Although I'm long retired, I find that from time to time an essay subject comes to mind. One such is: Does the end justify the means? I'll have a try at answering my own question.
The means/end problem is usually discussed in a political context, although the problem can be found in other contexts as well. Machiavelli (1469-1527) is usually cited as the political thinker who began the separation of politics from ethics and is credited with starting the political tradition in which it is accepted that the end justifies the means. In fact, the tradition begins much earlier in Plato's writings. Sometimes the tradition is seen as the way to 'get things done'. It concentrates on empirical questions, such as how a ruler can stay in power or by what means he can use power to maintain law and order and keep enemies at bay both inside and outside the state. There has been a strain of cynicism in politics ever since the time of Machiavelli.
But politicians are good at countering the charge of cynicism by providing homely analogies in support of their case, although I am not sure that recommending Peppa Pig
will cut it. There are hints of the homely analogy approach in the saying attributed to the American President Harry S Truman: if you don't like the heat get out of the kitchen. More sinister still is a familiar saying which originated much earlier in France and is usually translated as: you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs. Well, omelettes and kitchens are wholesome worthwhile things but we might need to look more carefully at what underlies the metaphors. What underlies them is the doctrine that the end justifies the means.
The central concept in Machiavelli's writing is power rather than authority or legitimacy. In his best known work, The Prince,
he offers advice to rulers. Typical pieces are: rulers must have advisers, but care must be taken in appointing them because advisers become flatterers (nowadays they become character assassins); rulers must not overdo virtue in small matters at the cost of large matters. In general, Machiavelli was arguing that actions by rulers which might seem wrong if taken by themselves are justifiable if placed in a larger context. Those wishing to argue that the end justifies the means typically appeal to the larger context.
Consider a type of case which occurred in the 20th century, a type of case where the larger context is a good one – preventing civil unrest. Let us imagine that in the southern states of the US a white woman has been raped. The authorities fear that unless they act very quickly, there will be widespread lynchings and other bad events. But they have no clear culprit. To prevent bad things happening, they decide to frame a black man and 'convict' him for the offence. The argument is clear: the minor wrong (as they see it) of a wrongful conviction is justified by the prevention of a much worse state of affairs – the larger context. This kind of pressure on the police and other civil authorities exists over here too. Public pressure to find culprits for what were seen as IRA bombings led to wrongful convictions, for example in Birmingham.
There have been more horrific examples of that appeal to the larger context. For example, it has been argued that the bombing of Dresden and other beautiful German cities shortened the war in Europe, although thousands of civilians were burned alive, and the war was virtually over when the bombings took place. And dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while they were truly dreadful means, were defended by the 'larger context' – the claim that they had the desirable end of shortening the war in Asia.
If we are to evaluate the 'larger context' argument, it is helpful to examine more closely the means/end distinction. It is helpful to distinguish between what I shall call an 'instrumental means' and a 'component means'. To try to make this distinction clear, I shall move away from war and politics.
Consider the construction of a house. House-building requires bricks, cement, wood, glass, metal, nails, screws, etc. It also requires lorries to transport these commodities, as well as cement mixers, diggers, scaffolding and workmen to put it all together. Now, in that brief account of house-building, both instrumental and component means are involved. The lorries, cement mixers and scaffolding are examples of what I wish to call 'instrumental means'. They provide necessary instrumental means for the construction of the house, but when the house is built they have no further use in connection with that house. On the other hand, the bricks, glass and wood are also means to the construction, but they are components of the end, the completed house; in fact, they constitute the end.
Or consider an artist painting a picture. He/she needs paints, brushes and an easel. They are instrumental means to the end – the finished painting. But they have no part in the finished painting (unless it is going to be entered for the Turner Prize). But the paint itself in its assorted colours remains an essential component of the final product. In sum, an instrumental means does not affect the final end and drops away when the end is attained, but a component means essentially affects the end and may constitute the nature of the 'larger context'.
Now let us return to the political and moral spheres, and begin with examples. There is considerable public demand for more funding for the NHS. Suppose a government were to decide that the best means to achieve this was to impose a tax to be dedicated specifically and exclusively for that purpose. That would be an instrumental means to a desirable larger context. People might not like it but the desirable end, the larger context, could be said to justify the instrumental means.
Now consider an example in which a means becomes a component of the end, the larger context. Many years ago, I had a visiting post in the University of Syracuse in upstate New York. The university authorities became concerned that there was a large amount of cheating in the many tests and exams inflicted on the students. (They were right!)
In order to get an idea of the extent of cheating, the authorities issued a questionnaire to all the students. The questionnaire contained questions such as 'Have you ever cheated? Have you observed cheating? What forms does cheating take?' The questionnaire was their instrumental means to getting an understanding of the problem. In order to encourage return of the questionnaire, the university authorities gave an absolute guarantee that the questionnaire was entirely anonymous. Well, in the event, students who did not return their questionnaires got reminder letters.
It emerged that there was a concealed number under the postage stamp. As you can imagine, this did not go down a treat with the students. The defence of the authorities was that as no unethical use had been made of the deception it was not in itself wrong. (Add the word 'discuss' and we would have another good essay question!) Anyway, the general student view on campus was that if the authorities can cheat, why shouldn't they? In other words, the desirable end had been defeated because the unethical means had corrupted it; the means became a component of the larger context, preventing cheating.
In the long ago, doctors used to think that lying to patients about their terminal condition was a justifiable instrumental means to the larger context of encouraging patients to maintain hope. But such a view is nowadays rejected; distrust would become a component of the whole context of medical treatment. Of course, how the truth is told is another matter. Indeed, some patients have told me that even although the doctor was giving them bad news, the communication was done with such warmth and compassion that they actually began to feel better. The means entered the end in a good way.
On a grander scale, the corruption of the end by the means can be seen in political regimes where there is an ideological or fanatical belief in the end. Stalin thought that his reign of terror was justified because of the importance of the end, the larger context. But the use of terror as an instrumental means to a classless society, or whatever it was he aimed at, transformed itself into a component of the larger context. It was not that the end justified the means; the means became the end. Societies in which fake news and crude populism are substituted for political argument are going in the same direction.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow