Ethics can be a tricky issue, but it need not be so in many ways. When it is difficult to make a decision it is often not for a lack of information, but because we are lost in a swarm of details and hypotheticals. By isolating the essential details and identifying a moral standard we can come to decisions with clarity and confidence.
People often say the ends don’t justify the means as if it were a truism. Now, they might have good advice and be correct incidentally, but this truism is totally backwards and confounds ethical reasoning. If the ends don’t justify the means, what does? Asking that question is sure to get a blank stare, because most people haven’t thought about this subject in detail. First what are means and ends?
The ends are simply what we want to achieve, like happiness, a loving boyfriend, or a career. The ends are the goods. Means are ways to acquire them. (For simplicity, let us assume these definitions for now.) Here’s what I want to convince you of:
The ends justify the means. They always have and always will. Objections to this statement either 1) call attention to higher ends or 2) appeal to dogma; the first kind is an exception that proves the rule, and the second begs the question.
Let me explain.
1) Let us say you want to be promoted to manager, and it occurs to you that if you report that your manager did something dishonest when he didn’t he’d be fired and you would be next in line for the job. If you were to confess this thought to a friend, she might respond that the ends don’t justify the means. She’s right, incidentally, and here’s why. Lying is a complicated affair. A big lie usually has to be maintained with further distortions. The effort needed to maintain a web of lies is a stressful time waster. Getting caught ruins trusting, worthwhile relationships. Making up for this mark on your reputation takes a long time. Look, we don’t just want a nice job, we want a job with good relationships, no unnecessary stress, and open paths for further opportunity. We want something more than just this job.
I said earlier that objections to ends justifying means call attention to higher ends. A fully fulfilling job is a higher end than a job with merely a higher pay. If getting the job by lying makes the higher end impossible, that end doesn’t justify that means. But the higher end is why, and that higher end justifies honesty. That is why it is an exception that proves the rule. Our ends aren’t all equally important.
2) Let’s say that you are in chronic pain and wish to take some powerful drug to reduce it. Your friend says that’s wrong, the ends don’t justify the means, and taking drugs is simply wrong. You ask her Why? After all the drug isn’t harmful and isn’t addictive. She says even so taking drugs is immoral. Notice that any answer would be an appeal to higher ends, which we covered before. She has no better answer.
This is an example of a dogma, or rule that is accepted without good reason. Dogma doesn’t answer to why questions, and this is what I mean by begging the question. If there’s no good reason to obey a rule, don’t let it get in the way of your happiness.
There. I believe I’ve proved my point. But you might have noticed I’ve said people might be incidentally correct when they say the ends don’t justify the means. More correctly this end doesn’t justify this means. So you might say my point is trivially true. So what’s the big deal?
When we internalize this formulation, the ends justify the means, two things happen. First we start introspecting about the dynamic relationship among our ends. The more thoroughly we consider our ends, we will discover hierarchies that will point to our greatest ends. This end helps that end, which helps that end, and so on. If buying a house ties you to an unfulfilling job, you need to recognize which is more important, a satisfying job or a house. That importance is an appeal to a greater end, like being able to seek better opportunities or coming home unperturbed when you see your family. These ends serve a very abstract end of living a happy life. This introspection will clarify decisions and you will gain practical wisdom. Second, when you meditate upon and shape your hierarchy of needs, this deep reflection will allow you to come to decisions with confidence. You will make decisions grasping the essential details and why. You will have greater moral courage.
Again, internalizing the true relationship of ends and means helps you to own your decisions and have greater efficacy. Making the right decision, making it with confidence, and enjoying the fruits of that right decision are all essential aspects of a satisfying, fulfilling life. This is what Rational Romantics are all about.