‘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!

When Fighting Evil Creates More Evil

Hydra Snakes

I find it fascinating that, sometimes, the very people who oppose a particular form of darkness do so with the same exact evil they profess to oppose. When terrorists murder innocent people in America, the government rightfully denounces the actions but then responds with invasion and exponentially more murder of innocents. Many self-identified “conservatives” rejoice, turn a blind eye to their government’s injustices and don’t see their double standard. Perhaps they view people from other cultures as less human. Or perhaps their unfettered commitment to authority, flag and uniform blinds them from being able to have eyes to see that the intentional killing of innocents is murder – whether the killing is done instantly by bombs or slowly by sanctions. This is true no matter who “started it”. Tragically, each evil perpetuates exponentially more evils on each side of the conflict.

There are also many so-called “liberals” who rightfully perceive the historical injustices perpetrated towards particular people (e.g. women, African Americans) as evil but then have the exact same level of intolerance for people from other groups (European descendents, males, southerners, Christians). I recently heard an interview where a corporate executive rightfully pointed out that she didn’t believe it right to judge or exclude others from societal functions because of their genitals or skin pigment but then went on to berate “white men” and encouraged women to keep lists of their male coworkers who have crossed them in any way so that they could fire them when they became the boss. Sound like a double standard? When you flip the roles, it’s obviously wrong but, according to “liberal” mental gymnastics, it’s not racism or sexism if the groups that they are criticizing are part of the powerful elite.

Let’s pick this distortion apart. First of all, it’s not true that southerners and Christians are the powerful elite and yet it’s perfectly acceptable, according to today’s “liberals” to be prejudiced towards them. A coworker of mine constantly denounces racism (even going so far as to perceive racism where it doesn’t exist) but then he constantly makes fun of “rednecks” and Christians. I overheard him and some other coworkers sympathize with the Europeans who drove the Christians out of their land hundreds of years ago. Notice they were siding with the persecutors, not the targets of bigotry. I thought liberals were supposed to be tolerant. I thought liberals were supposed to be a voice for the weak and oppressed.

Secondly, the victim/oppressor worldview teaches that victim groups are the good guys and that those in authority are the bad guys. If this perspective is consistently applied, as Orwell points out in Animal Farm, then once the oppressed get into power then they will become the very evil they were fighting against. So perhaps the problem with power isn’t rooted in superficialities like genitals and skin pigment; perhaps the problem with power has to do with its breadth and application. This is a principle that many classical liberals were better at discerning. I struggle to find this consistent perspective with today’s “liberals”. 

Also, group identity politics is a horrendous way to view the world. It perpetuates hatred, division, bigotry, bitterness, violence, revenge, close-mindedness and hypocrisy. During Utah’s last election cycle I was lectured by several “liberals” about how disproportionately white and male the positions of power are, particularly in congress. I responded, perhaps wrongfully by joining their group identity games, by pointing out that it’s possible that these positions were mostly filled by men due largely to the fact that power attracts megalomaniacs and megalomaniacs tend to be mostly men. I may have received some brownie points for dissing on men but they continued to insist that the reason for disproportionate representation was due to systemic sexism and racism. Distinctions of correlation and causality are lost on people infected with confirmation bias.

Just after these conversations, their “principles” (if you can call them that) were put to the test.  An African American congresswoman in their district was challenged by a white, Christian male and guess who these “liberals” voted for? If they consistently applied the “principles” that they espoused then you would reasonably guess that they voted for the African American woman but you would be wrong. They voted for the “white, Christian male”. Why? That “white, Christian male” was also a “liberal”. The African American woman was not. In other words, many of today’s “liberals” don’t care about the things they outwardly profess as much as they do about their underlying ideology and crusade for power. As Malcom X pointed out decades ago, and as I’ve consistently observed from experience, minorities are just meat-shields for “liberal’s” quests for power: 

