The end never justifies the means

Text translated from its original version in Spanish

Is it that any act and means is valid as long as there is an end that justifies it or that is categorized as correct? I believe that the diatribe of this question is not to be found in the end that is sought to be achieved, that is not the problem, but rather we should ask ourselves: What means can be used? Undoubtedly, ethical and moral elements come into play. Making use of the legacy of who is, for me, one of the greatest thinkers on ethical issues, Immanuel Kant, and making an interpretation of his postulates, I will justify the reason for my title.

First, I would like to highlight the idea that we should act in a correct way, justifying ourselves in the use of correct rules, regardless of the consequences that are caused by the actions we do. Someone may ask: but how can we guarantee that the consequences of our actions are in accordance with our actions? I understand that, if we act correctly, according to standards universally categorized as such, the consequences could never be negative. Applying this to the subject that concerns us: the means used that, undeniably, are going to be correct — because that is what the universal norm dictates — will never produce a negative end, which, after all, is what we intend to justify. Therefore, from Kantian ethics, justification would be something secondary, what would be in the foreground would be the means employed. And that if in any case a consequence is negative this would be caused by a non-adjustment to the correct moral norms, as for example evil. Therefore, in this case, the means employed -provided they are the correct ones-will justify the end, since there is a known consequence, but in no case could it be the other way around, that is, the end does not justify the means, since if the end to be achieved is negative, it would be necessary to use improper means, that is, contrary to the correct moral norms.

The end cannot justify the means, for the simple and obvious reason that the means employed determine the nature of the ends produced.
(Aldous Huxley).

In contrast -and always in relation to the subject that concerns us- to this thought, we find the utilitarian tendency, to explain it in a simple way, these put the end before the means used. A means will be considered better or worse to the extent that it produces better or worse consequences. Moreover, we must bear in mind that in this current of thought, what will categorize a means as good or bad will be the one that provides the greatest satisfaction to the greatest number of people possible. Now, can we trust that the greatest number of people seek a good end and, therefore, entails the use of adequate and correct means, or can it be the case that the majority see as appropriate an end -and therefore, the use of means that are not correct-that in no case could be so? In short, this tendency would totally disregard moral principles (the means) if the bulk of the population agrees with the end to be achieved, which, I insist, may not be the right one.

To summarize what has been said so far: Kantian ethics considers the integrity and dignity of the person. In such an effort, the end would never justify the means. But utilitarian ethics pursues the improvement of what the majority wants, that is why, very often, the end justifies the means employed. To give an example to clarify concepts: The radical Kantian will choose to save the innocent, even if the consequence is the destruction of the world, and the radical utilitarian will choose to save the world, even if the innocent must die.

From the antagonism of these two ways of seeing the diatribe, I cannot fail to mention the German sociologist Max Weber, who in relation to what we have already seen, Kantian ethics would be the greatest representative of what he would call the ethics of conviction, in which, above all, we would find the moral principles regardless of the end we want to achieve. And what we understand by utilitarian ethics would be what he would call the ethics of responsibility, in which, above all, we must consider the consequences — or the ends — that our actions may entail. In the example of “telling the truth” -as an end-: someone with conviction ethics would have the moral obligation to always tell the truth -as a means-, even if circumstances invite the opposite, in which lying is considered an illicit act. In this same example, someone in whom the ethics of responsibility predominates, the truth would only be told -it would only be justified as an end- if the consequences were favourable to the majority, that is to say, the means would change according to the end to be pursued, either truth or lie, depending on what would provoke the greatest satisfaction to the greatest number of people.

To illustrate what I have just said, I will give an example: Robin Hood, that character who stole from the rich to give it to people with fewer resources, normally -which does not have to be the correct justification- it is thought that the end he pursues is good and, therefore, all the means he uses are justified (either by cheating, lying, stealing), in this example someone may ask why is it justified that someone steals from another person -regardless of the capital they have- if nobody knows how that person has achieved his goods, it could be by meritocracy, by inheritance or for a thousand other reasons? We would understand that the means he uses to deceive and steal are justified in the case that the goods that the person steals do not belong to him, but they would not be justified if the person steals from those who have more than the merit and effort of that person to get his goods. We have on a pedestal those people who never lie, and we qualify them as brave and courageous, a person in whom the ethics of conviction predominates, above all, but our perception changes when for example that same person tells the truth when an innocent person is being sought for a crime he has not committed and tells them where he is. The principle that justifies this remains the same: the end does not justify the means, since lying is wrong.

So, what should we prefer: a person who is governed by principles (means) without considering the consequences (end) or, a person who has no principles and is only driven by the impulse of what he wants to achieve? From my point of view, the person who has principles and acts according to them is more careful than the one who only cares about the consequences, that is, the end -consequences- does not justify the means -principles-.


Huxley, A. (1960). El Fin y los Medios (5ta Edición). Editorial Hermes.

Cite this article (APA): González, M. (2022, February 24th). The end never justifies the means. Filosofía en la Red.

Image | Pixabay

#english version, #ethic, #responsability

por Mercedes González García

Estudiante de la carrera de Filosofía y de Educación Primaria por la Universidad de León de Castilla y León, España. Apasionada de la Filosofía y de la búsqueda de respuestas de las grandes incógnitas que han planteado la raza humana por el simple hecho de existir.

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