The Ends Justify the Means on Weekends and Holidays and… Always…

I was reading my favorite socialist blogger when I came across an article that I pretty fervently disagree with.  It is on the “theory of second best” and its application outside of economics and policy.  The idea is that because we do not live in an ideal world we may have to engage in acts that are ethically or morally wrong in order to arrive at an improved state of the world.  However, the author, Chris Dillow, points out, rightly, that “There is, though, a massive problem with such second-best thinking – it can justify pretty much anything.”

This is just “ends justify the means” morality in a different form and as everyone knows, this is the inherent weakness of the philosophy.  Anyone can rationalize their actions under the auspices that their ultimate goal warrants the (literal or figurative) blood on their hands.  In fact when people decry this philosophy this is the implicit argument that they are making.  However, the only possible way to make any decision is to employ this strategy.  I give up much of my free time to go to work and make money because I believe the ends (money) justifies the means (working).  Similarly we take money from people (a violation of private property) to fund programs that we believe enhance the welfare of all citizens more than the cost of seizing private property.  This is always the moral calculus we engage in.

I guess the only time you don’t need to justify your ends are situations that are in a sense “no-brainers.”  If I have a bunch of leftovers I wasn’t going to eat anyway and I give them to a homeless person, it really entailed no sacrifice on my part to give them to him.  It was a non-decision.  At the same time this also washes away any goodness associated with the act.  To pick up a strain of thought in Dillow’s piece, engagement with an imperfect world does not sully us.  I would argue that it is in fact through this interaction that our moral worth is assayed.  A perfect world would not require sacrifice (nor would it allows harm) so how would we ascertain the morality of an act?

However, I digress.  My point is that despite the fact that you must always justify your means by your ends only under the most extreme moral relativism does that mean that if a person believes that the consequences of his actions will outweigh the costs of the action itself that the action is morally permissible.  This is why we form societies and governments and democratically elect leader so that people can come to an agreement on which actions are justified.  This should be obvious, but instead I suspect many people would disagree that “ends should justify means” after numerous media portrayals of heroes and villains that ostensibly deny or manipulate this doctrine.  Of course as my earlier post on macro morality discusses, they are often in the wrong.

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