Ming the Mechanic:
The ends justify the means

The NewsLog of Flemming Funch
 The ends justify the means2007-11-09 00:55
picture by Flemming Funch

It is one of those things it is popular to accuse other people of believing, and which instantly discredits them. It is the kind of operating basis assigned to terrorists and tyrants. They carry out the most heinous acts in the name of some imaginary ideal. And most everybody can agree that it isn't good. It is just a shame that most everybody don't really know what they're saying.

Of course the end justifies the means.

If I take a series of actions which produce a result that is all around good and useful and desirable for everybody involved, when everything has been taken into consideration - that is of course a good thing. It is never quite as simply black and whie as that. Any course of action can be compared with alternative courses of action, and there are pros and cons to all of them. The trick is to try to aim for the best possible result, that does the most good for the greatest number of involved parties, and the least damage.

You eat a carrot, it inevitably has to die. You reorganize the company, and it inevitably will suit some and not others. The point is to balance out all the factors and make the best possible decision. Some people include much fewer factors in making their decision, sometimes much too few, but invariably, even the craziest person is trying to somehow make something more right with the means they have at hand.

The value of an action or a series of actions could be said to be a matter of accounting. There are debits and credits, negatives and positives. You add up all the factors, subtracting the negatives from the positives, and hopefully you end up with more positive than negative, if you did well. Some people will only include their own accounts in the calculations, and will ignore or leave out all costs accrued to others.

If a company builds cars, they'll probably count the costs of buying raw materials, and the costs or paying workers and building factories and printing brochures, against the income they get from anybody who's willing to buy the cars. And they'll think they did good if the income is greater than the outgo. That's called business. Of course that's terribly shortsighted, because they leave out most of the costs. What they pay for raw materials is really the price somebody else charges for the trouble of extracting them and treating them. Not their actual value, certainly not their replacement value. They also leave out the costs of the billions of tons of pollution produced by those cars, and the 10s of thousands of people who get killed driving them. Oh, they also leave out some of the positives from the accounting, like how much better are the lives of the millions of people who drive the cars, and how much more productive they are. Because all of that they don't consider their business. And accountants don't know how to add it up, and nobody forces them to figure out how to do so. So we're not quite sure if the grand total balance comes out positive or negative from the world's automobile manufacturing.

But say you were able to add up all the costs/drawbacks/negatives and all the gains/advantages/positives when you carried out a project. And when it all has been counted, you find that the result is good. Isn't it justified?

The way people tend to (mis-)understand "ends justifying means" is that the ends and the means are two completely separate things, kind of not having anything to do with each other. Which is a symptom of a world where people habitually do terribly wasteful things to gain relatively small benefits. While sometimes being hailed as great successes, in case they manage to gain rather large benefits, without much regard to weather they did terribly wasteful things to get there.

Although the world has worked like that to a large degree for quite a while, we also intuitively rebel against it. So we occasionally pick out somebody who did something particularly horrible, while claiming to do good, and we accuse them of living by the principle of "the end justifies the means".

The crux of the matter is the definition of "ends" or "results", or we could say "outcome".

The way I think of it, the "result" includes all effects and side-effects, including those created along the way. The whole thing. All the accounts. The result is everything you did and what came out of it. Not just what you personally ended up with.

If you make a company that produces $5 shirts that are very well made and stylish, and people are happy to wear them, but it was slave laborers in China who actually made them, and your factories dump toxic waste from the coloring process into rivers, well, that's all part of the result. Even if try to sweep most of it under the carpet and pretend that you all you did was to somehow magically produce great $5 shirts.

The fastest and cheapest way to get a car is to steal it. The most effective way of avoiding trouble with its previous owner is to kill him and dump the body where nobody finds it. It is quite reasonable as an economic calculation. Great benefit to you, little cost. That is, if you limit your consideration of the "result" to include just yourself. If you ignore the ends you actually created. Sadly it isn't just unfeeling, intelligence challenged criminals who think like that. Many corporations of a certain size will tend in the same direction. They're there to produce a profit for themselves, and it is legally their duty to maximize that profit. Sometimes even governments will act in similar shortsighted ways.

