Do the Ends Justify the Means?

 "The ends justify the means.“ - Machiavelli

Machiavelli holds a consequentialist method of thinking, a belief that the morality of one’s actions are based on the overall outcome of said actions. If the consequence of the actions provide a bad outcome, then the action is immoral. If the consequences of the actions provide a positive outcome then the action is moral. In his book "The Prince”, Machiavelli applies consequentialism to politics and government, saying that, to establish a stable government and maintain order, the ruler of a country is justified in taking cruel and pragmatic actions. For example, in the chapter “Cruelty vs. Mercy”, Machiavelli argues that “it is better to be feared than loved”. Through instilling love in one’s subjects, the subjects are likely to forget that love in times of adversity, explains Machiavelli. Fear, however, will always keep subjects loyal. Although torture and punishment might seem cruel and immoral, the benefit of order and maintaining control of one’s subject, according to Machiavelli, justifies the cruelty. Thus, despite the action taken, the consequence of loyalty to the ruler and stability of the country justify the actions taken as completely moral.

“Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so, for my peculiar end:” - Iago

Iago, the rejected lieutenant from the book “Othello” by William Shakespeare, leads a two-faced life in an attempt to take back what was rightfully his. Through a series of manipulations and ploys, Iago seeks to remove Cassio from his position and take it as his own. Usually, we find such manipulation to be immoral and wrong. Lying, we are taught, is wrong. However, Iago, apparently, believes his actions or justified. Through securing the position of lieutenant, Iago believes that he will be doing the world a favor, removing the services of the incapable book-keepr, Cassio, and putting, in Cassio’s place, one more experienced and worthy, himself. Iago, through his actions, demonstrates a consequentialist line of thinking. Despite the means that Iago will take to obtain the position of lieutenant, he believes that the consequence will provide much good to the public as well as himself. Therefore, following a consequentialist line of thinking, Iago believes that his actions of manipulation and persuasion are perfectly moral.

But let’s take this idea of consequentialist thinking into a more applicable light. Cheating. We are all taught that cheating is wrong, that it is even detrimental to ourselves. Why, then, do people cheat? Let’s take this problem into two parts: the means and the ends. By what means do students cheat?… I’m sure you’ve already come up with at least 10. But what end are they trying to achieve? Perhaps the simplest answer would be “to get an A”. This leads to another question: What does that “A” represent? For most people, our happiness is directly tied to this letter scribbled on a piece of paper because it is more than a letter scribbled on a piece of paper. It represents your future success, your parents’ happiness, your self-worth, how others see you, your potential to get into a good college, to get a job. These things are all good consequences of getting an A. That is why people cheat. Because so much emphasis is put on grades, people often think that the benefits of cheating, will justify the immoral act of cheating. And, the more people value grades, the more likely they are to cheat, making high-achieving students, those who care a lot about their grades, more likely to cheat.

Consequentialist thinking leads us to value end results more than the actions we took to obtain that result. The question still remains:

Do the ends justify the means?

-Johnny Dang