Sometimes the ends can justify the means

In the recent discussion about the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo, a few people contributed the classic aphorism that “the ends never justify the means” and “torture is always wrong.” That happens to be something I’ve given a great deal of thought to, and I’d like to take that opportunity to discuss that at length.

As a moral principle, the idea that lofty, noble, good goals can never rationalize unethical behavior to achieve them is generally a good one. “The greater good” has been used by the most despicable people to justify their misdeeds. But is it an absolute rule? I think not.

There are times when the good to be achieved must be weighed against the wrong done in achieving it, and a very careful balance must be struck. And here are a few examples.

Alan Dershowitz, noted liberal law professor, puts forth the idea of allowing “torture warrants” when it is clear beyond a reasonable doubt that a person in captivity has information about an imminent, clear and present danger to innocents and is refusing to cooperate. His example is of a kidnaper who has buried a child with only a few hours worth of air, and says any means necessary should be used to get the information needed to save the child should be used — up to and including torture.

I would add a second example: police arrest members of a terrorist cell planning a bombing, but the actual suicide bomber and bomb have already left for their mission. The terrorists know when and where the bomber will strike, but refuse to tell more, except that “it’ll all be over in three hours.”

In those cases, abiding by the “ends don’t justify the means” argument, innocents will die — but at least the authorities will have clean hands and clean consciences.

Taken to the extreme, I’m reminded of something I think I saw on the old “Batman” TV series. Batman and Robin were chasing a crook, but had to let him get away when he ran across the street. Batman insisted that he and the Boy Wonder proceed to the nearest corner and wait for the “Cross” signal instead of following the jaywalking bad guy.

To me, this smacks of unbridled egotism. Those who say “the ends never justify the means” are saying that they prize the sanctity of their own consciences above all else, including the lives of innocents. “We’re sorry, Mrs. Jones, about your little girl. But at least her death goes to show what fine, upstanding, moral people we police are. I hope that’s some consolation.”

I’m not calling for casting off all the restraints of morality and civilization. I’m not saying that any and all things are permissible “for the greater good” or “to protect the innocent” or “for the children.” But what I am trying to say is that there are times when dearly-held moral scruples must be weighed against the price that honoring them will cost.

And, even more importantly, who will pay that price.

"I shot an e-mail into the air..."
Bonfire of the Vanities #103


  1. frameone June 22, 2005
  2. frameone June 22, 2005
  3. Jay Tea June 22, 2005
  4. Jay Tea June 22, 2005
  5. F15C June 22, 2005
  6. F15C June 22, 2005