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Do the Ends Justify the Means?

A Machiavellian Perspective

A characteristic behavior in today’s society is the belief that the ends justifies the means. This means actions people take are justified regardless of how they go about achieving their desired end result. For example, some students I have taught justified lying on their resume because it could help them get a job.

In politics and government, lying and then justifying it through the ends vs. means philosophy of behavior is a favorite past time. You may recall that former Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, made a false statement to Congress when he responded to a question about whether the National Security Agency was collecting “any type of data at all” on millions of Americans by saying “No sir, and “not wittingly.” We all know that was a lie borne out of a belief the ends of collecting such data justified whatever means were necessary to get the data regardless if it tramples on our rights under the Fourth Amendment that protect us against unreasonable search and seizure.

The entire financial recession of 2008-2009 can be summed up as a group of investment bankers who sought to become millionaires by trading in subprime mortgages knowing the homeowner might never make the payments but not worrying about it since the bankers sold off those mortgages to third parties who then assumed the risk. This created a problem of moral hazard where the party that creates the achieved the desired end result by  manipulating the means.

The statement that the ends justifies the means can be traced back to Niccolo Machiavelli. The closest he came to it was when he expressed his view in Chapter XVIII of The Prince:

“There is nothing more necessary to appear to have than this last quality (appearing to be religious), inasmuch as men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you.” Machiavel_Offices_Florence

In this quote from Chapter 18 of The Prince about keeping faith, or being true to your word, Machiavelli is instructing a Prince on how to behave and how to keep up appearances. He says it’s very important to appear merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. He also says that one must be prepared to act in a manner contrary to the appearance to keep up the appearance. This is because everyone can see what you appear to be, and only a few will get close enough to touch you and actually find out what happened. 

These people (each with slightly different reasons and motivations) are all about appearing as they wish people to see them. Even if it is nothing like what they really are, even if they are saying the exact opposite of what they will eventually do, they know that few will see through their appearances. So, for Machiavelli, to appear to be doing something is good enough even if the actor has no intention of doing so, or achieving an end result far outweighs how we got there; what road we took; and whether our behavior was ethical or not.

The reason the means are important, maybe more important than the ends, is how we get to our goal is just as important as getting there. In other words, destiny tells us what we are to the world, but journey tells who we are; it’s the journey that unlocks our potential and establishes who we are as a person and what motivates us towards action.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on April 3, 2018. Visit Dr. Mintz’s website and sign up for his newsletter.