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Explaining Why the Ends Don’t Justify the Means
“The ends don’t justify the means” is one of those very old, very wise sayings that probably every human being reading this has already heard. At one time, the reasoning behind it seemed so self-evident and was so heavily reinforced in our society, that there was no need to explain it. Everyone just got it.
Today, our society has changed, and people have started to struggle with the whole concept. As Christianity has declined, faith in our institutions and respect for the law have crumbled (all of which are related by the way), people have begun to lean on their own personal, highly skewed, self-interested versions of morality to determine right and wrong.
Instead of embracing one set of rules for all of us, increasingly Americans have begun to rely on personalized systems of morality that Jonah Golberg aptly described in Suicide of the West:
What was once considered the only noble motivation for a hero, a conception of good outside himself, has been replaced by what Irish philosopher David Thunder calls “purely formal accounts of integrity.” According to Thunder, “purely formal accounts essentially demand internal consistency within the form or structure of an agent’s desires, actions, beliefs, and evaluations.” He adds that, under purely formal integrity, a person “may be committed to evil causes or principles, and they may adopt principles of expediency or even exempt themselves from moral rules when the rules stand in the way of their desires.” In other words, if you stick to your code, no matter what you do, you can be seen as a hero. It’s this sort of thinking that has led Hannibal Lecter, a character who barbarously murders and eats(!) innocent people, to be seen as something of a folk hero.
At one time, our heroes had a highly developed sense of right and wrong. Today, not so much. Increasingly, we live in a society that embraces “anti-heroes” who may be criminals, murderers, or bad actors of one type or another, but still have some kind of individualistic, partly admirable moral code of some sort.
Some of them, like my favorite fictional character, Conan, are quite old (the original Robert Howard Conan books are the best fantasy series I’ve ever read). In the books (and movies), Conan the Barbarian had many admirable traits. He was the ultimate “alpha male.” He was almost impossibly strong, fast, and one of the best swordsmen walking the planet. He was a leader of men you could take at his word, irresistible to women, and detested sorcerers, demons, and monsters of all sorts.
As a reader, you are definitely meant to think of him as a “good guy.” However, it’s also worth noting that this “good guy” was also a professional thief, pirate, and mercenary. He was so extraordinarily violent that he probably killed thousands of men over the course of his lifetime, not all of whom were technically “bad guys.”
Of course, we’ve come a long way since Conan. Other iconic anti-heroes like Charles Bronson blowing muggers away in Death Wish, Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty” Harry Calahan, and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin have been around for a while.
We could certainly list plenty of others. The Punisher, Riddick, John Constantine, Rick (from Rick and Morty), Walter White, serial killer Dexter, and even Lucifer himself.
In Neil Gaiman’s brilliant series of Lucifer graphic novels, Lucifer isn’t treated as evil per se, but he is at least portrayed as the living embodiment of self-interest and pride, perhaps understandably since he’s one of oldest, most powerful, most competent creatures in the universe. However, in the TV series very loosely based on the graphic novels, Lucifer is portrayed as charming, funny, and likable, all of which are perhaps forgivable, but the living embodiment of evil in the Christian Bible is also treated as a generally benign force of good.
This sort of thinking has widely bled into entertainment, influencer culture, and even politics.
Many of us no longer have a rock-solid conception of right and wrong or good and bad. Instead, it’s almost as if we “feel” our way towards moral judgments. When someone talks, does it feel entertaining, clever, and pleasing? Does this seem to favor or oppose the way my tribe does things? Does it seem to conflict with any ideas we already hold, or does it reinforce them? How are other people reacting to this idea?
This is how many of us make moral decisions about important issues.
It’s almost like being lost in the woods and trying to decide whether you’re going in the right or wrong direction by feeling instead of using a compass. It’s a foggy, cloudy sort of morality and against this backdrop, people like to try to decide if the “ends justify the means.”
Of course, the first obvious question is, “Whose ends?” Because after all, America is a divided nation and large parts of the country don’t agree on a lot of very important things.
Even if we were to focus on the extraordinarily broad areas where people do mostly agree like “equality” and “fairness,” you’d find that people have extremely divergent views of what those things mean.
In fact, our views are so far apart that OFTEN one person getting their desired “ends” means someone else doesn’t. If abortion is legalized, men who claim to be female get to play women’s sports, or guns are made illegal, one group of people gets what they want entirely at another group’s expense.
These sorts of disputes between human beings used to be settled by another famous saying that largely determined how human beings behaved throughout most of history. That being, “might makes right.” This is how emperors, dictators, monarchs, warlords, and totalitarian societies are ruled. “Do what I tell you OR ELSE.”
Republics like the United States were able to move beyond “might makes right” by agreeing that no one would be, “above the law” and we’d all go by the same set of rules. Of course, it didn’t work out exactly like that because the world is never that neat and easy. There are also always morals, customs, and standards that sort of rise up through the collective consciousness of a society. You can think of the whole thing as a giant spider-web that keeps all of us connected while constraining and allowing our movement in different ways.
So, what happens when we decide that “the ends justify the means” and start cutting through the strands of that web?
For one thing, each time a strand is cut, a precedent is set. If you can cut through the strand on the upper left, why can’t I cut through the strand on the lower right? Oh, you didn’t want that one cut because you like it there? Too bad because I liked the strand on the upper left that you cut and what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
In addition, these strands, this process, holds us all together. The more strands that get cut, the less we trust and have in each other. This is simple, logical reasoning, right? After all, if you’ll break the rules once to get what you want, why wouldn’t you do it again?
Moreover, once people get away with breaking the rules and benefit from it, everyone else starts to question whether they’re fools for playing by the rules of the game. If you get an advantage by breaking those rules, why shouldn’t I? Of course, even that undersells the problem because in a country with over 300 million people in it, it’s not just about you and me, is it? It may be about some guy you don’t even know or support, who’s “on your side,” who breaks the rule that leads me to say, “screw the rules!”
All of this destroys that feeling of kinship between different groups of Americans, it obliterates trust and turns order into ever-increasing levels of unpredictable chaos. That’s because contrary to popular opinion, there’s always another “end” to reach and each time norms are broken, it encourages people to take things further. Every broken strand reverberates through the whole spider-web making it less and less functional until eventually it either gets repaired, settles into a stable new form, or breaks entirely.
Do you want to see what this looks like in the real world? Well, look around.
Can you trust the media to report the facts honestly if it conflicts with their agenda? Do you think scientists told us the truth during COVID or what their bosses wanted them to say? People used to almost trust teachers blindly with their kids. They sure don’t anymore – and for good reason. How about politics? Americans are descended from intellectual giants like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington, and Ben Franklin. How do the loud-mouthed, degenerate Lilliputians that pass for the most prominent politicians in both parties today stack up to men like that?
Not so long ago, we all had a higher opinion of Americans we didn’t agree with as well. We were able to give each other the benefit of the doubt, to say, “I may not agree with that guy, but he generally means well.” Can you still say that?
If you’re conservative, how much would you trust the police in Portland? Can you count on social media networks that don’t agree with you to treat you fairly? Would you trust an overtly liberal teacher to teach your kid?
These kinds of things matter a great deal and in a world where “the ends justify the means,” none of them work properly anymore. It’s great to get the ends you want, but ultimately, it’s the societies that care the most about achieving the ends via ethical means that are the best ones to live in.