Ends and Means

OK, this isn’t the debate it might seem like from the subject…that is, not exactly “Do the ends justify the means?” But it is something similar.

If we have different means but the same end, does it matter what the means are? This is a matter of perspective IMO. That is, for the parent spanking the child to say “I’m doing this for your own good” is a useless bunch of hot air to the child. You might as well say, “I’m doing this only because you spit on your sister” or whatever.

It matters to you what you mean by your action, but does it matter to to receiver of the action? More importantly, should it?

Golly. Sorry if I’m clueless concerning your OP. But “means” means method, not intention.
So the analogy would be “I’m spanking you to teach you not to spit on your sister” vs. “I’m having a serious discussion of decent human interaction with you to teach you not to spit on your sister.”

I agree, “for your own good” is too vague to be worth much when disciplining kids.

Again, sorry if I misunderstood your OP.


Would I be amiss to interpret the OP to say, “Do moral principles have validity?” Let me explain briefly.

If we assume that ends are desired outcome (principles), and means are a way (method) to achieve the desired outcome, does theory then trump untheoretical practice? Does ideal excuse non-ideal actuality? But first I would want to know if this is a valid dichotomy, hence my original question. My fist inclination is to condemn most moral principles as being supply-side, or top-down, for the benefit of a few. However, by Kant’s categorical imperative, were must act as though everything we do is a universal law, even if we can’t prove it, which then falls back into the golden rule. But, we could also say that actuality is spawned by the ideal, which is then accountable to it. So the punishment must fit the crime. And if we’re talking prevention, then we cannot commit an infraction to prevent one (say, burning a kid slightly to prevent him from playing with fire, which may do more damage because of the injustice).

So, my answer is no. Principles have no validity if they ever allow injustice (I was operating on the word “justify”). Hence, the Greeks only had a few ideals: Freedom, justice, equality, truth, beauty, goodness. These have no extremes or limits, by definition, and are only limited by each other (as opposed to false ideals, such as loyalty, which is very limited and fits the description of an end justifying the means).


That is sorta my idea behind this. If we form a “valid” principle in dealing with an aspect of life, at what point does it (if ever) become invalid? Must this principl be used when performing the action to make it valid?

Allow me to offer some more examples. Let us say something like, “Human life is precious and non-expendable.” Does this invalidate the death penalty no matter the circumstances?

Or, in fact, can we not form any real principles, and as such there are always exceptions?

Anyone here read Machiavelli’s “The Prince?”

I’m not certain I’m following the rest of this, but, yes. That is what “the ends don’t justify the means” means. If you say “doing X is bad” then you can’t “do X” in order to result in “Y” where “Y” is some good result.

cf Catholic definition: sources of morality

If we simply say that morals are moral assumptions, and actions are moral conclusions, we can then say with some certainty that the principle/moral caused or directed the action, and if the action was just, then the principle is just (like a simple proof). So, if I or anyone in my village do not believe in killing another person for any reason, and this allows my village to be overrun by an elite unit of rapist invaders, when we could have conceivably prevented it, then our principles have arbitrarily prevented someone’s death but deliberately caused someone’s rape, or perhaps our own death, hence an injustice (no wonder we absolutely need one God to keep score if this is how we choose to live).

I have always suspected morality was arbitrary (yet plausible) to prevent common individuals from making their own decisions (not just arbitrary, but top-down corrupt, such as the ten commandments which feature blatant religious intolerance disguised as a single commandment). I also think that some principles are cleverly formed to prevent real ideals from ever taking hold. If an emperor wants absolute power, they need substitutes for ideals right away, and many of these may be cleverly disguised as principles that are planned to fail the individual in extreme circumstances, which is when we need our principles most (submissive peace, artificial love, elitist volunteer charity come to mind here).

