The False Choice of “Do the Ends Justify the Means”

If the ends ever justify the means is perhaps the most acute of the philosophical questions. Unlike “are things holy because the gods love them, or do the gods love them because they are holy,” it intrudes on our practical decision-making. This question becomes very pointed indeed when we consider a means we believe to be immoral, yet  we think the end it serves is justified or necessary. 

Fortunately for us, the question is a false choice. Unfortunately, this means the truth of the matter is just as sharp-edged. But if we are to avoid slicing ourselves to ribbons, we must know where the thorns we seek to navigate are. 

The reason this question is a false choice is deceptively simple, I would argue: the ends and the means are not separate. Rather, the ends we strive towards are aggregations of the means by which they are pursued and the factors encountered throughout this pursuit. It is only the false veil of our limited faculties, the crude and painful fact that often we cannot know everything we want or need before we must make a decision, that tricks us into believing otherwise. The frustrating fact that we cannot know the ends in advance, though we can guess, nevertheless points us in the right direction. When we consider the ends we desire, we must look instead to our means. In a successful journey, it is wise to spend a little time considering your destination, and a lot of time considering how you get there.

Consider the following exchange in A Man For All Seasons, wherein the ever-principled Thomas More defends the blindness of justice from William Roper. 

“William Roper: “So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!”

Sir Thomas More: “Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?”

William Roper: “Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!”

Sir Thomas More: “Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!”

In this exchange, note the purpose of the law: to constrain and capture the Devils of this society. In general, it is to prevent action that is destructive or detrimental to the functioning of the society at large, though it may often play out in particular. Theft is illegal not just because citizens would like to keep their purses, but because a society in which theft is normal and widespread is antagonistic to broadly useful principles like private property. It’s hard to consider anything yours if your neighbour is perfectly within their rights to saunter up and wander away with it. 

So the Devil, in this case, could be considered the ultimate criminal. In Christian mythology the Devil is the very nexus of evil. Derived from a Hebrew word meaning opposition (roughly), the Devil is the very antithesis of all that is good, just and right with the world. He is an off-note in the otherwise harmonious chorus of creation, wrong by his very definition. And the law is a construct designed specifically to capture this creature. 

Why then is Roper wrong to say that abandoning the law is worth it, in this case? If the law exists to capture the Devil, so what if it is destroyed in the attempt? 

Let’s discuss a much more banal example. Consider a fisherman, obsessed with bagging the biggest fish he can find. He has a long, sleek boat capable of running down a marlin, a fish finder that can spot a guppy from a kilometre away, and a rod strong enough to restrain a whale shark. In his quest, he encounters his biggest fish: a Megalodon, left over from the ancient past, existing solely to frustrate reasonable scientists and embolden charlatans. Here is the grand object of his life’s pursuit. 

He sets off in pursuit. He runs the fish finder night and day, eventually burning out the battery. He runs his boat to maximum speed as long as he can, destroying the engine. At the limit of its reach, he snags the monster shark with his rod. It snaps, put under far-too massive strain for even its formidable construction. 

He is adrift, lost in the ocean with one of the most dangerous predators to ever live. He cannot see it, he cannot flee it, and he cannot even catch a guppy to feed himself. 

The end he sought was to capture the fish. He was willing to sacrifice the means to do so, because he considered them separate entities. “It will be worth it,” he said, “if I just bag this fish.” But his choice was a false one. There was no way to catch this monstrosity without all of his tools, and maybe not even with them. 

This becomes even more stark when it’s a moral question. 

In Season 4 of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the episode The Drumhead deals with this. After the Enterprise is sabotaged, a Starfleet Admiral is brought on board to conduct hearings, seeking the culprit. Plans for the sabotaged component of the ship were smuggled to an enemy of The Federation at the same time. After a culprit that smuggled plans of the ship to enemies is caught, it is discovered that smuggling was the only thing that actually happened: a thorough investigation revealed the sabotaged component merely had a structural failure, and the timing was coincidence. But the Admiral is unsatisfied, and any possible compromise becomes fair game. A crew member is ruthlessly pursued because his grandfather is of the same race as that enemy; when Cpt. Picard objects, he too is assumed to be a traitor. The inquiry expands relentlessly. It assumed a traitor was to be found from the outset, and any objection to that end was treated as evidence of treason. 

