While reading “The Prince” I came across a passage that dramatically reshaped my understanding of the phrase “the end justifies the means”. The passage (from chapter eighteen) goes like this:
[I]n the actions of men, and especially of princes, from which there is no appeal, the end justifies the means. Let a prince therefore aim at conquering and maintaining the state, and the means will always be judged honorable and praised by every one, for the vulgar is always taken by appearances and the issue of the event; and the world consists only of the vulgar, and the few who are not vulgar are isolated when the many have a rallying point in the prince.
Let’s look at this a little bit.
The first thing to notice about this passage is that Machiavelli is discussing appearances: essentially, public relations. His argument is that, as a matter of fact, people only care about good outcomes, and will (retroactively) forgive any means that deliver those outcomes. When he writes that “the vulgar is always taken by … the issue of the event”, he means issue in the sense of definition 5a or 5c: a final outcome or end.
Justify is an interesting word. It means quite a few things, but definition 1a is “to prove or show to be just, right, or reasonable”. Most people, when bandying about the phrase “the end justifies the means” (or, more commonly, “the end doesn’t justify the means”) seem to be thinking of the work “just” in that definition. Machiavelli was thinking of the other two choices: “right or reasonable”.
All of this means that any discussion of whether or not the “end justifies the means” is really about two things, with two different answers:
- Does this end make this (otherwise questionable) action morally right? (It depends.)
- Will the achievement of this end make this (otherwise questionable) action publicly acceptable? (Usually, yes.)
It seems to me that this is an important distinction to keep in mind whenever discussing unpopular means to a popular end, particularly if you oppose the means; before the end is achieved, you might be able to persuade people that the means are not morally justified, but once the end is delivered, it will practically justify them, whatever you say.