Does the end justify the means?

Utilitarianism, or Does the end justify the means?

One way in which utilitarianism differs from Kantian deontology is in its view of intention and consequences. We covered this in ‘Utilitarianism: Going for the best outcome.’ A follow-up question to utilitarianism is: does the end justify the means?

Deontology and a rule-based ethical theory

Deontology (literally meaning the study of duty or obligation) stresses intention. It is a rule-based ethical theory weighing actions under a set of rules, rather than the consequences of that action.

Kant contends that people must act from a sense of duty in order to act morally right. That intention to act according to rules and duty is what motivates the person to act right.

Consequences: acts as means to ends

Consequentialism, on the other hand, holds that any judgment about the rightness or wrongness of an act is ultimately measured on the consequences of that act. Therefore, a morally right act would be one that produces a good consequence or result.

A primary difference, therefore, is that while deontology stresses the importance of following a set of prescribed rules, consequentialism is non-prescriptive. In essence, this means that actions such as lying and cheating, or even murder and rape, can be conceivably justified. It is a philosophy that looks at the ends, or goals, or purposes of an act. In fact, it can be described as a teleological ethic, ‘telos’ being the Greek word for end, and ‘logos’ that for reason, or explanation.

What “the end justifies the means” imply?

As seen above, “the end justifies the means” is a utilitarian philosophy, since a strict utilitarian is concerned with ends. What does that imply? If a goal can be justified, then so can any method of achieving it. The means to that end can be made acceptable, especially if it can be argued that the sum total of happiness is greater than that of suffering. In this light, no action is intrinsically wrong. Torture can be justified if it brings about less terrorist attacks, even if it means torturing innocent people as well actual terrorists. The morality of an action depends only on the results that action brings about.

Objecting utilitarianism

Taking this further, a homeless person without relations can be forced of the street and have his organs harvested to benefit others. It can be argued that the greater the number of people benefiting from these organs, the greater the sum total of happiness.

This brings to the fore an important point about utilitarian morality. Regardless of the outcome, some acts — such as torture, the death penalty, slavery, or apartheid — are inconsistent with human rights.

In the name of greater happiness, we may well be sacrificing justice and fairness. A fair society is, by and large, a happier society.

For a wider discussion of Ends and Means, read Does Justification Lie in the Ends or the Means?