2011 – Most Philosophical Student in America:

Dan Rohr, New Jersey.

Do the Ends Justify the Means ?


The ends do not justify the means. The question of whether or not this is the case is fairly simple: do aspirations to positive or moral ends justify the use of immoral means? There have been philosophers that have said that this is the case. Others have said that the standard should be based on calculation. However, these ideas show themselves to neglect the lives of individuals.

1932 saw the beginning of the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment. In this experiment, US Public Health Investigators studied the syphilis infections of 198 impoverished, black sharecroppers in Alabama. The “participants” in the study were not told they had syphilis, but rather, “bad blood.” Enticed to participate with offers of free medical treatment, these men were in fact denied any treatment that was available. Instead, their treatment consisted of painful spinal taps to further study the disease. This study, which lasted until 1972, was conducted for the sake of investigating the possibility of a cure.

Today, there are laws against the type of conduct in this study. However, philosophers like Jeremy Bentham, who said the ends justify the means, would applaud such actions. Bentham said that whether an action should be taken relies upon a moral calculation that essentially comes down to whether the action does more good than harm. After all, this study might have cured syphilis, for the small cost of 200 lives. The problem with this reasoning is that the individual life is meaningless in the face of the “greater good.” To Bentham, those men were mere chunks of meat to be fed to the system for the faint possibility of a cure, without regard for their pain and suffering. Though medical ethics was not his niche, Machiavelli has his prince treat individual lives with similar cavalier disregard. For example, Machiavelli condones murder for the sake of creating a functioning, peaceful state. This is the exact same idea as that of the study. Individual lives are but cannon fodder to the greater good.

Indeed, that is the problem with philosophies that have the ends justify the means. For all the good the espouse for humanity, they are horrendous for people. This is because an immoral act is such because it causes harm. As Hume said, morality is artificial, but not arbitrary. Any philosophy that lets the ends justify the means must, therefore, state that the benevolence to the many outweighs the malevolence to the few. As shown in Bentham and Machiavelli, when taken to their logical extremes, they can be used to justify heinous acts against innocent people, like the Tuskegee experiment. On the other hand, thinkers with the opposite position, like Kant and Hume, cannot be used such. Kant’s categorical imperative, for example, does not allow for deception of any kind, as it is hard to imagine a world in which everyone lies about everything. In general, that is the difference between the ends justifying the means and not. In the latter, the rights of individual lives are preserved.



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