Ming the Mechanic
The NewsLog of Flemming Funch

Friday, November 9, 2007day link 

 The ends justify the means
picture 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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