Ends justify the means

One of my favorite hobbies is correcting misperceptions of utilitarianism. I came across one the other day at this website. The author, Kerby Anderson, introduces us to utilitarianism, analyzes the philosophy, and later critiques it. Let’s skip right to the criticism:

Kerby Anderson: There are also a number of problems with utilitarianism. One problem with utilitarianism is that it leads to an “end justifies the means” mentality. If any worthwhile end can justify the means to attain it, a true ethical foundation is lost. But we all know that the end does not justify the means. If that were so, then Hitler could justify the Holocaust because the end was to purify the human race. Stalin could justify his slaughter of millions because he was trying to achieve a communist utopia.

Anderson’s assertion that utilitarianism leads to an ends-justifies-the-means-mentality is correct, but the rest of the paragraph is not.

Utilitarianism posits that not only do the ends justify the means, but that they are the only thing that could. There is no other standard by which means are judged than the ends they bring about.

Before we go further, I must point out that I am using the term “ends” as synonymous with “consequences,” which is how I believe “ends” is understood in this context. However, when Anderson speaks of “ends” in this paragraph, he clearly does not mean “consequences” but rather “goals,” which are wholly different.

But notice how Anderson describes utilitarianism earlier in the same essay:

Kerby Anderson: Philosophers refer to it [utilitarianism] as a “teleological” system. The Greek word “telos” means end or goal. This means that this ethical system determines morality by the end result. Whereas Christian ethics are based on rules, utilitarianism is based on results.

His introduction of the etymology of the Greek root “telos” is confusing rather than illuminating because it appears to conflate consequences and goals. Under utilitarianism, an act is judged by the end state it brings about, not by the goal of the actor. Anderson makes this clearer later in the paragraph, but in so doing confuses the reader by supplying two contrasting descriptions of a single theory in consecutive sentences.

Why is this relevant? Because it makes all the difference when evaluating the rightness of Hitler’s holocaust or Stalin’s purges.

Anderson says utilitarianism would allow Hitler to justify the Holocaust because he had noble goals. Let us grant that Hitler did indeed have noble goals. So what? Utilitarianism does not care about goals, it cares about results, as Anderson himself says in the essay. Did the Holocaust increase utility or not? That is the question that concerns utilitarians, and no sane utilitarian would say that it did.

The same is true for Stalin’s murders. Does it matter that he was trying to achieve a communist utopia? No. If he had brought about a utopia, could he justify his acts under utilitarianism? Yes, assuming the utopia produced enough happiness to compensate the unhappiness caused in its creation. What I will say is that to the extent an act brings about happiness, that is an argument for the act. Likewise, if the act requires the infliction of suffering (which the Great Purge did) that is an argument against it.

The problem with Hitler and Stalin was not that they employed immoral means to achieve noble goals. It was simply that they did not count all the “ends.” And yet, that is all the difference there need be between laudatory and condemnable acts.

Anderson continues:

Kerby Anderson: The end never justifies the means. The means must justify themselves. A particular act cannot be judged as good simply because it may lead to a good consequence. The means must be judged by some objective and consistent standard of morality.

Sure, happiness is difficult to measure precisely, but that does not mean it is entirely subjective. We have some idea of what tends to make people happy: family, friends, winning at Settlers of Catan, and we have an idea of what makes them unhappy: loneliness, hunger, root canals.

Anderson ends his piece by commenting that utilitarianism’s chief flaw is that it “attempts to provide a moral system apart from God’s revelation in the Bible, but in the end, it does not succeed.” Utilitarianism is no doubt an improvement over God’s revealed morality in the Bible, but then again, that’s not saying very much.

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9 Responses to “Ends justify the means”

  1. David Says:

    I don’t know, Andy. If Hitler had succeeded, I guess the Israeli’s wouldn’t be oppressing the Palestinians.

    I don’t think utilitarianism says that “right” and “wrong” are necessarily based on the observed actual outcome. Those terms have their use — praise and blame — in shaping future moral behavior — and intent is very much relevant. If an action could’ve reasonably been expected to produce a good outcome based on the agent’s knowledge (the intent), then it may be praiseworthy (or at least not blameworthy) regardless of the outcome. The feedback (“right” and “wrong”) is also forward-looking. The results of the instance are less important than those of similar instances that might come in the future.

