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 think that the end justifies the means. If you wanted a cookie, you were more than happy to steal a cookie out of your younger sibling’s hands. The end justified the means because you wanted a cookie and you got one. 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 socially acceptable 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 person 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 may get hurt along the way?
This is where the idea of the ends justifying the means get tricky.
In this article, I’m going to look into what the end justifies the means actually means, I’m going to give you a deeper understanding of this philosophy and its origins, and I’m going to provide examples of how we continue to rationalize this 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 doing so long as a desired end result is achieved.
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. Therefore, 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, community, or friend group. Most of us feel that in many situations the end does not justify the means. 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 exaggerating 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 can be 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, 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, 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 to deliver a blow to your opponent’s record (or to overstate your own) is a classic tactic. 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.
- Going along with a false narrative: Whether you created the narrative or it was crafted for you, going along with a narrative that you know to be false—such as 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 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 by imitating a confident, competent, and optimistic mindset. Similarly, telling white lies 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 25-2 BC, Ovid writes “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 1937 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 are proud of what you have achieved. Ask whether you are 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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