To What Extent Do the Ends Justify the Means?

Hiroshima-Nagasaki

Mushroom cloud from one of the atomic bomb droppings that instantly killed tens of thousands of innocent Japanese citizens

In Niccolo Machiavelli’s, The Prince, he talks about the most extreme of consequentialism, which dictionary.com defines as, “the theory that human actions derive their moral worth solely from their outcomes or consequences.”  English culture adopted this term into a common phrase, “The ends justify the means.” It has been used commonly as an excuse for starting wars or killing innocent people. For example, President Truman said that the atomic bomb needed to be dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in order to “shorten the agony of war, (and) in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.” Over 250,000 people were wiped out in cold blood, but it was, in theory, necessary to save the lives of other people. So, it leaves the question, “Do the ends really justify the means?” And I believe the only proper way to answer this is with one diluted word, “sometimes.”

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ISIS Flag

The biggest reason I use sometimes is because the morality of a decision is largely skewed based on the person who is perceiving the situation. In the example explained above about WWII, I think it would be safe to say that many Americans were in support of the bombings if it meant that the soldiers were coming, but I doubt the Japanese people thought that two atomic bomb droppings were justified in order to stop the war.

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The frightening leader of ISIS Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

In order to relate this concept to the modern world, I would use ISIS, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, as an example. They want an Islamic state to be established throughout Iraq and Syria and are willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen. They are known for extreme propaganda over social media in order to recruit young foreign people to join their cause. The radical jihadist group is also known for posting executions to social media with gunshots, beheadings, and crucifixions in order to keep western nations from becoming involved. The Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has been called worse than Bin Laden, and Representative Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois, said that, “ISIS makes Al Qaeda look like kitty cats.

Now, hopefully every single person in our entire nation realizes that this group is extremely powerful, extremely dangerous, and extremely ruthless. They will go to whatever lengths are necessary to get their ultimate goal. Hmmm… that last sentence sounded a lot like the definition to “ends justify the means,” but from our vantage point the ultimate goal is completely immoral as well as the acts to reach this goal. For this group, and other radical jihadists, these are the actions they feel are necessary to take back control of what they believe to be theirs and to keep western nations from getting involved in Middle East conflicts. When Machiavelli wrote The Prince, he had the idea that even violence and killing could be used in this concept, but I don’t think even he could expect how extreme the means for ISIS would be in order for them to reach what, to them, is the optimal outcome.

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4 comments

  1. lauraucros · November 5, 2014

    I like how you end up your blog stating your point of view: that the end does not justify the means. I just wanted to pointed out that for Machiavelli, the end had to be ethically praiseworthy in order to justify ethically problematic behavior. And whether some people definitely wanted the U.S soldiers to come back home at all means, I highly doubt a lot of people thought the bombing was ethically praiseworthy (and this action was the end, the soldiers coming back was just a consequence).
    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/may/20/hiroshima-enola-gay-last-crew-member To contradict what you and I are stating, here is the article where the pilot of the plane that dropped the first bomb in Hiroshima said he would do it all over again. I don’t want to say some people are crazy because it is not appropriate, therefore I’ll just say the problem you are analyzing in your blog post becomes even more complicated because different people have different definitions and boundaries as to what is ethically correct. And, the fact that there is no common ground becomes a huge obstacle to defining and classify right and wrong actions

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  2. pburt117 · November 5, 2014

    I was interested in the parallels you drew in this post. It seems interesting to consider that perhaps ISIS perceives themselves in the way the United States did during World War II. This point never has occurred to me. It also opens the door to more general philosophical matters, such as good vs. evil as a whole. Perhaps there is no true good or evil, but merely only differences in perception. What some would consider to be “good”, others might disagree with. The article you linked also was interesting, thank you for this post.

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  3. rplamp · November 6, 2014

    I found this post very interesting because we have talked about this in my past classes where the public of one nation feels that another nation is doing something that is morally wrong but to that nation they are doing what they have to do. I really enjoyed the parallels between America and World War II and ISIS. In both situations they are doing what they believe they had to. Many people do have the idea that their means justify the ends because human nature makes us selfish. The pilot of the plane that dropped the first bomb said he would do it all over again because in the end it did quickly end the war and possibly saved many American lives. This selfish nature is what makes the boundaries of good vs evil and moral ethics so difficult to have a consensus for.

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  4. caitstew12 · November 6, 2014

    In my philosophy 160 class right now we are talking about the impossibility of philosophy as a subject. People spend their entire lives purposefully trying to answer (to the best of their ability) unanswerable questions with moral dilemmas that are hard to fathom. Do the ends justify the means? The answer ‘sometimes’ is either a conditioned yes or a conditioned no. If I handed any one of us a pad and paper and told them to right exceptions to one or the other the plight would be overwhelming and impossible. Is it yes as long as our intentions good? Or yes as long as our actions are better than a possible alternative etc.? I agree that the new point of view paralleling the US to ISIS is intriguing and well expressed by you but it has been largely commented on prior to me. You could further connect this to the problem of dirty hands; do our motivations relieve us of the sin of dirty hands? Are we the bad guys in the movie of life? A failing of humanity is that oftentimes we are unable to perceive any great extent of the world from a point of view besides our own because it is so foreign to us.

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