The means aren't justified if the result is more bad than good.

If instead you did a win-win transaction, which everybody involved were happy with, which did as little damage as possible, and produced the most benefit for everybody involved. Then, obviously, the actions you took were good ones. They're justified in other words.

The thing is that the means aren't separate from the result. Whatever you do will produce all sorts of side-results along the way, and they're part of the equation. And, generally speaking, you don't accomplish great constructive feats through destructive means.

What if it is something fantastically positive one is trying to create? Like, say, an utopian society where everybody's living in peace and harmony and abundance and freedom. Sure, that's worth almost any cost. But the trouble is that if the means of getting there are of a different nature, it is likely that one didn't really produce what one says one is producing. If I have to kill a lot of people standing in the way of this dream, it is quite likely that there will be a lot of people around, like their family and friends, who aren't at all happy, peacefull and harmonious. If I have to persecute anybody who's trying to change my society, then it obviously isn't free. There would be a lack of congruency.

It is quite reaonable to believe that one doesn't create peace through war, one doesn't create truth through lies, or happiness through sorrow. I suppose that is some of what people feel inside when they speak out against "the ends justifying the means". You know, an intuitive sense of whether the proposed course of action is congruous with itself.

Sometimes the path of getting to a better place is unpleasant. . You might have to shed some tears to resolve an argument. You might have to tear some things down to build something better. You might have to break some eggs to make an omelet. But the final result is all of it, the outcome of the process you want through. If you've ended up with five broken eggs and a tasty omelet, it might be worth it. If you've ended up with more damage than benefit, it wasn't worth it. But if it was worth it, it was worth it, and whatever means you used were well chosen, however you came upon them.

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10 Nov 2007 @ 01:45 by bushman : Hmm
What about the non-morrality that machines eventualy will do all that deciding for us? I expect that the larger the output the more parts a machine must have, being that large corperations are always run as a machine, yet seems people think corperations are a livving entity. Machines don't have the idea of morality, unless its somehow programed in, a negative cost, no doubt to the machine's point of view. Well chosen without conciousness, can't be well chosen, can it?  

11 Nov 2007 @ 14:59 by ming : Machines
Right. Despite that humans typically have somewhat faulty thinking, there's still a lot about being human that gives reason to trust that sanity can prevail. Humans have feelings, they have family and kids, they're conscious, they value life. Some people value life less, are less conscious, and have shut off their feelings. But there's always hope that it can be remedied. There is usually always something one can appeal to. But a machine, or an organization that works like a machine, which by design only takes part of the picture into consideration - that's very dangerous.

I'm a bit skeptic about Artificial Intelligence. I don't think it will go anywhere before science starts getting somewhere on consciousness, which hasn't happened yet.

It is sort of the difference between getting a speeding ticket automatically in the mail, based on an automated radar setup, versus being stopped by a cop. The police officer is human, for good or bad, but it does mean that more elements are taken into consideration. Humans stupidly make rules that are supposed to work 100% of the time in 100% of possible situation. If it also is humans who uphold those rules, there's a buffer there, as the human can decide that it is an exception and that maybe it should be treated a little differently. A machine that is programmed with some over-simplified rule can not.

Corporations are a mix. They're per definition configured as machines, with the goal of maximizing profits, in whichever way they can get away with. At the same time, it is humans that run and man those corporations, so a certain degree of wholistic sanity will typically be part of the mix.  

12 Nov 2007 @ 15:48 by ming : Force
I have a lot of things to say against force, particularly the semi-blind use of force by institutions who can buy a lot of it without even paying attention, like governments or large corporations. Particularly when they use force to uphold some half-baked moral idea they have, or to protect their business model. But I don't make the jump to trying to claim that the avoidance of force is more important than achieving a positive outcome. I don't think so.

