During the college application process, my favorite essay prompt read as follows:
"Is the maxim “The ends justify the means” ever true, whether in larger global situations, or personal, everyday experiences? Please give specific examples in your response."
I have posted my response below. Further situation analysis for this timeless question will come in future posts.
To assert that the ends justify the means is to assert that an immoral action is justified because it was undertaken to achieve something ethically correct. The validity of this maxim, in my view, is the quintessential moral debate of all time. Ever since Machiavelli coined the phrase during the Renaissance, its application has troubled some of the world’s most brilliant thinkers; claiming to know better than all those who’ve pondered this issue in the past would be rather vain! So it is with humility that I submit my thoughts on the subject.
Because of the word “ever” in the prompt, my answer is yes: the ends can justify the means. However, this expression is rather dangerous, and must be limited in application. I’ve identified three questions which must be considered in determining when such a scenario exists. Firstly, how important is it that the ends be met? For the ends to justify the means, the ends must be of such dire importance that not achieving them would be an even greater ethical offence than would be the means. Secondly, how direct is the link between the means and the ends? One must have no reasonable doubt that the means will directly and infallibly lead to the ends. Finally, are there any alternate, less unethical means which might obtain the same ends? The means cannot be justified if ethically superior means are available.
Obviously, these criteria are subjective, which is what makes this question so dicey. To identify situations in which the ends do justify the means, I applied these rules to some real life scenarios. As for large, global situations, one historic application of the phrase was the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombings. That decision killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people, clearly an immoral thing in and of itself. But the Japanese surrendered within a week of the second bomb: the link between the means and the ends was direct and immediate. Most experts agree that the bombings prevented the direct and certain necessity of an invasion by US troops, and that no other course of action could have forced the surrender of a frenzied Japanese homeland. Expert estimates indicate that this invasion would have cost several million additional lives from both nations. Such a slaughter would have been a greater moral offense than the bombing itself. So to me, the ends of ending the war justified the means of bombing Japan.
A “white lie” is an example of a more personal, routine situation where the ends justify the means. Most acknowledge that lying as a whole is immoral, but in response to questions such as “Is Santa Claus real?” or “Does this dress make me look fat?” it can be the right thing to do. Answering “no” to your child or “yes” to your wife would likely be more morally decrepit than lying would, passing question one. And the link between lying and desired ends (preserving innocence, flattery), or between telling the truth and undesired ends (a devastated child/spouse), is usually certain. So while the appropriate application of the maxim is rare, and the justification is perhaps overused, there are situations where the ends justify the means.