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Do the Ends Justify the Means?


I argue that the ends don't justify the means and try to explain how this can be understood with a consistent morality that doesn't devolve into legalistic, bureaucratic indifference.

"Would you steal bread to feed your family?" is one of those timeless questions of morality. It seems either option leads to both good and wrong at the same time. So is morality just a grey blur? An illusion? An invention? If we look at the question and ask why it bothers us, we can quickly answer: theft is wrong, but leaving your family to starve if you could somehow prevent it seems horrible and even more wrong.

Of course, we're imagining the place we steal the bread from to be a store that has a lot of it, so to willingly let someone die over a few dollars is borderline a crime against humanity. This immediately paints a picture of God's commandment not to steal as the legalism of a callous bureaucrat and hints that some, or perhaps any, moral rules followed consistently turns them into a repulsive form of oppression.

Into Perspective

The question of theft is specifically challenged. Maybe it shouldn't always be as stringent. Didn't Robin Hood do it for a good cause? Ultimately, you have to ask yourself whether you place stealing as an absolute wrong. If someone doesn't consider it wrong to "borrow" some bread and pay it back later, it's not really possible for anyone else to disprove him wrong.

I'll illustrate the issue much better by asking: "Would you steal bread from a family that'll starve without it to feed your own?" This of course changes the perspective a lot, but it puts what I'm trying to say in perspective. Theft is no longer the focus, because if that family were willing to give you the bread, both of you knowing they'd starve, the question "Would you take it?" is just as tense. But the balance between the two actions is preserved, and if theft is considered wrong, this is the kind of balance that must be kept in mind.

Time and Space: Would've, Could've

An old idea by John Dewey is that the ends never justify the means because the only difference between the two is space and time, which is irrelevant to morality: only intent is. In that case, the ends don't justify the means because the ends are the means. For example, I'm not a bigger or lesser murderer just because the crime happened 25 years ago. Examined more closely, what Dewey is saying is that what you and I perceive to be an "end", such as your family surviving, is nothing but a bias from your point of view which clearly values survival over the ethics of theft at some point.

Not so, if it considers all forms of theft wrong, from the point of view of an ethical code, which by definition has to be absolute (or else maybe on Tuesdays it's ok to murder), since the implication is that it's consistent and logical. This point is proved very well by the early Soviet Union leaders' logic who while vacationing would refuse and even ban anyone from feeding starving neighboring village kids who went to the windows in the name of "the future where everyone had everything," because for now a few eggs must be cracked to make an omelette: they had to have peace of mind while relaxing and not be bothered by the problems of non-essential to the government personnel. A very slippery slope.

Other Implications

When Jesus condemned "sin in the heart" - sin in thought, prior to action - he was describing an age old problem that was recognized by humans probably from the beginning: crimes begin in the mind. However, due to the fact that one can have flashes of anger, or change their mind later, it's not exactly punishable by most courts until one actually commits the error.

This shows that it's not a mere religious "mind-control" that punishes "thought crime," but that human courts are bound by legalism in order to fight legalism (actual action instead of mental conviction or intent) for practicality's sake. Otherwise, therapists would not be considered useful if Dewey's concepts above were unfounded. Moreover, the current theory of justice is rehabilitation over retribution, where the goal is to influence an individual to correct action rather than pay him back, evoking the same idea: mental such as correction precedes physical such as crime and property or personal loss.


The immediate objection to this is that, of course space and time matter with respect to ethics. If I yell "fire" when a theater is empty I won't get in trouble, but if I do later in time when it's full of people, I can go to jail.

But this is not what Dewey is saying. That ethics exists with respect to space and time is different from being guided by it. Of course if I have no objects to steal, I can't be a thief. But not being given an opportunity to steal is not the same as excusing theft. Put another way, a man who believes there are people in a theater (and that it's wrong to yell "fire") and yells "fire" is ethically as culpable as the one who does when it's actually full.

A trickier objection can be inferred from the Monty Hall Problem. The fact that the final choice is between two doors is alterred from a 50/50 to a 66/33 depending on whether one switches his choice, due to the previous circumstances - i.e. time. However, we're dealing with technical outcomes, where one's choice is actually the outsider and irrelevant factor, so this is just fooling us, not by switching the details like the fire in theater example, but by switching the operator (statistics, instead of human choice). So, yes, in Monty Hall time makes a difference, but that has no bearing on the contestant's intent, who wants to win in all scenarios. It only impacts the result and his course of action if he has knowledge: the very thing that Dewey acknowledges, that space and time are only technical circumstances. So Monty Hall is a little like a technicality within (or against) a technicality.


So the ethical dilemma is only a dilemma because of our human bias. In that way it's similar to the Trolley Question, where there's two groups of people and a train is headed towards your family, but you can change its heading to another family: can you ethically do it? Either way a family's going to die. Does it matter that you've changed it just because it's yours? It's obviously a self-centered motivation, but the real question is, are you a murderer because you changed the course rather than having done nothing?

When we put the question into perspective that way, we realize that if we believe theft is an absolute wrong, then, No, one cannot steal even from the rich a piece of bread to feed their family. If one involves absolute morality and God into this, the defense for this is decision is that the physical is less important than the spiritual, and God has a reason for having put this test in front of us: after all, as He tells Job, He's all-knowing and we're not.



  • Mothershead, John L. Ethics (1967)