If you have nothing to hide, why do you fear inquiry? This is how it is justified there, and this is how it is justified in real life. 

The ends are surely worthwhile, in that a traitor could do serious damage to The Federation. There was certainly ample evidence that there was a traitor, since one was caught and ultimately admitted it when presented with evidence. But the end of finding a traitor was treated as sufficient to justify any means. Again, this sounds intuitive, if you consider ends and means separate entities. We do x, and get y. 

But if they are the same thing, it becomes an absurd proposition. During the interrogation of Picard, the Admiral remarks that The Federation is a remarkable institution, unique in the galaxy as far as they know. Picard remarks earlier in the episode about the importance of The Federation’s equivalent to The Fifth Amendment, wherein someone accused of a crime has the right not to be forced to incriminate themself. 

As far as I could see, this point was never raised in the episode. But I considered something odd: The Admiral justifies the ruthless, relentless nature of her inquiry on the basis that this unique institution must be defended, that it is of extreme value and it is fragile. 

What is the value of that institution? It is in the rights that it grants to sentient life. And yet, exercising the right to avoid self-incrimination is treated like an admission of guilt. In her zeal to defend The Federation, she claims that Picard is being naive, when he suggests the inquiry has gone too far. But in fact, she is. She has imagined she can defend a human right by destroying it. She has deluded herself, as we all do intuitively, into believing that the ends of our means are unrelated. They are not. 

We generate ends through our means. A witch-hunt in which everyone is guilty until proven innocent attacks the very concept of innocent until proven guilty. If we believe that to be a valuable principle (as, I hope, must of us do), then we cannot turn around, even in a frightening and dangerous situation, and say “we must do away with it. The risk is too great.”

The risk is not too great. It is never too great. It, by definition, cannot be too great. If we willingly destroy our society as a means because we fear an enemy could destroy it, we have done their end for them. It is akin to deciding in response to an enemy coming to kill you, that the risk of fighting is too high: suicide is the only option. Well, suicide has a 100% chance of killing you. Even if you only have a 1% chance of winning the fight, it is an infinitely higher chance than 0%. 

When we consider the question of “do the ends justify the means,” we do so with an implicit and rarely-examined assumption: that we know the ends we will produce. These means, though unethical, will absolutely produce this end I believe necessary or at least sufficient to justify them.

But we don’t know that. There are no prophets, no seers, no fortune-tellers. Nobody can tell you the future. I’m not arguing that predictive powers don’t exist at all. Your brain is a predictive engine that only survives by being good at it. But they are profoundly limited. The best anyone can give you are the odds things go one way, or the other, or some yet unimagined way entirely. 

So we must assume, if we are being honest with ourselves, doubt. We cannot frame the question as: “Are these means justified in producing this end?” We must instead ask ourselves: “Are these means justified if they don’t? What are they in themselves?”

So too we must deal with the problem of unintended consequences, and here the value of reasoning from principle becomes evident. If we seek to root out traitors and do so by means of instilling fear, hoping the traitor will reveal himself out of fear, we have failed to consider our means sufficiently. What have you done by instilling fear in the population? You have educated them thoroughly that you are not to be trusted.

The one who reasons from ends, to arrive at means, is often attempting to brute-force away the complexity of reality and the present to force it to be simpler. “If I simply do x, I will get y,” they say. As writer and historian John Green is fond of noting: “The truth resists simplicity.” Sometimes, it is the attempt of the desperate, in defiance of the impossible. Impossibility is a bitter pill to swallow, one that many of us will reject at various times. But impossibility is a reality. Sometimes what we want is impossible. This is not an admonition to lay down and die when the going gets tough. But if the only possible means you can see to achieve some desperate end is the destruction of all you hold dear, you may well decide it’s worth it, if you desperately ignore the possibility that your goal is simply out of your reach. In this moment, you become your own worst enemy: bent on the destruction of all you hold dear, and heedless of the consequences.

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About the Author: Connor Lynch

Connor is a professional journalist from Ottawa, Canada. He is the Editor in Chief of Speaking Liberally and a contributor.

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