I keep thinking about the age-old philosophical question: do the ends justify the means? Does a good outcome excuse any means to attain it? Many people certainly seem to think so. While I can imagine situations in which I would be tempted to use immoral means to achieve moral results, if I did, I believe I would compromise my integrity. But the more I think about this question, the more I realize that the answer isn’t that simple.
On Christmas day, I read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Christmas sermon on peace. In that sermon, he said that if we are to have peace in the world, “ends and means must cohere.” To cohere is to hold together, to be united, to be logically consistent. Cohesion is integrity, the state of being whole and undivided.
I question whether you can maintain your integrity if the means and ends do not cohere. Does anyone admire a hypocrite? Jesus certainly didn’t. Hypocrisy is pretending to be virtuous while concealing or hiding your real flawed character. You could say that a hypocrite’s actions (the means) do not cohere with the moral standards or beliefs (the ends) that they pretend to have.
Politicians often act as if ends justify means. Gerrymandering and voter suppression are seen as legitimate means to acquire political power. Conservatives who were once very concerned about morality now excuse the amoral behavior of the man who promised to nominate conservative justices to the Supreme Court.
If you believe that ends justify means, then it’s all about winning and not about how you play the game. It’s all about what you want and not about how you get it. But if you care about the kind of person you are or the kind of person you hope to become, then what you do to achieve your goals matters.
When I see people try to justify immoral means such as dishonesty or cheating with the results of their actions, I conclude that they lack a moral compass. A moral compass should guide a person to ethical behavior. But I have to admit that we don’t all agree on what constitutes moral or ethical behavior.
My approach to morality is called deontological ethics (from Greek deon, “obligation, duty”). I generally assess whether behavior is right or wrong based on my moral beliefs or values rather than on the consequences of the behavior. Another approach to morality is called teleological ethics, (from Greek telos, “end, goal”; logos, “reason, explanation”) or consequentialism. People who endorse this approach to morality believe that a moral act is one that produces a good outcome; therefore, a good end justifies the means.
Why don’t we agree on what constitutes moral behavior? Where do moral values come from? Many people think that religion is the source of moral values yet non-religious people have moral values. In 5 Inherent Values We’re Born With, Dr. Tom Muha writes that according to Jonathan Haidt, human beings are born with five moral values:
- Caring about other people and not doing anything to harm them (physically or emotionally). (Harm/Care)
- Being fair, reciprocating kindness, and following the Golden Rule. (Fairness/Reciprocity)
- Being loyal to people in your group, cooperating, and helping others to succeed. (In-group/Loyalty)
- Respecting authority. (Authority/Respect)
- Practicing self-control and restraint. (Purity/Sanctity)
As adults, most people still believe that the first two moral values are important. But almost half reject the last three. In Haidt’s TED Talk on the Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives, he says that moral arguments and political differences tend to focus on the last three values.
Politically, I think of myself as a moderate. For me, in-group loyalty is not an important value. I don’t belong to a political party. I am not blindly loyal. I do believe in cooperating and helping other people succeed if I believe in the rightness of what they are doing. In the same way, I respect the authority of moral people and I don’t respect immoral leaders.
Haidt concludes that if you want to change people, rather than trying to prove that you are right, “step out of the moral matrix” and try to see that we are all engaged in a struggle in which everyone thinks they are right and everyone has reasons for doing what they’re doing. I agree that it is good to try to understand the moral reasoning of other people and also to recognize that you cannot change them.
But back to the question of whether the ends justify the means. In his Christmas sermon, MLK, Jr. said something that I think is profound and worth repeating. The means represent the ideal in the making. The means are like a seed growing into a tree or like a tree producing fruit. You can’t achieve good ends through evil means. This conclusion is consistent with the teachings of Jesus. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. The ends and means must cohere.
So, if you’re seeking to develop a just society, they say, the important thing is to get there, and the means are really unimportant; any means will do so long as they get you there—they may be violent, they may be untruthful means; they may even be unjust means to a just end. There have been those who have argued this throughout history. But we will never have peace in the world until men everywhere recognize that ends are not cut off from means, because the means represent the ideal in the making, and the end in process, and ultimately you can’t reach good ends through evil means, because the means represent the seed and the end represents the tree.Martin Luther King, Jr. – A Christmas Sermon on Peace