Editorial note: If you have not yet read our mission statement above, please do so in order that you can put our blogs in context.
2 July 2012
“I think it is well for the man in the street to realise that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed. Whatever people may tell him, the bomber will always get through. The only defence is in offence, which means that you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves.”
Part of an address by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin (1867-1947) to the British House of Commons in 1934.
The doctrine that the end justifies the means is still today the over-arching principle that determines the actions of the world’s three most powerful politicians: Barack Obama, Hu Jintao and Vladimir Putin.
You might perhaps care to view some of our earlier posts. For instance:
1. Why? or How? That is the question (3 Jan 2012)
2. Das Vierte Reich/The Fourth Reich (6 Feb 2012)
3. The shoddiest possible goods at the highest possible prices (2 Feb 2012)
4. Where’s the beef? Ontology and tinned meat (31 Jan 2012)
5. What would Gandhi have said? (30 Jan 2012)
Every so often we shall change this sample of previously published posts.
OK, but we shall have to add to this list not just Stalin but also Lenin and Trotsky. Possibly also Gandhi, unless as a hunger striker he really wanted to die.
Fair comment, I imagine, as regards the Bolsheviks. However, we were referring to politicians alive today. Surprised that you should add Gandhi to the list. Could you expand?
Hiya, I brought the Bolsheviks into it because of Trotsky’s pamphlet “Their morals and ours”, which addresses this question in some detail, and also because of Trotsky’s controlling role in the bloody state suppression of the Kronstadt Commune, which some consider was an authentic popular uprising rather than a counter-revolutionary conspiracy.
As Trotsky said, “We shot them like ducks”. [This is the quote I seem to remember from way back, but I haven’t been able to verify it on the Interweb so caveat emptor.]
On Gandhi, I meant that threatening to kill yourself in an attempt to achieve a desirable social goal is an example of a bad means being applied to achieving a good end. Of course many would see this as heroic behaviour by Gandhi, and this in turn tends to suggest that the proper relationship between ends and means is best not depicted entirely in black and white.
Also, as Trotsky points out in his pamphlet, the justification of means by ends tends to be implied in the central tenet of utilitarianism, the notion of “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”.
Your reply raises a hornet’s nest of ramifications which take us back, it seems to us, to questions such as what is the meaning of meaning, does anything exist at all, is it meaningful to use the terms “right” and “wrong”, are all viewpoints equally valid, etc.
Our view on these matters is set out under the heading “Philosophical Background” in our Mission Statement at the top left-hand side of the blog’s home page.
Definitions are important, too. To have a meaningful dialogue, each party needs to define their terms. If their definitions differ, as well may be the case, then of course the dialogue will be that much more difficult.
At the end of the section “Philosophical Background”, leaving behind the big philosophical questions, to which we find no answer, and moving on to the less intractable (in our view) matter of current politics , we state: “The prism through which we view much of contemporary politics can be summed up in the following principle, which is applicable at all times and in all circumstances without exception: the end does not justify the means.”
We stick by that.
We find it a useful tool, in practice, for distinguishing between the sheep and the goats. We freely admit that we are not capable of defending this stance if we place it in the context of the great philosophical questions. What we are saying is that we find it a useful rule-of-thumb when attempting to decipher contemporary politics. Others are perfectly entitled to take a different view.
What we mean by “the end does not justify the means” is that, even if the end is good (which, in the case of current politics, it rarely is, in our view) or is perceived by the author of a political act as being good, it is still not morally justifiable if the means are evil. What we have in mind when we talk about evil means is the infliction of suffering on the innocent third parties in order to achieve a supposedly good goal. In our view, this is never justifiable.
Self-immolation does not come into this category and so is outside our terms of reference. As a result, we do not accept your conclusion that Gandhi’s threat to kill himself “tends to suggest that the proper relationship between ends and means is best not depicted entirely in black and white”.
You conclude by referring to a comment by Trotsky on utilitarianism. Referring to the text in question, “Their Morals and Ours”, we see that his comment was critical: “… the criterion of Bentham-John Mill, ‘the greatest possible happiness for the greatest possible number’, signifies that those means are moral which lead to the common welfare as the higher end.”
The “common welfare” suggests the welfare of all, whereas “the greatest possible happiness for the greatest possible number” suggests that there will be a minority left out of this “common” paradise.
If Trotsky is rejecting the suggestion that the majority is entitled to ride roughshod over the interests of the minority, we wholeheartedly agree.
However, writing “Their Morals and Ours” from exile in 1938, Trotsky will not have forgotten his role in the continuing conflict between Lenin’s radical Bolsheviks (the majority) and Martov’s moderate Mensheviks (the minority) in the decade and a half leading up to the Russian Revolution in October 1917. The revolution settled the tussle in favour of the Bolsheviks, Trotsky himself assigning the Mensheviks to “the dustbin of history”. Ironically, at the second congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1903, when the split between the two factions occurred, Plekhanov, later a Menshevik leader, backed Lenin, while Trotsky, later a leading Bolshevik, sided with Martov.
Trotsky concludes: `In its general philosophical formulations Anglo-Saxon utilitarianism thus fully coincides with the “Jesuit” principle, “the end justifies the means”.’ So I think you may be misreading the Trotsky, which it is hard not to do when you are trying to slip nimbly between the clunky rhetorical flourishes to arrive at some understanding! The two contrasting examples he offers are shooting a mad dog to save a child (good) and shooting someone as part of a crime (bad), and he comments that the act of shooting is not the issue, so I guess you could say he is arguing that the context around an issue determines whether a means is justified or not. I agree we did not adopt common definitions (people rarely do) and I know that “the end does not justify the means” is supported in your mission statement – I am just not happy with it as an over-riding and universal principle (PS: I am not a Trotskyist!) All best wishes.
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