Do the Ends justify the Means?
Yes or no?
I voted yes. The example that popped into my head was "Would you kill 100 to save 1000?"
The means is you have to kill 100 people, which is bad, but the end is 1000 people are saved. So it is a greater benefit. (no going on about "Maybe the 100 people were better then the 1000." No. They were equal.)
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@Dustin: Nice post, and I’m sure that your professor was well-pleased with your paper. but Kant didn’t make direct claims as to what moral right and wrong were. His Grounding for a Metaphysics of Morals only sought to demonstrate that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are constructs determinable. For him, an action isn’t wrong simply because someone has wrong intention; an action has moral worth if it is made in a manner inconsistent with an intent that correlates with a subtle law (which to his credit he did NOT attempt to translate into concrete terms). Only if an action has moral worth can it be appropriately judged as ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ which again are not given finite distinctions in Kant’s writing. That he sidestepped this bullet is telling of just how bright the man truly was. Admittedly it smacks of a neo-Platonic and relativistic notion of those labels which was decades ahead of its time (enter: phenomenology).
That said, Kant is still by my reading a Deontologist. What makes Kant a Deontologist is not that he gives a strict formula for determining ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ It is that he states that there is a universally intuitable thread which determines moral worth, making ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ actual and universal constructs of our categorically judging sensibilities.
Again, I find it amusing that people are so quick to point to the most extreme case as the closing argument. “Would you kill 1 person to save 2?” Here’s a question, and I really want some answers:
“Would you LIE to 1 person to save 100 people knowing that lying is wrong?”
@Remedium… awesome response, and great insight towards Kant. It’s hard to find people who have pushed through his writings.
You mentioned, “Kant didn’t make direct claims as to what moral right and wrong were.” He certainly avoided objective definitions of right and wrong, but he implied moral behavior with subjective words like ‘ought’ and ‘will’. He formed a correlation between, the way man “ought” to act, and, their will that their actions should become a universal law. I think that with the word “ought” Kant implies, albeit between the lines, right and wrong behavior. But this is the only way to write an ethical treatise that encompasses the entirety of ethical scenarios. All ethical scenarios are extremely complex and the only expert capable of perfect judgment is the one making the decision; that is the genius behind the categorical imperative… it forces a mutation of the golden rule upon all individuals and puts in their hands the future of humanity. It takes into consideration certain situations where the golden rule may be impractical….. I’m rambling now and I’ve completely forgot where this was going, sorry, I fear I’ve made no point at all, haha.
“Again, I find it amusing that people are so quick to point to the most extreme case as the closing argument. “Would you kill 1 person to save 2?”
I wrote that with a hint of sarcasm… the numbers kept getting bigger to show the ridiculousness of trying to quantify morality… this quantifying or morality is the backbone of Utilitarianism (IE those who defend, :the end justifying the means”), a philosophy to which I am opposed (in terms of individual morality)
As for your question… which is amazingly thought provoking…
Yes I would… Even the answer to your question forces thought! By admitting I would lie, I am admitting that there are times when lying can be beneficial. This knowledge of the possible benefits of lying would be, by proxy, passed on to the 100 people who would then examine all situations objectively without preconceived rules of morality.
I just went back and read some of the earlier posts you made, I had no idea you had already brought up Kant. I way behind in this debate
“Of course, my reading of Kant adheres less rigidly to his interpreters’ views on his writing. Following an individual’s categorical imperative, acting in a way consistent with a person’s nature, is what creates morally worthy action.”
Awesome!… it seems as if everyone, including my philosophy teacher, takes such a simplistic view on Kant’s imperative. I completely agree with your interpretation.
“Now, think for a minute what saying “The ends DO NOT justify the means” actually implies. Is it okay to lead a terrorist to believe he’ talking to a fellow terrorist when in reality he’s talking to a cop. Not if the ends don’t justify the means. Lying to someone is a bad thing to do. That’s a little facetious on my part, but I think it still makes my point. People always use the extreme to explain a philosophical argument. What about the common and mundane. If the ends do not justify the means, then we have to count on all the people of the world to be nice. And that’s something you can’t count on.”
