Sunday, February 21, 2010

Bonanza Column 173 – Does the End Justify the Means?

One of the oldest debates in moral philosophy is based in the question "does the end justify the means?" Like most questions of morals, this one does not admit of an easy answer, though there are those who have attempted to answer it categorically. Machiavelli, in The Prince, was unequivocal – the end a ruler sets his sights on is all and any means used to obtain that end are justified. Given that the eponymous prince was Cesare Borgia and the time was Renaissance Italy, the ruling class naturally found this advice very agreeable.

Most philosophers come to a conclusion along the lines of "it depends." If the end is moral, and the only way to achieve it is immoral, then the end may justify the means. For example, if I can save the life of a child (moral) by lying to a murderer about the child's whereabouts (immoral), then the end is sufficiently important to justify the means. On the other hand if I can convert an atheist to belief in God (moral) by lying to him about God (immoral), then no, the end doesn't justify the means because the means are contradictory to the end.

There are people who, like the Borgias, are firmly convinced that any means are justified to achieve their ends. These are people who are so firmly convinced that they are right that nothing can create even the slightest crack in their certainty. Fundamentalists and extremists of every stripe – on the political left and right, in virtually every religion fall into this category.

While no one in politics is immune from falling into this trap, we've recently seen what I think are some particularly egregious examples of it from members of the Republican Party. In the past couple of weeks it's been revealed that a large number of the leading Senate opponents of the economic stimulus – people who railed against it as everything from ineffective to socialist, have quietly been getting money for their states from that same stimulus and touting its effectiveness – even taking credit for it – people from the same party that excoriated John Kerry for being a flip-flopper – these same people are now reversing themselves on a wholesale basis on anything that the GOP has done or endorsed that President Obama now supports.

In fact, that is the only logic to their actions – if Obama's for it, we're against it. Try KSM in civilian courts – horrors! But under a Republican administration Richard Reed, the shoe bomber, and hundreds of others were tried (and convicted) in civilian courts . Act aggressively against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, even killing key leaders – Horrors! But Obama is soft on terrorism.

I'm not saying that the left is immune to hypocrisy – but the scale of GOP lying (the shoe bomber was an American citizen, Obama hasn't used the word "war" to describe our opposition to terror) and hypocrisy (denouncing the stimulus while taking money and credit for it on the sly and praising its effectiveness, calling for Rahm Emanuel to resign for using the word "retarded" but excusing Rush Limbaugh for the exact same thing) seems to me to be unprecedented.

De Tocqueville said that in a democracy the people get the government we deserve. If we continue to tolerate the Right's "say anything, do anything, as long as it makes the President look bad and gets us elected" assault, then maybe we do deserve them if they are voted in in 2012.


Ettore Grillo said...

You cannot split in two, three or more parts the human being. The ethical conduct is in all sectors of our life. Man is an unity, a whole. For some people the conduct changes according to the place or the activity they are performing. For instance in the political or in the business sector is not possible to be honest and correct. For me the human being has to be the same, without changing his face depending upon the place or the work he or she is doing.
The problem is to give a definition of morals or ethics. Many philosophers, starting from Plato have tried to give a definition of what is good and what is evil. Nobody has succeeded in it so far. Therefore some thinker defines the morals a “paraenesis”, an exhortation. But for Christians the only parameter of moral conduct is God, the moral code we have inside ourselves.
In the field of ethics there are two main streams: The deontological and the teleological. For the former the individual must follow the morals rules even if they lead to a wrong result, for the latter what does matter is the aim (telos) of the action and not the rule.
The book I have recently written deepens many moral issues. I want to draw it to your attention, as you may be interested in it. The title is “Travels of the Mind” and it is available at
If you have any questions, I am most willing to offer my views on this topic.
Ettore Grillo

Brian Westley said...

On the other hand if I can convert an atheist to belief in God (moral)

um... why is converting an atheist to belief in god a priori moral?

Ed Gurowitz said...


Just an example...


艾維 said...

A good medicine tastes bitter. ....................................................