Friday, February 10, 2012
Does the End Justify the Means?
A simple question: is it right or wrong, ethical or unethical, to slit open someone’s abdomen?
Some might quickly say, No, of course not! But those who are more discerning are likely to say, Well, it depends on why such a thing is done. Precisely!
Consider three scenarios: (1) In a squabble with a person you don’t like, you become angry, grab a knife, lunge at him and slit open his abdomen. Can such a violent act be justified? Probably not.
(2) A crazed killer/rapist has entered your house intent on doing harm to your wife/family. In an attempt to protect them, you grab a knife and in the ensuing struggle you manage to stop his evil intentions by slitting open his abdomen. Can such a violent act be justified? Perhaps. Or, maybe, probably.
(3) You are an obstetric surgeon, and a woman in hard labor but unable to give birth vaginally is brought to you. It is right/ethical for you to slice open her abdomen in order to perform a Cesarean operation. Certainly.
So here is the next question: does the end justify the means? The answer, of course, depends on what end you are talking about. In the three scenarios given above, the same “means” was used. But the ends were much different.
Thus, as Saul Alinsky wrote in his much maligned (by conservatives) book Rules for Radicals, “Means and ends are so qualitatively interrelated that the true question has never been the proverbial one, ‘Does the End justify the Means?’ but always has been ‘Does this particular end justify this particular means?” (p. 47; this is the final paragraph of the chapter titled “Of Means and Ends”).
(If you want to read a good article about Saul Alinsky, in addition to my January 30th posting[!], check out “Saul Alinsky, Who?” by Bill Moyers and Michael Winship at this link.)
So what about violence? Does Alinsky advocate using violent means in order to attain desirable ends? Maybe in some situations. But don’t most people? As he correctly points out, “in war the end justifies almost any means” (p. 29). How else has this nation, or any nation, justified participation in war?
But what about violence done by the poor and oppressed people of any country? Criticism of the “end justifies the means” argument is most often used by those who oppose those who use violent means against those in power and/or with wealth. This is one of the perennial criticisms of liberation theology in Latin America.
It is quite revealing to consider how so often those with wealth and/or power complain about (and seek to counteract, often by violent means) violence done by the “radicals” seeking social justice but how so seldom the same people show much concern for the great violence being done to the poor and underprivileged people in society.
Alinsky also contends that “means-and-ends moralists” are “non-doers” who “always wind up on their ends without any means” (p. 25).
And make no mistake about it: there is, in our country and in countries around the world, a great deal of structural violence embedded in society and many people have suffered greatly because of that violence.
I advocate seeking to find and to use non-violent means to combat that structural violence. But I find it difficult to be too critical of those who are so desperate that they resort to violent means to attain ends that are necessary to their, or their children’s, very survival.