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Austin Cline

Forum Discussion: Do the Ends Justify the Means?

By March 13, 2013

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We often hear or see debates on whether the ends justify the means and it's common to deny that this is true. Perhaps it would help, though, to take a step back and ask if it even makes any sense to suggest that the ends could justify the means. What exactly is this idea supposed to convey, anyway?

A forum member writes:

Does this cliche make any sense to you?

We hear formulations of the Iraq war primarily from the Republicans that go like this: "Although the war was badly executed, it was a noble cause." On memorial sites to the Jim Jones mass suicide, we seem the same kind of sentiment: While it is true that the experiment ended in disaster, defenders of the temple say, the ideals of classlessness and racial harmony were valid.

Do the ends justify the means? Sometimes? Always? Never? All is this statement meaningless both as a principle and in terms of application?

Another forum member offers what I think is a very insightful and interesting answer:

You know, "the ends justify the means" would make a lot more sense if there was ever, you know, an end... an end to history. Because the reality is that there are no ends, just means. You can finish the mission, but what then? Things are finished? It can't ever happen that there is a reversal, a backlash? That's just BS.

They attained their end, "Mission Accomplished", they had a coup and replaced it with what they called a democratic government. Well guess what, we're still in Iraq right? Where's the end? There's no end. There's never any end. ...Something inexistent can't justify anything.

We can add to this the idea that whatever goal or destination one has, it is substantially defined by the ends one uses to achieve it. If you use violent means, for example, then whatever political goals you are striving for will themselves be defined by violence -- even if they are really a final "end." Add your thoughts to the comments here or join the ongoing discussion in the forum.

May 16, 2007 at 8:54 am
(1) olvlzl, no ism, no ist says:

How about very selective use of someone’s writing in order to misrepresent it, Austin. I would really like to discuss that with you. You know how to find me.

May 16, 2007 at 10:56 am
(2) Don Pope says:

This is probably one of the most misused phrases. People say that “The end justifies the means” is an immoral or evil philosophy but in fact, it only means that without knowing what the “end” or “goal” is you can’t know whether the “means” or “methods” used to accomplish it are justified.

Ex. “I paid $20 for a bottle of water” Was that justified or not? We can’t know unless we get more information.

“I paid $20 for a bottle of water in New York city.” Clearly the end doesn’t justify the means because you can get cheaper water in NY.

“I paid $20 for a bottle of water in the middle of the desert.” Probably worth every penny.

In other words, whether the ends justify the means (or not), must be judged on a case by case basis.

May 16, 2007 at 1:29 pm
(3) Blunderov says:

Sounds a bit like the “I had no choice” copout.My mother always taught me that anytime you hear anybody say this you may be reasonably sure that what they really mean is “I didn’t like the other one”.

At the heart of the matter, it seems to me, is a contradiction or at least a paradox; it posits that sometimes doing a bad thing can be a good thing.

We say of a contradiction that it negates itself and doesn’t mean anything but a paradox can be a little different. GK Chesterton once remarked that paradox was the truth standing on her head to attract attention.

It seems to me that the expression about the means justifying the ends has a temporal component which is perhaps a little underestimated. Implicit, ISTM, is the idea of a short term ill and a long term good. This conflict between the expedient solution and the wise one is, in my view, one of the central conundrums of humanity and it is no surprise to me that it shows up in one guise or another in every human enterprise.

May 16, 2007 at 3:42 pm
(4) Benton says:

In the 1960 movie Failsafe, the president (Henry Fonda) said to his trusted interpereter when asked if the end justifies the means “There are no ends, we only have means”. That has stuck with me all these years.

May 22, 2007 at 12:24 pm
(5) Todd says:

The answer to the simple question of “do the ends justify the means?” is equally simple… depends. We have to know the end and the means and the other options. The end “World Peace” may be attained by eradicating the human species. A wonderful end, a terrible means.

The example of Iraq is overtly political and an appeal to emotion. Trying to take advantage the strong feelings people have about Iraq, rather than the issue of Ends and Means… unless the thread is actually about Iraq. It’s one step short of a Godwin. Ten years from now children will complain about their strict parents being just like Bush instead of Hitler. Not making a rational argument, just whining. Or at least it will look like it. There’s no need for such a low blow.

We achieved our independence from England through violence. It worked out pretty well for us, and also taught England that her colonies were not to be pushed around. i think that saved Canada and Australia from having to fight them. Violence ended slavery in the US, and German conquest of Europe… twice. i’m not sure those things are defined by violence or by what they achieved. We shouldn’t be selective about what conflicts/results we should trump up or ignore. We like to point to violence being bad here and ok there based on our political whims, rather than objectively. 90% of the criticism over Iraq is political and willfully ignorant.

i’m not saying violence is always the solution or that it’s even a good solution. Sometimes what is done by violence (slavery, conquest) can be undone by the same, and often can ONLY be undone by the same. Evil men seldom care about noble causes or what is right. The Romans didn’t care if it was right to take over most of the western world. They just did it. Rapist don’t care that it is ethically inconsistent. They just do it. Sometimes a kick to the groan is exactly what is needed. And sometimes waiting for someone/something to hurt you first is a bad idea, a little preemption can be exactly the right thing. It’s much harder to retaliate from the mass grave.

