The ends justify the means. I’ve heard this statement presented as unshakeable, unalterable fact. It seems to get used when the person speaking is justifying some behavior h/she knows is probably wrong. I’ve seen it used to excuse military actions (usually cloaked in some “we’re bringing democracy to this backwards nation” rhetoric). I’ve seen it used to justify cheating in school in order to get better grades or pass tests. It sounds reasonable, but I’ve never been able to buy into this concept.

I don’t understand how we can consider something a moral victory if, in order to achieve it, we need to become as “bad” as the people we’re fighting. For example the “war on terror” has caused the United States, land of the free and home of the brave, to violate a number of personal freedoms and infringe on our liberties in order to ensure safety. When you ask many average Americans how they feel about airport security and strip searching, their responses tend to be of the “well as long as it keeps us safe” variety. Reality is that no matter what steps we take to prevent “terrorists”, they figure more creative ways to circumvent these measures. We willingly give up our rights for the illusion of safety and believe the ends (keeping us safe) justifies the means (the violation of our personal freedoms and Constitutional rights)

Another aspect of the “war on terror” that many people don’t like but view as a necessary evil is torture. We may cloak it in more politically appropriate terms but basically that’s what it is. The United States is allowing military and intelligence personnel to torture certain individuals in the belief that it will reveal crucial information that will enable our government to defeat terrorists. In reality all that is accomplished is that the individual tortured will say anything, absolutely anything, to make it stop. Cessation of pain is a powerful motivator. I’m not claiming that useful information may not be gained in this way but if we resort to torture and violation of civil and human rights then how are we any better than those we profess are terrorists?

How often have we heard law enforcement personnel makes statements about “knowing” the suspect was guilty of something, even if it was not the specific crime for which he was arrested. In other words, it doesn’t matter if he is wrongfully convicted because in the long run he will commit another crime that would result in his conviction and imprisonment. Putting him away now prevents others from being hurt by his actions so the ends justifies the means. I think what bothers me most about this mindset is the inherent hypocrisy. It implies that any action taken, no matter how repugnant or heinous, is acceptable as long as the outcome is “just”. This mindset is what leads to bombings at abortion clinics and police brutality towards suspects. They may truly believe they are on the side of the righteous, so they are justified in their behaviors.

Adherents to this mindset seem oblivious to the fact that they have become as guilty as those they profess to battle. Are we truly justified in committing atrocities against others because they are “evil”? It seems to me that this battle cry is often wielded when the issue at hand is so subjective that it is impossible to reach an impartial conclusion. As has often been stated, one group’s terrorists are another people’s freedom fighters. And if, as we have so often been assured, history is written by the winners then perhaps we have been deluded in thinking there is such thing as a righteous war or justified means. Maybe there are certain behaviors that are just wrong regardless of reason. Is torture ever really justified? Is cruelty ever justified? Is rape or willfully creating situations that result in the starvation and death of others every justified?

I’m not making any claims to moral superiority. If I don’t engage in this particular form of self-delusion, there are others I seem to commit with wanton abandon. The truth is that I don’t have the answers and even if I did they can only apply to me. I’m not trying to tell others what moral choices they should make. I can only point things out and hope that it makes other folks stop and think for a minute. Maybe if we each consider these issues and lead by example, we can change some attitudes one person at time.