Monday, December 17, 2007

Ends and means

At work today a friend and I were discussing a situation where someone we both knew had been treated quite badly by a religious organisation, which perhaps should have acted better. In fact, if they'd followed their own 'values statement', they wouldn't have done the things they did to end this guy's employment. But then, I always say, if you need to put your values in a statement, then they aren't obvious enough to people in the way you conduct yourself.

Anyway this drifted into a discussion of 'ends and means' and raised the ethical chestnut of 'do the ends ever justify the means?' Specifically, if you're seeking "Kingdom ends" does that mean you should only use "Kingdom means"? After the discussion ended I remembered a quote from Michael Foot, onetime leader of the Labour party, on the subject. A couple of google searches later and I found what I was looking for, although Foot was actually quoting a writer called Ignazio Silone. Here's what he (Foot) wrote:

"Every means tends to become an end," Silone had one of his characters write, and the physical and mental torture of both Italian Fascism and Soviet Communism were known to him as he wrote: "To understand the tragedy of human history it is necessary to grasp that fact."

"Machines which ought to be men's instrument, enslave him, the state enslaves society, the bureaucracy enslaves the state, the church enslaves religion, parliament enslaves democracy, institutions enslave justice, academies enslave art, the army enslaves the nation, the party enslaves the cause, the dictatorship of the proletariat enslaves Socialism."

"The choice and the control of the instruments of political action are thus at least as important as the choice of the ends themselves, and as time goes on the instruments must be expected to become an end for those who use them. Hence the saying that the end justifies the means is not only immoral; it is stupid."

"An inhuman means remains inhuman even if it is employed for the purpose of assuring human felicity. A lie is always a lie, murder is always murder. A lie always ends by enslaving those who use it, just as violence always enslaves those who use it as well as their victims."
In some ways, this reminds me of Nigel Wright's description of 'institutional evil' - when the institution which was set up for the benefit of human beings takes control of those human beings. In terms of religion, it's not a long step to get to Inquisitional Spain, Wahabbi Jihadism, or Pullman's Magisterium when that starts to happen.

On a moral level, I'm often more of an Economic Moralist than anything else - what makes the greatest economic sense? So, for example, the death penalty costs less than keeping a serial rapist in prison, and keeps society safer too. I actually think that's a strong moral argument, because the money you'd save by not keeping dangerous, anti-social criminals alive could be ploughed into medical research or another worthy cause.

But I'm also aware that the means will become the end. If I base my decisions on purely economic grounds, then I lose a sense of the humanity involved, by reducing all moral activity to its economic impact.

And if I pursued that course then I would lose a sense of what makes me human too, because my own self-worth would be bound up in my economic productivity. Admittedly my economic productivity could be measured on a number of different levels, but still I don't think it would paint the complete picture of who or what I am

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