Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Do The Ends NEVER Justify The Means?

A common phrase used by many, including myself - "the ends do not justify the means". But, this statement needs to be clarified. What we really should say is - evil means can not be justified by good ends, thus good ends do not justify evil means.

Why do I say this? Because there are many cases where we can see this lived out. For instance
  • the end of having clean water in a poor country justifies the means of building a water well.
    --a good end (clean water) can justify a good - or neutral - means (digging a well).
  • the end of getting information from a terrorist never justifies the means of torture
    --a good end (getting information) cannot justify the evil means (torture)
Thus, I qualify the statement "the ends do not justify the means" by saying that it is possible for this to happen, but that a good end can never be justified by an evil means.

This kind of philosophical precision is necessary for good Christians to think through, because of the kind of philosophies that have entered into our culture and way of reasoning. Most citizens would probably justify their positions on torture or other evil acts by the ends. The root of such thinking comes from utilitarianism (the morality of an act is based on the utility - or ability - of it to bring happiness and pleasure) and consequentalism (the consequences of an act make it moral or not). Both are philosophies that are self-serving, non-Christian, and far from loving. A good round-up of both can be found here.

Do the ends justify the means?
Not if they are evil means or ends.
"Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable." - G.K. Chesterton


tour86rocker said...

That was very good Marcel, thank you. And that Chesterton quote is going straight to my repository of Catholic quotes, it's a very good one.

Kev Johnston said...

Not to pick a fight (because I am anti-torture), but as not to straw-man the torture argument I believe the proponents of torture would say that we are merely taking up a lesser evil to avoid a larger one. With this phrasing, many arguments can be rephrased (of course immanence is the qualifier...). Good post though! I think about this often...

Marcel said...

The moral principle "lesser of two evils" does not apply to torture. Rather, the principle of "double effect" does. So, there is no fight to pick, even if you wanted to.

Marcel said...

FYI - I have had several comments about the torture issue. We will not have a discussion in the comboxes about it - because it isn't up for discussion.

Carl said...

I like the basic concept of the statement "the ends never justify the means", but aren't there cases when it IS justifiable to have evil means for a good end.

For example, the killing of an assailant when all other options have been spent in order to save hostages.

Or then there is the concept of a just war.

As I see it, there are times when the end does in fact justify the end.

But then how does this relate to the statement that "the ends do not justify the means?"

Marcel said...

Carl - the end you would seek in the situations you describe is preservation of your own life or others - a good one.

So, I believe the statement still stands.