‘Ends Justify Means’ Fallacy

One of the biggest lies ever adopted as truth has been the philosophy that a good end is justified by any means necessary—good or bad.  Most people have good intentions and wish to obtain praiseworthy goals (ends) but some forget, ignore, or try to justify using immoral methods (means) to accomplish those goals.

In a letter to the Romans, Paul shed light on a false teaching attributed to him—“Let us do evil that good may come” (Romans 3:8).  Yet many Christians, even today, rationalize some degree of evil committed by themselves, governments, or others because of the “greater good” which supposedly came from their questionable methods.

The following is an excerpt from Elder F. Burton Howard’s talk “Repentance” which sheds more light on this false philosophy.

Just as foolish as believing that we can “pass it on” is the idea that the satisfaction of being in the circle, whatever that may be, can somehow excuse any wrongs committed there. This notion is widely shared and is most often expressed by the phrase, “The end justifies the means.” Such a belief, if left undisturbed and unchecked, can also impede the repentance process and cheat us out of exaltation.

Those who teach it are almost always attempting to excuse the use of improper or questionable means. Such people seem to be saying, “My purpose was to do good or to be happy; therefore, any little lie, or misrepresentation, or lapse of integrity, or violation of law along the way is justified.”

In certain circumstances, some say it is “okay” to conceal the truth, to dig just a small pit for an adversary, to pursue an advantage of some kind—such as superior knowledge or position—against another. “This is just common practice,” or “I’m just looking after Number One,” they say. “All’s fair in love and war,” or “That’s the way the ball bounces,” they say. But if the means which prompt the saying of these things are wrong, no amount of rationalization or verbal whitewash can ever make them right.

To those who believe otherwise, Nephi said: “Yea, and there shall be many which shall teach after this manner, false and vain and foolish doctrines, and shall be puffed up in their hearts, and shall seek deep to hide their counsels from the Lord.” (2 Ne. 28:9.)

Some seek to justify their actions by quoting scripture. They often cite Nephi’s killing of Laban as an example of the need to violate a law to accomplish a greater good and to prevent a nation from dwindling in unbelief. But they forget that Nephi twice refused to follow the promptings of the Spirit. In the end, he agreed to break the commandment only when he was convinced that “the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes” (1 Ne. 4:13; italics added) and also (I believe) when he knew that the penalty for shedding blood had been lifted, in that one exceptional case, by Him whose right it is to fix and waive penalties.

The truth is that we are judged by the means we employ and not by the ends we may hope to obtain. It will do us little good at the last day to respond to the Great Judge, “I know I was not all I could have been, but my heart was in the right place.”

In fact, there is danger in focusing merely on ends. To some who did, the Savior said:

“Many will say to me in that day: Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name, and in thy name have cast out devils, and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them: I never knew you; depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” (3 Ne. 14:22–23.)

The war in heaven was essentially about the means by which the plan of salvation would be implemented. It forever established the principle that even for the greatest of all ends, eternal life, the means are critical. It should be obvious to all thinking Latter-day Saints that the wrong means can never attain that objective.

The danger in thinking that the end justifies the means lies in making a judgment we have no right to make. Who are we to say that the Lord will pardon wickedness done to attain a perceived “greater good.” Even if the goal is good, it would be a personal calamity to look beyond the mark and fail to repent of the wrong we do along the way.

Consider a few more ‘ends justify the means’ arguments made throughout mankind’s history:

Crusades—it’s better to force people to accept Christianity than let them die unsaved.

Offensive War—it’s better to attack a potential enemy before they can attack you (Pre-emptive war) OR going to war is justied if it can save your nation’s economy.

Atomic Bomb—it’s better to kill 250,000 civilians than possibly lose 1,000,000 soldiers (intentional collateral damage).

Terrorism—it’s ok to kill innocent people to get a point across.

Torture—it’s better to use cruel methods to obtain information which can potentially save many others.

Socialism—it’s ok to forcefully take from Jane to pay for Mary’s schooling, medical bills, retirement, etc.  (it’s ok to steal from others if it’s for the ‘greater good’.)

Abortion—it’s better to abort an unwanted child than allow it to live in unfavorable conditions.

Prostitution & Drug Dealing—selling drugs or your body is ok if it’s a matter of survival.

Involuntary Vaccinations—forcing vaccinations on individuals is just in order to save everyone.

Our options between right and wrong often get distorted by how complicated the world gets.  Let’s not forget the chorus line from the Hymn “Do What Is Right”:

Do what is right; let the consequence follow.
Battle for freedom in spirit and might;
And with stout hearts look ye forth till tomorrow.
God will protect you; then do what is right!


2 Responses to ‘Ends Justify Means’ Fallacy

  1. Pingback: Principled Pragmatism – Latter-day Statesmen

  2. Herb Z says:

    so cause God commands it, whether or not it follows these rules, then it is just? sounds like an Appeal to Authority Fallacy to me.

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