When people criticize the idea that ‘the ends justify the means’, it seems to me that the real objection usually has to do with the distribution of outcomes between different agents, rather than the standard of assessing the morality of something according to the consequences it produces. Moral codes based on the outcomes of decisions are called ‘teleological’ whereas those based on rules about behaviour are called ‘deontological.’ Some have argued that a view based on consequences is likely to produce injustices, so it is more appropriate to base morality on set rules, such as the defence of individual rights. I don’t think it is necessary to make that jump. Indeed, I think the transition from an outcomes based view to a rights based view is likely to lead to less effective moral deliberation.
Consider some examples of ‘the ends justifying the means:’
- A person infected with a contagious, lethal illness is killed to stop them from accidentally infecting others.
- Reduced unemployment benefits drive 20% of those previously receiving benefits to get jobs, while making 5% poorer than before.
The relevant moral factors all seem to be based around consequences. How urgent was it to kill the infected person? How soon would they have died of the disease? What kind of jobs did the 20% get? Did they end up better off, all told? How much worse off did the 5% end up? In general, it seems that our objections to the ends justifying the means boil down to two kinds of objections: that the decision made undermined an important procedure or institution, or that those who were made to sacrifice welfare either gave up an excessive amount or were already badly off.
The procedural exception is certainly very important. Say a police officer is also a member of a drug gang and witnesses a fellow gang member killing someone. He is unwilling to testify to his involvement, so he plants false evidence leading to the man’s conviction. Here, we would legitimately object to the corruption of the police force and the impartial treatment of evidence. Even if doing so produced the ‘right’ outcome in this case – the conviction of a guilty person – the degree to which the means undermined the system made it unacceptable. Note that this is still an argument about consequences. If the police force operated in this way, we would expect future societal welfare to be lower than if the police behaved with integrity.
The exception based on the division of costs is similarly convincing, and similarly teleological in nature. Just think about the kind of justifications that could be employed in the case of the diseased person. Say they were about to board an airplane for a long flight, and the only way to prevent them from doing so would be lethal. Any argument would be about whether a more ‘cautious’ approach detrimental to the individual produces a better overall outcome than an approach that more aggressively asserts the larger interests of the group. The argument against excessive burdens on one individual or entity is similar. We recognize that forcing someone to sacrifice one of their last units of wealth is a greater imposition than making them give up one of their first units, since people pushed below a bare minimum level of subsistence suffer more than those pushed from greater to lesser affluence. We also recognize that the minimum moral action is of a higher magnitude when someone is in a truly desperate situation: we may not be morally obliged to provide aid to someone with the sniffles, but we may well be for someone who has just had a stroke or heart attack. Ultimately, those moral imperatives derive from the set of all outcomes associated with each choice.
In short, moving to a system based on rights forces us to adjudicate between them, and doing that necessarily brings us back into the realm of consequences. Say that I have the right to free speech and you have the right to privacy. How do we adjudicate between them? Using rules based on the consequences arising from different arrangements. It may be important to protect my right to criticize you if you are a public figure, for instance. It may also be especially important to protect the privacy of children and minors. Ultimately, rights just enumerate the moral issues that need to be considered. Consequentialist or teleological analyses give us our best insight into what is, or is not, moral.