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The Terrifying Doctrine That Ends Justify Means

There is one thing that conservatives and liberals agree on: that the doctrine that the ends justify the means is wicked and evil. Of course they do disagree in so far as the conservatives think that liberals subscribe to it and the liberals think that it is a conservative idea.

The trouble is that there is no such doctrine. Try thinking about it calmly and rationally. What might it mean to say that “the ends justify the means”? Simply that the product merits the price. What you get is worth what you pay for it. But we are constantly evaluating means in terms of the ends they are meant to achieve — all of us. We are always asking, in effect, “Do these ends justify these means?” Sometimes we decide that they do and sometimes we conclude that they do not.

But maybe this evil doctrine implies that any ends justify any means. The only problem is that would be ridiculous. No one believes any such thing. Certainly, in the inevitable hierarchy of values it is possible that — for any given individual — there will be certain ends that are so imperative that they would justify any conceivable means. Or possibly that certain means are so abhorrent that they could be justified by no ends whatever.

So again it comes down to the fact that different people have different values. And, as we said before, there is no rational way to choose our values. When people accuse others of accepting the pernicious doctrine that the ends justify the means, what they really mean is that they disagree about whether some particular means is justifiable.

Take the question of torture. Some conservatives consider torture a perfectly acceptable means toward certain ends involving national security. Most liberals consider torture to be out of bounds regardless of any supposed benefit. They are the ones shouting that “the ends do not justify the means.”

But now let us look at the abortion issue. Here the conservatives are the ones shouting about ends not justifying means.

It should be obvious at this point that different people have different ideas about what sorts of means are absolutely unacceptable. It is also true that none of these issues is simple. It is never a case of a single “value.” On examination you will always find that a complex of values is involved and that these values are mixed up with views about the nature of the world and how it works. Conservatives are probably more disposed to look favorably on torture because they see its victims as different, inferior, or inherently evil. The question of abortion is complicated by ideas about immortal souls and notions concerning the “moment life begins.” And yes, people who are horrified by abortion tend also to be horrified by sex in general.

The essential point is that when people complain that someone they disagree with is espousing the doctrine that the ends justify the means, they are talking nonsense. What they really mean — or would mean if they were being rational — is that their opponents have different values, that they find acceptable — at least relatively acceptable — actions that their accusers deem unacceptable.

So what does this have to do with moral cowardice? Just this: We start getting hysterical about the ends justifying the means when we are faced with difficult decisions. We hate to make difficult decisions, decisions that force us to choose bad things, things we believe, considered in isolation, to be wrong. We want to be innocent; when forced to choose between two forms of guilt, we seek refuge in denial. We are denying that the choice we made is in any way compromised. We have become absolutists.

[Next: How to Decide?]