Musings on the Ends Justifying the Means

The controversial idea that the end justifies the means is well known. Many would claim they do not agree, some might say that it’s the only way how to get anything done, others prefer the middle way. Yet, it is during times of crisis that our purported convictions are tested. Do we still hold the same views when the situation is uncertain, insecure, dangerous? Or are our views strong only while the metaphorical weather is good?

In times of trouble, we can learn a lot about ourselves and others. Many of these things are normally hidden, perhaps also from our awareness and self-image. In short, we can surprise even ourselves. For example, there is a saying I heard not too long ago – good weather democracy. I find it a very compelling phrasing. It captures the conditionality of democracy as a method of choice in organising our affairs. The condition being, to put it bluntly, that all is well. Of course, many things can be subsumed under the ‘all is well’ condition, but I think that mostly it stands for the feeling of having everything under reasonable control, so that we feel we know, roughly, how our lives will most likely unfold and what we should do.

As long as all is well in this sense we are ready to subscribe to the standards of a democratic way of running things (those same things that we expect to go well). However, these standards often seem to be too high for us when the condition is not fulfilled – when all is not well. We call such situations crises, states of emergency etc. In these circumstances, we are much more readily giving up on the democratic method than under the ‘normal’ conditions (when we feel that ‘all is well’).

It seems justified because it is presented as a sort of sacrifice (a temporary one, everyone hopes) that is required for the greater good (the end that justifies the means). That greater good can be different things, depending on the sort of crisis, but fundamentally it means getting back to the state when we once again feel that ‘all is well’, that everything is under our control.

For sure, I can imagine specific situations where it would be a very sound way to proceed. If, for instance, your child is playing and you notice an immediate source of danger to life approaching, you will be justified in abandoning any sort of usual way of being a parent and will do what it takes to get your child into safety where you can go back to the norm (and probably explain the whole thing to the child). Here it is very clear that the end justifies the means.

But, I wonder, does this analogy apply to all possible scenarios? It cannot, simply because life isn’t made up of just very clear-cut situations. It is more complex. Like democracy – the means of running our affairs that is arguably one of the most complicated out there, yet many of us claim to value it dearly.

So then the question we can ask ourselves is this: if democracy is such a high priority for us as a means of doing things, then what sort of end should be accepted as justifying the suspension of the means? Is democracy conditional? If so, is the ‘all is well’/’good weather’ condition adequate or does it indicate that we are ready to subscribe to the admittedly high standards of democracy only when it is easy to do so? Democracy, of course, is just an example. But as long as it gets us to explore our beliefs, it’s a good example.

keep exploring!

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