Does the End Ever Justify the Means?

Mortimer J. Adler

[February 2001. Reprinted with permission by the author]

First, let us try to understand the sense in which the word "justifies" is used in the familiar statement that "the end justifies the means." After that we can consider the problem about whether it is all right to employ any means -- good or bad -- so long as the end is good.

When we say that something is "justified," we are simply saying that it is right. Thus, for example, when we say that a college is justified in expelling a student who falls below a passing mark, we are acknowledging that the college has a right to set certain standards of performance and to require its students to meet them. Hence, the college is right in expelling the student who doesn't.

Or, to take another example, if a man refuses to pay a bill for merchandise he did not receive, we would say that he is justified. He is in the right. But if a signed receipt can be offered to show that someone in his family received the merchandise without informing him, the store would be justified in demanding payment.

Now, nothing in the world can justify a means except the end which it is intended to serve. A means can be right only in relation to an end, and only by serving that end. The first question to be asked about something proposed as a way of achieving any objective whatsoever is always the same. Will it work? Will this means, if employed, accomplish the purpose we have in mind? If not, it is certainly not the right means to use.

But the purpose a man has in mind may be something as plainly wrong as stealing or murder. With such an end in view, he may decide that certain things will help him succeed and others won't. While he would be right, from the point of view of mere expediency, in using the former and not the latter, is he right morally in taking whatever steps might serve as means to his end? If not, then he is not morally justified in employing such means.

This brings us to the heart of the matter. Since a bad end is one that we are not morally justified in seeking, we are not morally justified in taking any steps whatsoever toward its accomplishment. Hence, no means can be justified -- that is, made morally right -- by a bad end.

But how about good ends? We are always morally justified in working for their accomplishment. Are we, then, also morally justified in using any means which will work? The answer to that question is plainly Yes; for if the end is really good, and if the means really serves the end and does not defeat it in any way, then there can be nothing wrong with the means. It is justified by the end, and we are justified in using it.

People who are shocked by this statement overlook one thing: If an action is morally bad in itself, it cannot really serve a good end, even though it may on the surface appear to do so. Men in power have often tried to condone their use of violence or fraud by making it appear that their injustice to individuals was for the social good and was, therefore, justified. But since the good society involves justice for all, a government which employs unjust means defeats the end it pretends to serve. You cannot use bad means for a good end any more than you can build a good house out of bad materials.

It is only when we do not look too closely into the matter that we can be fooled by the statement that the end justifies the means. We fail to ask whether the end in view is really good, or we fail to examine carefully how the means will affect the end. This happens most frequently in the game of power politics or in war, where the only criterion is success and anything which contributes to success is thought to be justified. Success may be the standard by which we measure the expediency of the means, but expediency is one thing and moral justification is another.