When Does the End Justify the Means?
When does the end justify the means? This question has been asked for millennia, with the resulting answers rarely perfect in their finite form.
When we were young it was easy to assume that the end justifies the means. You wanted a cookie, so you stole a cookie out of your younger sibling’s hands. The cookie is now in your hands, as you chew away at it while your younger brother or sister sits crying in the corner. The end, in your view, justified the means because you wanted a cookie and you got a cookie. The equation was absolute.
As we got older, most of us began to realize that in order to be kind and loving members of our community (and society as a whole), we needed to consider other people’s feelings. We realized that it’s not okay to take what we want, when we want it, and that in fact we need to recognize that sometimes the ends don’t justify the means.
While you may consider yourself to be a man or woman of character, how can you reconcile this belief with the fact that, when it comes down to it, you believe you must do whatever you can in order to get the results you believe will ultimately bring about the most good, even if other people are hurt (or worse) along the way? This is where the idea of the ends justifying the means get tricky.
Read on to gain a deeper understanding of this philosophy, its origins, and examples of how we continue, rightly or wrongly, to rationalize its thinking in the modern world.
What Does the End Justifies the Means Mean?
The phrase “the end justifies the means” is used to suggest that any activity, whether or not that activity could be considered ethically or morally bad, is worth it so long as a desired end result is achieved. Examples of this include cheating at sports in order to win a game, or lying during an election cycle so to get elected.
The origins of the phrase go back to consequentialism. Consequentialism is a type of normative ethical theory. In its purest form, consequentialism holds that the moral quality of an action is completely determined by its consequences; thus, according to consequentialist theory, the end justifies the means in all circumstances.
Of course, for most of us this theory is difficult to square with our desire to get along with, and care for, other people; especially those within our immediate family or friend group. That said, there are plenty of modern-day and historical examples, several of which we will touch upon below, in which this moral pull is ignored, and the ends of bad behavior win out.
Examples of the End Justifying the Means
Whether you agree or disagree with the below examples, they all represent how “the end justifies the means” thinking can drive human nature, for better or worse:
- Lying on a resume to get a job: In your mind, lying (or inflating the truth) on your resume may be justified if it helps you land the job of your dreams.
- Lying on a first date: First dates are awkward, and if you want a first date to turn into a second, the idea of lying to impress the person across the table from you may seem to be a small price to pay to get a second chance to impress.
- Cheating in sports: From diving for an undeserved penalty in soccer (football, as we call it where I’m from), to the persistent problem of doping in sports, the end of placing a point ahead of your rivals or scoring the deciding goal can, in some athletes’ minds, occasionally justify the means.
- Lying during an election cycle: Whether you’re running for City Council or President of the United States, lying during an election cycle in order to deliver a blow to your opponent’s record (or overplay your own) is a tactic that, unfortunately, is being used more and more often. The line between outright lying and inflation of the truth is thin, and with so much at stake, it’s no surprise that “the end justifies the means” thinking rears its head during these situations.
- Going along with a false narrative: Whether you created the narrative or it was created for you, going along with a narrative about yourself that you know to be false—say, you’re being hailed a hero for pulling someone from a burning building, where in reality you were only focused on getting yourself out—may justify the means of helping you to achieve hero status, but it will gnaw away at you over time.
I should acknowledge that each of the above examples are different to the “fake it ‘til you make it,” ideal, in which we are encouraged to work towards what we want to be by “imitating confidence, competence, and an optimistic mindset.” Similarly, telling white lies in order to preserve someone’s feelings, so long as the lies doesn’t misinform them on an important topic, are an example of the end justifying the means for good.
There have been other examples of this phrase in action throughout history, both in literature and in non-fiction accounts. In Heroides, a poem by Ovid that was written between approx. 25-2 BC (the exact year is of some debate), Ovid says “Exitus ācta probat,” or “The outcome justifies the deeds.” In Discourses: I, 9 of The Prince by Italian political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli, the author notes that “For although the act condemns the doer, the end may justify him.” And in the book of essays Ends and Means (an Enquiry Into the Nature of Ideals and Into the Methods Employed for Their Realization) by Aldous Huxley, which was first published in 1937, the famed author of Brave New World, spoke of war, religion, ethics, and nationalism, topics of which he believed end justifies the means thinking had permeated.
Don’t ask whether you’re proud of what you achieved. Ask whether you’re proud of how you achieved it. Do you agree or disagree that the end justifies the means? Let me know what you think on Twitter, or by sending me an email.
Here is what Yifen said over email:
Does the end justify the means… I think there is a big “if” at the end of that sentence. It would have to be “The ends justifies the means if…”
Most people probably don’t think of it this way. I am guessing most people make a mental pros and cons list, and go from there. For instance, “The end justifies the means if nobody is hurt,” or “The end justifies the means if it makes me happy.”
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