Do the Ends Justify the Means?

Image result for bribery

image: Mises Institute

Fandango wrote: For this week’s provocative question, I am asking about means and ends. I have often heard people say that “the end justifies the means.” Conversely, I’ve heard others say that “the means justifies the end.” So what about you?

One way to approach this is to phrase it in a slightly different light.  With my ethics students, we seldom stick with merely “do the ends justify the means.”  Instead we focus on intention versus consequences.  What are the intentions of your actions?  Are they ethical?  Do you seek to bring about a positive result, and if so can this be achieved by less that ethical actions?  Do such actions in turn corrupt the end?

I want to get an “A,” is my desired “end.”  I can study, and review, and practice until the topic is mastered; or I can make a “cheat sheet,” or devise a code with a more able student to feed me answers.  Both actions get the end result.  But what about the real life application of knowledge I don’t actually have.  Might I lose a job because I am not up to it, etc..  Or consider bribery to meet a political or corporate end, is it in the public interest or only your own?

But even positive intentions are problematic.  The blind man and the manhole scenario is one of these.  You see a person with a white and red stick crossing the road.  The stick indicates both hearing and sight problems.  You with your 20/20 vision note an open manhole cover.  You shout a warning that is unheard.  You therefore intervene, and pull the person away from the impending fall.  As a result they stumble and break a leg.  You motive, and even initial action were positive, but with a negative outcome.  Does this make it a bad deed?  In this case the end was because of a means.  Should in hindsight you not even have tried.

So the answer to Fandango’s Provocative Question is, it depends.  It depends on your philosophical outlook.  Are you an absolutist?  Then always act based on pure intent.  Are you a relativist? Then let the individual situation be your guide.

Remember Spock – the greatest good for the greatest number.

Now that I have philosophically waffled long enough, I personally hold that the means must be as worthy of you as the end result.  Honour is as honour does.



Fandango’s Provocative Question #36



2 thoughts on “Do the Ends Justify the Means?

  1. Hmmm. In general I agree with your conclusion. I’m not an absolutist, but I can’t imagine an example of circumstances when I don’t agree. Maybe it’s just too late in the day.

    Liked by 1 person

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