Do the Ends justify the Means?
Finally, we disagree on something. My answer is certainly No.
This is a teleological vs deontological philosophical question. I had to write a paper on in and it is more involved than it seems at first.
Here’s a quick example of why many philosophers believe that the end does not justify the means… (Imagine a man walking down the street and a person bumps into him. He gets angry and stabs him in the chest. Clearly this is an over-reaction, right? Well what if the man he stabbed was Adolf Hitler? Does this new ‘end’ justify the ‘means’ to that end?)
A deontologist (Emmanuel Kant, for example) believes that the morality of an action primarily rest in motive and intent: ie we can only be held morally responsible for what we know in the moment of action… stabbing the man is still murder, the fact that the murdered man turned out to be Hitler is irrelevant with regards to ethics (it may be a nice coincidence but it does not justify the intent/means).
A teleologist/Utilitarian (John Stewart Mill, for example) believes that the best actions are those that lead to maximum happiness for the maximum amount of people. This limits moral judgment of an action until the outcome is known. A Utilitarian can justify the man who stabbed Hitler because it would be better in the end.
The ‘ends justification’ can justify endless atrocities. It only cares If the outcome is good for many… any type of action, regardless of how horrific, can be morally justified with this philosophy.
Here are some interesting questions to consider. All of them have means which can be potentially justified by various ends.
1. Is torture okay at Guantanamo assuming it prevents US loss of life.
2. Would you shoot a stranger to save 2 strangers lives? 3, 4, 10, 100, 6000000? Where is the line?
3. Is it morally acceptable to drop an atomic bomb on the families of our enemies, with the hope to prevent the greater loss of life which would result in direct combat with the enemy.
These are tricky questions… A deontologist (ends do not justify means) would say no to each question.
@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).
|Sean D Stevens|
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 a lie ever really save 100 lives? Is lying universally wrong? Is the preservation of human life universally right? My answer: We’ll find out what I’d do if this ever happens to me. I’ll make a post and everything. :)
@ RD that is the whole point the impossible establishment of moral as a solid ;)
Have whole next month off cant wait to get some reading done ;)
@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?”
As for your question… which is amazingly thought provoking…
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.
…..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:
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.
i just wanted to say that the number of time godwin’s law applies to this discussion is almost hilarious.
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.”
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.
I had to say no, i spoke with some friends about this once and he was something I thought of…
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?
Yeah, your right… retrospect is a bitch. I guess I’m still opposed to “tEJtM”
@Dustin — I know man, I’m saying that you got me! I hadn’t considered it in the way the you put it. Thanks for the mind-expansion
@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.
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.
You must be logged in to reply to this topic.