“The white liberal aren’t white people who are for independence, who are moral and ethical in their thinking. They are just a faction of white people that are jockeying for power…The liberal elements of whites are those who have perfected the art of selling themselves to the Negro as a friend of the Negro. Getting sympathy of the Negro, getting the allegiance of the Negro, and getting the mind of the Negro. Then the Negro sides with the white liberal, and the white liberal use the Negro against the white conservative. So that anything that the Negro does is never for his own good, never for his own advancement, never for his own progress, he’s only a pawn in the hands of the white liberal. The worst enemy that the Negro have is this white man that runs around here drooling at the mouth professing to love Negros, and calling himself a liberal, and it is following these white liberals that has perpetuated problems that Negros have.” 

An open-minded, self-identified “liberal” friend once asked me about my views on race since I am not white but also not “liberal” (by today’s standards). I’ll paraphrase here what I told him.

I believe it is a fallacy to paint everyone within a group with a broad-brush based on some limited experiences we’ve had or heard of from others. It’s a sin of ignorance. It hurts the accused. Willful ignorance is an even greater sin. Prejudice coupled with hate is the worst form of bigotry. Prejudism is perpetuated when we pit group against group. I believe in being tolerant of all individuals and loving them no matter what. We can’t overcome these painful hurdles of prejudice with more prejudice. We can’t create justice with more injustice. We can’t spread light with darkness. 

Seeing others as individuals rather than groups will help unite rather than divide, a principle that Daryl Davis enacted and that Social Psychologist Jonathan Haidt discovered while researching the effectiveness (or rather ineffectiveness) of diversity training, sensitivity training and other forced inclusivity models. When all we can see is our differences, we grow further apart. 

I agree with Dr Martin Luther King Jr when he famously said: “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Today, many are only applying this important principle in particular instances that serve their political ends but completely ignore and act the opposite way when it doesn’t serve their political purposes. 

Some pick at scabs, unaware or not caring that these wounds will never heal with that approach. Many converts to ignorance, prejudice and hate can be gained by merely magnifying people’s focus on a few atrocities (real or not) perpetrated by an extreme minority. Scapegoats are a convenient shortcut to getting our way. Some socialist Germans took this dishonest approach towards some “undesirables” in the 1930s-1940s and were very effective at propagating the basest of human instincts of almost their entire country in the process. Today’s socialists are playing the same dishonest, group-identity games. Through much of today’s movies, media, government and academia, they magnify the horrific words and actions of a few to make it seem commonplace and then slap toxic labels on anyone who they view as their enemies as “racist”, “sexist”, “misogynist”, “homophobe”, etc. They purge their enemies of their voices and livelihoods by merely accusing them of these toxic things. They distort the contexts of the accused’ comments or they dig up something wrong about that person’s past and shine a focal beam on it for the world to see. Or they make things up. Lying is ok; the ends justify the means. “Let us do evil that good may come.” The point is that the “ruling class is evil” so using any means necessary is justified to eliminate them and anyone who looks like them. Many buy into this seemingly righteous crusade. But, as Nietzsche put it,

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”

Victim vs Victor Mentality

muhammad ali knocked down

In an attempt to help individuals solve their own problems and be happier, good friends, parents and psychologists will try to help those who blame their problems and suffering on external factors (aka external locus of control) strive to take responsibility and control of what they can within their own lives (aka internal locus of control). Victim mentality, a form of external locus of control, has permeated much of our culture. It’s fruits are sour. They include dependency, helplessness, unfulfilled potential, regret, anger and unhappiness. This innately human problem is progressively becoming worse through its broader acceptance in the forms of party blaming, parent scapegoating, identity politics and an obsession with an equal-outcome form of equality.

