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The end of the end/means dichotomy

by Nash Yielding

Much ado has been made about ends and means. From university-level philosophy and political science classes to the mainstream media, the question is often asked: “Do the ends justify the means?” Historically, this question has been answered in one of two ways. Utilitarians and Consequentialists such as Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Niccolò Machiavelli have tended to justify or condemn human action based on its consequences. If the expected outcome is considered to be “good,” then the actions necessary to achieve it are good. On the other hand, deontological theorists such as Immanuel Kant have argued that some actions are right or wrong in principle, no matter the consequences.

Instead of constructing morality from the predicted consequences of human action, or attempting to derive principles of preferred behavior rationally or empirically, many religions try to base morality on assertions. The absolute “moral principles” of religion are not the kind of principles that tell doctors how to cure diseases, or that provide ecologists with a methodology for preserving threatened species. They are merely arguments from authority based on the supposed will of an alleged deity, in whose existence we are expected to believe because someone else says so.

Other philosophers have attempted to deal with the ends-means dichotomy without the teeth-gritting willpower of the argument from authority. Ayn Rand contends that the ends do not justify the means. In Rand’s view, the ends determine the means—human action is a “process of choosing a goal and taking the actions necessary to achieve it” (“Causality Versus Duty,” Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 98). Rand recognized the contradiction inherent in Consequentialism: just because the goal is virtuous, it in no way follows that any means which are believed to help achieve it will also be virtuous. The ends and the means must be consistent. Rand writes, “The end does not justify the means. No one’s rights can be secured by the violation of the rights of others” (“The Cashing-In: The Student ‘Rebellion,’” Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 256).

In the words of modern-day philosopher Stefan Molyneux, Consequentialism is an “argument from effect.” The problem with arguments from effect is that they require perfect knowledge of the results before any action can be taken. We could accomplish very little if we always had to base our actions on philosophically-derived, certain knowledge of the outcome. According to Molyneux, arguments from morality are much more powerful. We may not be able to perfectly predict the outcome of any action, but principles can guide our behavior even when we do not know the future.

An example may be helpful. If we are trying to decide whether a given government program—say welfare—is “good” or not, the argument from effect requires that we predict not only whether welfare programs will help particular individuals (which is very difficult, since some of welfare’s effects do not appear for years or even decades), but also whether welfare is a net benefit to all of society (compounding the initial problem millions of times over). Even if such a computation were possible, it would take lifetimes to complete.

By contrast, the argument from morality allows us to apply a principle (such as, “the initiation of violence is immoral”) to the question of whether welfare is “good.” Now all we have to do is determine whether the welfare programs in question involve the initiation of violence. In our analysis, we will eventually discover that government-run welfare programs are funded by the collection of taxes. Since taxes are taken from citizens against their will (coercively), and since government welfare programs require the collection of taxes, such welfare programs are only possible because of the coercion inherent in taxation. Government welfare programs are tainted by the violence of the taxes upon which they are based, and are therefore bad—even if their “expected outcome” is good.

Because of the complexities inherent in any system (but particularly in systems of human interaction), it is very difficult to predict the outcome of an action with certainty. The same forces that make weather patterns and economic trends so unpredictable are also at work in many other areas of our lives. We do not know whether treating a stranger with respect will result in a “good” outcome or a “bad” one, because we do not intimately know the details of his or her personality and history. We do not have any control over those things, but we do have control over how we behave in the interaction. Instead of guessing, we can choose to follow a principle.

If we wish to be positive change makers in the world, we have to understand that change is only made by pursuing actions consistent with our desired goals. Gandhi’s much-cited but rarely followed aphorism “Be the change you want to see in the world” captures this truth perfectly. We cannot achieve our goals by pursuing their opposites. Peace cannot be achieved through war. If we wish to see more virtue in the world, no amount of complaining, voting, or violence will get us there. We bring virtue to the world by making ourselves more virtuous—by bringing honesty and respect to our relationships with our children, parents, and friends first. As these virtues radiate through our social networks, we will find that we see the change in the world which we have committed to be.

Thus in practice, no distinction can be made between ends and means. We cannot be violent and expect the world to become peaceful. We cannot be uncaring and expect the world to become empathetic. The ends do not “justify” the means. The ends are the means. The ends which we envision today will be the means by which we seek to achieve new ends tomorrow. We achieve our goals by implementing strategies consistent with those goals. But each day, those strategies are also goals, and the steps for achieving them must be consistent as well. “Ends” and “means” are divided arbitrarily by a distinction without a difference. There are no “ends” or “means.” There is only human action, and we would do well to make the most of it.

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