No one is defending whether lying is always a bad thing… yeah certainly there are times when it would be foolish to tell the truth. Lets say I am hiding jews in my closet and Nazi’s come in… Yeah I’ll lie.
But, this doesn’t necessarily mean that I am justifying lying by the end result. I am justifying lying, in this scenario, with my motive and intent. The problem with believing the end justifies the means is that it gives credit and moral justification for variables completely out of our control… what I mean by that is this: let’s say, in my previous example, the Nazi’s come in a find the Jews despite my lie. If I need certain ends to justify myself, I now lied to no benefit at all; my lie was in vain, it was not justified by the ends. Does this unfortunate end have any effect whatsoever on the action of the initial lie. I believe not. The Motive/Intent justifies the means, not the end.
One more example. Let’s say, after dropping both atomic bombs on Japan, they still refused to surrender and we were forced to invade the mainland with enormous casualties… Would the bombs have seemed as justified? All of the innocent people would have died for nothing… could we then justify our action even though the war continued and we saved no life.
depends on the reasons…..is it a man made problem….if so i probably would save them.
if it was natural then no….whos to say who should live or die
…..id risk myself to save others….as i have chosen that… but to take the lives of a hundred people into my own hands and decide that they should die to save others….who were dying from something that was not in my hands….
well….its out of my hands.
Sometimes the means appear to justify the end, and sometimes it does not. I personally hold all human life at the highest value, and would have a difficult time agreeing to kill anyone.
This very type of decision is made often without notice or chance for debate.
For example: Genetically modified food has saved thousands from starvation; its disease resistant grows in multiple climates, and in some cases it has its own insecticide engineered into its DNA.
This is a good thing right? It’s completely safe; the FDA doesn’t require food manufacturers to list any genetically modified food on nutrition labels.
Only a few people have died from severe allergic reactions caused by GM corn, and just think of all the countries we can feed who can’t grow enough food, that is if GM food wasn’t banned in most other countries.
This is a very difficult topic to just say yes or no to. I am glad that the Universe will unfold exactly how it should, without needing my opinion.
@Dustin — Thank you for that brilliant and thorough response. I’ve really been trying to embrace ‘not knowing’ recently and you’ve brought me a great exercise in doing so. I usually hate being wrong but I really enjoyed your explanation of my error.
Should I start a new poll with same question, but additional answer choices? This topic is really fascinating.
I didn’t mean to imply that you made an error… many of the greatest philosophers and politicians have said the same thing you have. Just defending the other side.
The poll is a great idea and I think it is fine as it is. This is an issue that can break off on too many tangents; trying to have an answer choice for every opinion would be overwhelming. I like the bluntness of the poll question; it forces people think through all aspects of the issue.
I answered ‘yes’. This is why:
First, we have to define morality. Sam Harris argues (http://www.amazon.com/Moral-Landscape-Science-Determine-Values/dp/1439171211) that the well-being of conscious creatures really is all that matters. I agree. Well-being and suffering is created in the brain, and there are right and wrong answers to how these states are produced.
When this is established (this actually a problem for a lot of people, I don’t understand why), the question is quite easy: the answer is clearly ‘yes’. The goal (good morality) is always to reduce suffering and increase well-being, and there are right and wrong ways to do this, even if we don’t know what they are. For example, using this logic, killing one person to save ten seems right, but it is not necessarily so. The killer might be tormented and traumatized to the point where the amount of suffering is higher and the amount of well-being is lower than if the killer hadn’t ended the lives of 10 innocent people. Or perhaps three of the ten people are psychopaths and are ruining the lives of 30 people combined.
There are answers to these kinds of questions, even if we don’t know them.