Even though victim mentality can be identified all throughout the history of mankind, the appeal of not taking responsibility of one’s own life and placing blame on others is at the philosophical core of marxism and its various flavors (including national socialism). As the psychologist Jordan Peterson concisely put it – “Leftist politics always depends on identifying a victim and an evil oppressor who is responsible for that victim’s suffering.” It’s no wonder that nations who embrace this attitude deteriorate into helpless, angry, intolerant, bitter doles who see violence as justified means for their envious ends. If the only lense by which you see the world is through the lense of a constant victim/oppressor struggle then you’ll amplify the miniscule, make up the non-existent or you’ll miss out on some important perspectives and opportunities. Regardless, victim mentality has no place amongst anyone wishing to live after the manner of happiness.

As extremely imperfect people living in a fallen world, we are desperately in need of help. God’s grace, available through His atonement, provides the greatest hope for redemption from life’s suffering, if we do our part. We must be doers of the word and not hearers only. Victim mentality is a barrier to God’s grace.

The Book of Mormon contains a history of the Nephites and Lamanites, the descendents of an Israelite family who left Jerusalem to settle the American continent around 600 BC. The Nephites, decedents of Nephi, are constantly driven and harassed by his brothers’ posterity – the Lamanites (descendants of Laman & Lemuel). These Lamanites perpetuated the damning traditions of their fathers by:

“Believing that they were driven out of the land of Jerusalem because of the iniquities of their fathers, and that they were wronged in the wilderness by their brethren, and they were also wronged while crossing the sea; And again, that they were wronged while in the land of their first inheritance, after they had crossed the sea…And again, they were wroth with [Nephi] when they had arrived in the promised land, because they said that he had taken the ruling of the people out of their hands; and they sought to kill him. And again, they were wroth with him because he departed into the wilderness as the Lord had commanded him, and took the records which were engraven on the plates of brass, for they said that he robbed them.” (Mosiah 10:12-16)

Contrast this Lamanite victim mentality to Nephi. He never aggressed against his brothers, never acted violently against them, quickly forgave them when they repeatedly made fun of him, complained against him, tied him up and beat him almost to death. When God had a task for them, Nephi’s response was affirmative. Even after multiple failed attempts to accomplish tasks, he still had faith and pushed forward. Even though Laman and Lemuel experienced miracles, they would find ways to perceive their condition through the lens of victimhood. As was often the case with the Lamanites, victim mentality leads people to be idle and justify their idleness due to the perceived injustice of others.

Scapegoating and mercy are incompatible. Those who hold the olive branch aren’t quick to blame their plight on others. Those who prefer the sword (justice) over the olive branch are prone to see their condition as a result of some injustice. Not coincidentally, it was the Nephites mental shift from the olive branch to the sword that resulted in their destruction. Victim mentality in individuals does the same thing.

Another great depiction of victim mentality can be found in the 2006 movie, Rocky Balboa. After Rocky’s son finished complaining to him about how hard his life was and blaming others for his problems, Rocky responded with a sharp, yet empowering mental course correction:

“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done! Now if you know what you’re worth then go out and get what you’re worth. But ya gotta be willing to take the hits, and not pointing fingers saying you ain’t where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody! Cowards do that and that ain’t you! You’re better than that!”

Holocaust survivor, author and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl experienced and witnessed some of the most tragic suffering that mankind has ever seen. After years of persecution, imprisonment, forced labor, starvation, infectious disease, forced family separation and murder – millions of people were vanquished – his parents, his brother and his wife being among them. Frankl was one of the few prisoners to survive the horrors of Auschwitz. In his classic book, Man’s Search For Meaning, he contrasted the opposing perspectives of the prisoners who kept purpose in their lives and those who were hopeless victims of their conditions. The factor that made the difference, as Rocky articulated, is determined by choice: “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.” In Steven Covey’s 7 Habits for Highly Effective People, he reiterated the same point – “I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decisions.”

The first truth of Buddhism, that Life is Suffering, is an inevitable fact of life. From the moment we are born to the moment we die – pain, loss, injustice and all manner of hardships will cause us to experience suffering. The manner in which we perceive and choose to respond to suffering determines whether we have, what some term – victim mentality or victor mentality.

