Home > Philosophy > On Means, Ends and Ethics

On Means, Ends and Ethics

I promised I would write a post explaining why taxation is ok following this exchange on The Compassionate Conservative.

Thomas H.: Government can be funded through voluntary donation only. A lottery and payment for the protection of contracts are one way this can be achieved. These methods of raising funds, as well as private donations, would be enough to provide funding for a righteous system. The U.S. Patent system stands as an example of how this can be done.

Free Radical: A lottery wouldn’t be very profitable without a government-enforced monopoly which I assume you wouldn’t support. In fact this would just be the government competing in a market activity for profit which is a very bad idea. It would be better to just have taxes you just need to keep them from being used to redistribute wealth which is not all that complicated.

Thomas H.:  I agree with you about the lottery comment, but that doesn’t change the fact that taxation is theft by definition and theft is wrong.

But that ended up opening a big can of worms so I have to do a preliminary post establishing some things about morality.  I begin with the proposition that the ends justify the means.  However, most people who rely on this adage are not applying it correctly because they are not accounting for all of the ends.  For instance, if a man wants to bring about world peace, and goes about this by conquering the world leaving a trail of death and destruction in his wake and then claims that the ends (world peace) justify the means (trail of death and destruction) he is  mischaracterizing the latter.  The trail of death and destruction is part of the ends.  You may still claim that it’s worth it for world peace but you are weighing ends against ends.  If you must lie to accomplish something and lying harms someone else or harms your reputation, these are all ends.  Depending on your morals it may or may not be worth it, but again, it’s ends against ends.

If all of the ends of a certain course of action taken together are justified then the means are justified.  In fact there is no other way of justifying any means but the ends.  The thing that makes a hammer a good tool is the fact that it is a means of driving a nail (an end) that is relatively easy (another end) and inexpensive (another end).  You take all of these ends, put them together and if they are good, then the means (the hammer) are justified.  If you tried to drive a nail with a herring you would most likely find that, if you can manage to get the nail driven at all, it will be at a much higher cost than some alternative method, thus the herring is not a justified means of driving a nail.

Believe it or not, that’s basically economics, so let’s turn to ethics now.  For the purpose of this post, allow me to put forth two definitions.  These are not exactly the common definitions of these words but they highlight an important distinction for our purposes.

Morals: The sense someone has about what is right and wrong.

Ethics: A rule or set of rules a person uses to make decisions about their actions and behavior.

Morals are subjective and are beyond our control.  They can change but we can’t choose to change them.  If we had perfect information about all the ends which would result from a course of action, then we could evaluate the morality of them in relation to our own subjective morals and decide whether that course of action is “justified.”  If this were the case (perfect information), we would have no need for ethics.  But of course this is not the situation in which we find ourselves.

In reality the consequences of any course of action are usually numerous and either partially or entirely veiled in mystery.  Because of this it would be impossible to actually evaluate our actions based on the ends.  If someone were to take this approach to morality, they would almost certainly commit frequent moral transgressions out of pure ignorance.  In addition, in the presence of this ignorance, there are many forms of bias which are likely to creep into their decision-making.  For instance, they may tend to minimize the importance of potential but uncertain adverse effects on others and magnify more certain advantages to themselves, or they may favor current benefits over those which are far-off.  The bottom line is that, by adopting certain ethical rules, they may force themselves to make decisions which add up to a better life than if they tried to address the morality of every situation independently.  These ethics may not lead you to make the correct moral decision every time, it is enough that they cause you to err less often than you would without them.

For instance, take the boy who cried wolf.  This is a story about a boy who does not understand all of the implications of his actions.  He knows that lying causes amusing results in the short run but is entirely unaware of the long-term consequences for his reputation.  This condition applies to most children and that is the reason for the fable.  It is meant to teach children about this other consequence and ideally instill in them the ethic “thou shalt not lie.”  It is clear to most parents that if their child were to adopt this ethic they would end up better off than without it.  Of course if they could somehow grant their child complete knowledge of the consequences of every action they take, this would be even better, but in lieu of this, “thou shalt not lie” is a helpful rule of thumb.

Of course, the boy who is convinced to adopt the ethic “thou shalt not lie” may eventually get married and be asked by his wife whether or not she looks fat.  Assuming she does in fact look fat, a man who approaches each decision independently is likely to conclude that this is a situation where a lie is justified by the ends.  Alternatively, if he makes the decision based on an ethic against lying, he will not even attempt this calculation and will simply tell the truth.  The consequences of this may add up to something undesirable in this case.  However, if the cost in this case and other similar cases where he may make the “wrong” decision based on his ethic are less than the costs from the “wrong” decisions he would make our of ignorance when making decisions in the absence of the ethic, then the ethic is beneficial.  Similarly, he may find himself in a situation where the fate of the entire universe depends on him telling a lie, but this scenario is probably so unlikely that it is worth the risk. (In practice, of course, reason may often overrule an ethic in situations where it is sufficiently obvious that the result of breaking it will be more desirable than following it).

Notice that the boy who cried wolf has no moral aversion to lying.  If he did, then he would have no need for an ethic against it.  This too is representative of most children.  The things our morals relate to are all ends.  Admittedly I am defining “ends” in such a way that this must be true, so if a child did have a natural moral aversion to lying (which is certainly possible since morals are subjective) then not lying would become an end in itself.  But typically, we don’t have this moral naturally which means lying is a means to some other set of ends (known or unknown) which allow for some moral evaluation.  If someone did have a moral aversion to lying, then the ethic may not be necessary (it’s possible that this moral may come into conflict with another moral and if, when this happens, the complete consequences are unknown and tend to favor not lying, then the ethic may still be beneficial).  Indeed, the ethic often becomes a moral aversion to lying eventually and this is relevant to my ultimate point about government but you will have to wait for the next post to see what I mean.

It’s worth noticing that children, whose knowledge and reasoning capability are much less developed than those of an adult, rely most heavily on ethical rules.  Ethics are a way of taking some widom about the world that someone may not be able to completely grasp and put it into a form that is easy to understand.  It is not possible to explain to a child all of the possible consequences of lying, but it is possible to convince them that lying is bad.  (I think the largest cause of casualties among the ranks of objectivist types who decry all systems of ethics is that they eventually have children) As we grow older and wiser we often relax some of our ethics because we become more comfortable with our ability to make decisions individually without that guidance.   However, most of us still hold on to many of our ethics because our knowledge and reasoning ability always remain far short of perfection.

So to sum up, God (or nature or whatever you want to call this thing) has endowed us with some set of morals.  In addition, we have been endowed with the ability to reason but this is imperfect and cannot always inform us of all the consequences of our actions before hand.  This leaves a gap between where we stand at any moment and the ends which we ultimately wish to pursue or avoid.  “Means” are the various ways in which we can bridge that gap.  Our morals determine what we want to pursue or avoid but do not tell us how to get there.  Approaching every situation with the pure force of our own reason is likely not the most effective way to approach life so we adopt certain ethics which are rules of thumb regarding means designed to lead us more often than not to the ends which we find morally desirable.

Categories: Philosophy Tags: ,
  1. January 6, 2012 at 12:25 am

    So, why is taxation “ok”? I didn’t see it in there. haha. Is this going to be in the next post?

  2. Free Radical
    January 6, 2012 at 7:46 pm

    Yes that’s what I said at the beginning and the end. But I had to prepare the ground first.

  1. January 18, 2012 at 1:14 am

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