Means and ends

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. 

24 November 2012

Last night’s post (“Mohamed Morsi and Mao Zedong”), which gave qualified approval to the seizure of absolute power in Egypt by President Mohamed Morsi in order to thwart a Thermidorian counter-revolution by Mubarak reactionaries in the judiciary, has sparked some controversy among our readership.

Antigone1984 has always campaigned for democracy and against dictatorship.

By approving – albeit guardedly – what amounted to a coup d’état by the President, was Antigone1984 not violating its own seminal principle that “the end never justifies the means” ?

A good question, which has led us to review the principle and define as precisely as possible what we mean by it.

When we say that “the end never justifies the means”, by “means” we are referring to the commission of an act which, in our view, can never be justified, no matter what good may be thought likely to come of it. No good can come out of evil.

An apparent dilemma that is often cited in this connection is as follows: would it not be justifiable deliberately to kill an innocent child if, by doing so, you were able to save the lives of, say, two hundred other children?

The answer, in our view, is a resounding “no”.

In the first place, the wanton slaughter of an innocent child cannot be justified, no matter what good may come of it, even if it were to save that the lives of hundreds of other children.

Secondly –  a point of lesser significance than the one we have just made – no one can predict the future with absolute certainty. Thus, one can never say with absolute certainty “if A, then B” because we can never be absolutely sure that A will inevitably lead to B. Consequently, if the innocent child is slaughtered, there is no absolute guarantee that two hundred other children will be saved. There may be a likelihood that this will be so, all the indicators may point in that direction, but an innocent child cannot justifiably be murdered on the basis of a probability. In the chronological gap between A and B, all sorts of factors may intervene to produced an outcome in which, despite the fact that A has occurred, B does not in fact occur, regardless of firmly-held expectations that it would. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) has said,  “it is clear that there are no grounds for believing that the simplest course of events will really happen. That the sun will rise tomorrow is an hypothesis; and that means that we do not know whether it will rise. A necessity for one thing to happen because another has happened does not exist….” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.3631 and ff.).

The above apologia deals then with the commission of acts which can never be justified, no matter what good may be thought likely to ensue.

However, there are other “means”, which in the abstract may seem to be indefensible, but which in context may be justifiable.

Naturally, in the abstract, to a liberal, democracy is a good thing and dictatorship is bad.

However, let us consider the current situation in Egypt.

There is no constitution in force. There is no functioning parliament. Of the pillars of the state which still exist, Mubarak’s army has (rightly) been compelled to return to barracks, Mubarak’s police have been discredited because of its brutal attempt to suppress the revolution. The only two agents of the state which still play an active role on the political stage are the judiciary, which is stuffed with apparatchiks from the Mubarak dictatorship, and the president, who was democratically elected in June 2012.

The Mubarak-era judiciary has already disbanded the lower house of parliament and has been moving overtly towards declaring illegal not only the upper house but also the constituent assembly which is in the process of drawing up the constitution.  If that were to happen, Egypt would be thrown into unprecedented chaos and there is a real threat that the army would stage a putsch, pushing the president aside, in order to restore order.

Wanting to preserve the gains of the revolution, what alternative did the presidency – the only democratically sanctioned actor on the political stage in Egypt at this point in time – have other than to disable a Mubarak-era judiciary hell-bent on rolling back the Arab Spring?

Opponents of Morsi talk as if the Egyptian judiciary is an upright body of wise, experienced, independent, impartial adjudicators concerned only to administer justice rather than a reactionary band of counter-revolutionary placemen whose loyalty is not to the elected president but to the deposed dictator, Hosni Mubarak.

In Egypt today, without a constitution, there are no laws to interpret. The country is in a political vacuum. That is why the rules of “politics as usual” cannot apply. The country has to wait for the new constitution to come into force before that can happen.

As we said in our post last night,

“If Morsi gives up his new powers in a few months, once the new Egyptian constitution is in force, then the steps he has now taken may be seen as a necessary, if unorthodox, measure to preserve the gains of the revolution. If he retains absolute power sine die, then his opponents will be right: he will have become another Mubarak. We shall just have to wait and see.”

There remains a important outstanding problem as regards  the question of whether ends justify means.

We have said above:

(1) that, on the one hand, when we say that “the end never justifies the means”, by “means” we are referring to the commission of an act which, in our view, can never be justified, no matter what good may be thought likely to come of it. No good can come out of evil;

(2) that, on the other hand, there are other “means”, which in the abstract may seem to be indefensible, but which in context may be justifiable.

The outstanding question is how to define both types of “means”.

What is the definition of an act that can never be justified and how does this differ from the definition of an act which may seem to be indefensible at first sight but which in context may be considered justifiable?

The answer is that this is a matter of judgement and that that judgement will vary according to the person making the judgement.

It has to be admitted that this is the Achilles’ heel of the argument that the end does not justify the means. It boils down to a subjective judgement.

However, we add one rider to this concession. We continue to maintain that in no circumstances can the deliberate taking of an innocent life be justified on the grounds that it will lead to a worthwhile end. There is no room here for subjective judgement.

The most egregious transgression of this principle, with the most devastating consequences, was the decision by US President Harry Truman to authorize the atomic bombardment of Japanese cities towards the end of World War II in the full knowledge that this would cause catastrophic injuries and loss of life. Truman’s aim was so to undermine Japanese morale that the enemy would surrender forthwith, thus obviating the need for US troops to invade Japan.

There were two types of bomb involved.

The uranium bomb, nicknamed “Little Boy” by the Americans, killed or wounded an estimated 150 000 people when it was dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945.

The plutonium bomb, nicknamed “Fat Man” by the Americans, killed or wounded around 75 000 people when it fell on Nagasaki on 9 August 1945.

Most of the casualties in either case were civilians.

The Japanese surrendered on 14 August 1945. Truman had achieved his ends.

However, according to the principle we have sought to clarify in this essay, the means he used to achieve them cannot be justified.

That is all we have to say on this subject for the time being.

No doubt this argument will run and run.


 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. Partitocracy v. Democracy (20 July 2012)

3. The shoddiest possible goods at the highest possible prices (2 Feb 2012)

4. Capitalism in practice  (4 July 2012) 

5.Ladder  (21 June 2012)

 6. A tale of two cities (1)  (6 June 2012)

 7. A tale of two cities (2)  (7 June 2012)

 8. Where’s the beef? Ontology and tinned meat (31 Jan 2012)

Every so often we shall change this sample of previously published posts.


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