2.13 The Means/Ends Principle

Back to 2.12 The Principle of Impartiality

2.13.1 Do the ends justify the means? The implied answer to this common question is most often an unqualified no. However, in reality, it is clear that sometimes the ends do justify the means. Take the following situation for example...

2.13.2 Two people are in the middle of nowhere. One of them is injured and needs to get to the hospital quickly or die. There is no phone but there is an unlocked car with the keys left inside. The obvious thing to do would be to "borrow" the car and take the injured person to the hospital, being sure to get the car back to its owner afterwards. Nevertheless, this would technically qualify as grand theft auto. Do the ends (saving a life) justify the means (theft)? The clear morally correct answer is yes. (For the sake of brevity, I will assume the reader can imagine any number of details to the story which would place the people in such a situation and limit all other options, as such is possible in principle).

2.13.3 Now that I’ve shown an obvious instance where "the ends justify the means" we must formalize this, so that we are careful not to give a free ticket for people to do whatever they want, no matter what principles they have to violate to do so. In what cases do the ends justify the means? In what cases do they not? Why so? Is there some general overriding IES-like principle that acts as a guideline to solving such dilemmas?

2.13.4 The answer is in cost/benefit analysis. In general, the question of ends and means only arises when there is a conflict of values as in our previous example, saving a life vs. not stealing. Other dilemmas might include not killing vs. stopping a killing, honesty vs. compassion, or mercy vs. justice. In all of these cases we are forced into a situation where, if we uphold one value, we betray another - a catch 22 of sorts. It is only in these cases where the idea of ends and means arises in a moral sense.

2.13.5 Once framed as such, the obvious course of action is to choose the option that will violate the least important of the two principles. If in reaching the end, you must violate a value that is more important than that gained in the end, then the ends do not justify the means in that case. For example, the enjoyment of one person eating chocolate is not as valuable as the value of not stealing, so stealing candy bars is wrong. The prioritization of "desire for chocolate" under "right to property" is in line with the prioritization described in the Principle of Impartiality (2.12).

2.13.6 If, on the other hand, the value violated in the means is less important than that gained in the end, then in that case the end does justify the means. For example, saving a life is of higher value than not stealing (and especially "borrowing") as in our first example.

2.13.7 There are at least two chief dangers in this area of moral deliberation, however. One is that, as in a lot of moral reasoning, the undisciplined or self deceiving thinker runs the risk of rationalizing misconduct. One key is to remember the Principle of Impartiality (2.12). Another is to recall the admonitions in 2.7.11 against rationalization. In difficult moral dilemmas, it is always helpful to seek out the advice of friends, loved ones, associates, and possibly professionals. Tell them your thinking on the matter, your main moral concerns, and then ask for a fair evaluation on whether or not you are rationalizing. Of course, noble intentions are a must and this goes without saying. The issue is making sure that intentions translate into results and that our own unconscious biases aren’t getting in the way. Sometimes, asking advice may not be practical or possible in a situation. In any case, life requires that we try our best to be honest with ourselves, which is all that is humanly possible (if your intentions are not noble, then I refer you back to the many reasons supporting ethical living in 2.4).

2.13.8 The second concern about weighing values in cases where we are forced into choosing one over the other, is that some cases may not be clear cut. Comparing the importance of opposing values can be a very subjective and fuzzy art. A warning though: often people over emphasize how blurry a distinction is because they don’t like the logical conclusion that would follow from viewing the dilemma in black in white. Often, issues are quite clear and the ones trying to "gray it up" are up to no good. Again, we must have noble intentions first, and self honesty next, in order to help avoid falling into this trap. That said, it is also a fact that many issues get quite difficult to determine accurately. Remember here the Socio-Personal Principle (2.11) in evaluating the relative importance of values. Keep in mind too that your options may not necessarily be limited to one extreme or the other. There may be novel approaches that get you out of the either/or dilemma. However, if you are indeed in such a dilemma, you are being truly impartial, you have sought out advice where possible, and determining which way to go is still too difficult to call, then remember that you are only human and trying one’s best is all that can be expected. Keep in mind also that inaction is a choice and you are often just as morally responsible for the results.

Continue to 2.14 The Consumption/Creation Principle