[Should?] Do the Ends Justify the Means?



For me, one of the biggest ethical pitfalls is the idea that if the end justifies the means then the original action is acceptable regardless of it ethical intent.

I think back to our class discussion on altering scientific data to create a new drug. When the scenario was presented with the drug curing a terrible disease and benefiting numerous people, a good number of our classmates said the action was ethical. When the same scenario resulted in a drug causing deadly side effects, many of the same people said it was unethical. This is a prime example about why ethics cannot, and should not, be a results based principal.

Think of the scientist in the moment, he/she does not know how his/her action will play out and he/she is trying to decide to alter their data. Is the action of adding/subtracting data to a study that is supposed to uphold scientific standards ethical? I think the answer is extremely simple, no. Full stop. If you believe it is ethical, I would maybe suggest you consider a different line of work. Not only does falsifying a dataset undermine that individual’s work, but it undermines the cumulative trust we (as a society) place in science.

With that in mind, regardless of how the result turned out, the original action was unethical. You cure cancer? Awesome, you have an extraordinarily great unethical act that will likely be heralded as the greatest advancement in modern medicine, but it was still unethical. You manage to create the plot to ‘I Am Legend’ by turning humanity into ultra-predatory mutants? Terrible, you have an extraordinarily awful unethical act that will likely be heralded as the worst modern medicine has to offer, and in the same vein was unethical from the start. The reality is these cases can and should be judged by their original ethical intent and their subsequent result separately, and the later should never be used to justify the former.

Louis CK, a comedian, has what I think is a pretty dark-but-funny bit called “of course, but maybe” where he essentially provides a commonly held thought, but contrasts it will a ‘funny’ alternative. I think his ‘of course, but maybe’ on slavery highlights my point that ethics cannot be results dependent (but throughout history is).

For those interested in the joke https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UVTXFsHYLKA. Beware, the content is dark, and uses adult language. I also do not condone slavery.

The point is, a lot of great things can be (and have been throughout history) accomplished when you disregard an entire group of people’s rights, and ‘throw human death and suffering at it until it is finished.” Do the great accomplishments of slavery make it any less despicable?

If Nazi Germany had cured cancer, or heart disease through their unthinkable experiments during the holocaust, does that make the holocaust ethically or morally acceptable?

I understand that these scenarios are extreme; I think they should be as they serve the purpose of distinguishing the difference between a result and the action that leads to it. At the same time, by considering the ethical implications of ones actions instead of the result that it may or may not lead to, it might be easier to identify smaller ethical pitfalls in your (or my) own life., and may serve to prevent them from becoming larger.

I’d be happy to hear if anyone has a different perspective, or an example to add!

As always thanks for reading,


PS: for more from Louis CK’s ‘Of Course, but maybe’…

One Reply to “[Should?] Do the Ends Justify the Means?”

  1. So this weekend I was at a conference and at this conference there was a career fair. And this weekend I told myself I would explore careers with the war machine. This all began when I heard an executive engineer talk to me about the role that they do, and he started his talk by saying that his job makes us sleep safely at night. Some student in the audience raised a very heavy question, and his response made me consider that the war machine can also operate as an antiwar machine. It is one thing for our clients to ask us for a certain technology, and it’s another for us to provide it. So it is in the technologies we design, create and provide to our consumers in which we can hold our own genius accountable. We have to remember that we aren’t just mindless drones to corporate overlords, and sometimes our ethical frameworks can be that the ends justify the means. But ah, life is more complicated than that. Thank you for your post.

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