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Does the End Justify the Means?

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Does the End Justify the Means?

Should the doctrine of “the end justifies the means” be accepted? The "the end justifies the means" doctrine is acceptable, but only under certain situations. To understand why this position is being taken, you have to understand the origin of "the end justifies the means." The phrase came from Niccolo Machiavelli's book The Prince. Machiavelli's phrase is interpreted by many to mean that the end result of an action was justified by the actions one took to get there, regardless of the methods used (End justifies the means, n.d.). The phrase suggests that it does not matter whether these methods are legal or illegal, moral or immoral, kind or cruel, or truth or lie. The phrase has to be put into context in order to understand how it can be applied in our modern times. The Prince’s original intended audience was rulers (i.e., government), and was meant to advise and instruct them (Nederman, 2009). The Prince was never meant for the common people. Since "the end justifies the means" was originally meant for the government, then its doctrine can only be acceptable when it is used by the government under certain situations, such as to establish peace during a time of war.
Should “the end justifies the means” be unconditional? Can it be situational?
Over the years, people have abused "the end justifies the means." The phrase has been used to excuse any wrongs made to attain a goal. For example, a banker will reason that it is all right to steal millions of dollars because she is giving half of it to charities. A study was done in Journal of Personality & Social Psychology that showed that ordinary people use the "the end justifies the means" reasoning to make ethical and moral judgments (Cote, Piff, & Willer, 2013). The study showed that the more higher up in income people are the more likely they are to use "the end justifies the means" in their moral and ethical reasoning. “The end justifies the means” philosophy is too dangerous to be used by the ordinary person since it commonly leads to abuse.
Machiavelli intended for the “end-means” philosophy to be situational and not unconditional since he recommends in The Prince that evil and hatred should be avoided as much as possible, but there are some situations that require harsh means (Riemer, Simon, & Romance, 2013, p. 21). Machiavelli meant for the “end-means” philosophy to be used by governments for the common good of its citizens. Here are three examples of the government using harsh means (i.e. "the end justifies the means") for the common good of its citizens. The first example is U.S. government sanctioned assassinations, such as with Osama bin Laden. The government assassinating Osama bin Laden was justified in that it saves future lives by serving as a warning to others that they could end up like Osama bin Laden if they try any terrorist actions against the U.S. The second example where the “end-means” philosophy was used for the common good was to establish peace during a time of war, such as the U.S. dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As harsh as the atomic bombs were, they were necessary to save lives by ending World War II and establishing peace. In fact, "the end justifies the means" reasoning was used throughout World War II. An example of it can be seen in Breaking the German will to resist, 1944-1945, which was an article published in Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television. The article assesses the role of psychological warfare in ending WWII, which involved deceiving friends and the public. The article concluded that the end (ending World War II) was worth the means (lies and deceit) used to get there (Taylor & Weekes, 1998). The third example of the government using "the end justifies the means" for the common good is capital punishment. Capital punishment is necessary in order to achieve two important goals: (1) to protect citizens from harm. A convicted murderer cannot kill once they are put to death, and (2) it serves as a warning to others that if they murder, then they will also be put to death. The end results (a safer society) justify the harsh means (putting someone to death) used to get them.
What consequences may arise from following, or not following, this political axiom?
There are consequences for a government following, and not following, the philosophy of "the end justifies the means." Each will be talked about respectively. A consequence of a government following this philosophy could involve reduced terrorist action. For example, the killing of Osama bin Laden could make terrorists hesitant to commit attacks against the U.S. Another consequence of a government following the "end-means" philosophy is a loss of privacy. Law Technology did an analysis that discussed the FBI using a device that can scan all the e-mail of an internet service provider (Hunter, 2007). The FBI’s goal is to fight terrorism by finding information in e-mails that could lead to terrorist activity. The end result of preventing terrorist activity is worth the loss of privacy by the FBI going through people’s e-mails.
The consequences of a government not following the "the end justifies the means" philosophy can mostly be negative. For example, what if the atomic bombs had never been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki because the bombs were considered too dangerous? The consequence of this decision could have resulted in millions of American lives being lost by prolonging the war. Or what if Osama bin Laden had not been assassinated? Terrorist groups might construe this as a sign of weakness and plot more terrorist actions against the U.S.
"The end justifies the means" is not a moral or ethical code. It is a way for governments to establish peace and security for its citizens. The ideology is too extreme to be used by ordinary citizens, and should only be used by governments under certain situations, such as to establish peace during a time of war. However, there are consequences for using the philosophy, some good, such as ending wars, and some bad, such as provoking terrorist attacks. "The end justifies the means" must be used with wisdom and prudence with the common good in mind.
Cote, S., Piff, P. K., & Willer, R. (2013). For Whom Do the Ends Justify the Means? Social Class and Utilitarian Moral Judgment. Journal Of Personality & Social Psychology, 104(3), 490-503. doi:10.1037/a0030931
End justifies the means (n.d.). The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer. Retrieved from justifies the means, the
Hunter, G. E. (2007). The use of technology to invade personal privacy in the interest of collective security: Does the end justify the means? Law Technology, 40(1), 1-20. Retrieved from
Nederman, Cary (2009). Niccolò Machiavelli. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from
Riemer, Neal, Simon, Douglas W., & Romance, Joseph (2013). The Challenge of Politics: An Introduction to Political Science (4th Ed.). Washington, D.C.: SAGE Publications
Taylor, P. M., & Weekes, N. C. F. (1998). Breaking the german will to resist, 1944-1945: Allied efforts to end world war II by non-military means. Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television, 18(1), 5-48. Retrieved from

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