The End Justifies Any Means?

One of the philosophical theories that Dostoevsky tested in his novels was the utilitarian notion that the end justifies the means. As John Stuart Mill put it, that action is right which produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people. The position was not new, of course. Machiavelli put it forward in the Prince, either in jest (as many claim) or as a way of pointing out the way things are done in the “real world” of politics circa 1500 in Florence. In any event, Dostoevsky’s great novel Crime and Punishment could be said to be the reductio ad absurdum of the view: it won’t stand up to the withering test of actual human experience when we attempt to justify the taking of another human life. Like so many philosophical theories it is just that: a theory.

Fyodor DostoevskyCourtesy of Wikipedia

Fyodor Dostoevsky
Courtesy of Wikipedia

In his even greater novel that very few people bother to read these days — if they bother to read at all — Dostoevsky visits the claim once again. In this novel the situation involves a discussion between Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov in the novel about The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan, the intellectual skeptic confronts his pure and naive brother Alyosha with the following conundrum:

“Tell me straight out, I call on you — answer me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the end, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny [child]. . . and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears — would you agree to be the architect on such conditions? Tell me the truth?”

And Alyosha said softly, “No I would not agree.”

“And can you admit the idea that the people for whom you are building would agree to accept their happiness on the unjustified blood of a tortured child, and, having accepted it, to remain forever happy?”

“No, I cannot admit it, brother.”

Ivan is alluding to a story that he told Alyosha (one of several) — which Dostoevsky himself clipped from the newspaper and worked into his novel — about a five-year old child who was beaten and kicked by her parents and then locked in an outhouse over a cold winter’s night because she had wet her bed the night before. In the night she “beat herself on her strained little chest with her tiny fist and weeps. . . for ‘dear God’ to protect her” to no avail. The next day her parents washed her face with her own excrement so she would learn her lesson. It’s a horrible story, but that sort of thing happens in the “real world” while philosophers in their studies sit and muse about the right and the good and come up with theories about what is good “in the long run.”

We live today in a world where little girls are not beaten and locked in privies overnight, we hope. But we live at a time when it has become commonplace to direct small, pilotless planes into crowded streets alive with women and small children to target a “known” enemy of the political state.  We, of course, rely completely on the veracity of spies and agents to correctly identify the “target.” These trustworthy people know who the “bad guys” are and they point them out. The planes are then sent in and if they hit a few innocent women and children it does not matter as long as the bad guy is “taken out.”

This is done in the name of “national security,” of course. The end justifies the means, just as Machiavelli said. And because “they” hit us first and killed 3000 innocent people we can justify killing half again as many of “them” in the name of self-defense, even if we know we are killing innocent women and children. It is not quite as terrible as the story that Dostoevsky tells, but apparently, unlike Alyosha, we seem to be perfectly happy with it.


12 thoughts on “The End Justifies Any Means?

  1. “if they bother to read at all”
    i paused at that point and smiled… those who love to read are often baffled at those who don’t, but i think that computers and hand-held devices now trump books many times.

    when i reached the end of your very-sensitive post, i answered, ” And Alyosha said softly, “No I would not agree.” “

    • It’s not just the electronic devices, though they are a problem. Kids increasingly lack comprehension of what they read — when they try to read. They cannot connect the parts of compound sentences, for example. Jane Healy has studied the problem extensively and I saw it in my own classes. It’s a serious problem.


      • that’s so sad; so is like an appreciation for music – one must first study music in order to later ‘follow’ it via ear? it goes back to the need for that teacher mentor, who dramatically stresses, “You will RUE the day when I catch you cheating in class,” as an example for the vocabulary word, rue. A lifetime later, that lesson from Mrs. Denton still fires in my memory.

        It seems that the more progress we make in the fields of technology, the more primitive our basic skills become. We need a ‘roll back’ to Babydoll and Andy Griffith times, when a sunny nook and a good book helped pass the time while we awaited the family dinner hour.

  2. You know I have strong feeling against the drone program, growing stronger with each passing day. I do take issue with your one point of “known” targets. There is a program called the “signature” program where targets that are merely suspicious are attacked. Now, how can this not be eventually expanded to attacks anywhere in the world, and even in the US, given Holder’s refusal yesterday to deny drone activities in the US? We have come to accept the gradual eroding of our rights over the last 10 years or so, all in the name of terrorist protections. Has that not been blindly accepted as the “end justifies the means?” So it is perfectly logical to expect our governments to continue down this path, continuing to erode our rights, continuing to expand spying on citizens, until such time as drone attacks on American soil are condoned and accepted.

    What better way to have crowd control, to prevent mass demonstrations, than gas or other weapons attacks from mindless drones in the air? Unruly crowds dispersed, no muss, no fuss.

    • I was being facetious when I spoke of “known” targets. Clearly there are mistakes: we are talking about humans here! And you are right about the expansion of the drone program. It is pure madness.


      • Known is likely an oxymoran like Central Intelligence or Military Intelligence. As it stands, it is getting ever easier for the president to order an attack for whatever reasons someone passes across his desk.

        Thanks for the clarification

      • I get the awful feeling that the military brass are calling the shots and Obama can’t say “no.” They want to play with their toys and aren’t known for their humanitarian sympathies.


  3. Wow. This is so powerful. I haven’t read this book yet, but it has been on my list for a while. This idea of ends and mean is prominent in Ellul’s work, which you mentioned on my blog a few weeks ago. I also read an interesting essay a few months back by Katz that analyzes a Nazi memo and talks about the ethic of expediency, which is basically that the end justifies the means. Sometimes we don’t think about the means, but your post today has certainly brought that to my attention with current events. Thanks, Hugh.

    • Thank YOU, Emily for the thoughtful response. Yes: it is the ethics of expediency — which is to say the bracketing of ethics altogether.


  4. Hugh, this is excellent. I wonder if people with a conscious could live with the ends if the means were horrific to some. They would live, but would they live without repercussion? The folks who survived the Holocaust never forget those who did not and many feel guilty for surviving and their only means were they did. Good work. BTG

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