Some crazy guy is threatening to blow himself up in a crowd. A bullet through his head might well be the most optimal solution. Maybe that's covered by what you're saying above, as we could call that a kind of self-defense. Maybe it is covered by making a distinction between initiatory force and force as protection against another force.

Force is generally a bad thing when used just because one happens to control the means for effecting it, and one wants to protect one's own interests against the interests of others. But there are situations where I'd welcome force. You might, within certain limits, have to force a child to do something they don't feel like doing, to avoid that they kill themselves, for example. There might be situations where I might be thankful because a friend used force to make me do or not do something, which turned out to be in my best interest, but I was incapable of recognizing it at the time. The test is whether the outcome is good for the people involved.

The trouble is where the desired outcome is just an idea, like a moral idea, and one uses force to execute it, without checking whether it really works for everybody, and whether the outcome makes things better.

I believe in the principle of a free market, or an even playing field. There's a certain justice in the give or take of even terms. If I can slap you on the side of the face, and you can slap me right back, things are pretty even, and my awareness that you can slap me right back will have an influence on my behavior, and I'll be less likely to slap you, and maybe decide that it is more sane and economical to have a win-win arrangement where we get along and don't hurt each other. The trouble is when somebody has one-sided monopolistic power. Where somebody can hit me, and I'm not allow to hit back. Or somebody can make some law that forces me to do something, and they have overwhelming force at their disposal to make me do so, and there's nothing comparable I can do. That's where it becomes evil. An unfeeling monopoly of force.  

14 Nov 2007 @ 07:18 by a-d : Garbage in -Garbage out!
That is the truth of the matter... regardless of how many Players end up being involved the matter. The INPUT of energy determines the OUTCOME of energy (in form of an end-result)... NOT the supposed/purported IDEA for what the Game is played, so to speak!
GOOD can come AFTER (even if it is only seconds after and that is of NEW input/new energy!... Life always wins -once the initial evil input has come to fruition, while pretending all along to reach for this Good that will come to pass AFTER and DESPITE - not thanks to the evil but DESPITE, like I said... but making it LOOK as if the evil brought the good!... NOT true; it did not!... GARBAGE IN -GARBAGE OUT!
Ming, you know computers... the output always corresponds in EXACT manner to the Input. The cosmic computer is even more accurate than any man-made!... We humans just need to learn to read it right/and or stop deceiving ourselves by lying about the whole thing, in our efforts of justifying our evil -as really being A Good Thing!!! Yeah right! I love you, (or I can always pretend I love you and want your best)& that's why I beat you to mush -even to death!... and now you're in Heaven singing & playing harp with God!... That must feel good to you; be a "Good Outcome From Bad Means, the Good End, that justifies my evil means ". Would you go for that?... I doubt it!

I forgot to mention that it was indeed Machiavelli, who minted the expression: "The Ends Justify The Means" -and he is not really known for having had a caring character with lots of love & respect for Humanity ... but more like for being a cruel, cynical ASS!  

27 Nov 2007 @ 07:19 by mx @ : definition of 'justify'
Dear Flemming,
you reframe 'to justify' in a way that occludes its original intent, which was to 'make right a wrongful act' via the perceived end result.

The fallacy of this argument is the presumption of KNOWING how a certain event would have concluded WITHOUT an interference of an otherwise unethical act.

Technology cannot serve as an exampĺe as it is by itself outside an ethical context.

Ironically, Machiavelli, one of the founders of the concept of the modern 'republic', was trying to LIMIT the pragmatism of 'the end justifies the means' and was misrepresented ever since (how come???). None of those who talk bad about him, have ever read anything he wrote, If not, they would quickly change their minds about him. (check Wikipedia, it presents a rather fair view).

For personal conduct,


Unless you claim to represent the 'will of God', as some insane leaders proclaim, you cannot know the outcome of an event outside the controlled environment of a technological setting. The only 'justification' to do so, would be to claim that human social interaction would be predictable (and programmable) like a computer and YOU would be able to predict events with a high degree of certainty.

