Thursday, January 1, 2009

The End & the Means

A long time without posting, a long time without interesting thoughts. Working too much will do that to you. Niccolo' Machiavelli, indeed, praised those hours when lack of busyness allows the time to think and ideally converse with the ancient philosophers. But that is topic for another post.

Right now, instead, I'll face down another, much more famous, idea of Machiavelli's. Succinctly put, the idea that the end justifies the means. Before going further, however, let's clarify that Machiavelli actually never said "the end justifies the means". He merely argued to that effect, e.g.
"Those cruelties we may say are well employed, if it be permitted to speak well of things evil, which are done once for all under the necessity of self-preservation, and are not afterwards persisted in, but so far as possible modified to the advantage of the governed" (The Prince, Chapter VIII).
This is justified by the argument that
"anyone who would act up to a perfect standard of goodness in everything must be ruined among so many who are not good" (The Prince, Chapter XV).

This position has been fired upon so many times and from so many different sides of the philosophical spectrum that it would normally feel like a cheap shot. Except I consider myself a realist and that my personal inclination has always been rather to agree with the idea, feeling the criticism was either unconvincing or ideologically motivated. In addition, I thought that as I aged and lost the idealism of youth, I would agree more and more with this position. To my surprise, instead, the rivets that held this belief in place have been methodically ripped away by unforeseen realizations.

Far from a remote philosophical debate, this issue is at the core of both private and public morality. How far will you go to save someone's life? How strictly do you enforce rules for your children? How forcefully do you stop a drunk friend from driving? Or an aging parent from making a bad decision? What justifies taking someone's life? Is violence of the oppressed many against the oppressing few a sacred right, a sad necessity, or a shortcut to more troubles? When can the rights of a people be suspended for their own protection?
I cannot know all individual stories, but it seems to me that in public life through history the application of this principle has visited the most cruel and devastating tragedies on humankind. It has provided rationalization for terrorists, inquisitors, tyrants, as well as for those who would fight them through any means. It tends to show up cloaked in words like: "for the greater good", "God's will", "national security", "for your own sake", "you'll thank me later", or at least "necessary evil".

I find two fundamental and fatal flaws in the principle:

1) There is no allowance for imperfect information, or doubt.

In theory, we can know that a certain end is good. In practice, we never do, and we should give proper consideration to that humbling truth. The farther in the future the end is, and the more flimsy the evidence, the less certain we can be that a specific end is actually desirable. The end is always in the future, the means are always in the present, so we are intrinsically in a better position to judge the desirability of the means than that of the ends.

In fact, we can never be sure about how good or bad an outcome is. There is a wonderful little zen story about a farmer whose mare is stolen. Neighbors come to visit and commiserate him: "Such bad luck! This is a terrible tragedy!". To which he only replies "Maybe...". A few days later the horse escapes and comes back, followed by a great stallion from the thieves' herd. Back come the neighbors, but to congratulate him: "What a wonderful thing! This is great luck!". And again, he only replies "Maybe...". Days later, his son tries to ride the stallion, falls, and breaks a leg, leaving the farmer temporarily without a much needed hand in the fields for the harvest. Unfailingly, the neighbors show up: "What bad luck, what tragedy!", to receive the same reply. A few weeks later, the conscription officials visit the village and reject his son due to the injury. You see where the story can go.

Finally, it's hard enough to judge how good something is for you. Determining that something is good for somebody else is yet harder: parents can do so confidently for babies, but less and less so as children grow up. And proclaiming something is undoubtedly good for everybody reveals limited understanding, grandiose self-preception, or both. Precisely the kind of poor judgement you don't want in someone making decisions for everybody.

Moral utilitarians will provide numerous colorful examples to support their argument, though. These abound in those late night conversations with friends people have in their early twenties: "If it was in your power to kill one person of your choice and thereby save millions of starving children, would you do it? What if the person was chosen for you? What if it's a person you love dearly?". Or in various hypothetical situations: "You are a judge in the Jim Crow South. A mob shows up at your house in the middle of the night, holding a beaten-up black man. They claim he killed a little girl and demand you sentence him to hanging. You know for a fact the person is innocent, but you also know that if you don't comply, the mob will go into a frenzy and attack the black part of town, killing many more innocents, and will lynch the man anyways."
I need not emphasize the reliance such arguments and examples have on perfect information, not only of the present, but also of the future, in a way that the real world never warrants. In fact, such examples are often preceeded by statements like "Assume that you can trust everything will take place as described, and all statements are truthful". Just when can you do that in real life?

2) It confuses the end with the means.

Notice how in these situations the end is always a lofty, but abstract object: the Good, security, success, a good life, your soul, justice, peace, freedom. The means are always prosaic but very concrete: a particular person (or group) gets silenced, constrained, humiliated, locked up, beaten, tortured, killed, or otherwise injured.

This is where the complexity of our reasoning blinds us to a simpler reality. Why do we pursue justice, peace, security, productivity etc.? Because they are good for people, of course! So people are our ultimate end, it seems, while freedom, success, wealth, etc. are the means to ensure people's happiness. It is almost too obvious. But why then advocate trampling over people (the real end) to achieve those abstract objects (the means)?

It is a maddening substitution, but one that we make all too often in a complex society. We worry about raising the GDP of a country, rather than the economic well-being of individuals; we want to raise standardized test scores of a school, rather than ensuring a particular student gets a concept; we strive to raise productivity (so people can have more money and free time) rather than allow employees to enjoy their time at work. The list goes on, with measurements and indices - devised as means to achieve a certain good end - substituting the end itself.

I am convinced that this swap is usually well-meant and involuntary. But correcting it is essential to comply with Kant's categorical imperative, in its second formulation: "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end".

If we must reject the Machiavellian principle on these grounds, we can appreciate the strength of Ghandi's idea of non-violent struggle, by which action is taken without resorting to the same means we oppose. And we have a blueprint for what to do next time we are offered repugnant means to achieve a greater end. As a way of inspiration, the best artistic rendition of this conclusion, to me, is the quest to destroy the One Ring in J.R.R. Tolkien's epic The Lord of the Rings.

It sounds like a victory for dharmic ethics over utilitarianism. But Ethics is a difficult and humbling field, where the more you delve into a seemingly simple issue the greater the complexity that is revealed; so I am prepared to have this conclusion turned upside down later in my life. But right now, for the sake of rational coherence and against my instincts, I must think that no end justifies unethical means.