@Dustin, very interesting post (the one directed at Jordan). I do disagree though, the question is not whether or not we should hold people responsible for their actions, it is whether the action can be deemed “right” if the outcome is better (at the level of the brain of the conscious creatures involved) than the alternative.
Thanks for the response. I’ve read through your post a few times. It took me a while to discover the point at which we disagree.
“First, we have to define morality.”
Defining morality isn’t exactly a straightforward endeavor, especially when religion is involved. Before one can hope to define morality, one has to define what is good (and this is extremely subjective when gods and prophets are involved)… am I wrong? Fortunately though, I seem to agree with you and Sam Harris (and Aristotle) about what good is: well-being (ie happiness). And thus we have saved a lengthy argument. So, we both believe that morality is the study of well-being/happiness… If I’m wrong thus far, let me know.
From here you said, “The goal (good morality) is always to reduce suffering and increase well-being, and there are right and wrong ways to do this, even if we don’t know what they are.” This is the point where our opinions diverge… and I’m not saying your wrong, just pinpointing areas of disagreement so that they can be focused on. I agree with you that the goal (good morality) is always to increase well-being; I don’t believe, though, that reducing suffering is necessarily going to yield happiness. In my opinion, happiness and well-being are states of mind, independent of suffering altogether. Suffering is inevitable. I find it difficult to link ‘good morality’ with the reduction of suffering. Without acceptance of the ubiquity of suffering, hedonism seems the best course towards happiness.
Maybe I’m getting caught up in minutia, but I think we are like-minded, only, the tiniest of details are leading us to different conclusions. The reason I say this is because, despite our differences, I agree with your final example. You stated that killing 1 person to save 10 is not necessarily always right/good/moral. I agree!, but apparently for different reasons. You reason that, “the question is not whether or not we should hold people responsible for their actions, it is whether the action can be deemed “right” if the outcome is better than the alternative.” I strongly disagree. I believe that morality must be aimed towards the individual and his/her action; the individual must be held accountable for what he knows in any given situation (if I don’t know that I’m killing Hitler, than I’m nothing but a murderer). The alternative yields a detached humanity that is only justified by quantified unknowable reactions.
After reviewing this I had a thought. I think our differences come from the fact that I am focusing on micro-morality (individual) and you on macro-morality (political). After thinking a bit, I agree that a political system needs to be centered around utilitarian philosophy (and a system can only be judged by its outcome, an individual can only be judged by his actions). A good political system must yield positive ends; but, with regards to punitive matters and individual liberty, everyone must be judged according to their action and intent.
Jonas, what do you think of this for a unifying thesis! The moral value of anthropological governing systems must be judged according to the ends they yield; inversely, judgment of the philosophical morality of residing citizens therein, must be confined to their respective actions and sphere of knowledge.
(haha, this sounds astoundingly pretentious huh)
I had to say no, i spoke with some friends about this once and he was something I thought of…
The idea of kill one, save a thousand is common and understandable but like @ dustin said, how far would we go? then we would have to consider our own personal morals and abilities to justify our actions. Even if it was to save a thousand I couldn’t kill someone. I work in the medical field and almost joined the navy but realized that I’d have to learn to kill as well as heal and I know I couldn’t do it, no matter what the cause is. I’d rather pick someone up than put them down.
So the question I offer is this : before “Do the means justify the ends”…. What are the means and how can we coupe with it’s effects. People make decisions all the time and often will have regrets as well, in order to understand a situation most will take it to the extreme to show any long term or potential adverse effects but it also must be realized that some things could never escalate to certain levels where that would be necessary. One common situation is: there are 9 people stuck in a seaside cave, they have one stick of dynamite and they are blocked in by a pregnant woman who is stuck. The water is slowly rising and if they don’t get out in a few hours, they will all drown except for the pregnant woman who’s head is just outside the opening. Of the 9 people her husband is inside and begs everyone to spare her, and the child’s, life.
