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.


  1. This is succinct treatment of the "means vs. ends" issue. It reminds me of the reaction I often heard to the "Occupy Wall Street" phenomenon which was, "That's not the way to bring about change." Perhaps the legitimate means to change have led to zero ends, and the suffering continues.

  2. An thus we have an increasingly polarized views by the citizenry.

    Rules for Radicals and The Prince must be read in tandem. Both Alinsky and Machiavelli were ethically wrong - unless you hold to post-modern ethics. William Wilburforce and John Wesley did a much better job of leading their country and the Church to change than did Warren Harding or John Brown in our country. Paul Simon captured the sentiment well with the "Mama" and "Papa" view of the behavior in the lyrics of "Me and Julio". We need positive leaders - and there are actually some good ones on the poles, rather than militant revolutionaries and reactionaries (my friend Damon Schroeder comes to mind). Poor leadership will may take us to a Papa Doc, or a Kim Il Sung, a Khamenei or a Mugabe. Leadership and followership needs to be taken seriously.

    I heard yesterday a call for civil disobedience against our current administration by several non-political parties not prone to action - has the time come?

    The poles widen and the center shrinks. Few dialogue. Without this we may face more "just wars". Leadership makes a difference.

  3. "The victors write the History". Therefore, the "radical" who wins becomes the new normal and eventually the conservative. This conservative must worry about conserving his position and what benefit he has won from that.

    As was once said by a group of radicals that won, "When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."

    We may be moving toward a time resulting in a Declaration of Independence 2.0.

  4. I must confess, I have not read "The Prince," but from what I have read about it, it is a manual about acquiring and keeping political power. That is an end far different from the end Alinsky had in mind.

    Alinsky and Machiavelli may have approved similar means at times, but it is the end that justifies the means. And I see nothing in what Machiavelli wrote that justifies the means that he affirmed. Preserving life for one's family is quite a different matter.

    What I heard about civil disobedience yesterday was with regard to having the "religious freedom" not to provide full health insurance for employees of Catholic institutions. It that a worthy end calling for "desperate" means? I certainly can't see that it is.

  5. The strength of successful civil disobedience usually flows from its clear exposure of the underlying injustice of the situation being confronted. This worked well during the Civil Rights movement. Recent protests by the right on subjects such as opposing abortion providers has been an interesting contrast, because it has not had the same effect or success. The reason is that instead of creating universal revulsion against an injustice, it has just highlighted the deep divisions in our society. This is the danger of any such movement, the movement may discover that many people simply do not support it. This, in turn has lead to horrific overreach by a few abortion opponents who have murdered doctors and bombed clinics.

    In terms of ends and means, there is a rough ethics of civil disobedience that indicates it should not be the tool of first resort. Educational efforts and negotiations should come first. However, there is a time when it is appropriate. On the other hand, when the result is simply more controversy, as it is when Operation Rescue and similar groups obstruct abortion providers, a clear limit is shown. The "occupy" movement is in that awkward moment of finding out whether its overall appeal is more like the Civil Rights movement, or more like Operation Rescue. Then again, even the Civil Rights movement met with significant opposition.

  6. Easel's comment above made me think of Alinsky's statement on page 34 of "Rules for Radicals."

    “The seventh rule of the ethics of means and ends if that generally success or failure is a mighty determinant of ethics. . . There can be no such thing as a successful traitor, for if one succeeds he becomes a founding father.”