Do Ends Justify Means?
APRIL 26, 2012 by SHELDON RICHMAN
I—and most other people, I assume—grew up being taught that the end doesn’t justify the means. This is an injunction not to rationalize one’s own behavior while using other people as mere means to one’s ends.
Most people apply that principle day to day. If we want at an item on a supermarket shelf and someone is standing in the way, few of us would think to shove that person aside. A utilitarian (or any other sort of consequentialist) might say that greater good, happiness, or utility would be achieved by waiting rather than by shoving. But since interpersonal comparisons of subjective utility are impossible—not only is there no unit of measurement, in principle there’s nothing to measure—that claim has no content.
“[T]his lack of commensurability eliminates all possibility of reference for the expression ‘greater good’ as the consequentialist uses this expression,” natural-law philosopher Germain Grisez writes.
So why wouldn’t we shove the person aside? We abstain because we have a sense that it would be an injustice and that injustice is to be avoided. We don’t calculate that committing the injustice would in this case be contrary to our own self-interest (what would you think of someone who actually did that?), nor do we even determine that shoving the person aside would ill-serve that person’s interests. Rather, we know that the act would be wrong because it is wrong to use another person as a mere means.
So why is that principle absent from most discussions of government policy? Why are political measures routinely defended on the sole basis that they will bring about some good consequence that supposedly outweighs any costs (from the perspective of those who propose them)? A tariff is justified by the help it is thought to give to a struggling domestic industry. A mandate that employers or insurance companies (nominally) pay for women’s contraception is justified in terms of women’s health or of reducing the number of abortions. Obliteration bombing is justified as a way to shorten a war.
In all these cases and more, those who proffer the government policy seem to think that all they need do is identify a consequence as the “greater good” and the discussion is over. The end justifies the means.
But there are always costs to—and therefore victims of—any government action. “Coercive intervention . . . signifies per se that the individual or individuals coerced would not have done what they are now doing were it not for the intervention,” Murray Rothbard wrote in Power and Market. All those who are forced to bear the costs are treated by the government and the special-interest groups it empowers as mere means to other people’s ends—that is, they are treated as less than human. The proponents of such measures never tell us why the benefits they aim for are more important than the benefits other people must do without. But of course they couldn’t tell us. The benefits are incommensurable.
Furthermore, apart from the material loss, the victims’ progressive loss of freedom is real, both in the immediate instance as well as with respect to the precedent set for future government action. Intervention begets intervention as policymakers try to clean up the mess their previous actions created.
As Grisez puts it, “The economic advantages and disadvantages of a proposed public project can be quantified. But people also want freedom of speech and of religion, equal protection of the laws, privacy, and other goods which block certain choices, yet which cannot be costed out. . . . [Cost-benefit] analysis cannot tell one whether the objectives one seeks are objectives one ought to seek, or whether nonquantifiable factors should be ignored.”
Means and ends of course are intimately related. The end determines the array of relevant means. But that is not the end of the story. In selecting from that array considerations apart from the end are highly pertinent—such as the injunction never to use others as mere means. To ignore those considerations is to mock human dignity and countenance the slave principle.
* * *
President Obama calls for a new round of government job-training programs. However, the failure of previous programs is painfully clear. James Bovard examines the record.
Buy a hybrid and save money while saving the planet! Oh really? Kathryn Shelton and Richard McKenzie take a closer look.
“Right to work” is back in the news with Indiana’s enactment of a law forbidding employers from signing union-shop contracts. Shouldn’t free-market advocates oppose laws that forbid contracts? Gary Chartier says yes.
Lots of odd proposals have come from the writings of John Maynard Keynes. Perhaps the oddest of all, writes Richard Fulmer, is that the way out of poverty is to consume more.
Critics of the market call it amoral. Yet a properly functioning market requires a moral foundation. What kind? David Rose focuses on that question.
Everyone is looking for a way to create jobs. Piece of cake, writes Steven Horwitz. The hard task is to create value.
Proposals are on the table to regulate money market funds, where many people invest their savings. What are they and what does the government have in store for them? Warren Gibson has the scoop.
Getting people to adopt the economic way of thinking is no easy matter. Daniel Klein says equations and syllogisms won’t do it. What will? Allegory.
How many times have you heard someone complain that more money is spent on Super Bowl ads than on education? Sandy Ikeda has heard it one time too many.
The value of moving resources from one place to another is easy to see. How about from one point in time to another? Isaac Morehouse says it is done every day, and we should be happy about it.
Here are the fruits of our columnists’ labor: Lawrence Reed speaks to the statists of all parties. Robert Higgs ponders who has the burden of proof. John Stossel asks if government can make you happy. And Tyler Watts, hearing for the umpteenth time that antitrust law preserves competition, rebuts, “It Just Ain’t So!”
Books reviewed in this issue zero in on Ron Paul’s philosophy, the Lochner case, protectionism, and the dollar.—Sheldon Richman firstname.lastname@example.org