The end and the means

I’ve been thinking lately about whether or not the end can ever justify the means. I have always been taught that the end does not justify the means, but when I tried to google the quote, I first found an opposite statement by Leon Trotsky. He said:

The end may justify the means as long as there is something that justifies the end.

I’ve never been an admirer of Trotsky, so maybe the fact that he said the opposite justifies the other version.

As I dug deeper, I found these:

The first sign of corruption in a society that is still alive is that the end justifies the means.
Georges Bernanos
1888-1948 French Novelist Political Writer

We have perhaps a natural fear of ends. We would rather be always on the way than arrive. Given the means, we hang on to them and often forget the ends.
Eric Hoffer
1902-1983 American Author Philosopher

These quotes are more to my liking, although Hoffer’s isn’t really directly related. Hoffer seems to be saying that we often lose our way and get caught up in the activities we think are serving our goals, but forget about our goals. I wonder if this is a characteristic of the civil rights movement. What do you think?

Never letting the end justify the means is, I believe, the morally correct position, although it can create problems. The most obvious example of “problems” is forcing yourself to play by the rules when your opponent is cheating. This is seen as weak by our increasingly competitive and selfish society. Didn’t Lombardi say that winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing? Well, yes, he did say that, but Jerry Kramer, one of his outstanding players, wrote that Lombardi didn’t mean what everyone thinks he meant. In context, Lombardi really meant that winning isn’t everything, in terms of the non-football parts of his players lives. However, on the football field on Sunday afternoon, winning is the “only thing” that measures the success of the team.

Our society, having succumbed to the corruption, tends to justify any means that leads to a desired end that is “good” for those involved. Politicians justify mud slinging so they can defeat their opponent. Bush justifies preemptive war on Iraq to oust Saddam and win the war on terrorism. Businessmen justify exploitation of the third world in order to bring us cheap products and line their own pockets. Bishops justify keeping cases of child abuse secret to save the church from embarrassment. So it goes.

Tonight, an episode of The West Wing combined three vignettes about presidential candidates (two Democratic and one Republican) campaigning in Iowa. They each heard the same news in the morning, had similar meetings with their campaign staffs, and eventually made a speech to the “Corn Growers Association” that night. All the candidates privately agreed that subsidizing ethanol production from corn was a wasteful and ill-conceived federal program. Their staff people all urged them to support the subsidy because it was important to Iowans, and they needed votes. The Democrats caved in and pretended to support ethanol. The republican (Alan Alda) at the last minute went against his speech writers and went on the record as opposing the ethanol subsidies. The show ended with Alda (and his staff) sure he was about to drop sharply in the polls, while the “good guy” Democrat (Jimmy Smits) was feeling he’d sold his soul. He had used the end (his popularity) to justify his means (lying about ethanol). Art imitates life, and causes me to think about ethics.

This short Mortimer Adler essay also addresses the question. Interesting.

DadQuotes01/27/05 0 comments

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