    “Under utilitarianism, an act is judged by the end state it brings about, not by the goal of the actor.”
    Prior to acting, it can only be judged by what we expect it to bring about, which might otherwise be called the “goal”. And in trying to influence people’s future decision making, we face the problem of them acting under the same circumstances. When I tell someone it is the “right” thing to do to do act so as to maximize utility, I am very much talking about their goals. I am telling them what sort of goal they should have.

  2. Andy Hallman Says:

    Thanks for the comment, David.

    I don’t think utilitarianism says that “right” and “wrong” are necessarily based on the observed actual outcome. Those terms have their use — praise and blame — in shaping future moral behavior — and intent is very much relevant. If an action could’ve reasonably been expected to produce a good outcome based on the agent’s knowledge (the intent), then it may be praiseworthy (or at least not blameworthy) regardless of the outcome.

    I’m a little confused why you put “the intent” in parentheses after knowledge, insinuating that they are similar if not the same. I’ve always understood “intent” to mean “what you want to have happen,” and it’s not clear what connection this has to knowledge. Could you make this connection more explicitly for me so I can understand it?

    Prior to acting, it can only be judged by what we expect it to bring about, which might otherwise be called the “goal”. And in trying to influence people’s future decision making, we face the problem of them acting under the same circumstances. When I tell someone it is the “right” thing to do to do act so as to maximize utility, I am very much talking about their goals. I am telling them what sort of goal they should have.

    I see your point. When I used the word “judge” I meant it in the sense of “evaluate,” as in “evaluate the results of.” Ultimately, the results are what will be of interest to other people faced with similar situations. It could be the case the actor made the best choice with the information he had, but it turned out poorly, perhaps because he had bad information.

    Maybe this discussion is about whether we should term that act “immoral.” If the purpose of morality is to serve as a guide to our actions, then I’m in favor of calling it immoral, so that other people will not make the same mistake of relying on that bad information.

    For instance, was bloodletting immoral? At the time it was practiced, perhaps people could not have known it was so bad, as we know it to be today. We could say the same for lots of ancient medical practices that seem crazy nowadays. I’m less interested in condemning the ignorant doctors of that era than I am in ensuring their mistakes are not repeated. And if that means that we call their acts “immoral” then I’m for it.

    When I tell someone it is the “right” thing to do to do act so as to maximize utility, I am very much talking about their goals. I am telling them what sort of goal they should have.

    Absolutely. Nevertheless, the goals are tangential to what we care about, which is utility. So telling someone to have “maximizing utility” as their goal is one way of increasing the likelihood of maximizing utility, but may not even be the most effective way. Perhaps we could be more effective if we told people to care about making money, which, although not our real goal, had the effect of causing people to produce lots of goods that made them rich and made other people happy.

  3. David Says:

    By intent there, I meant to indicate what the actor expected to happen.

  4. David Says:

    “Perhaps we could be more effective if we told people to care about making money, which, although not our real goal, had the effect of causing people to produce lots of goods that made them rich and made other people happy.”
    You are still talking about *their* goals then.

  5. Andy Hallman Says:

    We do care about goals, but we care about them in a probabilistic sense: how likely they are to maximize utility. That’s true for all of our heuristics.

    That is different from caring about goals for their own sake, which is what Kerby Anderson suggested utilitarianism is about.

  6. Why do we classify acts as ‘moral’? « Andy Hallman's Blog Says:

    […] an early post, my friend David brought up an interesting point about consequentialism. Consequentialism is the belief that actions […]

  7. bellezaesverdad Says:

    “We do care about goals, but we care about them in a probabilistic sense: how likely they are to maximize utility. That’s true for all of our heuristics.”

    How can one consider goals probabilistically without considering the effects that might be produced by such goals? One can compare the goals to other goals that have already been executed, but then one is considering effects (and ignoring the fact that no two situations are going to be the same, thus it is imprudent to try and adjust the probability when one has no objective knowledge of the appropriate manner in which to do so).

    Also, what about cases where one’s goals fail but the results end up being more beneficial than they would had the goals succeeded? It seems inaccurate to say that one can decide on the goals after one’s seen the effects: unless you’re a politician, this tends to be seen as affirming the consequent…

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