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Nicholas: Utilitarianism, Do the Ends Justify the Means?

I was originally going to do a post on war, and whether or not it can be justified. Then I read a (rather long) article about “Rethinking the ‘Just War’ ” and discovered that it had absolutely nothing to do with saying whether or not a war can be justified, only on how a war should be justified and how this fits in with the individual combatants of the war. So there went half an hour of research. However, one question that seemed to come up a lot in the article, was “do the ends justify the means”. This was a question that had been bothering me for a while, and so, I decided to blog about it. For anybody who is a serious philosopher, you’ll have to forgive my (likely mediocre) attempts to address such a large question.

First of all, what exactly is being asked? Well, simply put, if, under some circumstances, an immoral action was required to achieve, or attempt to achieve a state of greater overall morality, would this action be justified, or morally ‘right’? Well, depending on which branch of thinking you subscribe to, there is an easy answer and a not so easy answer.

Let’s start with the easy answer. Utilitarianism states that “good” or “moral” acts are those that yield the greatest amount of happiness and least amount of suffering for the greatest amount of people. Although it is difficult to quantify exactly how good or bad something is, it can be generally assumed that stealing a lollipop is not as bad as beating up someone for no reason. A utilitarian would take these (albeit, estimated) quantifications of an act, add up all the benefits of the “end”, subtract all the bad parts of the “means” and if they end up with a positive number, then they would indeed deem the act morally justified. So, in short, yes, the ends do justify the means if the moral gains of the ends are greater than the moral losses by the means.

This can have some unsettling implications, which is likely where the opponents of utilitarianism find their reasons for believing that the ends do not justify the means. The first issue with this way of thinking is that, when coupled with the idea of moral relativism can lead to people justifying what would normally be seen as a “bad” act as “good”. This is because it would bring good things for the individual while potentially causing ill to others (but this would be discounted because the individual performing the act may not care). I will let Calvin and Hobbes explain to you why this is not a good thing.

So there’s one problem. However, even disregarding this, there is another, much more disturbing problem that I (and others) have found with the idea of utilitarianism and the ends justifying the means, and that is that it allows for terrible acts to be considered “just” if the long term ends are great enough. For example, I’m pretty sure that everyone who is reading this can agree that genocide is bad thing. Let’s say that in a very unstable area of Africa, the ethic cleansing of 10,000 individuals of a certain group happens resulting in a total of 12,000 deaths (10,000 of those who were cleansed, 2,000 of those who were cleansing), but this ensures the stability of the region for the next 50 years through one group dominating another. What if this genocide never happened, and, 10 years later, ethnic tensions burst out into a small civil war, claiming 50,000 lives in the process? What if you could stop the initial genocide, but knew what would happen later on. I’m not sure what I would do, neither option is pleasant, but I believe that I would likely let the genocide take place, and then feel terrible about it.

Ethics are never easy

How about a historical example. From 1928 to 1941, the Soviet Union instituted a series of five year plans designed to boost the soviet economy. Farms were collectivized and great gains were made in Soviet production of a variety of goods (steel, oil, etc…), but it came at a terrible price. Millions of Soviets died of simple starvation, and thousands more were persecuted or sent to gulags during the Great Purge that went along with the five year plans. It isn’t too difficult to say that the sacrifices the Soviet people had to make were not worth simple gains in the economy, however it isn’t that simple. These improvements in the Soviet industries were likely what made it possible for the Soviets successfully repel Nazi Germany in WW II, theoretically saving millions more lives. Does this make Stalin’s actions right? Does the end of beating the Nazi’s justify the terrible means used to accomplish this? What if there was another way? If you were Stalin and had to choose, would you pick how history turned out? Or would you risk the world’s future on a different path? I can’t provide a definitive answer to any of these questions, and I challenge anyone reading this to do so.

Unfortunately I have failed miserably at providing an answer to the question I first stated. But hopefully I’ve inspired you to at least think about this issue, so that you may move close to your own answer.




5 thoughts on “Nicholas: Utilitarianism, Do the Ends Justify the Means?

  1. I like what you’re getting at, but I think more examples would be beneficial to your post. Or could you do more graduated examples, with the earlier scenarios easier to decide upon. Finally, I found it interesting that your two main examples were not of doing “bad” things that result in a “good” thing, but rather doing bad things that prevent a “worse” thing from happening.

    I know your post is on utilitarianism, but I would love to see another post on the ethics of war from another angle.

    Posted by msbethechange | December 12, 2012, 3:00 am
    • What exactly do you think it is that I’m getting at Jen? Because to be honest, I’m not exactly sure myself. I suppose that I use such depressing examples because they seem a little more significant than others that I could think of. I don’t think there is too much of a moral issue around lying when inviting someone to a surprise birthday party, and I’m not sure when doing a morally “bad” act will bring about something good other than in (relativity) insignificant examples such as this. Can you?

      In regards to the “ethics of war”, I would be interested in such a post too, but there are just so many angles to it, that I think it would take a very long post (or several).

      Posted by nichoman321 | December 15, 2012, 7:13 am


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