Yesterday I made an assertion that I took to be fairly uncontroversial. I said that most ethical systems acknowledge that ends can sometimes justify means. By "ethical systems" I mean both philosophical schools of ethics and cultural norms.
What is it for an end to justify a means to that end? That's a complicated question that could be interpreted in many different ways. However, this discussion is about whether it is ever acceptable to do something morally wrong for the sake of a significantly greater good. Note about terminology: I'm being deliberately vague in my descriptions of the relevant moral concepts I'm invoking. Terms like "acceptable"/"justified"/"right"/"permissible" have precise technical meanings within philosophical discourses. However, for the sake of this discussion, I want to be as inclusive as possible so as to highlight certain fundamental similarities between various schools of thought.
Note about consensus: Obviously, ethics isn't a democracy and consensus isn't justification. However, analysis has to start somewhere in ethics. One way is to systematically provoke your moral intuitions and attempt to create a rational framework that fits them best. Another approach is to start with your preexisting ethical concepts and analyze them to discover the full implications of those ideas (i.e. concepts like good, right, justification etc.), still another method is to observe the real-life practices that we recognize as ethical and attempt to discern what these examples have in common. Whatever methods you choose, consensus is often a helpful starting point. If you want to understand the general principles of right and wrong, it helps to start with what your community takes to be the clearest examplars of these ideas. Maybe you'll have to revisit your initial assumptions because they don't stand up under scrutiny, but you've got to start someone. It's easier to inquire about the nature of wrong if you start with something that strikes you and everyone else as unequivocally wrong, say, murder.
Getting back to the theme of today's discussion, here are some relatively uncontroversial examples of ends justifying means:
i) Stealing food in order to survive
ii) Lying to a would-be assassin about where your friend is hiding in order to prevent his murder
Philosophers disagree about how to describe tradeoffs like these, but their pragmatic advice is always the same: take it and live; lie and save a life. Offhand, the only major exceptions within analytic philosophy are hardcore Kantians who argue that it is unacceptable to lie even to save a life. This is a position that most contemporary Kantians find uncomfortable. Some of Kant's critics think this result is sufficiently absurd to discredit Kantian ethics.
Utilitarian/consequentialist philosophers have no objection to morally questionable acts that clearly generate a better overall result. Generally speaking, they hold that any means are acceptable if they contribute to the overall end (be it maximizing utility, satisfying preferences, or whatever). As we will discuss below, this flexible moral accounting can have implications so stark that they lead many philosophers to question the soundness of consequentialist ethics.
Virtue ethics is compatible with a range of attitudes towards ends justifying means. Virtue ethicists are often concerned with identifying the sets of virtues that we observe in everyday life. They urge us to identify admirable people and try to understand what combination of characteristics contribute to their flourishing. It's worth noting that our role models are seldom so rigid as to starve themselves to death rather than eat a purloined chocolate bar.
(Questions about the morality of stealing to survive wouldn't arise within most ethics of care. But ethics of care generate their own means/ends conflicts. Readers are encouraged to think of their own examples. Maybe I'll get a chance to write more about ethics of care later on.)
Almost everyone would tell a starving person to go ahead and eat the damned chocolate bar. The question is how to describe the moral situation that arose.
Some people will say that it just isn't wrong to take somebody else's food in order to survive. However, if they also maintain that it's usually wrong to take other people's property without permission, they are arguing that the end (survival) justifies the means (unauthorized taking).
Others will say that there are some extreme situations in which morality has no authority. They'll say that moral principles are supposed to provide reasons to act, but we shouldn't assume that those reasons always override other reasons a person might have.
Just as most ethicists agree that there are some acceptable means/ends tradeoffs, there's an equally strong consensus that the ends don't always justify the means. Consequentialists are locked in an unending struggle to explain away the seemingly horrific implications of their theories. Most of us are uncomfortable with an ethical system that could sanction murder for the redistribution of transplantable organs. But as we discussed earlier, strict Kantians and other strict duty-based ethicists often find themselves short on principled explanations for why we shouldn't stick to the rules in the face of unthinkable consequences. Does morality require us to allow the destruction of the entire world rather than harm one hair on an innocent child's head? If that's what our behavioral code tells us, are we still persuing anything we'd recognize as ethics?
Here are some much, much more controversial examples of means/ends tradeoffs:
iii) Just wars (Non-pacifists, define "just" as the list of criteria that a war would have to meet in order for you to support it.)
iv) "Ticking time bomb" torture scenarios
v) Hostage-taking cases in which the kidnapper threatens to kill 20 people unless you shoot 1 innocent person
Yesterday's discussion was really fun. So, I'll turn the floor over to you guys. Enjoy!