  • After failure, victims say “It’s not my fault.” Victors say “I’ll do better next time.”
  • When victims find themselves in a dire situation, they expect others to save them from hardship, regardless of whether they have exerted any effort to help themselves first. Victors exhaust all of their conceivable options before petitioning for help but they don’t feel entitled to it.
  • Victims are obsessed with fairness and believe that if someone has more than they do then it’s at their expense. Victors don’t compare their circumstances with others.
  • Victims envy the success and well being of others. Victors are genuinely happy for the success and well being of others, even for those who aren’t popular.
  • Victims don’t recognize their blessings. Victors gratefully count their blessings.
  • Victims covet. Victors are content.
  • Victims dwell excessively on the source of their pain. Victors attempt to overcome their hardship by focusing on a better future.
  • Victims keep picking at their emotional scabs. Victors seek healing.
  • The difference between a reason and an excuse is attitude. Victims give excuses. Rather than try to accomplish something hard, their initial reaction is to look for ways to get out of doing them. Victors prioritize their goals and will look for ways to accomplish the most essential ones.
  • When someone else is experiencing hardship, victims act as enablers and convince them that they are a victim from external factors. Victors help that person to internally overcome their problems.
  • Victims don’t recognize their mistakes. Victors seek to recognize their mistakes and fix them.
  • When victims experience loss, they dwell on it. Victors move forward to the future.
  • When victims receive correction they get angry and try justifying why they’re not in the wrong. Victors respond to correction with gratitude. They are able to dispassionately filter out destructive criticism and take to heart constructive criticism.
  • Victims complain about the hard things they’re asked to do. Victors say, “I will go and do.” (1 Ne 3:7)
  • Victims are acted upon. Victors act. (2 Nephi 2:14)
  • Victims take no responsibility for their lives. Victors are agents unto themselves, are anxiously engaged in a good cause and do many things of their own free will. (D&C 58:26-29)
  • Victims allow their emotions to rule them. Victors attempt to rule their emotions.
  • Victims sound the alarm about their hardships. Victors only raise their hardships in an attempt to overcome them or when helping others learn how to overcome theirs.
  • Victims “keep score” in relationships by comparing their contributions to others’. Victors expect little from others.
  • Victims constantly believe others owe them something. Victors recognize themselves as an essential source of their own success.
  • Victims confuse permissive enablement for loving empathy. Victors love the sinner but hate the sin.
  • Victims wait. Victors do.
  • Victims damn their own progress. Victors seek to be better.
  • Victims perpetuate misery in themselves and others. Victors spread hope and light.

Recognizing the difference between victim and victor mentality is not an excuse to ignore the source of one’s suffering. People have experienced true injustices. People are experiencing internal struggles we’ll never comprehend. It’s important to acknowledge the weight and cause of people’s suffering. When appropriate boundaries can be established, they should be sought for. Along the same lines, shame and guilt shouldn’t be attached to grief. We all suffer. Being harsh on ourselves or others who are experiencing pain stifles healing. As is often the case, healing requires time and time requires patience and understanding. Recognizing this is important else we are tempted to bury our problems or kick others while they’re down. The important choice to make is at the crossroads of suffering. Accepting that healing requires time isn’t an excuse to wallow in self-pity. Rather, we ought to choose to move forward with an olive branch extended outward and its healing effects applied inward. The choice is ours.

After berrading his son for seeing himself as a victim, Rocky expressed the reason for his reproach which can serve as an additional example for how we can help ourselves and others overcome life’s crosses – “I’m always gonna love you no matter what. No matter what happens… But until you start believin in yourself, you ain’t gonna have a life.” 