May 22, 2007 at 12:46 pm
(6) Greg says:

I realize this is kind of a sideline, but I always heard this line used when I was involved with fundamentalist Christianity. It was always used to justify some unethical behavior (breaking “man’s law”) for the benifit of the outreach of “God’s Word”. Still revolting these many years later.

May 22, 2007 at 6:19 pm
(7) learnfromlife says:

Ends and means are not the whole process, and sometimes we have to watch the effects. One day I was waiting for the traffic light to turn green, a car stopped, and then another one, and then another one. A kind of congestion formed. I was wondering what was happening. Then I found a gentleman was waving for me to cross the road. I felt highly flattered by this “Give Way to Pedestrians” principle applied in practice. But then suddenly wherever I went in the town, I felt negative attention and dissatisfaction around me. The place was no longer hospitable to me. The gentleman was the one who caused the traffic jam, and then I became the one punished by the local residents. He was too strict with the ends of “Give Way to Pedestrians”, and his means was too much for the local residents and also for me. His ends did not justify his means, because the effects were not so good. And even if the effects were good, that is, even if the local residents were not offended by this melodrama show of civility, it was still not so natural or spontaneous. Life is more real and harmonious in its own way. Just do not rigidify human intuition and dogmatize the natural flow of daily life.

May 22, 2007 at 7:04 pm
(8) Bing Stafford says:

The ends never justify the means. If
the means are just, they need no justification. If the means are
unjust, there is no way to justify them.

September 24, 2011 at 4:52 am
(9) blephen stoom says:

correct, yes, yes, yes…as in molly bloom’s soliloquy

December 3, 2008 at 1:37 am
(10) ExteksTregree says:

I am here at a forum newcomer. Until I read and deal with the forum.
Let’s learn!

December 20, 2008 at 7:16 pm
(11) kayla says:

the ends do justify the means only in some cases. the end.

August 13, 2009 at 9:42 pm
(12) invachict says:

What’s up, is there anybody else here?
If there’s anyone else here, let me know.
Oh, and yes I’m a real person LOL.


April 6, 2011 at 11:44 am
(13) Gae says:

The ends always justify the means.

The only problem is that you don’t always know how the end is going to turn out.

January 7, 2012 at 9:45 am
(14) KatGowGyday says:

Then IIWA also wants to bridge the gap between the women NGOs and the Islamic clergy. There is a huge communication gap between the two equally important classes because of which the two always criticize each other. So in order to bridge this gap IIWA has called for an international gathering of the women NGOs.
She informed that IIWA has adapted all the modern art and crafts like Fashion Designing, Textile Designing, Interior Designing, Cooking, Beauty Culture, Computer Skills, Journalism, Photography, Handicrafts, Candle Making and Soft Toys Making, etc. within the parameters of Islamic Shariah and we have imparted empowered Muslim women by teaching them these arts and creating a market for them.

She also explained the issue of economic empowerment of women on which IIWA wants to work.


January 28, 2012 at 5:17 pm
(15) freneffibiaky says:

Yo dudes, I want to see if somebody utilized the ti nail to smoke their hash. I’m looking for trying it, I found the ti nail on one site for $40 and looks pretty easy to be used but i’m want some opinions from experienced users, if it worth getting. Here is a Youtube video for this grade 2 titanium nail. Thanks

February 14, 2012 at 12:32 pm
(16) DGreveS says:

Oh wow! when did this thread appear?
good idea (would be good if it didn’t add to post counts though- sorry for being contentious)
Welcome all newbies bet I’m not the first to say that so will bow out gracefully.

February 20, 2012 at 7:03 pm
(17) IBirdW says:

This is probably a stupid question but could some person please tell what ‘WHATM’ and ‘bump’ means.

March 17, 2012 at 10:09 am
(18) carpinteyrotyx says:

A man is not old as long as he is seeking something.A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams.

March 13, 2013 at 1:55 pm
(19) C. Waters says:

Means are proportional to ends, with power being the key element (physical, economic, charismatic, etc) i.e. (the more powerful your means are; the more likely you’ll meet your ends regardless)

March 19, 2013 at 3:03 pm
(20) bill walker says:

There is no end – there are only means.

March 19, 2013 at 8:58 pm
(21) George Gauthier says:

I have never understood all the controversy over this issue. I’ve read all the arguments and I am still left thinking “If the ends don’t justify the means, then what else could?”
Isn’t the doctrine of the Just War an example of the ends justifying the means? Same for self-defense.

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