Do the Ends Justify the Means?

We’ve all heard it before: the ends justify the means. It’s the leading premise in Niccolo Machiavelli’s infamous political treatise, “The Prince.” It’s also the cousin of another philosophy: utilitarianism. Utilitarianism at its core admits that you can do evil in order to achieve the most good.

Both of these mantras are often used as watersheds to separate “the good guys” from “the bad guys.” The bad guy will go to any lengths to get what he wants. The good guy refuses to go against his conscience, not even to achieve some greater good.

I think the difficulty is that the line isn’t always so clear. Life gets complicated. I remember watching a movie on the Civil War when I was seven or eight. I kept asking my parents, “Which ones are the good guys?” They kept explaining to me, “It’s not that simple. There were some good guys on both sides.” The older I get, the harder it becomes to judge other people. People have strengths, weaknesses, mistakes, redemption, and pain. One person may switch between being a “bad guy” and a “good guy” several times in the course of his life. Human issues involving multiple people become that more complicated.

I find it tempting to take the messy issues of life and find some mathematical formula for making the right choice. Wouldn’t that be nice? In a sense, utilitarianism tries to do that. It tries to assign a value to peoples’ lives, peoples’ actions, and the good desired. That sure would make things easier.

I want to say that there is value in keeping the end objective in sight. It is true that there is a whole spectrum of trials and difficulties worth going through in order to achieve certain Good. But this might be better phrased, “The end justifies the process.”

Now, is it ethical to put someone else through a difficult “process” in order to bring them to a desired end? What if they desire that end themselves? What if they don’t? Things get complicated real fast.

I think sometimes utilitarianism works. Sometimes the end does justify the means. But I don’t think the exceptions prove the rule. That’s what makes things so difficult. How do ordinary people make these kinds of judgment calls? There’s an old fashioned word that seems to have rusted over in the last couple decades: wisdom. How do you gain wisdom? Well, maybe I’ll save that for another discussion.

It’s difficult to cast a “proper villain.” I was watching a film with my dad the other day. It was entertaining, but we both agreed it had its weak points. He voiced a complaint that the villain wasn’t dastardly enough. He complained there was no passion, just indifference. It made me think. Creating a villain that is horrifyingly evil can make your hero look that much better. But I also appreciate the stories where you want to hate the villain, but you can’t. He’s just a bitter man with a warped perspective. Or maybe he knows what he’s doing is wrong but he’s desperate to achieve some goal. I think those villains can be the most terrifying because you see yourself in their reflection. You are forced to examine your own choices. On the other hand, these characters can be difficult to write. Too often they flop dry and leave the audience with no clear lines of good and evil.

But for me, pure utilitarian philosophy is one of the scariest things out there. Anyone deciding they have the right to make decisions with other people’s lives has gone past the line of human weakness and exalted himself to another position. Maybe the opposite of utilitarianism is empathy and compassion.

 

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