On past occasions, we have expressed our deep disdain for aphoristic statements as being, inadequate substitutes for empirical reason, misleading and too often, productive of undesirable results. This is eternally so, because they are generally, insipid, and inapplicable to the specific parties and facts. The theme of our present writing is to the effect that they can also be dangerous, with specific illustrative reference to the morally challenged aphorism, “The means justify the ends.” Among the despicable panoply of useless and misleading aphoristic declarations, the said meme, condoning questionable or outright improper acts, as justified by their perceived, desirable ends, may be the most societally dangerous and empirically immoral.

 It is no less than tautological, to deduce that any need for justification is relevant, solely, to acts which are deemed wrong by the consensus of mainstream society. It is just as logically obvious, that good or acceptable acts would require no such justification or mitigating defense. But, more on this subject, following  a discussion on the subjective and intriguing subject of “the ends.”

To speak of “means,” as intended in the context of the subject aphorism, is to concur in the view that wrongful acts are pardoned, or morally redeemed, by their positive intention. However, in the event of its failure of realization, will society trust the representation of the wrongdoer, as to his stated bona fide intentions? Does this not provide a useful and tactical alibi to every miscreant?

From a metaphysical and moral stance, we need to consider the concept of desired, or justified, ends. It appears that while society agrees as to certain rudimentary aspirations, such as the repudiation of crime, and the elimination of disease, it is not the case, that it is in agreement on most subjects. To the contrary, the contemporary public scenario evinces sharp tribal divisions of opinion on the issues of the day, such as abortion rights, gun control, crime and punishment, immigration, same-sex marriage, environment,  global warming, and many others. Life and its moral imperatives are presently seen in multiple and divergent perceptions. Who can be so confidently gifted to divine universally accepted, “good ends” with the  exception of the fundamental subjects of sustenance and health?

To personally arrogate to oneself the omniscient wisdom to perceive the best course for society, is to be at best, a dreamer or at worst, an autocrat like Mussolini. Yet many self-indulgent or neurotic people presume that they possess such an all-pervasive awareness. These misguided actors frustrate reason and, if adequately empowered, can prove to be dangerous.  

Moreover, ends themselves may, as a practical matter, be outmoded, unrealistic or fantasized, depending upon the times and the contemporary pubic, such as: finding a short route to the Indies, turning base metals to gold, finding Valhalla, evangelizing the indigenous, or later, curing disease, balancing the budget, or traveling to outer space. Acceptability of temporal aspirations or goals ( as attainable) continually changes with society’s technological and social advances and technological achievements. However, the fundamentals of societal morality eternally persist, by ageless necessity. The value of human life, adherence to communal rules and folkways, truth and honesty, loyalty, the work ethic, endure, albeit, possibly, in some analogous replication.

Upon the assumption that the ends are, as a practical matter, attainable (as opposed to fantasized) the perceived means to their attainment, should provide, nevertheless, no license for acts in their realization which have been societally determined as illegal or immoral. We would declare that the aphorism, “The ends justify the means” is an entirely fallacious assertion; and for wrongdoers or delusional personalities, a faux rationalization. The avowed benevolent intentions of the actor, even if (fortuitously) contributory in bringing about a desirable end, are nevertheless to be condemned if those actions were immoral. For society to continue and advance, there should be no inconsistent mitigation in exchange for assertions of positively intended wrongful action. The existence of an organized society, inarguably, the most invaluable end, should not be put at risk by wrongdoers, albeit with (truthfully) avowed or good purposes.

We would confidently declare that the themed aphorism is entirely cockeyed;  ends never do justify wrongful means, to any moral or acceptable degree. Our discernment is that violent means lead, ineluctably, to violent ends. After the violent French Revolutions came the bloody, “Reigns of Terror.” Horrendous acts of violent means have eternally incurred violent ends, viz., in Russia, China, Germany, Myanmar, Ukraine, Cuba, Haiti and elsewhere. To state a useful aphorism, violent means have ( historically and predictably, led to) violent ends.

If we had our wish, we would happily replace the objectionable aphorism with our empirically, realistic, and useful maxim: “The means define the 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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