I’m here to dispel the myth and to do so clearly: The end does not justify the means.
You’re better served to turn this phrase on its head: the means justify the end. I trust this will make more sense to you in a moment.
What does it mean to say the end justifies the means?
The concept of the end justifying the means is often attributed to Machiavelli, although he never said it directly.
The idea is your goal (the end) is so important that any method you use to achieve your goal (the means) is acceptable.
The idea has been promoted by more and less well-meaning people for the last 500 years.
This is not a question of moral philosophy
Many people grappling with this concept look to moral philosophy for guidance on evaluating its merits.
We do not need any appeal to philosophy to parse the concept, however. A simple question and a related thought experiment will do. Here’s the question:
Does the end you seek (your goal) truly justify employing ANY means?
If not, does your approach offer any objective mechanism for determining acceptable means?
People who agree on the End do not agree on the Means
Let’s say your end is preventing a truly horrible person from coming to power because you foresee they will become a dictator and bring your country to ruin.
Ostensibly intelligent people will tell you that any means are justified to prevent this devil from gaining power. They do not mean this literally.
What they are in fact saying is that “I believe the means I’d be comfortable using are justified.”
- Raise funds to campaign against this person — absolutely
- Support their rigorous prosecution for all possible crimes — of course
What of those who would do the following:
- Hide damaging information about this person’s political opponent?
- Accuse the person of crimes that the accusers know he did not commit?
We’re starting to lose some reasonable people. Hmmm, this standard may not be as objective as we thought.
Or, to go to an even greater extreme, what would we say to those who would prevent this person from attaining office by force if necessary? Assassins have killed public figures throughout history exactly because they are convinced the end justifies the means.
It’s clear from this that legal means are not our concern. The test comes when we see people trotting out this concept to rationalize both immoral and illegal actions.
Gray lines become black lines
There is a limit beyond which even the most dedicated proponent of the end will not go.
- Would you accept that everyone you love be sacrificed to prevent the end? Everyone in your town? Your state?
- That the entire world be cleansed with nuclear fire to stop this man?
No sane person would choose such means, because they are obviously worse than the end we’re trying to achieve.
And that is the problem with superficial rationalizations based on a glib saying. Simply asserting “the end justifies the means,” tells us only that the individual is applying unstated (and very likely unexamined) personal criteria to excuse their otherwise indefensible behavior.
The Means justify the End
Love gained by lies is not true love. A victory obtained by cheating is no true victory. An outcome obtained illegally is illegitimate.
You might not remember the 1968 destruction of the South Vietnamese town of Ben Tre, killing hundreds of civilians who lived there. Some good came of that military action when it subsequently gave rise to this memorable quote:
We had to destroy the village to save it.
What does this mean? We end up becoming the thing we hate when we sacrifice our principles to achieve our goals.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. — Martin Luther King Jr.
The idea that the end justifies the means fails for two primary reasons.
First, although the end might be clear, the means employed will be as varied as the people facing the issue. Some will go much farther than others. And there is no objective principle for determining how much is enough.
Second, the concept is only needed to rationalize otherwise immoral or illegal actions. But immoral and illegal actions undermine their actors, risking that they become the very things they are fighting against.
Need support from a higher source? Here’s how the Bible puts it:
For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? — Mark, Chapter 8, Verse 36
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I originally published a version of this article on Medium.