 

Victim

Victor

Spiteful Loving
Judging Uncritical / Tolerant
Complaining Grateful
Dependent Responsible
Blaming Accountable
Entitled Self Reliant
Comparing Content
Helpless Self Empowered
Idle / Unproductive Active / Engaged
Constrained Free
Bitter / Resentful Forgiving
Quits Endures
Fearful Courageous
Scarcity Mentality Abundant Mentality
Enable Empower

 

Who’s “The Good Guy”?

Glasses Perspective

Have you ever been watching a movie and asked yourself, “So who’s the good guy? Who am I supposed to be rooting for right now?” Many stories portrayed in the past have made it clear who the storyteller wants you to be rooting for. They gave the princess the beautifully colored dress with the intent of “pure love” and gave the witch a dark gown, hard features with the intent for power. They gave John Wayne the white hat and white horse while his nemesis wore black. The war movie shows your side as the noble heroes and the enemy as ruthless heathens. Good side, bad side, so on and so forth. You get the idea.

Recently, there’s been a trend in storytelling which doesn’t make it clear who “the good guys” and “the bad guys” are. Stories such as Breaking Bad, Wicked and Maleficent are giving a new twist to storytelling and its reception is gaining popularity. Perhaps it’s because people find it refreshing to experience a story that is more realistic and therefore more relatable. After all, everyone is fallible and capable of both good and bad. Maybe it’s a good thing if we quit viewing man as a symbol of morality. Doing so might be teaching us to put our trust in the arm of flesh. What happens when our foundation is man, and man fails? Also, perhaps portraying the why behind a character’s evil teaches us to not judge too quickly or too harshly in real life.

Even though this particular lens which storytellers have us gaze through has its benefits, it also has its risks. To people who don’t have a solid foundation of values and principles- they might experience this type of story and come to the conclusion that morals are relative. After so much exposure to these types of points of view some might reject the truth vs error point-of-view for a gray one. To others, it could eventually normalize and even justify evil in their minds.

Truth is not gray but people are. Nobody is perfect. Everyone, including those historical figures your history teacher spoke of with reverence and awe, has sinned. And yes, in order for there to be a sin there must be a law—a universal law which governs all mankind according to truth and justice. Truth and morality are not ambiguous. People are.

We need to be able to separate the person from the act. The phrase “Love the sinner. Hate the sin.” is a reminder and indication that people naturally struggle separating the two. Those who are finely tuned into the law at the expense of the person tend to drag the sinner down to the same level that they despise the sin. When the scribes and Pharisees brought the adulteress to Jesus they referenced the law as justification for their condemnation—a condemnation with no compassion for the sinner.

In recent history, perhaps strongly correlated to the advancement of secular humanism, there has been another distortion influencing people’s inability to separate sin from sinner. This has been taking shape in the enticing form of the tolerance movement. Probably most people advocating tolerance are well meaning. They tend to be caring people with a desire for accepting others. Often, though, their desire for compassion comes at the expense of acknowledging right from wrong. Those who are finely tuned into the person at the expense of the law tend to elevate the sin to the level of the person.

Imagine if Jesus had told the adulteress: “I don’t condemn you. I accept you for what you are. Go, and have fun.” He didn’t say that because, unlike most of us, He is able to love the sinner and not the sin. What he really told her was: “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.” This showed that He was finely tuned into both law and love for person—neither at the expense of the other.Tolerance Sinner and SinAnother pitfall that some people fall into while observing ambiguous characters is the temptation to let understanding the why to excuse the what. It does us well to understand why people have done the things that they’ve done but on more than one occasion, after expressing my disapproval for a violation of justice, someone would respond: “Well you do understand WHY they did it, don’t you?” as if to justify the act. To this I respond: “I understand why someone would steal a Corvette because I want a Corvette. But that doesn’t make it right.” Sometimes people get blinded by the why at the expense of the what. Worthy ends do not justify immoral means.