Also, I think one can easily mock principles with sentimentality. I imagine that I could easily make a flowery, heartfelt list of ways to be extra nice to one’s serf or slave (“Torture them equally with absolute love in your bowels,” I might say, and this technique is very common in religion actually). This substitute for logic with emotional confusion not only serves to institute serfdom and slavery, but makes it appealing, legalistic, and seemingly responsible and unavoidable at the same time. Ah, the greatest freedom in life is freedom from someone else’s principles.

Well, duh. That’s why beliefs such as “not killing another person for any reason” need preparation in order to be properly carried out. Such as having the ability to run away.

But, Christian morality always allows people to make their own decisions.

Well, that is usually the result when people do Christianity half-assed. (Literally, as Jesus says in Thomas “You can’t ride two asses at once… you can’t serve two masters.”) Of course the elite have it in their best interest that you try to do exactly that or ride their ass entirely, hence another whole problem beyond individual moral corruption.

Amen. You know, I think we are a lot alike, in some much as half the time I read your posts and think you are a horrible troll, and the other half of the time you make sense. Which, give or take 50%, is what people think of me. :wink:

True, but you are always serving someones principles whether you like it or not.


A troll? Nevermind. Anyway, if it helps, think of principles as software. They allow what they allow, enable what they enable. If someone does some crazy action or even just consistently fails or becomes mediocre while under the influence or belief system of this principled software, then we shouldn’t automatically blame the hardware first, we should blame the software first. It doesn’t mean the software caused bad actions, it’s may be just that it didn’t do what it advertised. In some cases, however, if the outcome is always undesirable, we should wonder if the principled software is not in fact a virus. I am equating principled software with dogma here, obviously. The problem as I see it, is that we are not so much enamored with these principles for what they prevent or enable, but for what they promise as reward.

what if the end justifies the means but the end doesn’t justify THE END?

there are always simultaneous sequences of events going on and THE MEANS may have side effects which on the surface seem totally irrelevant to the end. but these side effects may have consequences that may be so bad that attaining the end may not have been worth it. so you have to examine the means you intend the to use or THE ENDS may be what you get.

did that make sense?

Dal Timgar

brian, you got dogged early on in coming to the SDMB, but I for one am really starting to appreciate your posts (though they are, perhaps, a little flowery? ;)).

You are also really getting to the root of it, though guinastasia’s Prince comment finds its way in well as well. We know the ends don’t always justify the means, but what I’m wondering is what justifies the means? Must what justifies the means be the same thing that justifies the end?

Consider, we desire a specific result. We have many options to achieve this end. Some are moral but intensely difficult, others are easy but immoral. Somewhere there is a strange situation… we find a solution where the means themselves are moral, but only because if we were to do them we would intend some specific end. Yet we can, instead, have someone else do something, which to this person would be accomplished for another reason entirely…his end would be entirely seperate to ours.

That is, this new person doesn’t care about our end. His principles are different at least in this respect, if not in all ways. And yet he would do something that we would do. Can we utilize this person and his principles; though the principles are at odds, if the means and ends are the same, or no worse, is there something wrong with this?

Consider it as Occam’s razor of action, so to speak. Or, as was said in the movie “Scream,” “Motives are incidental.”

Are they?

I like the software analogy, though I would use “firmware” if pressed to the issue :wink:

jmull, it isn’t quite a question of good and bad. It is the morals themselves which determine this, you see? As well, the good-bad polarity is permeated by the neutral amoral action/thought/deed. So what we have isn’t “This is bad so don’t do it,” but instead, “The result is good to us, the means are good to us. If someone who could care less performs the action does this in some way weaken the point, remove the goodness?”

Hmmm. This brings up an even stranger question…if we have decided a course of action that has unintended consequences, do we stop immediately or carry on?

These are questions of degree, of course. Sometimes the ends may very well justify the means. Hmmmmm…

You’ve completely lost me. Someone who is completely free can not be controlled. That is the essential message of Christianity. Freedom is its own reward.

aynrandlover – you’ve completely lost me too. How about an actual example of what you are trying to say?

