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Do the ends justify the means?




Recently, I watched a good movie that got me thinking about one of my favorite subjects, does the end justify the means? Answering this question, I am uncertain.. in order to answer this question, I think it is appropriate to take it to the extreme case - where the desired ends are extremely valuable, but the means to achieve such an end may be incredibly horrific. To illustrate this idea, let us suppose a race of aliens comes and invades earth, and demands 1 billion individuals to serve as their personal slaves, or else they will wipe out all of humanity and the entire earth in the blink of an eye. Assuming that we believe that the aliens are telling the truth, we are left with quite a decision. We have no knowledge if the aliens will be back to demand more tribute or not a second time.

If we play a strictly numbers game, we are talking about 7 Billion people to be wiped out, versus 1 Billion people enslaved and 6 Billion left free - unless there is a pervasive fear that the aliens will return. If we accept the numbers game argument, and look primarily towards the survival of the species, then the remaining question is, "how many can we afford?" If we assume that the 1 billion is essentially lost to the aliens, never to help their race again, how many more can humanity afford to give up? 2 billion? 5 billion? All but two?

This path does not seem necessarily the best way to go, for me. As humans, we are gifted with the ability to think not only for ourselves, but to have some power and direct influence in our surroundings. Given this power, we therefore also have some degree of responsibility that we must take into account - not only are we responsible for the fate of our race, but also for that of the Earth, and the two are necessarily intertwined. We could make the argument that if we sacrifice ourselves as slaves to the aliens, we can help ensure the survival of that which we had responsibility for, the earth. However, we must also keep in mind that we have a responsibility towards each other, so this line of thought does not necessarily fit well with me either.

We could argue this dilemma from the standpoint of the utilitarian - that we should make the decision that can assure the maximized amount of sustained utility (happiness). That would mean that we could calculate (hypothetically), some number of humans that could be taken away as slaves, and so that the rest of us could still maintain a relatively high amount of utility. But that route weighs the utility of one person against that of another to such a degree that it makes it sound like there are some people who inherently deserve more life than others (which may be true, but who can be the ultimate judge on such a thought?) Perhaps we could give away criminals, and various lowlifes? But would that be okay?

The final route, and the one that I'm currently most interested in, might be described as the "give me liberty or give me death" route. The previous arguments assume that the most important thing in life is life itself. That may be true. But I like to imagine that we strive for an ideal beyond simply to live - eat, breath, sleep, have sex. What that ideal is has yet to be defined in my brain, but it certainly does not include selling off my brethren into slavery.

Do you folks have any thoughts on the matter? You don't have to use my example, that's just what I'm going with for now.



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You were watching 'Boondock Saints', weren't you? :D

Now you will receive us.

We do not ask for your poor, or your hungry.

We do not want your tired and sick.

It is your corrupt we claim.

It is your evil that will be sought by us.

With every breath we shall hunt them down.

Each day, we will spill their blood till it rains down from the skies.

Do not kill, do not $%&@, do not steal, these are principles which every man of every faith can embrace.

These are not polite suggestions, these are codes of behavior and those of you that ignore them will pay the dearest cost.

There are varying degrees of evil, we urge you lesser forms of filth not to push the bounds and cross over, into true corruption, into our domain.

For if you do, one day you will look behind you and you will see we three. And on that day, you will reap it.

And we will send you to whatever god you wish.

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Although not on the movie train of thought, if you've read Watership Down, which is what immediately came into my head when you started your example there, it's got an interesting example:

There are a group of rabbits which live in a down and are fed by humans, but every few days one of them is caught/killed by the humans. They are all fed very well and don't have to worry about prey, but to pay for this they pay in lives (randomly chosen). They can up and go at any time, but they stay. In the same situation, what would humans do?

I hope this relates, it's late, and was the first thing that came to mind.

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I'm not sure the question and example fully correspond. You're asking if the end justifies the means, but you don't seem sure that the end itself is desirable (or indeed, even what the end is). Obviously if the end isn't desirable (or known) then nor are the means to get there.

The question itself assumes that the end is desirable, but it is surely the extent to which it is desirable that determines the extent to which the means are justified, whatever those means may be. And an additional, but no less important consideration, is the extent to which the means will affect the end -- perhaps the end is ultimately unachievable through the considered means due to the way they alter the world and its actors (although again perhaps the question itself precludes this possibility).

Ultimately I am reminded of Trotsky's famous quote: "The end may justify the means as long as there is something that justifies the end."

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