Okay, listen up. This is pretty simple. I’m gonna start by defining terms.
Ends are goals. If you take action, you usually do so to accomplish an end. Say, if I go buy bread and deli meat, I do so in order to accomplish the end of eating a sandwich.
Means are the steps you go through to accomplish an end. So, in the sandwich example, purchasing bread and deli meat, putting a few slices of meat on the bread, getting a knife out and slathering one of the bread slices with mayo: all these are means to the end of ultimately eating the sandwich.
For some reason, people don’t realize all the implications of what I’m about to say:
It is never, NEVER okay to perform evil means in order to accomplish good ends!
But, If I Go Back In Time And Murder Hitler, I Could Save So Many Jews!
You just might save a bunch of Jews! Saving Jews is good. Murder is bad. Guess what? You can’t murder! Not without being evil, anyway. And you want to be good, not evil, for fairly obvious reasons I’m not going to go into here.
When Ought I Apply This Principle?
All. The. Time.
Seriously. Any time someone suggests you do anything at all, or if you are considering any course of action, don’t just ask yourself “is my goal good?” Make sure you also ask yourself “are all the intermediary steps (that I can conceive of) that I need to take to accomplish my goal themselves good?” If even one of those steps is just a little evil, YOU NEED TO RETHINK THAT GOAL.
If your goal has an immoral mean somewhere, you can rethink it one of two ways:
- replace it with a moral mean
- abandon that goal
If you want to be good, those are your only options.
This Seems Hard.
Yes! It’s very hard. If you actually try to live this out, you find yourself abandoning goals you would never in your most fevered imaginings dream you’d abandon. Giving up evil goals that seem like fun is hard enough; giving up legitimately good goals is much harder. But it is completely and utterly worth it.