We want to inseminate a cow. Zoophilia is clearly immoral by our standards. If we let a zoophiliac mastrubate a bull to obtain the semen, is this ok?

His end and our ends are different. His motivations and our motivations are different. But the end is miraculously the same: we get the semen to impregnate the cow.

What is wrong with doing this?

The end justifying the means is essentially a pragmatic argument. Since I do not believe pragmatism is a sound basis for human ethics I reject it out of hand.

The arguments about unintended consequences simply underscore the unreliability of pragmatism, since they rely upon the inability of human beings to fully apprehend the consequences of our actions.

The question isn’t truly if the ends justify the means always, but if they ever do. And, if they ever do, what makes those circumstances special?

It’s about time someone brought up this issue. I’ll gladly take the bull by the horns, although not sure at fist if I cud answer this one.

If you don’t regard masturbating a bull as immoral, there is nothing wrong being done on that level. OTOH, our friend with the zoophilia should avoid temptation, and we might not want to encourage him not to avoid temptation.

Is this what you mean?


If an action is not ethical in and of itself it is not made ethical by its consequences.

From the pragmatic view, the action is ethical only because of its consequences. It makes no sense to say the action is unethical except for its consequences.

From any other ethical basis, the pragmatic argument is unsound.

So here we are, then.

Actions are, then, good- or bad-things-in-themselves? (or neutral, of course) Hmm…I have a hard time making this proclamation.

To me it seems impossible to divorce the action from the person who committed the act. This is why I find intent to be so important to the question. Neither the ends nor the means but only intent? No, that isn’t right either.

A person means well, does well, things turn out well, everything’s great.

A person means well, does something bad, things turn out well because of it…what then? Consider punishment as a case here.

A person means ill, does something good anyway (swallows his pride?), things turn out well… can we praise him for this? Did he actually do a good thing? Is he, at that moment, a good person?

A person means ill, does something bad, and things end out good. ???

a person means ill, does something bad, and things turn out bad. ???

There is a subtle play between intention, means, and end result that are not summed up in “pragmatism,” I think.

I agree. I hadn’t intended to give any oher impression. When I wrote “the action” it was simply shorthand for “the decision to take an action”. Ethics exists in teh realm of decisions. Actions are the expression of those decisions. There is no ethical content in an accident, though there might be in the “decision to be careless”.

Well, pragmatism deals only with the results (or the foreseeable results). Intention, under pragmatism, is basically a description of expected results. Means are explicitely subordinate to results.

"A person means [well/ill] does [good/bad] which results in [good/bad]."
My problem with these scenarios is with the underlying assumptions:

  1. An act is good/bad independent of intentions or results.
  2. Consequences of actions have a “final condition” or “natural boundary” from which they can be evaluated absolutely.
  3. The ethical value of a decision can be altered by the unforseeable effects of that decision.

Basically, I feel like you are asking, “What if a man makes an artistic decision but he expresses it with paint/sound and it turns out pretty/ugly?”

(For the record, I never once believed The Republic was satire).

However, I still think that ends justifying means is a theoretical proposition, not pragmatic, although Spiritus and I may be saying something similar. I can see how one might think it is pragmatic, but practical knowledge, such as “whatever works best,” or “the most good for the most people,” always seeks to avoid the pitfalls of theoretical absolutes that lead to ends (in)justifying the means in the first place. The irony is, pragmatists might actually agree with the statement that the MEANS justify the ENDS. For example:

“If I understand science, and I enjoy it, and see myself working real hard at science, then I should be a scientist, no matter what my dad, mom, and preacher say.”

Conversely, someone might say, “Son, forget about science, it’s the devil’s workshop, Pastor Bates and your Mom and I all agree, if you get your law degree, you may hate it, but it will all be worth it in the end.”

I still think the simple questioning of ends justify means implies a theoretical snag. It is easy to find endless counter-examples, from religious wars to police torture, but I think saying “If you have to ask the answer is always no” applies in all cases.