Thorny Moral Chestnuts, Pt. 1
Catchy quotes and sayings — “chestnuts” — can undergo slight mutations over time.
Sometimes, those chestnuts are proverbs or rules. And sometimes, those gradual mutations can modify those proverbs or rules so much that their original wisdom is completely destroyed, converted into non-wisdom.
Today, we’ll talk about “The Ends Can’t Justify the Means.” In the next post, we’ll talk about “Ignorance is No Excuse.” Both of these are false chestnuts.
“The Ends Can’t Justify the Means”
I’m sure you’ve heard this one a billion times.
It’s usually uttered by the hero of a story, against some villain who’s decided to bring about some praiseworthy conclusion by means of a horrific plan.
“But I’ll create a better world!” cries the villain, Viktor.
“No,” responds the hero, Herbert. “The ends can’t justify the means.”
We cheer the Herbert at this point, right?
Okay. Now let’s take these characters and transplant them into a different situation.
Viktor and Herbert are shop owners in Nazi Germany. For months, they’ve been harboring a Jewish family in a secret attic above their shop. This morning, they’ve heard that Nazi investigators will be going shop to shop and asking for information about harbored Jews in the area.
“We should lie to the investigators,” says Viktor. “A little dishonesty will bring about a greater good by saving lives.”
“No,” responds the “hero,” Hubert. “The ends can’t justify the means.”
Notice how in both cases, Viktor wants to do something considered morally wrong in order to bring about a greater good. But in the latter situation, we can all clearly see that it is no longer Viktor who is the villain — rather, it is Hubert who we all rebuke as morally askew.
We’re quite practiced at cheering duty-bound heroes and chastising “good ends / ill means” supervillains. What we forget is that there are plenty of “good ends / ill means” heroes as well, from Oskar Schindler to Rahab, who we (alongside James) recognize as righteous for heroism that required deception.
The Better Chestnut
The answer to the puzzle is that “The ends can justify ill means.”
The question is, when?
Well, ends are more likely to justify ill means when:
- The ends are really, really good…
- … and you’re really, really sure that they’ll come about.
- The ill means aren’t that bad…
- … and you’re really, really sure that there won’t be horrible unintended consequences, neither for those in your local area, nor for the world in general, and neither for things right now, nor for things down the road.
- There aren’t safer, more praiseworthy ways to seek those good ends.
Similarly, ends are less likely to justify ill means when:
- The ends are good, but not that great.
- You’re not sure they’ll come about.
- The ill means are pretty bad.
- You aren’t sure that there won’t be a bunch of horrible unintended consequences.
- There are safer, more praiseworthy ways to seek those good ends.
Decisionmaking is Complicated
Consider the following diagram, where the ill dark-red “bad” circle is committed, while intended to make the green “good” circle come about.
Wouldn’t it be nice if it were that simple? We could say, “You can’t use bad things to make good things happen.”
In reality, those “circles” need moral weight/gravity/intensity assigned to them according to what we value.
Suddenly, that seems okay. Once we account for the moral weights, a tiny moral ill can indeed be acceptable in service of a huge moral payoff.
But it still isn’t that simple! We need to account for the likelihood of that good consequence coming about!
If there’s only a 20%, or one-fifth, chance of that big payoff happening, it might still be a good investment, but it’s “worth less” as a prospect. In decision theory, we call that “net worth” our “expected value” or “EV.”
But it still isn’t that simple! We haven’t accounted for any of the consequences that are foreseeable but unintended!
Ew, gross! This decision is looking pretty ghastly now, isn’t it?
… wait for it…
… it still isn’t that simple! That’s because there are all sorts of unforeseen consequences lurking in the shadows of human unknowability.
It turns out that we, as humans, are so bad at considering the unintended and unforeseen consequences — often when a bee-line prospect looks very tantalizing — that “blind rule-following” has a certain consequential strength or fitness. This is especially the case when, in the shadows of human unknowability, habitual ill behavior can translate into numerous personal erosions of character and will.
And that’s why “The ends can’t justify the means,” is a decent “rule” for folks who can’t handle the complications of decision theory, or who think themselves wiser and/or more knowledgeable than they really are — which is almost everybody.
But it’s not really true.
That’s what makes it thorny.
And so when we’re engaged in lofty discourse about how morality “works,” we need to be careful not to treat that thorny chestnut as fundamental or sacrosanct.
For more about how deontology (“morality is about rules”) and consequentialism (“morality is about consequences”) “converge” on the practicalities of human weakness, take a gander at the Angelic Ladder.