The perpetual conflict between ends and means is a recurring theme in moral philosophy. While the deontological approach emphasizes the importance of right means, the teleological school of ethics highlights the significance of right ends.
Justification for actions based on valuable ends can be seen in the following ways:
- Utilitarian approach: According to Bentham, a right action is one that maximizes the happiness of the maximum number of people. For example, clinical trials may pose risks to volunteers or animals, but the ultimate goal is to save millions of lives.
- Just Wars: There are instances where the use of violence is justified, such as during wartime. For instance, Gandhi supported Britain’s war efforts during World War II as a fight against fascism.
- Development: Liberal market policies and globalization may cause short-term difficulties for domestic industries but can lead to long-term economic growth. For example, the liberalization of India’s economy in 1991 helped lift millions out of poverty.
However, there are reasons why ends cannot justify means:
- Negative externalities: Giving precedence to ends over means often results in negative externalities, such as environmental damage caused by infrastructure development.
- Subjectivity: Determining what constitutes the right ends is subjective and can vary among individuals, cultures, and over time.
- Collateral Damage: Actions taken to achieve certain ends may cause unintended harm. For example, the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to bring an early end to World War II resulted in significant loss of life and destruction.
- Fraudulent Ends: The invasion of Iraq by the USA, based on false claims of Weapons of Mass Destruction, illustrates how fraudulent ends can be used to justify actions.
On the other hand, adhering to means has the following merits:
- Inclusion: Emphasizing the right approach helps avoid negative externalities and upholds the interests of all stakeholders. For instance, conducting socio-economic impact assessments (SEIAs) for projects.
- Long-term good: Right means may take time but promote long-term benefits. For example, India’s non-violent struggle for independence led to the establishment of a peaceful and democratic system, unlike some other decolonized countries that fell into autocracy.
- Certainty: Employing the right means provides certainty in action, avoiding cognitive dissonance and indecision. As mentioned in the Geeta, “dharmo rakshati rakshitah” (if you take care of righteousness, righteousness will take care of you).
- Physical & Mental health: Utilizing the right tools and procedures ensures emotional and physical well-being. For example, adherence to standard operating procedures (SOPs) in industries helps prevent accidents.
- Soft Power: Adhering to the right means enhances a nation’s reputation in the international community. For instance, India’s Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) waiver and its ‘vaccine diplomacy’ during the Covid-19 pandemic have increased its appeal.
While both ends and means are important considerations in determining the morality of an action, the right means are essential for ethical conduct. Positive ends may be desired by anyone, but one’s true character is revealed in the choice of means to achieve those ends. As Vivekananda rightly said, liberation is the desired end for every soul, but it can only be attained through righteous actions.