• Ends and Means

    There are two competing philosophies (with minor variations between them).*

    On the one hand, you have the people who believe that the ends justify the means. On the other hand are the people that believe that the ends do not justify the means. Obviously, this is not a purely binary solutions set and there is a range of decisions.

    The majority of people I’ve talk to and read say that the ends never justify the means. This means that a noble result should not be accomplished by evil deeds. We could potentially end terrorism by killing religious, political, and behavioral fanatics. The end of terrorism, of violence, is a noble goal. But accomplishing that by murder is not.

    But there is not a single member of that group (I hypothesize that there is not a single member of the human race old enough to speak) who has not told a lie to get out of trouble. All children have done it and I suspect all adults have done it. You may have told your spouse that they are dressed nicely, but you really hated that outfit.

    You may think that’s a silly example, but I’m serious. The end (not having a fight, making your spouse feel better) does justify the means (lying to them).

    At what point does the means become too much for the ends?

    Hypothetical example.

    A woman, who happens to be a black belt martial artist walks down an alley and is attacked by 3 muggers with knifes. She fights back, killing one and seriously injuring the other two.

    A woman, who happens to be a black belt martial artist walks down an alley knowing that there is a group of violent muggers who the police will do nothing about. She attacks, killing one and seriously injuring the other two.

    Is there a difference? Why? Are both acceptable because the muggers are breaking the law? Is it acceptable to break one law to enforce another?

    Feel free to jump with some on-topic comments.

    __________________________________

    *  I realize that there are probably philosophical tomes devoted to this topic and I’m not exactly breaking new ground here. That’s not the point. One can read all the philosophy that one wants, but I think that until one experiences it and thinks it through for themselves that one cannot really embrace the ideas. That’s part of what I want to accomplish here. Think about these ideas for myself and come up with valid reasons and conclusions for the way I think… or change the way I think if I cannot.

    Category: CulturePhilosophySkepticismSociety

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    Article by: Smilodon's Retreat

    • Shirley Knott

      If the ends do not justify the means, then what does justify means? That’s a much more interesting, and I’d suggest, much more fruitful, question than whether or not the end justifies the means.

      • im-skeptical

        Or to look at it from another perspective, what is the best way to accomplish the desired ends? This question need not be strictly utilitarian, but can account for moral issues with the proposed means, without ruling anything out a priori.

        • Ann

          You are so right, skeptical.
          But … Oh, if only we knew the best ways to reach our hearts’ desires!
          (sigh)

      • Ann

        That is a good point, Shirley, and it serves to clarify the debate.

        The original saying (“The ends do not justify the means”) must mean:
        “The ends don’t justify ANY AND ALL means, no matter how horrifying.”

        Because obviously the ends do justify the means to reach goals — just not ANY means, no matter what. Otherwise, there would never be a warrant to act so as to reach any goal.

        But of course people act all the time in pursuit of a goal, using means that are beneficial, or entirely neutral, or pretty significantly harmful.

        But the original adage reminds us that there should be limits on what we do, even if we are in pursuit of a desirable goal.

    • Ann

      I am at a loss to understand why lying is such a big deal.
      I notice that the Bible had the brains to avoid making it a wrong.

      I suspect the huge emotional value placed against lying is due to early childhood training. Parents hate not having correct information, and they drill it deeply into their children that they must never lie.
      Otherwise, I find the condemnation of lying to be inexplicable.

      I’ve even seen people agonizing over whether they can lie to misdirect Nazis who are hunting for Jews to murder.
      Whaaaat?
      This is a moral dilemma for some people?
      Really?
      ————-

      The social contract prevents and punishes (as far as the society is competent) deliberately harming (substantially) others for wanton, depraved, malicious, or self-serving reasons.

      But that is the case whether lying is involved or not.
      It is the substantial HARM, not the LYING, that is the offense.

      If lying does not effect that clear and present substantial harm, then so what about it?
      That is, the harm must be
      • clear
      AND
      • present
      AND
      • substantial

      – as well as –

      • wanton
      OR
      • depraved
      OR
      • malicious
      OR
      • self-serving

      And if a lie does not effect that harm, then big deal — a lie that doesn’t do anyone any legitimate damage.

