End Justifies the Means

Discussion in 'Politics' started by Epsilon, Apr 15, 2004.

  1. Epsilon


    Does the End Justify the Means?
  2. inappropriate means can often produce undesirable ends later on...

    for example, the resurgence of al queda since the liberation of terrorists in iraq.
  3. He didn't ask if inappropriate means could produce undesired ends - that's axiomatic.

    He asked whether if you got the ends you desired does that by itself justify whatever means you used to realize them. It's the age old Machiavellian question.

    For example, does catching a serial killer justify torturing suspected (but not yet proven in court) criminals to get the information you needed to nail the killer? If so, would it justify torturing a few mistakenly suspected (i.e., completely innocent) people along the way? How about busting into a few people's homes in the middle of the night without search warrants and ransacking their places and tossing the people around only to find out you had the wrong addresses - but as long as you eventually caught the criminal you were seeking, would that be OK?

    The answer to the question is a nice shade of grey - IT DEPENDS. It depends on the particular ends in question and the particular means involved.

    In the above examples, I'd say that the end did NOT justify the means because you're breaching constitutional rights of a broad spectrum of people without reasonable cause.

    However, there are other situations where I would likely say it did - such as after catching a kidnapper who then tries to cut a deal before he tells you where he's buried a kidnapped child who will run out of air in the next 6 hours - for that, I'd say beating the holy sh!t out of the guy until he tells you where the kid is would be completely justifiable.

    In this case, you're only breaching the civil rights on a single blood sucker who's already admitted he knows where the child is and is trying to use it as a bargaining chip to cut himself a deal and had thus abrogated his rights (and if it was my kid, I'd want to be the one getting the info out of the guy - think pliers and a blowtorch).

    On the other hand, letting the police break into and toss every house in a 2 mile radius of the area they're guessing the kid is stashed would not be justifiable.
  4. Epsilon


    When I asked this questions - I expected many shades of grey. However, the correct specification is:

    U sub end > |U| sub means
    (ie Utility of the End > the absolute value of utility (negative in this case) of the means)

    Therefore - torturing 100 people to catch one criminal that will in turn save 2 lives is not justifiable. torturing 100 people to catch one criminal that will in turn save 10,000 is justifiable.

    The above paragraph is true if you agree that Ends justify the means. Both clauses too.

    Your above examples are a bit incomplete. However, your intent to say was that the above equation is violated. Then you do not take these actions: however it does not violated the presumption of end justifying the means.

    I hope you see what I mean.
  5. Indeed.

    I'd implied in my response that yes, the ends do justify the means, but only when you can directly compare the immediate outcomes of the means versus the end, and there are no other undesirable outcomes generated by the means.

    For example, invading iraq to get rid of saddam hussein is justified in light of spending 10,000 civilian lives, 1,000 friendly troop lives, in order to save maybe ten times that amount over the next five years in the hands of saddam. But this doesn't hold if the means will generate other undesirable outcomes far worse than what (in this example) Saddam would have done in the next 5 years. And frankly, these other undesired means probably include more terorrist attacks on US interests.

    It really becomes a Bayesian question as to whether or not you can quantify undesired outcomes.

    With this many variables, the number of predicted undesirable outcomes far exceeds the simple equation A->b->C where C>b is the desired outcome, and b>C is the undesired outcome. (C is the end, b is the means).
  6. Epsilon - the attempt to reduce a question of this type to a simple equation is interesting, albeit troublesome unless you presume that the end ALWAYS justifies the means or ALWAYS does NOT justify them.

    In reality, the specific ends (which must by definition include any collateral or resulting conditions and not just the immediate outcome - since collatoral and cascading results are ultimately part of the ends realized) MAY justify the means depending on the specific ends in question and the specific means used to achieve them - however it's not a simple matter of quantification as in your example of torturing 100 to save 2 being unjustifiable but torturing 100 to save 10,000 being justifiable.

    It is not as black and white as a simple equation that would be always true or always false implies.

    Which is of course what is suggested by the equally simplistic age old question of "do the ends justify the means" - kind of like an attorney asking if you still beat your wife but demanding that the answer be confined to only yes or no.

    Much evil has been done throughout history using the argument that it served the "greater good" - often by invoking the simple if E > M then it's OK.

    Now if you step beyond simplistic quantifications (e.g., 100 to save 2 vs. 100 to save 10,000) and try to factor in all the non-explicitly quantifiable issues (e.g., adopting systemic and broad-based breaching of people's rights as OK) then you might be able to say the E > M kind of equation works, but doing so belies the complexity and social implications underlying such a weighing of the issues.

    There's also a potentially circular factor in such an equation - as in, does accepting a particular instance of accepting a specific means to justify a specific end create a precident which over time is used to justify a cascading series of broader-based actions until you ultimately have managed to justify that which you would not have ever accepted as justifiable at the beginning of the process. Hence, looking back from 20 years in the future, that which at the time you found justifiable you would not find so.

    For example, does the breaching of an individual's right to free speech because you dislike their message or believe it hurtful to a large group (e.g., muzzling of some repugnant KKK hate monger who wants to spew his venom in a mostly minority neighborhood or blocking a small band of neo-nazis marching through predominantly jewish Skokie, Illinois) ultimately cascade over time into a series of slowly expanding justifications of similar muzzlings until the average person could be locked up for so much as disagreeing with something the government plans to do?

    In such examples, people would have to consider the old "I may disagree with what you say but I will fight to defend your right to say it because a freedom lost by one is a freedom soon lost by all" and not merely a simple weighing of the rights of 10 vs. 1000 feeling hurt or upset.

    While there are undoubtedly some cases where the ends do justify the means, it is a slippery slope with potentially unforseeable ramifications and deeper implications than can reasonably be reduced to the simplicity of a brief equation comparing immediate quantifications.
  7. The problem is not the specific case, eg, torturing a suspect to save a victim. It is easy to justify it. The problem arises when you have crossed that threshold and someone has to make the decision, "is it justified in this case?" History teaches us that the government that is willing to make such decisions is one that we can't trust to make them. So free societies make a conscious decision to suboptimize to avoid the problem of overreaching.

    It is also possible to err in the opposite direction. I suppose the question then becomes, "Should we elevate the means above the end?" Many would argue the series of criminal procedure cases decided by the Warren Court that produced the Miranda case and the exclusionary rule are examples of going to the opposite extreme. They elevated form over substance, and forced the authorities to allow clearly guilty parties to go free because of procedural errors.

    We seem to be witnessing an end to that type of judicial indulgence however. It is more daunting to allow terrorists who might kill tens of thousands to go free than a petty criminal.

    Interestingly, the 9/11 Commission is currently imbroiled ina mini-drama over one such incident. Democrat Commission Member Jamie Gorelick issued a edict while Clinton's Deputy AG that made sharing of information among criminal investigators and anti-terror investigators much more difficult. It was an example of elevating form over substance and probably had at least an indirect effect on the failure to uncover the 9/11 plotters.