A Means to an End

It was 1975. In a classroom with about three dozen college freshman, a simple question was asked: do the means justify the ends? Morally, does achieving a result that is good allow an individual to do anything it takes to achieve that good result? Is it moral to kill people to achieve peace? Is it right to deceive someone in order to get them to do the right thing? Or for the end result to be moral, do the means also have to be moral and ethical? As a college freshman taking an introductory course to philosophy, I was struck by this discussion. Thirty-five years later, I find that this moral and ethical question is very much relevant in understanding decisions make on a daily basis. As I reflect on the headlines in the news, it’s very clear that many politicians and political commentators believe that the means justify the ends. For reasons that remain unclear, the Bush administration wanted the United States to topple the government of Iraq. Lies were told that Saddam Hussein was involved in the events of September 11 and that he had weapons of mass destruction ready to be used against our allies. Because Republican senators want to assure that the health care and insurance industry is not regulated so that these industries can profit from the suffering of people, they lie and insist that the health reform passed by congress will harm the United States economy and the very people it is designed to help. Because the racist Tea Party members and Birthers refuse to accept that the United States is a pluralistic country with an African American president, they lie and claim that Obama was not born in the United States even after Hawaii has produced the birth certificate on numerous occasions. It would be easy to say that these people are ignorant or uneducated. But I don’t believe that is the case. Instead, they have a deep conviction that their view is fundamentally right and that it is morally and ethically justified to impose that view on others by any means necessary even when it requires a pattern of lies and deceit. Do the ends justify the means? Or is it the case that results that are moral and ethical are built on ethical principles and decisions? My intention is not to revisit introductory philosophy. Instead, my question is meant to open the larger question of what role spirituality have in relationship to personal integrity, honesty, and ethics. It seems to me that if, at heart, a person values a life that acknowledges and respects the spiritual dimension, then that person would live with a sense of integrity to self and respect for others. I believe that there is something of the Divine in each person. Because I reverence that Divine spark at the heart of human life, I strive to act with integrity and treat others with respect and dignity. Because of that, doing whatever it takes to achieve my goal is morally wrong. The ends do not justify the means. But what about political and religious leaders who claim to have a deep conviction to Christianity? How do they arrive at an understanding that consistently untruthful positions are morally right? I think it’s too easy to say that they simply aren’t Christians. Yet, there seems to be a missing piece. Perhaps part of the missing piece has something to do with the American value of freedom of speech. In the absence of a moral foundation, the freedom of speech is the freedom to lie and be legally protected in that lie. If this is the case, then perhaps nothing could be more important today than to remind people of the spiritual dimension of life and return to teachings found in the great wisdom traditions of the world that all value truth and integrity. Do the ends justify the means? Many people who want to shape political policy today, particularly in the conservative moments, clearly believe so. However, I contend that the spiritual life requires that we live based on a higher standard: the means to end is just as important as the end itself.

© 2010, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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