Do the Ends Justify the Means?

Do the Ends Justify the Means? March 28, 2014

Religion Outlines for Colleges, Course 1, John M. Cooper

Yesterday’s post on religious freedom provoked an interesting combox discussion that comes down to a single question: Does a good end (the elimination of a horrible disease) justify xyz coercive measures?

It was an ironic debate in so many ways, including the bit about how I have a novel draft sitting on my laptop which features, among other heroic ventures, a benevolent despot implementing all kinds of coercive measures to stop the spread of an epidemic.  I’m a hopeless American patriot myself, but it turns out my characters are not.  I’ll have to think about whether the novel needs some editing to avoid fueling the fires of totalitarianism.

Meanwhile . . . ethics.  The book you want, and will have difficulty obtaining, is Religion Outlines for Colleges: Course 1, by John M. Cooper.  Originally published in 1924, revised edition 1935, and reprinted over and over until smoking went out of fashion*.  I’m a big fan of vintage of Catholic textbooks, having had the good fortune of living around the corner from a St. Francis College Alumn who donated much of his collection to my favorite local thrift store.  (It’s now St. Francis University, and I have no idea if it’s any good, but it was back in the day, judging from the textbooks.)

I re-read this text every few years, and the explanation of how ethics works is so clear I still have it bookmarked from last time I had to write about this stuff, though my scrap of pink paper is now yellowed where it sticks out from the page.  What you need to know, from pp. 144-145, on how to evaluate the morality of an action:

Two basic principles enter in: the principle of parallel effects and the principle of ends-and-means.

That “parallel effect” is often known by the name “double effect”.  Shoddy thinking tends to confuse it with ends-and-means, so pay attention.

The principle of parallel effects may be expressed as follows: It is ethically permissible to perform an act good or indifferent in itself, from which follow immediately and simultaneously two effects, the one good and the other bad, provided that only the good effect is intended or aimed at and provided further that the good resulting equals or outweighs the bad.

This is the principle that makes the use of deadly contraptions, such as bath tubs and automobiles, ethically permissible.  So long, of course, as your intent in using such death-traps is a good one.  If you’re trying to get yourself or someone else killed, there’s no wink-wink just going for a looong bath, if you catch my meaning, hehe.  That would be immoral.  But if you hop in the tub firmly intending just to take a long-but-not-fatal soak, you aren’t culpable of suicide if your perilous hygeine habits lead to a genuinely accidental demise.  Quit scrupling, tub-users.

Likewise, this is the prinicple that makes it acceptable to undergo potentially deadly or certainly-disabling medical treatments, if the good effect is proportionate.  The more dire the treatment, the more dire the illness being treated needs to be.

Now, onto the meat of our topic, ends-versus-means:

The principle of ends-and-means is expressed more simply: it is never ethically permissible to use a means evil or bad in itself for a good end.

In other words, you may not do evil that good might come of it.

For a classic example where these two principles meet, consider the case of legitimate self-defense:

2263 The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. “The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor…. the one is intended, the other is not.”65

2264 Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow:

If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful…. Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s.

2265 Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another’s life. Preserving the common good requires rendering the unjust aggressor unable to inflict harm. To this end, those holding legitimate authority have the right to repel by armed force aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their charge.66

(Quotes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.)

The meeting of these two principles is how we end up with prisoners of war: If you must kill the attacking enemy in order to safeguard your borders, so be it.  But if the guy survives, surrenders, and no longer poses a threat, you don’t get to execute him out of spite.

What about hard cases?

Most sloppy thinking about ethics concerns things that just aren’t that difficult.  The tendency is to justify wrong-doing by overstating the severity of the case, and then announcing how it would be just impossible to do the right thing.  Time honored spiritual advice from the saints: Don’t be a whiner.

We also have to keep in mind that not all moral principles are absolutes.  For example, the virtue of obedience (yes, that’s really a virtue) ends where immorality begins.  There’s no obligation to follow an illegal order.  The trick is discernment.  Our tendency is to get obedience all backwards, and dig in our heels about things that are only unpleasant, but then hide behind cries of “just following orders” when in fact our obligation is to take a principled stand despite the cost.  The reality is that sometimes doing the right thing requires total sacrifice.

But hard cases happen.  You don’t get to murder your friend in the life raft so that you may eat him, even though you’ll starve to death otherwise.  (But if he dies of natural causes . . .  okay let’s not think about that.)  For a sin to be mortal — that is, deadly to the life of your soul– it needs to meet three criteria:

  • It must be a serious matter.  Stealing a stick of gum will nearly always be a venial (lesser) sin, though I suppose if you get creative you could think up a situation where it was a grave matter.
  • You  must know it is wrong.  If you don’t realize you are doing something wrong, your guilt is lessened.  It’s still objectively wrong.  But it doesn’t have the meaning of “God, I’m in charge now, go to Hell.” Don’t try to deceive yourself on this one.
  • You must freely choose to do it. Again: Objectively the serious matter is still a serious sin.  But if you did it against your will, your personal guilt is lessened.

The last criteria offers an abundance of mercy for those pressed by the hard cases.  Men are weak.  We do the wrong thing.  We find it difficult to hold the course when great sacrifice is required.  This does make our actions right.  But an act done in desperation has a different meaning than an act freely chosen.

For the purposes of forming our consciences, however, it is imperative that we understand clearly what is right and what is wrong.

Where do vaccines and dictators come into this?

First, a reminder (again from Cooper, Religion Outlines) that these ethical principles aren’t just for Catholics:

These two principles are not peculiar to Catholic ethics.  They are basic in any ethical system.  In fact without them ethical systems and ethical conduct would not be possible.  Deny or abolish the principle of parallel effects, and practically everything we do will be sinful; for practically everything we do, however indifferent or good morally it be, has some minor or remote evil effect.  Deny or abolish the principle of ends-and-means, and practically nothing, however heinous, we do will be sinful; for practically every moral evil known to mankind can be done for some good and desirable end or another.

If you throw out these principles, you’re left with a moral system of, “I’ll do what I feel like.”

So, in evaluating the vaccine policy case, our questions are:

  • Which means of promoting vaccination are moral?
  • Which means of promoting vaccination are inherently immoral?
  • If my means is morally acceptable, are the bad (but undesired) side effects proportionate to the good I hope to accomplish?

The last question comes into play in the case of competing goods.  Interestingly, in the case of the contraceptive mandate, the Obama administration** finds itself on the side of the religiously-inspired dictators of centuries gone by.  Is it acceptable to shut down a man’s business, seize his goods, and deprive him of his livelihood in order to achieve the end of enticing women to use more contraceptives?  That is what the current administration is claiming.


*One of the interesting things about vintage Catholic writing is the ambivalent attitude towards smoking.

**Lest you mistake me for a Republican shill, observe my name happily displayed among those who oppose the use of torture instituted by the previous regime.  I liked it a lot better back when torture and oppression were fodder for Monty Python skits, and not the stuff of breathless defenses on both sides of the American political divide.


 Bookcover Image courtesy of

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