      • Richard Metzler

        “I am at a loss to understand why lying is such a big deal.”
        1. Because indiscriminate lying undermines trust – among relatives, friends, coworkers, and in society in general – and thus makes mutually beneficial cooperation much harder than necessary.
        2. Because indiscriminate lying keeps people from gaining accurate information about the world, and thus making sensible decisions.
        3. Because indiscriminate lying undermines peoples’ conviction that the world follows laws that can be understood, and that understanding these laws and gaining reliable information about the world is worthwhile.

        Truth is important. Sometimes other things are more important, but we need to keep the baseline high.

        If you want a more detailed and more eloquent explanation of the first point, try http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/05/16/you-kant-dismiss-universalizability/

        • Ann

          Hi, Richard ~

          Thanks for a good response.
          Your remarks were intelligent and lucid, and expressed with gentlemanly aplomb.

          I don’t know what “indiscriminate lying” means, but I noticed that you were careful to characterize the kind of lying that you are talking about that way.

          The reasons that you give to condemn lying are either
          > a source of clear and present harm to someone else
          > or generalizations that may be hard to defend when they come to particulars

          1. I agree that one harm that can come from “indiscriminate lying” is to reduce one’s credibility.
          But people incur that danger all the time, and llie all the time anyway, whether they have read the material at your link or not.
          Consider you yourself, for example.
          You lie just as much as everyone else, and that didn’t change any when you read that article.
          —————

          2. People are not automatically entitled to accurate information about the world. You and I are entitled to privacy and secrecy, for example. The same is true of groups and organizations. If necessary, we are entitled to lie to preserve that right.

          Another obvious example is the one I already gave — that Nazis are not entitled to accurate information about the hiding places of their victims.
          Or to generalize, bad people with nefarious ends are not entitled to our honesty. Instead, we should thwart them when we can.

          In fact, even it people are not wicked, just inimical to our own best interests, lying to them in our own defense is normal. A compulsion to blurt out the truth, no matter what, might even be considered a disorder.
          —————-

          I disagree that lying makes people fail to see that the world operates under consistent laws (by which you mean “laws of nature.”)
          The most that lying can do is to us (as a consistent law of nature) that PEOPLE tell lies all the time.
          And everyone already knows that anyway, not just from their daily experiences, but from the Theory of Mind that lets them conclude, based on their own lying., that everyone else lies too.

          And anyway, this point is not different from the second point.
          —————

          You say
          > Truth is important
          > We should keep the baseline high

          Your conclusions are characterized by language that is so general that it is meaningless.

          Vague generalities sound good — that is why they can be moral precepts.
          For example, “Do unto others … ” sounds swell. Everyone can agree with that.

          But it is when it comes down to cases that it fails immediately.
          When it has to be specific, it might as well not exist.
          The more general it is, the better it sounds, but the less it carries meaning.
          But the more specific it is, the less it is something we all agree with, and the less it is a moral precept.
          In fact, it is more like “music” than it is like a “thought.”
          It sounds good — but it carries no data.

          Here is a specific example of how a swell moral precept collapses when it comes to exact cases:
          “Do unto others … etc”
          Sounds great, really good advice
          Unless you are on the jury.

          Generalities are vague non-point locations of warm and fuzzy large, undefined ideas.
          The more you sharpen them up to apply to specific cases, the more they lose their character as moral adages and the more they assume the ‘non-moral” character of laws and procedural guidelines.
          For example:
          ~ ~ ~ Do Not Wantonly Put Others in Harm’s Way ~ ~ ~

          Well, who could ever disagree with that?

          But when it came down to cases, society found that we had to promulgate an entire code of conduct about, for example, “exits,” even going so far as to enforce the commands in
          The City of Boston
          Handbook of Municipal Building Codes
          Chapter 17, § 33-65
          “Fire Exits”

          But this list of regulations can hardly be considered a book of morals.
          It’s just a list of “secular” (so to speak) rules.
          That’s because it has been focused from vague moral commands
          “Don’t wantonly harm others”
          to specific details
          “Doors must open outward.”
          http://www.cmdgroup.com/building-codes/massachusetts/boston/

          ————

          The same criticism applies to the vague generalities of your concluding remarks.

          (I’m not speaking about the part where you assign me homework instead of simply stating what YOU got out of your reading.)

          • Richard Metzler

            What I meant by “indiscriminate lying” is “not caring if what you say is the truth or a lie, no matter if it’s a small thing or a big thing.” The kind of behavior I expect from an attitude of “lying is not a big deal”.

            “The reasons that you give to condemn lying are either
            a source of clear and present harm to someone else or generalizations that may be hard to defend when they come to particulars”

            Okay, let’s go into hypothetical particulars.