The need people feel to pick sides—to root for their guy or their team or fill in the blank with whichever arm of flesh you choose—is probably due to a combination of our tribal nature and the fact that our cultural upbringing was full of stories conditioning us to believe that for every conflict there is a good guy who is 100% in the right and a bad guy who is 100% in the wrong.

It’s hard for most people to look at a conflict involving multiple people and objectively acknowledge the faults and justifications that each side requires. Instead, we quickly pick a side. We ignore the positions of the alternatives. If our guy said it, it must be true. If another side did it, it must be wrong. Symptoms of this mentality manifest themselves in the form of party-spirit, unrelenting loyalty to one’s local sports team, nationalistic egotism, and blind zeal for public figures.

If I was brought up believing that a certain historical character was nigh unto God and then I stumble upon some major flaws about that person’s deeds and character, what am I to do? Should I ignore what I’ve just learned? Is it better to rationalize what they’ve done? Should I swing to the other extreme and revile them as if the bad they’ve done erased all the good? Or shouldn’t we see man as man—weak and fallible, yet capable of much good? How would the world judge your history if they had complete knowledge of all of your doings? Would it be fair for them to label you a villain and condemn you to hell because of the wrongs you’ve committed along the way? Or would a liar’s history be justly portrayed if their un-repented misdeeds were swept under a rug?

I suggest that a reset might be in order. I suggest taking all of our heroes and villains and giving them a clean slate. Acknowledge that not one of them (with the exception of the Savior) is all good or all bad. Observe man through the lens of compassion and choices through the lens of eternal law. Pick the side of truth instead of the side of flesh.

I once met a Marine veteran whom I believe doesn’t need to ask the ignorant question: “Who am I supposed to be rooting for right now?” He has had experiences both horrific and miraculous. He fought in Fallujah where he watched his friends die in his arms. Through a special experience he came to experience God’s love and healing. He eventually lived all over the Middle East gaining an education, learning many languages and falling in love with all peoples. He would often be asked, by people expecting him to take a side, “Are you pro-Israel or pro-Palestine?” His response:

“I’m pro-Child of God.”

Principled Pragmatism

Principle SifterWhen faced with an idea or choice one of the first questions most people ask themselves is- “Is this practical?” but few back up and ask, “Is this even right?” The first question deals with pragmatism (or with what works) while the second question deals with principle (or a fundamental truth, a foundation on which to base all other reasoning and behavior). If we ignore principle and merely look at what will “work”, we often fall victims to silly, expensive, addictive, and/or dangerous ideas and behaviors. We suffer the consequences of our ignorance and moral decadence. We would be better off if we filtered ideas and choices through principle first, practicality second. If an idea doesn’t pass the first test then there is no sense in even contemplating how to execute it. If it does pass the first test then we can contemplate the practicalities of execution. This is principled pragmatism.

The term principled pragmatism is actually a redundancy since true principles are indeed pragmatic. It isn’t always obvious (in fact many times it is paradoxical) but when we base our decisions and convictions on truth- it always works out in the end.

Isaiah Messianically wrote:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

For many sincere individuals, experience and revelation have proven that the Lord’s ways are higher and more practical than ours. Though we may be tempted to believe that our “pragmatism” is more expedient than principle the Lord also taught “lean not unto your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5), “yield to the persuasions of men no more” (D&C 5:21), and “keep all my commandments” (D&C 43:35). It’s been wisely said that, “When someone bases his life on principle, 99 percent of his decisions are already made.” Having made these decisions based on gospel principles beforehand helps alleviate the temptations to make bad decisions when those choices arise.

The pseudo-pragmatism that many subscribe to might be best termed shortsightedness. The pseudo-pragmatist looks at what works here and now but since he failed to consider the principle, there will likely be unintended and/or unforeseen negative consequences eventually—whether in this life or the next.

