“The end justifies the means” may seem like a shrewd way to achieve your objectives, but is it? This article will assist you in having a better understanding of this saying. We will delve into the meaning behind “the end justifies the means” as well as furnish some simple examples. Lastly, we’ll conclude by examining instances where philosophers and ordinary individuals have grappled with and resolved this question.
An Explanation Of The End Justifies The Means.
The idiom, “The end justifies the means”, for the most part is self-explanatory. However, for the purpose of this article, I’ll define it and give a couple of examples. This will serve as a baseline for the rest of the article. First, I’ll start with a definition of “the end justify the means”. See below:
“A good outcome excuses any wrongs committed to attain it.”Dictionary.com
Also, many attribute “the end justifies the means” idiom to Machiavelli. His teachings closely align to this idiom, however he did not directly say this. Here is what he did say in his book, The Discourses
“For although the act condemns the doer, the end may justify him…”Machiavelli
In the next section, I’ll provide you examples where a person or an organization invoked “the end justifies the means” as a rationale for their actions.
Examples “Where The End Justifies The Means” Were Invoked
To get a better understanding of the idiom, “the end justifies the means”, here are some examples.
- Forced Labor Camps. In the 1930s, Joseph Stalin implemented a series of brutal policies in the Soviet Union, including forced labor camps and mass executions, in order to industrialize and modernize the country.
- Atomic Bomb. During World War II, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing over 200,000 people, in order to bring a swift end to the war and save American lives.
- Cuban Invasion. In 1961, the CIA orchestrated a failed invasion of Cuba in order to overthrow Fidel Castro’s communist government and prevent Soviet influence in the Western Hemisphere.
- Cheating Regulations. In 2015, Volkswagen was found to have installed software in their diesel cars that cheated emissions tests in order to meet environmental regulations while still maintaining performance standards.
- COVID Lockdown. In 2020, some governments around the world implemented strict lockdown measures to combat the spread of COVID-19, even if it meant infringing on individual rights and freedoms.
There are countless examples of where people or organizations have used the idiom, “the end justify the means” as a rationale for their actions. For more background information, see Benjamin Spall’s article, When Does the End Justify the Means?
“The harm done by ordinary criminals, murderers, gangsters, and thieves is negligible in comparison with the agony inflicted upon human beings by the professional do-gooders, who attempt to set themselves up as gods on earth and who would ruthlessly force their views on all others – with the abiding assurance that the end justifies the means.”Henry Grady Weaver
The Philosophical And Moral Challenge: Is The End Ever Justified By The Means?
Throughout the ages, countless philosophies have both supported, and refuted the idiom, “the end justifies the means”. When you think about it, it is amazing there is such a wide variety of conclusions on this subject. Below is a several examples where both philosophers and everyday people have grappled with the concept of “the end justify the means”.
1. Consequentialism – Yes, This Doctrine Advocates That The End Justifies The Means.
Consequentialism is a moral theory that judges the morality of an action based on its consequences. This means that actions are morally right if they lead to good consequences and morally wrong if they lead to bad consequences. For example, if a person steals food to feed their starving family, consequentialism would argue that this action is morally right because it leads to good consequences.
“Crime is contagious….if the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for the law.”Louis D. Brandeis
2. Deontology – No, This Ethical Theory Opposes That The End Justifies The Means.
Deontological ethics is a moral theory that judges the morality of an action based on its adherence to moral rules or duties. This means that actions are inherently right or wrong, regardless of their consequences. For example, if a person believes that lying is always wrong, then deontological ethics would argue that lying is always wrong, even if it leads to good consequences.
3. Intentionalism – No, This Belief Focuses On Your Good Intentions, Not Just Your Chosen End.
Intentionalism is a moral theory that focuses on the intentions behind an action rather than its consequences. This means that an action can be morally right or wrong depending on the intentions behind it. For example, let’s say that a doctor administers a lethal dose of medication to a terminally ill patient. If the doctor’s intention was to save the patient from agonizing pain, then the intentionalist would say this action was morally good.
4. Authority And Law – A Qualified No, It Is The Legal Authority That Justifies The Means, Not Just Your Chosen End.
Authority refers to the role of social institutions in determining what is morally right or wrong. This means that moral rules are determined by institutions such as religion, government, or cultural norms. For example, if a society believes that it is morally wrong to eat meat, then this society, the authority, would argue that eating meat is morally wrong no matter what end an individual was trying to achieve. Now if this authority is morally corrupt, such as a tyrant, then yes, this repressive authority’s creed would be “the end does justify the means”.
5. Virtue Ethics – No, This Theory Focuses On Being Virtuous And That Is What Justifies The Means.
Virtue ethics emphasizes the importance of developing good character traits, such as honesty and compassion. This means that morality is not just about following rules or producing good consequences, but also about being a good person. For example, if a person always tells the truth because they value honesty as a virtue, then virtue ethics would argue that this person is acting morally even if their actions do not always lead to good consequences.
6. The Golden Rule – No, With This Principle It Is Your Good Actions Toward Others That Justify The Means.
The golden rule suggests treating others as you would like to be treated. So the golden rule drives your actions, your means to an end. For example, you are an employer who needs to layoff an employee. According to The Golden Rule, you would not just terminate the person on the spot, but you would also take actions to treat this person as you would want to be treated in this situation.
7. Pragmatism – A Qualified Yes With This Practical Approach In That Circumstances Will Determine If The End Justifies The Means.
Pragmatism is a moral theory that emphasizes the importance of considering the specific situation and context in which an action occurs when determining its morality. For example, if a person steals food to feed their starving family and there are no other options available, pragmatism would argue that this action is morally right. This is because it solves a practical problem and produces a positive outcome.
8. Decision-Making With No Moral Considerations – Yes, With This Process The End Does Justify The Means.
Decision-making is focused on outcomes, the end. Now, in many cases decision-making will have constraints to include moral considerations. Also, decision-making is based on the information available at the time of the decision. So decisions with no constraints or moral consideration are based solely on the available information and best actions to achieve the desired outcome or result. For example, a prospective employee lies on their resume because it could help them get a job. The job applicant only had a narrow consideration and that was landing the job.
“The first sign of corruption in a society that is still alive is that the end justifies the means.”Georges Bernanos
So there is not a simple answer to whether “the end justify the means”. It all depends on a lot of factors such as your morality, philosophy, legal considerations and circumstances. On the other hand, when morality or the laws dictate your action, the end does not justify the means. For more discussion on these topics, please explore and examine the following articles from Unvarnished Facts.
Also, for more discussion and references on “the end justifies the means”, see ReadingEagle’s Everyday Ethics: Do The End Justify The Means, Ian Chadwick’s Does The End Justify The Means, and TowardDataScience’s Outcome Bias Versus Moral Philosophy.
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