One of the major political thinkers known to us is Niccolo Machiavelli. He is well known for the phrase “the end justifies the means” which is continually being the subject of discussions and discourses today (Adams and Dyson). With Machiavelli’s principles, we are now faced with the issue whether the desired ends is justified by the means used to achieve them. The issue will be explored in the light of Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Qualities of the Prince” and Martin Luther King Jr.
’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to ascertain the meaning of the phrase “the end justifies the means.” It cannot be denied that there are implications and difficulties when unworthy means are used to achieve worthy ends. However, one thing is sure: if an end or goal is worthy, any mean to achieve that end is justifiable provided that both ends and means are noble and good.
The question whether the end justifies the means depends on the type of goal or end a person wants to achieve and the means they use.
If both the means and the ends are equally noble and good, there is no question because the ends are justified by the means. This is the stand I have chosen to take. Although there are different views about the meaning of Machiavelli’s expression, I agree with the belief that both the ends and means should be good. Individuals are known at times to use Machiavelli’s phrase or expression as an excuse when they try to achieve their own goals no matter how immoral, illicit, and wrong their means are. For many individuals, it does not matter what means are used long as they get what they want. To justify their ends by some type of means sometimes involves doing a wrong thing when trying to achieve a positive end. They justify the wrong act by pointing to the outcome that was good. The wrong justification can be seen in some horrors in human history such as the Holocaust, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagaski, the World Wars, and even the bombing of the World Trade Center. There are a lot of justifications made by many people about the ends these events serve, but one thing is true, the ends are noble but the means are not.
To compare the two in what is considered wrong and morally right, one example is an individual lying about their qualifications on their resume when trying to get a good job. This individual would later justify the lying by saying that it is a means to receive a larger income to provide for his or her family more effectively. Another example would be justifying an abortion to save the mother’s life. These two examples create a dilemma between what is done and what ought to be done. Machiavelli states,
Because how one lives is so far distant from one ought to live, that he who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation; for a man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil (Machiavelli, The Prince Ch. 15).
Considering these two examples, the lying and taking of an innocent life can be viewed as both equally wrong. On the other hand, the end which is providing for one’s own family and the saving of a woman’s life are both morally right. However, one must learn to distinguish what should be done in order to avoid the consequences of what is done. What if the individual lying about his or her resume was not given the job because he lied? What if the baby aborted has the cure for cancer in his or her mind? The wrong means used can lead to ruin rather than good.
It cannot be denied that we all have taken part of the end justifies the means debate at some point in our lives. Means used must also be ethical, social, and morally upright. Therefore, if one mean in itself is morally bad, it cannot really serve an end that is good, even though it would appear good on the surface. A goal or purpose achieved through an upright approach is the thing justified, not those immoral, illicit, and wrong. One significant proof of a justified means to an end is exemplified in the nonviolent demonstration against segregation fought for by Martin Luther King Jr. There are a lot of ways for the African Americans back then to achieve equality and freedom in American society. They can bomb the White House. They can coerce the government through unlawful means and other immoral and wrong acts you can imagine. However, Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers chose to gain freedom through a peaceful means. Here, we can see that both the means and the ends are noble and good. His famous writing “Letter from Birmingham Jail” laid down the agenda of their non-violent campaign. In his letter, Martin Luther King Jr. showed that the unjust treatment of Negroes and their segregation can be solved through peaceful means. A non-violent campaign however can produce tension but it is up to the protestors to handle the tension. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King says,
Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shock-ing. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth (Jr. 216).
Martin Luther King Jr. died as a result of the demonstrations he started but the ends are met. His belief was opposed by the Whites during that time. The Whites also uphold the idea that the end justifies the means. They say that what they do to the Negroes is done because of self-preservation. The government during that time works to preserve the State so they acted on what to be done: give the African Americans what they want. The death of Martin Luther King Jr. proved that both the ends and means may be noble, that it can be justified. Martin Luther King Jr. is an example to be followed when applying the phrase “the end justifies the means.” As stated by Thayer, “Be strong is therefore the first and last commandment for nations and princes to observe; and Machiavelli instructs them how to use their strength” (Thayer 476). In this case, Martin Luther King Jr. knew what means to use for his desired end.
No one can use bad means for any good end. In saying this, it can be compared to a person trying to build a good house from bad materials – it does not work. The phrase “the end justifies the means” can fool us all if we do not look closely to what it says. What we fail to see in this statement is the end itself. Is it really good? We all fail to see and carefully examine the means and how they affect the ends. There are a lot of difficulties and complications when unworthy means are used to achieve worthy ends. An example would be the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazi regime (Gilbert 32). Is this end worthy after all the events that happened? Another example would be the two World Wars. Are the ends of such brutal means necessary? These complications are frequently seen in wartime situations and the political field. Governments do not care whatever means they employ just to win. They just think about victory although it means losing many lives, property, and even more morale. In these two situations, the only judgment is success and any means that would contribute to success is thought to be justified, but not by everyone. Any success can be used as the standard by which we all measure the benefit of the means. However, some benefits are superficial and do not last long. The misuse of the phrase “the end justifies the means” contradicts Machiavelli’s main point – that a prince ought to think about future events and prepare for potential problems. If a person really thinks in a Machiavellian perspective, he or she would use necessary means to achieve an end to avoid future complications (Machiavelli, The Prince Ch. 14).
People who pursue their dreams and their goals are more likely to take a path that is filled with obstacles. It is known that goals are achieved through very hard work. The means to attain such goals are different from the goals itself. One thing should be remembered though; both means and ends must be noble and good. What I have shown is that the ends or goals of any individual can always be justified by the means used to achieve it if only they are worthy enough. As Machiavelli points out,
But to exercise the intellect the prince should read histories, and study there the actions of illustrious men, to see how they have borne themselves in war, to examine the causes of their victories and defeat, so as to avoid the latter and imitate the former (The Prince Ch. 14).
There are a lot of horrific examples in justifying immoral, illicit, and wrong means but Machiavelli teaches us to learn from past experiences to achieve ends through noble and good means.
In conclusion, we are all but humans who err most of the time. The values that we have as humans are what make us humans. Any means we use which violates our perception of morals and righteousness can never justify the end or the goals no matter how worthy they may seem to be. As seen in the Martin Luther King Jr. example, there are in fact a thousand ways to achieve one single end and it is up to you whether to use the noble means or the wrong means.