2011 – National 8th Grade 2nd Place Award Winner:

Madeleine Lofchy , Illinois.

Do the Ends Justify the Means ?

Do the ends justify the means? Consequentialists believe that any action is right if its outcome is positive. Even ancient philosophers such as Sophocles believed that “the end excuses any evil.” Niccolo Machiavelli himself wrote that “the ends justify the means.” (One should, however, keep in mind that Machiavelli advertised in his work, The Prince, that a good ruler must be willing to use trickery, brute force, and immoral acts to keep peace for the greater good.) It is my opinion that it can never be known whether the ends justify the means, except retrospectively, where we can see the starting point and the ending point and make a judgment from those.

If we take society as a whole and attempt to prove whether or not the ends justify the means, we will discover that it is impossible. The sheer scope of the whole history of mankind is impossible to judge. There are those who believe in natural laws, basic moral codes of conduct upon which everyone agrees. For example, murder is always wrong, theft is always wrong, and the like. But what about a mother who steals a loaf of bread to feed her starving child? Is she not justified? Perhaps, but what if the stolen loaf of bread was meant to feed the baker’s pregnant wife, and due to lack of food, she and her child die? Trying to figure out whether the ends (saving the thief’s starving child) justified the means (stealing the bread) leads to all sorts of complicated “What if…” questions.

“If a butterfly flaps its wings” introduces the butterfly effect, which basically says that one tiny action could lead to something huge. To accept consequentialism, one must also accept that if a, then b, then c, then d, then e, and so on, except that it doesn’t end at z. It keeps going. This debunks consequentialism. A might justify b, but it might not justify q or w.

Consequentialism fails to take into account the human element. We as humans differ from the beasts because we can think, judge, and rationalize. With this comes the ability to decide right and wrong. Anything can be rationalized as long as its outcome is positive. Even negative outcomes can be defended if the original intent were honorable. However, these justifications may seem completely faulty and irrational in the minds of others. As humans, we are unable to determine if the ends justify the means.


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