Most would say this is difficult unless the other eight happen to be elderly people that are okay with death. In no situation would this make sense but it’s these kind of scenarios that beg the question is the action worth the outcome?
Nice attempt at a unifying theory. You took the best bits from both the deontological and utilitarian camps, though I would still say that the statement is still clunky and suffers from the inability of thinking agents to know ahead of time just what ends will be yielded by a system. That’s where intentionality comes in, no doubt, but this still seems dissatisfying to me; if, by attempting to brainwash the world into believing something to be the truth- say, 2+2=5- for my own selfish motives I should inadvertently raise the standards of education the world over. The morality of this action is exceedingly dubious. Normative laws, it seems, are difficult to apply unless they allow for dynamic circumstances.
The problem with defining morality according to a standard of well-being and happiness is precisely the problem with defining well-being and happiness. What are they? Do they entail the same thing in the minds of all people? And do all conscious things deserve those things? If, in this world, such a law is taken and applied universally, not only is there immediate hypocrisy, since to sustain the lives of each and every human conscious thing requires resources and thereby a strain to be placed upon other conscious beings (plants, animals) which are commonly raised in camps to support the growing demand, but eventually, if human beings are engineered to live longer, to be able to reproduce longer, by prioritizing human happiness universally we end up continually modifying the systems of our planet such that the energy not bound up in human sentient organisms, of whom there will become increasingly more and more, has fewer and fewer places it can go upon re-entry into the earth at death (longest. sentence. ever). This brings about self-inflicted destruction in the long term, if indeed teh earth’s infinity of resources becomes smaller than the infinity of consumptive human cells-o-perception. And what of the problems people experience with increased life expectancy? Eating food born of suffering? Eating meals without diversity? It seems to me that ‘happiness’ and ‘well-being,’ though it looks swell on paper, are just too vague and inevitably a human-preferencing system of morality emerges- who would honestly save a cat before another person if faced with a burning house (in Nazi Germany, for the hell of it) scenario? And by preferencing human beings, if we are to be egalitarian, we perform an action which in the short-term seems moral but which will likely have long-term repercussions that would challenge the perceived morality of that action. What a lively can of worms this is.
@Dustin, thank you for a great answer.
I don’t understand why you find it hard to link good morality with less suffering, though? Torture clearly is immoral, isn’t it? Some level of suffering is inevitable, sure, but that does not mean we should not strive to keep it at a minimum.
When I said “the question is not whether or not we should hold people responsible for their actions, it is whether the action can be deemed “right” if the outcome is better than the alternative.”, I meant in this particular question: “Do the ends justify the means?”. I didn’t find responsibility to be part of the question, but I guess we defined the question differently. It is of course utterly important that people are held responsible for their actions otherwise, to a certain degree that is. We should not let the metaphysical notion of free will fool us to punish perpetrators the way most countries (especially the US) are ruthlessly doing today.
I don’t really believe in governments or political systems at all, but knowing that we are forced to live with them for some time, I find your unifying thesis quite acceptable!
@Remedium, as I said, well-being and happiness are measurable states of the brain. Simplified examples: stress is bad, euphoria is good, and yes, this basically entails the same thing in all human minds. The “hypocrisy” you’re describing isn’t hypocrisy, it is a challenge. The challenge is to find out how we can build a society that is best suited to minimize suffering and maximize well-being. And of course, a mouse isn’t capable of feeling the same amount of pain as a human being, nor is it capable of feeling the same amount of happiness – therefore, we don’t emphasize the well-being of a mouse as much as of a human being. This is all part of the equation. Plants are not conscious creatures, but that does not mean tearing down rain forests is morally defendable (no need for elaboration i hope..).
I could (should) go on, but it’s late and I’m tired. I hope this answers some of your questions. I must recommend Sam Harris’ book “The Moral Landscape”, where this is explained in detail by an excellent. Great book.