Machiavelli did not coin the phrase in question, he was warning to not abuse it. His warnings are not heeded today, as you can witness all around the world. The justification of a 'final solution' (sic!) was and is being abused to the point that we are living in fact in pseudo-democratic states as well as pseudo-republican governments that have severely compromised the Machiavellian ideals of a 'true' republic (note that 'democracy' and 'republic' are different concepts!).

In short, I urge you to reconsider your thoughts. Human behavior and mechanical technology are not the same.  

28 Nov 2007 @ 01:44 by a-d : I did start reading ThePrince....
in 2002...but.... needless to say...I didn't get too far before something else was more important -like finding out all what was said ABOUT him on the Net that time... he is indeed according to some web-sites/sources the daddy of the Ends justify the Means.... but that is inconsequential in the bigger Pic, eh? I'm the first to agree with you that the Ends do NOT justify the Means...which of course would only make EVERY ATROCITY nothing but a "Blessing in Disguise" AND ABSOLVE the ACCOUNTABILITY of the CRUEL ONES!!!.... No , no and NO! to that!...goes against all cosmic Laws (of Meta-)Physics!...  

2 Dec 2007 @ 22:22 by ming : Justify
Mx, I'm using "justify" in the normal English definition. Like, from Websters: "1. to show or prove to be just, right or reasonable. 2. to defend or uphold as warranted or well-grounded". I understand well the specialized meaning you refer to, of "making right a wrongful act", but it isn't the normal English usage.

Now, whether an act is wrongful, that depends on what? You might harm somebody in the short term, and save their life in the slightly longer term. Or you might be apparently nice to somebody in the short term, and thereby hurt them greatly. You seem to be saying that the latter would be a correct course of action. I don't really believe that you think so, but it is what I hear you saying. I might have to jank somebody's arm hard in order to get them out of the way of the uncoming truck. I might dislocate their shoulder, and it might hurt for weeks. Yes, I don't really know what exactly would have happened. Maybe they'd have stepped out of the way themselves in the last millisecond, and I wouldn't have had to do so. But I'll do the best I can in the moment.

It is not at all about knowing how exactly something will turn out. Rather it is a question of Heart, as Andrius mentioned it. Or I could say Intent. It is a question of what one intends to bring forth. And there I'm talking about a whole intent, the sum total of what one is putting energy into creating, as opposed to something that is a mental "reason" for something.

A revolutionary, of the terrorist kind, might have a reason that sounds good to a certain audience, but might fully intend to hurt as many people as necessary to get to the manifestation of his ideal idea. In that case we can't really say he has good intent, just because he has some end in mind that he considers good.

I'd say Intent ought to be the basis for any reasonable justice system that tries to decide if things were good or bad. It wouldn't be easily accomplished. A lot of people will say that we couldn't possibly ever know what anybody's intent is. Which is in part why justice usually is based on external phenonomena, and why it is legally acceptible to do what you can get away with, as long as nobody can prove you did something wrong.

I prefer to be around people who intend the best possible outcome, for me, themselves and the world. And who're willing to hurt me, if necessary, to do me good. I would be very reluctant to put anything important into the hands of somebody who believes that only a series of atomically good and positive actions lead to a globally good and positive result. I think that's an abstract fiction that doesn't work in the real world. Come on, it might hurt to go to the dentist, but that's not to hurt you. The violence applied, the means, is justified by the outcome, the end, that my teeth are in good shape.  

30 Jul 2011 @ 09:45 by asma @ : The end

Other stories in
2011-11-08 03:20: Do what you do
2007-09-19 00:36: Fractal brains
2007-06-06 00:13: Ten incredible things we get for free
2007-03-26 21:12: Ken Wilber stops his brain waves
2007-03-21 14:45: Free Thought the simplicity of life
2007-03-09 23:46: The ends justify the means
2007-01-29 21:44: Free will in a ten-dimensional universe
2007-01-24 20:42: Assuming Somebody Else's Viewpoint
2007-01-16 16:28: Free Will
2007-01-13 20:34: Dimensions of Comprehension

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