Do the Ends Justify the Means?
New - 28 October 2004
A question that really needed to be asked during the Presidential Debates in the United States this fall was: "Do you believe that the ends justify the means? If so, what is the moral basis for so believing? Specifically, do you believe that killing thousands of innocent and not-so-innocent Afghans and Iraqi's -- as well as placing thousands of American and other soldiers in harm's way (not to mention getting them killed) -- is morally justifiable on the basis that it might make a majority of Americans feel safer?"
Admittedly, one answer -- or dodge, if you will -- would be to claim the right of anyone or any nation to self-defense. In other words, if someone attacks you, then is it okay to fight back, right? Self defense does sound like a viable argument, but is it also okay once someone has attacked you, to counterattack them without the hinderance of any moral restraints? If someone hits you in the back of the head, is it okay to turn and blow their brains out -- and quite possibly take a few innocent bystanders out as well?
Politically this is a tough question, particularly for anyone who is promoting fear as the basic justification for doing most anything. Inasmuch as fear has been pretty much rampant among the voting population in recent days, the idea that one should show restraint and adhere strictly to due process and adhere to moral principles in retaliating for an attack tends to receive little or no attention.
Part of the reason for this is pureply practical. For example, if one is dealing with some one who is obsessed with harming you to the extent of readily becoming a martyr in order to do so, and if you are not so similarly inclinded... aren't you at a tremendous disadvantage? Anyone so willing to die tends to make a formidable opponent. Are you willing to risk your life in a non-martyr context, i.e., risk it by adhering to some fundamental moral or spiritual code?
Condoleezza Rice, the Bush Administration's National Security Adviser, has claimed that President Bush's faith in military force became the guiding tenet of his presidency after 9/11. "He determined on that day that you could not fight this war just on defense," Rice says. "It's an unfair fight when they have to be right once and you have to be right 100% of the time."  In effect, Ms. Rice is saying that if the goal -- the ends -- is to reduce the risk of attack by terrorists, then the process -- the means -- by which one does that is inherently okay. If, for example, this means violating International Law and invading a country (such as Iraq) purely on the basis of what Iraq under Saddam Hussein might do, then according to the Rice/Bush doctrine, it's okay to violate the law and any inconvenient moral principles encountered along the way.
The problem is: where does this chain of logic stop? Is it okay to torture prisoners because they might have vital information which will save the lives of our troops? Is it okay bomb cafes in Iraqi cities because they are alledgedly popular meeting places for known terrorists. Better yet, is it okay to drop an atomic bomb on a Japanese city -- killing millions of civilians and destroying massive amounts of non-warmaking housing and businesses -- just in order to save thousands of Allied soldiers from dying in an invasion of Japan? Hey, if you're part of the invasion force, you darned tootin'!
[Admittedly, one can argue that thousands of soldiers -- who were innocent of starting World War II in the Pacific -- should have at least an equal footing of innocence as htose Japanese civilians who allowed their government to launch a war. The problem with this argument, of course, is that implies an equal of greater responsibility for American civilians to say no to the American iniation of Gulf War II! Clearly there's a slight problem here. What's good for the goose is also good for the gander. Of whatever.]
It may be worthwhile to make a distinction between an individual making their own personal decision with regards to ends and means, and when someone in authority is making a decision which will effects thousands if not millions of other people. It is one thing to say that in accordance with one's most profound philosophical and spiritual beliefs that achieving specific ends/goals does not allow one to undertake any process/means which violates their deepest beliefs in doing things right. If on the other hand, one is dealing with other people's lives -- and with the fact that these same others might not have the same spiritual or philosophical leanings... Ah yes! Perhaps that is a different kettle of fish altogether.
Or is it? Can the ends ever justify the means? Clearly, if one takes even the slightest step toward questionable means in order to achieve some exemplary end, then where does one draw the line thereafter? What was the evolution of the Spanish Inquisition, for example? Were the early days just a matter of a priest putting a few moral restraints on a back burner in order to root out some really serious religious terrorists of his time?
One is reminded of the man at a party who sees what to his eyes is an extraordinarily beautiful woman. Without hesitation, the man approaches her, strikes up a conversation and then asks is she would be willing to spend a weekend with him making passionate love if he were to give her a million dollars. She is shocked and outraged at the very idea -- although as she thinks about it... a million dollars! American money? And yes everything on the up and up here? Swallowing some pride, the woman reluctantly agrees, thinking of the things she could do with a million dollars. Then the man asks if she will do the same thing for Fifty dollars. The woman is genuninely horrified at this idea, and quickly replies, "Absolutely no! What do you think I am?" The man then gently notes, "We've already established what you are. We're merely negotiating the price."
Obviously once a person decides to violate their own moral code because of a goal -- no matter how laudatory that goal might be -- they have begun their path down a very slippery slope. It's becomes thereafter just a matter of raising the ante a bit, until there are no rules which cannot be broken or bent. The 2004 American elections have made this point countless times, and taken it to extremes previously unimaginged.
The truly bad news, however, is these extremes are not exactly unimaginable. In fact, the extremes are being routinely extended. There is no evil that cannot be condoned or rationalized by some manman. This is the danger and the horror of religious zealots or fanatics who believe that they are somehow licensed to kill (shades of 007) all in the name of their glorious goal. They are so right in their quest that they are given automatic exemptions of adhering to the covenants of their religion with a free pass to heaven. Such dangers are not just al-Qaeda operatives searching for martyrdom (and 70 or so virgins in the after life) or Palestinians fighting their own glorious revolutionary war; it also applies to those Dominionists who see themselves as bringing democracy and freedom to the world -- a world which, incidentally, may have little of no use for westernized democracy -- but who believe that they too are exempt from mundane matters of decency and honor; that they have a moral exemption when fighting for their just cause. "Just cause", of course, is by their personal definition.
True spirituality would strongly suggest that one can never intercede to save others -- except in extremis or unless asked. One simply does not invade a country to save it from... whatever. None of us are sufficiently ominscience to know with certainty what is best for that country's residents. What we can do is to be good examples, and when others see our smiling example and want to emulate it, then we simply tell them what we've been doing which has caused us to wear such a silly, mischievous grin. It is their choice as to whether or not they want to follow our lead; not the assumption that Father Knows Best, and it's okay to destroy a country in order to save it.
Conversely, the argument that the ends does justify the means must depend for its viability on fear. Be it fear of pain, death, dismemberment, or visitations by Barney the Dinosaur, there is always a rationalization which says that if we are causing pain, death, and dismemberment to Iraqi women and children -- with Barney supposedly to come later -- then it's because we fear the relatively low possibility of experiencing pain, death, and so forth ourselves if everything is left to the choices of others.
How many times must we strike out against others because of our fear that someone might strike out against us? Even when we are truly attacked by those without scruppels -- and who are quickly designated as cowards -- can we justify relinquishing our scupples on the basis of our being the cowards? Or for that matter is vengenance a legitimate, moral reason to kill others?
None of us are likely to come across as exemplars of the highest degree in adhering to our moral codes no matter the inconvenience, serious consequences, and/or horror in encountering Barney the Dinosaur. But we can continually strive to live up to our highest and wisest moral precepts.
 Romesh Ratnesar, "Who Will Make Us Safer?" Time Magazine, November 1, 2004.
2003© Copyright Dan Sewell Ward, All Rights Reserved [Feedback]