The ends are the means

It seems to me that we are past the age where we can simply accept ethical principles by reference to some authority. One must justify them by the results we see of them around us in this world. It would be false to label this philosophy as ends-justify-the-means, because that is simply an obstinate and narrow-minded choice to ignore the actual results of one’s actions, as opposed to the intended result. In any case, I think the most legitimate criterion by which to judge an action is the totality of its consequences. I am highly skeptical of “slippery slope” arguments. They may have some legitimacy in cases where doing something will have a very likely affect on someone else’s behavior that (after committing the initial act) will be largely outside of one’s own control. But in cases like judicial decisions, where the same person or people will be in charge of both the current and future cases, it seems like a pretty ludicrous attempt to disqualify actions which are legitimate in their own right. It is applying a heavy-handed disregard for particular circumstances in favor of monolithic patterns. I mean, if one case should be decided a particular way but different circumstances mean a similar but not identical case should be handled another way, are we not sophisticated enough to deal with them as two different cases rather than be childishly beholden to rigid models?

4 Responses to “The ends are the means”

  1. James Says:

    Assuming you know what they are, how do you judge the consequences of an act? Is evaluation of the consequences a process? Are the outcomes of this process justified? Are they justified by the process of evaluation itself?

  2. Curt Says:

    Since there is certainly more than one way to evaluate actions, I suppose it all depends on how you go about it. I certainly don’t believe that anyone can have a complete knowledge of what the consequences of an act are, but in a sense that doesn’t really matter, because your own response will entail its own consequences for others whether or not the grounds upon which you were acting are justified. A well-intentioned person acting on wrong information can produce an unjust judgment; the novel Tom Jones is a perfect example of this. So good intentions are not enough to produce good outcomes; perception and good judgment are necessary as well. And so in answer to the other question, yes of course evaluation is a process, assuming that one is not so narrow-minded as to form snap judgments based on the first information available and then stick to them obstinately no matter what. However, while our judgments at any given point may be incomplete and subject to revision, they are also end-points of the evaluative process insofar as they lead to actions, for which we are responsible.

  3. James Says:

    Here’s the rub: If you apply consequentialist reasoning and then reach a conclusion, the reasoning process you used is supposed to justify the conclusion you reach which is its outcome. If you believe that such reasoning does justify its conclusions, then you are making one exception to the consequentialist creed. Consequentialism is based on the idea that outcome justifies process, but applying consequentialist reasoning and trusting the result presupposes that process justifies outcome, at least in the this one case. But if a process is sufficient to justify an outcome rather than the other way around in this case, why not in many other cases as well?

  4. Curt Says:

    I agree that ultimately one has “trust the result” of one’s reasoning process sufficiently to make a judgment, because the alternative is a parlysis where decision-making is suspended perpetually, but there’s a big difference between provisionally trusting the logic and rightness of a judgment faute de mieux and continuing to assert its blamelessness even when new information comes to light which reveals it to be an error. A consequentialist, like a scientist, will have to make a provisional judgment based on the facts at his disposal, knowing the probability of error and that the wrongness of the judgment will have to acknowledged whenever an error comes to light. That judgment may be exonerated of bad intentions if based on an honest error, but that no more makes it right than a scientific theory based on faulty information.

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