Post # 486         ON MEANS AND ENDS

Our present, semi- somnambulant state of confinement, being hapless prisoners of the quarantine, seems to resurrect various and sundry issues, ruminated upon in the past. The aphorism, “The means justify the ends,” unexplainably, comes to mind.  Such declaration, like all aphoristic mantras, (see prior mini-essays on the subject) is pedantically ignorant; further, in our view, it can be awarded the gold medal for the most dangerous, and misleading, of all contemptible aphorisms. However, we do confess that its discussion, (any diversion) is a timely administration of urgently needed analgesic, mitigating, momentarily, the painful effect of the incessant media drone, on the spread of Covid-19 and on its inadequate response, by President Trump.

The aphorism du jour, is attributed to Niccolo Machiavelli, (“The Prince”) whose humanity, sense of ethics and empathy, would be, as distant from Fred Rogers, as Pluto is from Saturn.

The statement articulates the “moral” principle that, if the result is good, any means, undertaken to achieve such results, are justified. Stated otherwise, a moral or good outcome, erases any wrongful acts committed, intended for its accomplishment. The principle necessarily results in the conclusion, that there is societal permission to commit whatever horrible acts may be undertaken, provided that they are “intended” to bring about positive results. We are of the view that this principle, is so deep in error, morally and empirically, that it is difficult to decide where to begin.

To observe its empirical flaws, would seem to be, the simplest way to start. How, at the time of the performance of the improper act, does one determine the good intention of the wrongdoer? How do you distinguish a true miscreant, from the “well meaning,” miscreant? Isn’t the claim of good intentions, equally available to people of bad intentions? From the time of performance of the “well intended” act, how long does society, responsibly await the advent of the intended good result? How do the police distinguish the “saints” from the “sinners?” What if the well -intended act turns out badly? Is a bad act performed with good intent, but followed by an unfavorable result, forgivable? There are other questions, but, in our view, enough has been said to illustrate the empirical impossibility of societal approval of the “good intentions” conception of the unworkable statement. The principle by its terms, operates (is inoperable) only, by its terms, in retrospect, to judge past improper acts.

Let us consider the policy, now, from the standpoint of “positive results” as justifying the “well intended” means, in accordance with the perverse formulation. Which ends? The intended results may not be in accordance with, the wishes or interests of certain people, or groups, of differing philosophy or economic interest, for example. Who is it, that is gifted with the capability to objectively determine, whether a result is universally good or successful?

Aside from its societal unworkability and the presumptive intentions of the actor, what sorcerer can foretell the future result of, (even the well -intentioned) improper act? How long does one wait for results, which will, in retrospect, justify (or condemn) the act. What if the (assumedly well-intentioned) act turns out badly. Should we have a societal and criminal code that provides for punishment (for good and bad actors) only if an act does not have a result that, in accordance with a vote of the majority of society, is good. How long is the waiting time, following the presumably, well-intentioned, wrongful act, as applicable to each and every category and situation?

A person’s acts should, logically and justly, be evaluated, at the time of their commission, as prescribed by good order and common sense. Those who intentionally cross the line of acceptable behavior, must be properly dealt with, or we will have no society. An offender’s wrongful acts, should they, fortuitously, have a good result, nevertheless, does not alter the quality of the acts of his anti-social behavior.  The morality of the performed act, itself, is the sole visible, and rational, basis for its evaluation.

We have discussed, the illogic, injustice and the empirical impossibility, of acceptance, to any degree, of the sociopathic, Machiavellian declaration, yet wish to express our additional, supplemental observation, about the perverse aphorism,which we have induced from our readings.

We have confidently, concluded, after years of reading history and good literature, that there exists a predictable, causal identity, between the nature and quality of the means, and that of the ends. One only has to,  for an illustration, cursorily review, the bloody aftermath of the violent revolutions in France and Russia, to discover the empirically true fact, that not only do the means not justify the ends, but, the means, eternally, “define” the ends. History has instructively testified, that violent means, eternally, lead to violent ends.


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Retired from the practice of law'; former Editor in Chief of Law Review; Phi Beta Kappa; Poet. Essayist Literature Student and enthusiast.

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