I'm not sure I understand "the end justifies the means."

Whenever I try to think what it means to have the ends justify the means, I can’t quite grasp it. It seems like the ends have to justify the means for an action to be rational.

Let’s say I want a sandwich. I can make one myself–a little bit of effort, but I’m fed at the end of it. The means (doing the work) is a fair trade-off for the end (my getting a sandwich). Or else I could walk around town until I saw someone else with a sandwich, and then beat that person up and steal their food. Obviously, 99.999% of the time, such violence isn’t justified by my getting a sandwich. That’s why it’s an irrational act.

So, when people accuse others of believing that “the ends justify the means,” what are they implying? That the accused feels that any end can justify any means used to achieve it?

No, that an end for the “greater good” can justify any means. Think of, for instance, torturing a suspect who knows where a kidnap victim is being held. The act of torture is “justified” by saving the life of the kidnap victim. Not meaning to get too political but the examples are so obvious - Guantanamo Bay and indefinitely holding detainees there is along the same lines. Holding people for years with little to no access to lawyers, family, etc., is considered by some to justify the expected “end”, preventing unspecified future terrorism and hopefully gathering evidence about terrorists elsewhere.

to cite an example from a current pit thread: Animal research to potentially save millions of human lives is justified, even though it’s cruel in the meantime.

and off-topic, I thought the Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead, and the Shadow Series were fantastic.

It’s doing something illegal, immoral, or otherwise “wrong” to achieve a “good” end.

Example. The police know that someone is a drug dealer but they never can catch him holding. ie. He’s told them neener, neener, you’re too stupid to catch me. So during their next bust, someone slips 50 hits of ecstacy into perps pocket to turn oround and “find” on him.

Illegal? Yes.
Drug dealer off the street? Yes.
End justified the means? You decide.

Excellent examples, IMHO. Exactly right. Doing something bad in order to achieve a good result. That’s the end (result) justifying the means (bad thing done).

I think I’d re-define it as “Doing whatever is necessary to achieve a desired result.”

Everyone believes to some extent that “the ends justify the means”, but with a different balance point between a given pair of ends and means.

If you agree that “stealing is wrong”, well, what about taking a couple of loaves of bread off the back of an unattended truck full of bread, to feed your starving children in a time of famine?

What if instead of a truckload of bread, it was the last few loaves on a table or in a box?

What about taking it over the shouted protests of the owner who is across the street and sees you doing it?

What if the owner was there and present, and you would be forced to seize it out of his hands (but you are clearly physically able to do so – say, if he’s an old man)?

What if HE clearly has hungry children to feed himself?

What if there were bands of people roving about not too far away, intent on robbing/stealing food, and he was going to get mugged for it anyway, and this was your only chance to be the one to benefit from his loss?

This also reminds me of an interesting psychological study I read about not too long ago, in Scientific American I think.

In a random survey, people were presented with the scenario of a runaway passenger train heading towards a dead end that would surely result in a fatal crash for everyone on board, killing hundreds of people. You are the only person able to reach a switch that would shunt the train over to a runoff track that would prevent this. However, on this runoff track is a worker who you would not be able to warn in time – he would be struck and killed.

A clear majority of people surveyed (about 75%?) said that they would throw the switch, thus “sacrificing” the innocent worker to save hundreds.

However in a similar “sacrificial” situation where they would have to physically and personally shove the innocent person into the path of the oncoming train to prevent the crash, many fewer people (about 20%?) said they would do so.

Obviously the actual survey responses are important here so I’ll go look for the cite. But the gist was clear – our innate ethical standards are not completely based on ends and means, but also include a large component of what can be called “personal culpability” (hence the excuse of many people found complicit of institutionalized brutality, “I was only doing my job”).

I also think it Bush’s entire theory on the war.
His thinking is that in the end he’ll keep the terrorists “over there” and out of the US. This to him justifies endless occupation, Iraq civil war, daily Iraqi deaths, daily soldier deaths, billions spent, etc. etc. etc.


I guess you’ll have to define an ‘end’ before it can justify any means.

Else it’s just mean to no end.

I’m having a hard time putting this clearly into words, please bear with me.

I think you’re maybe misinterpreting what’s being said. It’s not “any ends justify any means” in a general sense. I think the idiom specifically implies “THESE ends (the ones I am talking about when I use this idiom) justify the means.”

The very nature of the idiom implies that not all ends justify all means one might use. Otherwise it would hardly be worth saying at all. What earnest users usually are saying is “In this case, the ends are so important that ordinarily inaapropriate means might be worth using to obtain said goal.” Sarcastic speakers are citing the same idiom, but with (metaphorically) rolled eyes to emphasize the irony the perceive in making the moral exception for the case in question.

But in actual (nontheoretical) use, I don’t think it’s really a reference to ends in general, but to a specific case.


Maybe I’m just being dense, but how could this sort of situation possibly arise? Try as I might, I can’t conceive of a situation where pushing someone into the path of a train might save anyone else’s life. Maybe so few people said yes because the situation is so incomprehensible.

Thank you. This was indeed my problem. It seemed like it was a pointless saying, but everyone’s explanations have helped a lot.

You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs

Usually this phrase is used as a negative: “the ends do not justify the means”. However, there are two very strong positive examples during the Second World War:

  1. The Poles and the British had deciphered the Germans’ Enigma code. Via the intelligence thus gleaned, Churchill learned that the city of Coventry was to be firebombed. He took the decision not to evacuate the city (the means), because to do so would tip the Germans off that Enigma had been cracked. Thousands died, and the city was all-but destroyed. But by the Germans’ continued use of Enigma, the war finished earlier than it might otherwise have, thus saving many more lives and preventing Hitler’s continued march across, and enslavement of, Europe and possibly further afield (the end).

  2. Use by the US of the Hiroshima bomb* killed up to 100,000 civilians (the means). However, by using this weapon, the US forced Japan to surrender**, and it is widely considered that this shortened the war dramatically (the end) and saved a lot more lives.

*I exclude Nagasaki, as I don’t believe that was anything other a munitions test by means of mass murder. Also theorized that this was a warning shot to the Soviets.
** It is widely held, though there are some dissenting voices - see the Soviets footnote above.

There was a program on “Cold Case” once where a child pornograph bought a child who had been kidnapped and use him in porn. The child was later found dead.

The child’s father was later told there was a child porn site with his child on it. He subscribed to the site, found out who the pornographer was, went to his house and shot him dead.

The father has committed at least two crimes (viewing child porn and murder) but the end justified the means.

Would you shoot child and kill your child in this situation?