreau's dictum that "foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" (or however that quote goes).

            5. On the rare occasions that the ends justify the means, I think it is when the ends are not to merely bring about a benefit but to prevent a large harm.

            6. On the other hand, a reason to not (as a rule) let your ends justify your means is that you must be very suspicious of your own motives and calculations and judgment whenever you're tempted to do so. It's too easy to fool yourself into thinking that you are justified when you wouldn't believe the same thing if someone else were doing what you want to do. It's too easy to unconsciously overinflate the good done by your actions and the bad done by your means. And it's also too easy to miscalculate how much benefit and harm is done by your means and ends (given the limits on our knowledge and ability to estimate the consequences of our actions). Uncertainty is too high, and you're not even assured in all cases of the success of your goals and ends. And if you don't achieve your ends, then you've committed by means, but don’t enjoy a good outcome.

            7. As Isiah Berlin noted, good ends have a tendency to be corrupted and undermined by being pursued through unscrupulous means.

            8. Similarly, whenever you do an "ends justify the means" type of action, you weaken the prohibition against those means you've used, thus making it easier and more likely that others will partake in your means in all kinds of situations, whether justified or not. In a legal context, for example, a problem with violating procedural justice for the sake of a proximate, just outcome would be the potential for abuse and weakening of the legal system if judges habitually violate procedural justice rules and laws. After all, the main reason these rules of procedural justice were adopted in the first place was because they were the set of procedures designed to guarantee just outcomes. This is similar to the debate between rule and act Utilitarians. Whenever procedures are ignored, the system of rules (and people’s propensity to adhere to them) is weakened. E.g., in the third world, corruption and helping one’s family is often justified by it’s practitioners as being a fulfilling of their duty to their family. But when enough people do it, the whole system falls apart, and corruption is endemic, and the economy & justice of the country falls apart.

            9. Some go so far as to claim that "your means are your ends. You means become your ends.. No leader ever pursued different ends, when in power, to the means they've used to get themselves there."

            10. The "principle of double effect." Catholic theology and philosophy has an interesting take on this issue. The principle of double effect is the set of criteria for judging when an action is morally justified when that action has both good/ beneficial and bad/ harmful effects on others. The ends justify the means only when the following conditions are met: the means you use aren't evil in themselves; you must intend the good effect/ consequences (not the bad); the bad effects must not be the means to the good effects; the good effects must outweigh the bad effects.

            11. For you relativists out there, if you are tempted to think that there are no such things as "bad" methods or means, then imagine something extreme, e.g., a performance artist decides to torture a 6 month old infant as a means to shock his audience, even though the artist thinks and feels that is a bad thing to do and takes no pleasure in it. Doesn’t this count as bad?