“The ends justify the means” can probably be traced back to that ultimate pragmatist about political power, Niccolò Machiavelli, in The Prince. Get your political outcome right, so that everyone is happy and content with it, and no one will look too hard at how you have achieved it. If you asked me to put my finger on the starting point for the downfall of our civilization, I would point to that.
Except … people have been practicing that kind of consequentialist thinking ever since the legions of Rome marched into the rest of the world with the goal of giving everyone better roads, cleaner water, and proper laws. And before that, the Greeks of Macedonia marched into Persia to give everyone the blessings of Athenian democracy. And earlier, the Sumerians of Uruk marched across Mesopotamia to give everyone a clear understanding of the gods, as well as the art of writing.
The 20th century, in my view, started going seriously wrong with the Marxists—apart from that family feud among the progeny of Queen Victoria, which resulted in the first World War, which led inevitably to the second World War. But Marx himself apparently never said that the ends justify the means. It was the Bolsheviks’ favorite tactician, Leon Trotsky, who adopted it as the movement’s philosophical underpinning. After all, when you’re working to increase social development, break the dominance of man (singular) over man (plural), and bring about the blessings of utopia—it doesn’t matter how many banks you rob, lies you tell, and whose heads you crack. “The end may justify the means as long as there is something that justifies the end,” Trotsky wrote in Their Morals and Ours. This was in 1938, after Stalin had already killed millions in the Ukraine and devoured every member of his own party. To me, this dictum sounds like circular reasoning. Trotsky’s head was filled with worms.
There is a huge political problem with “the ends justifying the means.” In the competitive marketplace of ideas, not everyone may agree with your analysis of risks and benefits, and not everyone may hanker after your vision of utopia. When you have to justify those ends—which Trotsky simply assumes will be proclaimed by fiat—then you would seem to be taking an unfair shortcut. And when expediency is your publicly announced credo, you lose all credibility among reasonable, fair-minded people. In a fair political fight, where the issue is not yet decided and the mass of people are still allowed to make up their own minds, you will already have yielded—nay, thrown away with both hands—a politician’s greatest asset: his or her credibility.
At the campaigning stage, when a politician is bargaining with the people, and the people still have a choice, all any politician has to offer is a series of promises. Everything else—determination, performance, action—still lies in the future. If you truly believe, or even hint you believe, that your stated purpose justifies any means you might use to obtain it, then you are admitting that nothing is beneath you. Lying, deception, vote fraud, assassination, armed insurrection—all are permissible if they achieve your ends, but not necessarily anyone else’s. And you are also admitting that you have no personal honor, no sense of integrity or dignity higher than the purpose which you have avowed. You are not a person of principle; you are a person ruled by a particular political policy or doctrine or goal.
There are certain things, many things, that a serious, thoughtful person will not do. Not because they are illegal, inexpedient, or damaging to reputation, but because they violate that person’s internal code. What code is this? It is the internalized rules about truth seeking and truth speaking, about reciprocity and fair dealing, about compassion and caring for others, about personal bravery and self-restraint, among other virtues. In a more chivalrous age, this set of internal rules was called a code of honor. For Christians, it is “getting right with the Lord.”
If you are a purely political creature,1 you are all about the transactions between the individual and the group, and between one group and another. This is the exterior side of life, or living as it may be viewed from the outside. When you look at human beings that way, it is too frighteningly easy to confuse them with animals—or with physical things, like counters on a board or numbers in a column.2 Humans as the object of external study become indistinguishable from cattle or cockroaches. You can analyze them like rats in a maze, or in terms of predators and prey. You can construct theories about them as if they were inanimate objects, like dolls or windup toys. And if you start thinking of people as cattle, it isn’t hard to imagine that they need a superior sort of being, a herdsman, to guide them and give them greater purpose—kind of like a revolutionary vanguard which will impose its greater vision on the faceless mob.
But that mob is made up of individuals. And, whether absurdly or not, each of them—each of us—believes we have our own purpose, our own special place in the universe, our own moral character, and our own, very personal destiny. We may be political entities assigned automatically to family, tribe, state, and ethnic or cultural background. But we are also individuals who feel we have a right to identify with what we perceive to be our own kind and, in most cases, make a personal choice about what kind that will be.
Other people’s ideas about ends and means cut across this sense of personal destiny and affinity like a railroad track cutting through a private park. Unless we agree to the iron pathway, adopt it for our own, and choose to follow and be guided by it—we aren’t going like it. In fact, we will fight it with our last breath.
Individuals may be unreasonable and careless, distracted and incapable of finding and following the good life. But in the end, the focal point of all action, both political and personal, is individual, centered in one mind at a time, one will, and one sense of purpose.
1. Yes, I know, Aristotle’s definition: “Man is a political animal.” We are social creatures, after all, inextricably involved with one another, even more than we are concerned with nature or the gods. But this is the Greek view, which was good at stripping away surfaces to get at the underlying bones. For the Greeks, everything that was personal and private was idiōtēs, the doings of a person without public station or function. This is the origin of our word idiot
2. That was certainly Stalin’s view: “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”