            A scientist fakes some results to get some papers published. No clear or present harm, right? The fraud is discovered, the newspapers report it, and the public has another data point for “science is all fake, and we don’t need to take it seriously.”

            A politician presents a plan for a “budget” that supposedly cuts taxes and yet shrinks the deficit, through some creative accounting and lots of “details to be specified later”. No clear or present harm done, right? Now, what happens if he gets elected based on these plans? It turns out that the “details to be specified later” involve lots of cuts to social programs, and the deficit shrinking doesn’t materialize. People suffer, and the public has another data point for “politicians are all sleazy lying bastards, and we shouldn’t trust any of them, nor the reporters who failed to point out this BS”.

            I could name more examples. Alternative medicine, climate change deniers… but on with the program.

            ” I agree that one of the harms that can come from “indiscriminate lying” is to reduce one’s credibility.”

            Not just one’s own credibility, but the credibility of everyone associated. Lying politicians damage politician’s credibility, lying scientist undermine the credibility of science, lying to random people on the street undermines people’s faith in random strangers.

            “Consider you yourself, for example.
            You lie just as much as everyone else, and that didn’t change any when you read that article.”

            Okay, I’m not aware that we’ve met, or that I have an online reputation that would warrant that conclusion. In other words, you’re making a baseless accusation. Are you feeling good about that?

            “People are not automatically entitled to accurate information about the world. You and I are entitled to privacy and secrecy, for example. The same is true of groups and organizations. If necessary, we are entitled to lie to preserve that right.”

            If absolutely necessary. In most cases, I suppose a simple “that’s none of your business” would suffice.

            However, most of the lies and disinformation served to us every day is not of that sort.

            “I disagree that lying makes people fail to see that the world operates under consistent laws (by which you mean “laws of nature.”)”

            No, not just laws of nature, also laws of economy, sociology, psychology etc. That’s where a lot of propaganda from politicians, ideologically motivated journalists and other groups really has a negative impact.

            Of course, with natural laws, it’s most obvious. What were the stats – 40% of Americans believe in creationism?

            Anyway, when my kids ask me questions about the world, I try to give them the straight dope, to the best of my ability. I hope that they’ll see the patterns, and that they learn that the world (in some aspects) follows understandable laws. Easy lies like “God make it that way because he loves us” don’t help with that.

            “The most that lying can do is to us that PEOPLE tell lies all the time – which is a pretty consistent law of nature in itself.”

            There’s always a possibility that people lie… but I like it better if I can trust most people, most of the time. Just like with other bad behavior – there will always be violence, but depending on circumstances and culture, it can be more common or less, and I prefer not to have to look over my shoulder all the time. So I’m in favor of reducing violence, and I’m in favor of honesty whereever possible.

            “Your conclusions are characterized by language that is so general that it is meaningless.”
            Okay, how about this as a guideline: “if you’re about to make a statement that you know or suspect to be false, make sure that you have a solid, defensible reason for making the statement. Otherwise, don’t make it.”

            If everyone followed that, it would help to reduce the flood of bullshit that’s sloshing around the world.

    • Morality is a psychological affair, and thus victim to the ravages of our biases. For example, some 90% of people ARE consequentialist (ends justify means) and will pull the lever on the trolley experiment. Bu this goes right down when they have to push a fat man off the bridge. This is why people can drop bombs to kill masses with relative ease, but won’t shoot someone in the face.

    • Shatterface

      ‘Means to an end’ or consequentialist arguments are about comparing the legitimacy of actions to bring about the same end; for instance is violence a suitable means to bring about a peaceful end or are only a peaceful means allowed?

      The difference between the cases in your example is that in the first the woman intends to walk down an alley and in the second she intends to pick a fight. In these examples you are comparing situations where the same means are used (martial arts) to achieve a different end (getting to the other side of the alley vs. beating someone up).

      • SmilodonsRetreat

        What is the “end” isn’t “beat someone up” but protect others from the muggers?

        • Shatterface

          But that’s still a different ‘end’ than merely walking down the alley.

          Your question was

          At what point does the means become too much for the ends?

          In order to answer that you’d have to give examples in which the means were different but the (intended) end was the same, or else just stick to independent examples of a trade off between means and ends.

          If the woman is deliberately walking into a fight to prevent violence to someone else further down the line then there is a moral dilemma.

          If she simply finds herself being assaulted there really isn’t (unless she was a total pacifist.)