Look at excessive debt as an example. A father of four on a $40,000/year income who goes into debt for a $70,000 BMW was being a pseudo-pragmatist. He saw something he wanted, asked himself how he could get it, and he went out and executed that plan. If only he had stopped to ask the questions- “Is this even right? Am I being responsible? What risk am I putting my self and family at?” But because of his “pragmatism” he did what “worked” and got what he wanted. Eventually his bills will come due. Hunger, loss of freedom/opportunities, embarrassment, marital issues, and/or bankruptcy will likely afflict him and his family.

Unnecessary spending applies to individuals the same way it applies to families (unaffordable vacations), businesses (lavish executive dinners/bonuses), governments (bailouts, imperialism, welfarism, etc) and other institutions. When spending exceeds revenue (debt, inflation, and taxes) government agents hardly ever consider serious spending cuts (a responsible direction) but instead look for ways to raise revenue (enslave). It seems as though much of the things being considered by agents of government are pseudo-pragmatic. Some could make a strong case that taxes are a form of pseudo-pragmatism since it is using force to take someone else’s property. But what correct principle is thievery or legal plunder being based on? A long list could be compiled of things we do through government that defy principle but are done because it’s “practical”. A few might include:

  • Unwarranted searches/seizures and spying on innocent civilians to prevent crime
  • Pre-emptive war because striking them first gives us the advantage
  • Total War- destroying the moral, lives, and property of innocent people in order to “win” war
  • Economic sanctions because causing a nation’s civilians to suffer usually causes their government to bend our way
  • Torture- using pain, or disfigurement apparently gets our enemies to talk
  • Protectionist regulations and licensure which favors one sector over others because it raises power/gain for government and gets rid of competition for certain industries
  • Bailing out big banks and businesses because it would be economic disaster otherwise
  • Welfarism (robbing Peter to pay Paul) because people will suffer/die if we don’t redistribute the wealth
  • Enforcing social justice because certain groups of people with less opportunities deserve more- even if it’s at the expense of the right and control of property for individuals
  • Inflating the currency because it’s a good way to reduce the national debt and pay for warfare and welfare
  • Maintaining the American Empire because we want to enjoy our standard of living and we don’t want any “bad guys” to become a world superpower

Look at each of these things and notice how immoral and shortsighted they are. Also notice that fear is at the root of all of them. Many excuse or attempt to justify these things because they don’t see any other “practical” alternatives. Though choosing the right may not have immediate/obvious results Joseph F. Smith taught us:

“That through [Christ’s] atonement, and by obedience to the principles of the gospel, mankind might be saved (D&C 138:4).”

Unprincipled pragmatism is a form of focusing on ends at the expense of means. As explained here, worthy ends do not justify immoral means. Paul had to debunk the false idea attributed to him— “Let us do evil that good may come” (Romans 3:8). Elder F. Burton Howard also taught:

“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.” (Repentance)

So does something being “practical” automatically make it right? Do the principles “Thou shalt not steal, lie, or murder” take a back seat to Machiavellian statism because fear and aggression seem to work better than love and persuasion? Lest someone assume that this is condoning anarchism then please read the story of King Benjamin (Mosiah 2:14). Did he, an agent of the people, rule by fear and aggression or did he serve by love and persuasion? Government can exist in a proper frame when its role is based on correct principles—not pseudo-pragmatic ones. Our lives can also exist to their fullest extent and maximum happiness when they are based on correct principles.

“Once they are driven off the high ground of principle, so many people then settle for being “practical.” But immorality is so impractical! Provisional morality always emerges once people desert a basic truth. Such individuals are forever falling back trying to develop substitute rationales, drawing new lines beyond which they vow they will not be driven, only to abandon these also under the pressure of growing evils…

Moral uncertainty always leads to behavioral absurdity. Prescriptions which are value-free always prove to be so costly. Unprincipled pragmatism is like advising someone who is hopelessly mired in quicksand not to struggle—so that he will merely sink more slowly!” –Neal A Maxwell (The Stern but Sweet Seventh Commandment)