Escape your life for a little while — come play in mine.

Do the means justify the ends?

Posted by Lissa on September 2, 2010

“The ends do not justify the means.” 

We’re all familiar with the statement; it’s right up there with the Golden Rule. Examples: Convicting a criminal is no good if you planted evidence to do so.  Giving money to the homeless doesn’t count if you mugged your neighbor to get the cash.  Etc., etc.  

Bret Stephens, however, considers the opposite: Can the means justify the ends? [I think this might be subscriber only]

The deeper political idea at work here is that moral inputs are the essential ingredients to—and ultimately more important than—pragmatic outputs. Charitably speaking, this means leading by persuasion and example, always going the last mile for peace, giving others (or, “the other”) the benefit of the doubt and so on. The real-world benefits are supposed to flow naturally from there, but if they don’t, so what? Doing right is its own reward.

Uncharitably speaking, this is what might be called the Paula Abdul theory of foreign policy, after the famously forgiving former judge on American Idol. Never mind that you can’t sing, or that you’re letting yourself be played for a sucker: What counts is that you feel good about yourself, presumably because you’re doing something good. Another name for this kind of thinking is moral narcissism.


The Obama administration’s approach to Iran is another instance of moral narcissism in action. It took a peculiar political conceit to imagine that the Islamic Republic was a misunderstood creature, offended by Bush administration arrogance, that would yield to President Obama’s charm offensive.

Then again, President Obama’s approach wasn’t dictated by a long train of examples of the Islamic Republic rebuffing every diplomatic overture made to it, or by a sober assessment about the drift of its politics in recent years. Nor did the president seem much concerned about the consequences of Iran playing the U.S. for a fool while it again played for time for its nuclear programs.

But, again, none of this really matters, because the real point of the diplomatic outreach wasn’t pragmatic; it was about the administration and its supporters demonstrating that they were the good guys vis-a-vis Iran. I doubt even Glenn Beck needed proof of this.

Anyone else thinking of Live 8?  You know – that wonderfully magical concert that was going to change the world. 

The public are still passionate about changing the world, he believes. That feeling is “still immense and very intense”.

“It hasn’t gone away – it just doesn’t have the huge media circus that revolved around the whole build-up to the Live 8 concerts and G8 summit last year.”

Live 8 made people realise that they could do something about poverty, according to Barbara Stocking, director of Oxfam GB, one of the main partners in the Make Poverty History coalition.


“I think that was the difference,” she says. “I don’t pretend that everybody’s remembered that, but I think there was a change in attitude.”

“Moving on from there, for people like us, the issue is – how do you keep that sense of commitment and involvement going? Because things wear off after the great event.”

Global activists

Celebrity extravaganzas are valuable because they attract more attention than charities could on their own, she says.

There is now “a lot more interest” in poverty and other global issues as a result, she says. [emphasis mine]

But she adds: “Keeping the public really engaged and interested to such an extent that the politicians feel moved to keep on is still quite hard.”

“Changes were made, which is great, but it all went terribly quiet straight afterwards.”

Solving poverty is hard.  In fact, I think it’s impossible.  “The poor will always be with us” and all that.  I haven’t a clue how to do it.  We give our monthly donation to the local food bank and go about our business.

But hey . . . if you can’t fix poverty, how about throwing a huge mega-concert with lots of attention, fanfare and flashbulbs?  Suh-WEET!  And if we get people TALKING about poverty, that’s BETTER than actually trying to raise money!  Because we’re SPREADING THE WORD and MAKING PEOPLE THINK! 

There weren’t any visible ends.  But the warm fuzzy means justified the lack of ends.

Now lather, rinse, repeat, and apply to everything from gun control laws to DDT bans to “new math” to Al Gore’s jetsetting to . . .

2 Responses to “Do the means justify the ends?”

  1. Brad K. said


    “But officer, as long as I get to work today, what does it matter how fast I was driving?”

    I think this is what Ben Franklin meant about “penny wise and pound foolish”.

    There is a piece on American.com (The Journal of the American Enterprise Institute) about the loss of upward mobility in society and in the economy.

    It turns out, that growing the middle class reduces poverty. That is, as more opportunity for work for middle income lives, the more poor people step in to fill the open job and craft slots. The more people in lower incomes – the more communication and transfer of knowledge, skills (I think), and useful assistance to the poor.

    What Obama is doing is attacking the wealthy. This is short sighted, because no where is there a mechanism that punishes one class that benefits classes lower on the totem pole. (The opposite, unfortunately, does happen. For short periods of time; it balances out in the end.) Obama’s “rob Peter to pay Paul” scam is only robbing America and enriching SEIU and other unions – and not doing over much for the union workers, either.

    Obama could follow Reagan’s example with Patco, and disband SEIU. That might actually pay off for the Democrats this next election. And maybe take his IRS, and strip out most of the complexity and high rates of taxes. Cut funding and scope of the EPA, disband the DEA and Homeland Security as failed, bad ideas. Shut down the Dept of Education, since local school districts are the ones actually tasked with running public schools. Focus the ATF on import and chasing contraband weapons – and stop them from regulating businesses and licensing operations. Obama could fix a lot of things with a couple of Executive Orders. Why, he could even ride a Unicorn over the Rainbow to get to work, I suppose.

  2. […] wrote back in September 2010 about how, for some people and in some instances, the means justify the ends. I was exploring the idea that results are not necessary for those who thinks their motives and […]

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