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[Discussion] Ends and means

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Oct. 3rd, 2006 | 03:20 pm
posted by: pifactorial in revicon

I saw a definition of pragmatism once, that read roughly like this:
The willingness to set aside an ideal, when it is prudent in order to achieve a more immediately important ideal.

Fiction immemorial has glorified this trait in its heroes, from Robin Hood to Jack Bauer. The problem with this pragmatism is that it's an example of the ends justifying the means. Does the fact that I give to the poor justify me robbing from the rich?

Kant, whom I admire but don't always agree with, laid down the Categorical Imperative. It was basically a generalized version of the Golden Rule, saying, "Always act according to principles you would want everyone to adhere to." In turn, the Imperative says that morally, the ends never, ever justify the means.

Kant even said, since lying is immoral, it would be immoral to lie to a murderer to try to prevent them from committing a murder. While, based on his worldview, he makes a pretty good argument for this, it seems like hogwash to me. At very least, it's the exact opposite of the pragmatism I described above.

I doubt anyone here believes the ends always justify the means. But do the ends ever justify the means? If so, under what circumstances? Which ideals are okay to "set aside", and which ones aren't?

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Comments {5}

Ashen the grey

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from: ashenfox
date: Oct. 3rd, 2006 10:55 pm (UTC)

Taken to its logical end, "the ends justify the means" when taken as categorically and inerrantly correct is an overstatement at best. It reveals a worldview in which a man sets himself up as judge of what the best ends are.
Nevertheless, saying "the ends sometimes justify the means" is consistent with certain highly unusual circumstances, as in the above example about lying to a murderer to prevent a murder...or the more classic example of lying about the location of one or more allied parties to protect them from certain destruction (for which Rahab the prostitute of Jericho was highly honored). I think that the circumstance in which an otherwise objectively wrong behavior (such as lying) is justifiable to prevent a greater evil may be generally defined: to wit, that the person(s) against which the "lesser evil" is used is/are so entrapped by evil and lies that the truth is defined by their worldview to mean "what they want to hear." I suppose this line of thought could also be logically related to why it is not murder to kill an enemy in war...but that is a tangent.

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Stoker Bramwell

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from: stokerbramwell
date: Oct. 4th, 2006 03:02 am (UTC)

I'm with Ashen, here. One can always find oneself in exceptional circumstances that might require a certain bending of the rules, as it were. But that's just it: they're exceptions. In the normal run of things, there's still no excuse.

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Recovering Cynic

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from: thatcatgirl
date: Oct. 5th, 2006 01:50 am (UTC)

I view it more simply (but agree with what you'd do). In something like the "Nazis at the door" scenario* (which convinced me that there are some situations where you should lie), lying seems the better option. Lying is wrong, but so is being an accessory to murder. Neither is right to det aside, but if you find yourself in a situation where all the options you know of are wrong, you have to ask yourself which is more wrong and avoid that.

For those who haven't come across it yet, hypothetical situation: You live in Nazi Germany. You are hiding a Jewish family in your house. One day, soldiers knock on your door and ask you "Are there any Jews here?". You could tell him no, which would be lying. You could tell him yes, which would likely result in their deaths.

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from: ponsdorf
date: Oct. 4th, 2006 10:07 am (UTC)

The martyr sets the standard? Pretty harsh judge, I think.

Perhaps using 'compromise' in place of 'pragmatism' is a gentler label for those decisions we all have to make just to live each day?

Just what is an 'ideal' anyway? Isn't it just a bit of wishful thinking for humans, but reserved for the divine?

I'm no fan of moral relativism, nor am I fan of martyrs. I want black and white, but life, and living, sets the standard. And it's pretty much gray.

So far as means and ends... [shrug] Frequently only hindsight can judge.

My take on Kant and the Categorical Imperative is simple minded. We try to learn what is right(a priori), we try to do what is right (good will), but being only human we are, in fact, limited (the intelligible world vs the sensible world).

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from: lavendergem
date: Oct. 4th, 2006 05:20 pm (UTC)

I think Kant's Categorical Imperative has to be viewed through the lens of what is the actual True Absolute. What is the Moral Standard by which we are asking the question of ends and means and justification? If God is not in the equation, then it is a question of situational ethics, and things just get ridiculously silly from here. If God is part of the equation, you eventually have to bring Christ into it, and He sets the standards and you have to look at what He did and said and follow His lead.

In my Bible Study group one night, we stumbled across something that i think is relevant here. Unfortuantely, I cannot remember the exact reference, but there was a point were Jesus did not tell the whole truth. In fact... He implied one thing, the Pharisees inferred another, and He didn't bother to correct them. So He didn't lie but He wasn't exactly crystal clear with the truth either.

Since He, not Kant, is the true Setter of Standards, i think this makes for a far more interesting case study.

I need to try and figure out where and under what biblical context we were discussing this though... In our discussion, we talked about how this would affect Christians in such circumstances as hiding Jews in Nazi Germany, or Slaves during pre-Civil War America or the persecuted church in Asia or Muslim countries of today.

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