Ends and means

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Ends and the means: which justifies which?

Many people believe that the ends can justify the means. That if you are doing a really good thing, or stopping a really bad thing, that you can use any means to achieve or stop those ends; since the ends are or so severe. Sounds reasonable; but they are wrong. What that really says is that they want their goals so bad that they will compromise their beliefs to get there, or don't have the right beliefs in the first place. They'll probably only succeed in achieving the wrong end in the process.

The Past

Put yourself into any "evil" tyrants head in the world throughout history -- and they all believed that the ends justified the means. I have a hard time believing that most of them thought they were just pure evil. Whether they were is a separate issue. We can think, "well their ends were wrong", as if that rationalizes it all. But that ignores that most, if not all of them, thought they were doing good. So they just believed that the ends (their utopia) justified the means with which they got there (usually taking rights and freedoms, tyrannized the innocent and so on). They wanted harmony and control at all costs and believed that would be good for society (and themselves) - and the means was just a necessary reality. The attitude of "Hey, if you don't break a few eggs, then you can't make an omelet".

Think of Adolph Hitler, what did he really believe? Probably, that the rights of the many outweighed the rights of the few (the tyranny of the masses). That European political and financial systems were responsible for the depression and Germany's situation. Then he felt the Jews were in control of those systems, so were responsible. Then he felt that taking over the nation, and ruling with an iron fist was the only way to fix the problem; hey the ends and means, right? Eliminating the enemies through fear and even murder was acceptable. Even the final solution and eugenics was justified because of the great harmony a homogenous society would offer. In some ways his society would have been a sick utopia, and the National Socialists did make Germany into a great power. But he was still wrong, and was a murdering genocidal threat to humanity. Why? Because the ends cannot justify the means, his good intents to empower Germany and his ideals are irrelevant it his actions are that mattered, and they were wrong.

I imagine that Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Hirohito (or his Government), Mussolini, and so on, also believed as Hitler did; that they were saving their people and doing what was ultimately good for their own. Short term they often were helping. You can look at Ho Chi Mihn, Castro, Pol Pot, Kim jil Sung, Saddam Hussein or any present day tyrant (or past one) and it almost always comes down to the same thing; they tried to do good, in their minds, but their means sucked. They often freed themselves from one tyranny by creating a worse one. They believed that the first wrong justified their actions.

The form doesn't matter; it was the evil rich, or murderous prior regimes faul, and so on. Many were righteous in their complaints; they rationalized their actions; war, extermination of their enemies, fear, murder, in the name of trying to stop more of the same. They were hypocrites that believed that the actions of the other side justified their own actions, or worse.

In America, all of our mistakes have had the same pattern; we thought we were right at the time, and we thought that justified the means. Ask Mexico, the American Indians, how they felt. Ask those that tolerated slavery, or segregation. Always it was in the name of the greater good, and that the ends justified the means.

The Present

Look at the failures and violence being perpetuated today. This is all around the world. The Jews were wrong in how they took over Israel, and the Palestinians were wrong in how they fought back or tried to prevent it. Look at the IRA. They are rightly protesting against what they see as enslavement or occupation by a foreign government, their means were wrong. You may not agree with their view, but the point is that they do. Their goals aren't wrong. Both sides goals may be noble; but that can not forgive the actions done in the name of achieving them. They are the sum of their actions, not the realization of their goals.

Look in our modern day society and what do we have? We have people with polarized agendas believing in their causes. I support their desire to believe in something, and to fight for it. I may even agree with their ends (or not). But to me the ends are always less important than the means they advocate. I KNOW they mean well, even when I don't agree with their goals, I can look at any issue and see what the other side and what my side is trying to do. So the ends themselves are unimportant. What really matters is how they want to get there, and what we will learn from that.

Some are in such extreme agreement with their side, or disagreement with the other, that anything is justified. That lying or twisting the truth to make the other side look bad is OK. That polarizing the people, or fostering hate (even if it is hate of hate) is acceptable. The more they believe in the ends, the more readily they are to compromise anything to achieve it. Some are even teaching that the ends can justify the means. Some examples?

  1. Taking away civil liberties is a way to protect the masses; outlawing guns, drugs, alchohol, chemicals, speech, and so on.
  2. Government force should be used to stop things you don't like. Outlawing cigarettes, persecuting tobacco companies or smokers, making laws to micromanage private business and so on. All in the name of greater good or public health, or course.
  3. Welfare, subjective taxation, redistribution of wealth (at gunpoint) and so on; noble goals, helping out the less fortunate and trying to provide for others. But the means of using a tool of force (Government) to intimidate others, under penalty of death, imprisonment, or having their property stolen, is not a compassionate means.

The Future


In all the failures of the past and present we see the same things;

Everyone thinks they are right or they wouldn't have their beliefs in the first place. All the great wrongs have been perpetuated by self-righteous people who believed they were doing good, so they forgave themselves their means to achieving those goals. We must not follow that road even though it is paved with good intentions. We must try to hold ourselves to our own standards, and stand up for the means, if for no other reason to keep our own hubris in check. We as humans must always have the humility and self-doubt to question ourselves; and in the "end justifies the means" crowd, they've stopped that questioning.

It is easy to attack the other sides means; the tougher part is question our own, or those who we sympathize with. Hubris is easy introspection is hard. It is hard to change others, but easier to change yourself or those you are closer to. Therefore more progress comes from within. First demand of yourself what you demand of others; then you can try to lead by example, or try, instead of being a persecutory finger-pointing hypocrite. Doctors heal thyselves!

There is always an excuse for resorting to the wrong means. The men we should admire the most are the ones that did not give into that. Think about Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., Jesus Christ, and so on. I'm sure their friends were telling them, "the other sides position justifies anything we do", "if we just take this shortcut", "if we just ignore our means", or "if we just violate their rights a little, then we can get to our goals (ends) a little quicker". But the way to reach our "utopia", or at least a reasonable facsimile, is to resist bad means. To live the example they wanted to set. They are great men because they didn't give into the temptations of that flawed reasoning or their own egos.

Each of us must be accountable for our actions. Two wrongs do not make a right. Once you resort to the wrong means, you give up a piece of your soul, and started down a slippery slope, from which many never come back.


Malevolent liberty is better than benevolent tyranny. A lot of this boils down to the Trolly Problem: a thought experiment in ethics that goes like this: a runaway trolley is going to kill five people tied to one set of tracks, or you can flip a level where it will go to a side track and kill one person. Which is more ethical? For me, the victims not having a say in what you do, is where much of the problem is. In Liberty, they choose. In Tyranny, you choose for them.

If you haven't read it, I suggest you read my article "Ends and means". The point is that humans have the ability to rationalize anything, for the sake of the greater good, but it their actions are how we measure them, not the ends they achieved. That gets us into this article's point; my personal belief that "you are what you do". Your actions, and your persona are inseparable.

It doesn't matter what you think you are, or wish you were, it matters what you are doing. If you steal, for whatever reasons, then you are a thief. If you assault someone, or intimidate someone, then you are a bully. If you lie, it doesn't matter why; you are still a liar. We will always have reasons and rationalizations for our actions; but what matters is what our actions are. Your actions define who you are at a given time in your life.