means and ends

The ends justifies the means, you say?

I think not.




The above image is of the statue of the Buddha in Golden Gate Park’s Japanese Tea Garden in early summer morning light.


Let us take 3 cases to illustrate that ends driven decisions can be, and often are, morally and ethically problematic.

1. The just war scenario.  The prosecution of a just war (as in national defense against invasion) does not give those fighting it license to commit atrocities and war crimes.  This is especially relevant when one considers the Allied was crimes committed in Europe in the 1940s.  By their own indictments (waging war against non-combatants) at Nuremberg after the war, the victorious Allies were guilty.  Two wrongs do not make a right, as they say.  As well, the Allies knew that their fire bombing of German cities night after night was not hastening the end of the war.  (British author A.C. Grayling covers this in his book, Among the Dead Cities, cited in an earlier essay on this blog.)

The end – a victory in a just war – morally licit as it is does not justify atrocities being committed by those who are fighting such a war.  (As an aside, there are arguments that WW II was not a just war, but rather a war to further the interests of international finance with the destruction of those countries who were resisting its hegemony.)

2.  So Obama, the statesman (sic), wants to help the poor children of Central America by allowing them to flow over the southern land border of the US. Very touching, yes.  But, these children brought serious communicable diseases into the US last year (2014) that American citizens are still being adversely impacted by – even some who still view Mr. Obama as a near demigod.

The end of helping poor, sickly children (if that truly was the end in mind) is, of course, a noble one.  Yet, why spread the misery by allowing infected and contagious individuals into the country in large numbers?  The means used for helping these children were incorrect.  It would have been better to have sent Doctors Without Borders medical personnel and/or other medical professionals to these countries to vaccinate and treat the children before allowing them to come to the US.  Going further, how about truly addressing this never-ending illegal immigration issue both pragmatically and effectively for the long term by getting these corrupt, backward countries of origin to break down their barriers to economic growth and opportunity?!  These children and young adults ought to have better lives in their home countries. Let’s help these people to help themselves in their home countries.

As an aside, I can recall a letter to the editor in the San Francisco Chronicle about 20 years ago.  The writer was a woman with a Hispanic last name.  She opined: why not save all these illegals the trip to the US and send them a monthly welfare check by mail?  Ah, such sarcasm.  Her point was that there are several billion people in the world and they cannot all live here.  If you overload the life boat, it will sink or capsize drowning everyone aboard.

3.  The birth control issue.  To be sure, an issue that provokes emotions and passions on both sides of the debate.  There are some that will assert that the regulation of births within marriage is “intrinsically evil’.  What this essentially means is that because the end is morally wrong, any discussion of the various means of achieving the end is unnecessary and irrelevant.  No means can be used as the end is wrong.  Period.

But, what about the vast majority of adults in the Western world today that reject that position and do not believe that regulation of births in marriage is by default morally wrong and thus ought not be attempted?

Stay with me here.

For those who see the end (the spacing of and regulation of births and family size by parents) as morally licit, an honest and informed discussion of the various means (to achieve the desired end) is both necessary and appropriate.

A person taking an “ends justifies the means” position then will see no problem with any and all means being used to achieve the desired end.  Thus, in this case of birth control, all means are in play with no substantive concern as to what these various means do and how they work to achieve their intended end.  From this position, one sees no problem with surgical abortion, chemical abortion (as in RU- 486 and other chemical concoctions), or devices and regimens that are called by some “abortifacients” as these work primarily (post conception) by preventing implantation of a human embryo in the uterus (or womb, if you prefer).

As we have previously addressed abortion and birth control on this blog, there is no need to go further here.  Interested readers who can see the right side bar (visible on tablets and desk top PCs) can query the search box for the relevant essays on these topics.

My purpose here with these 3 examples is to call attention to the moral opacity of an ends justifies the means approach to serious issues in the modern world.

From my iconoclastic yet pragmatic view as a social critic and some time student of philosophy, an end that is moral cannot be morally, ethically achieved by using immoral means.  So, for example, when fighting a truly just war (of national self-defense) do not wage war on the civilian, non-combatant population of your enemy.

copyright 2015 –


  1. Thoughts on death: we’re naturally afraid of helplessness, the unknown, and losing our identity. Discontinuity must be faced. We shall be changed in the blink of an eye, our boundaries limitless.

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