Not sure if anyone else said this but..
the answer is dependand on the means and the end. I can ruin anyone who voted “yes” with my following words, I remember it from somewhere a while ago.
3 men are ill in hositpal, all of them have a failing organ each. There is a man in the waiting room whos a match for all three men. Would you take that mans organs to save the three ill men?
Of course you wouldn’t. Anyone who said anything other than “answer is dependable on ends and means” is a little off in my opinion. Some case it would be justified, in others it wouldn’t.
You said, “the answer is dependent on the means and the end.” Not necessarily. I agree that the outcome will seemingly justify the means in some cases but not others. But we are searching for the skeletal morality of action irrespective of retrospective justification. I agree that some ends seem to justify their means… the question for you is, if these means resulted in a different end would you change your opinion on the morality of the means? Any given outcome always has the potential to be intentional or ironic, does this suddenly change whether an action was right or wrong?
I’m intrigued. You must have some personal insight into the phenomenological experiences of non-human life forms to make such claims. It has been suggested by empirical testing that plants are not only conscious of their surroundings but that they communicate with other plants; they have allies as well as enemies, and they react accordingly to each. Is this not some level of consciousness, to recognize an ‘ego’ and an ‘alter ego?’ Other creatures follow suit. What’s more, though well-being and happiness may be measurable states of the brain (though I’m not entirely sure how all variables are accounted for), what conditions those states is not in all cases the same. We can assume that some hierarchy of needs (sans Maslow) had ought be met before these states may be attained, but that may be making too much assumption; the thing a being needs to experience such states is simply a body-mind which is working and ideally un-tampered with. When one plays havoc with the body-mind or kills the organism completely, that being is incapable of experiencing those things as such. Furthermore, any decision made which will conceivably detract from that experiencing of well-being or happiness in the long term would have moral implications. What I see in this equation is an attempt at quantifying well-being, happiness, and valuing axiomatically their worth as concerns other beings which aren’t human, of whose experience-unto-themselves we can say startlingly little and yet about which we can be so ready to make definite claims.
Perhaps when there is a concrete definition for consciousness I may be willing to concede the point, but as it stands now it seems to me that murder is both morally wrong and at the same time is at present necessary for the sustaining of human life. That’s not to say that sustaining human life is wrong. I’m not going to starve myself on behalf of another sentient life form, but I will treat the steps necessary for sustaining myself with the utmost reverence and think critically about what is being said any time someone bandies about the terms ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ as necessary opposites in a totally objective sense.
I’ll check out the book you mentioned when I get the chance. Thanks for the discussion. :)
Your like a philosophy-rhetoric ninja!
“I don’t understand why you find it hard to link good morality with less suffering, though? Some level of suffering is inevitable, sure, but that does not mean we should not strive to keep it at a minimum.”
Certainly I acknowledge a partial link, just not a contingency. Well-being is obviously easier when not being tortured, but it is not dependent on a lack of suffering. That is why I specified happiness as a state of being, independent of the multitude of daily emotional fluxes. In this post, the role of suffering in regards to what is good is important. The value we place on suffering will affect our conception of well-being; in turn, well-being reveals our definition of what is good; and, goodness becomes the scale by which tEJtM can be calculated and justified. But I think we’ve found common enough ground to not argue this point too seriously.
“It has been suggested by empirical testing that plants are not only conscious of their surroundings but that they communicate with other plants; they have allies as well as enemies, and they react accordingly to each.”
Really? I would love to hear more about this, though I find it highly doubtful. What are your sources? Even if you are right, even if some (or all) plants are conscious of their surroundings, it has little significance in this context if they cannot perceive pleasure or pain. You can’t argue that it is morally wrong to cut down a tree per se – the tree can’t feel a thing. But there might be creatures living in the tree, there might be environmental consequences or perhaps it’s just a damn good looking tree.
Please do check out the book, this video is a great introduction:
@Dustin, I agree, let’s call it a day :)