My wife Annie teaches adults from all over the world who come to Ft. Lauderdale for the express purpose of improving their English language skills. Although Annie is not a native English speaker [she's from Argentina], her facility with the "mother tongue" is second-to-none. She is also a dynamite teacher, if I do say so myself.
Once in a blue moon, she will ask me how I would explain an expression for people learning English. The other night, while going over a lesson she was preparing, she asked me how to best explain "The ends justify the means." She knew what it meant, but was a bit stuck on how best to get it across to her students. After giving the matter a bit of thought, I suggested:
"You might tell them that ends are goals and means are the steps or acts we take in order to achieve those goals. Then you might tell them that sometimes, people believe that if the goal is great, any steps one takes to achieve it are OK."
Annie thought that my explanation was just fine. [Never let it be said that my wife isn't a woman of impeccable taste and discrimination!]
On the news that evening, Keith Olbermann reported on Attorney General Michael Mukasey's appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The issue at hand was whether or not "waterboarding" is torture and if so, whether or not it is legal. Mukasey, like a vaudevillian of old, did a nifty soft-shoe. Senator Richard Durbin [D-IL] sought to determine if, in Mukasey's view, waterboarding [or indeed any other form of torture] was more acceptable when greater, rather than lesser numbers of lives are at stake:
"What about circumstances where the information would save lives, many lives?" Senator Durbin asked. "Would you justify it?"
"Those circumstances have not been set out," the A.G. answered. "That is not part of the program. We don't know concretely what they are. And we don't know how that would work."
"You're talking about whether the ends justify the means!" Annie said to the television screen. "What a perfect example."
How right she was.
After Olbermann signed off, we got into a discussion about the moral implications of torture, illegal wiretaps and the like from an "ends justify the means" perspective . . .
Ever since 9/11 the Bush Administration has sought -- and more often than not achieved -- greater authority to abridge civil liberties in the name of National Security. These abridgments include warrantless wiretaps, domestic surveillance, rendition and the use of so-called "passive, non-lethal" forms of interrogation. And whether the abridgment comes via Executive Order or legislative enactment, the argument remains the same: these measures are absolutely necessary if we are to defeat our terrorist enemies.
In other words, the ends justify the means.
In the world of moral philosophy we find two schools of thought which speak directly to this "ends/means" dichotomy:
Consequentialism, a school which holds that the consequences ["ends"] of a particular action or set of actions ["means"] form the basis for any valid moral judgment about the action. For a Consequentialist, the morality of an action is determined by the morality of that action's outcome.
Deontological Ethics [Deontology], an approach to ethics that focuses on the wrongness or rightness of the acts ["means"] themselves, as opposed to the wrongness or rightness of the consequences ["ends"] of those actions. For a Deontologist, it is all but impossible for an immoral action to result in a moral consequence.
Keeping these definitions in mind, it becomes rather clear that Mukasey's soft-shoe before the Judiciary Committee was an attempt at straddling the line between Consequentialism and Deontology. Sorry Mr. Attorney General: you cannot have it both ways. Actions do not become less immoral [or illegal] when the putative consequence of those actions grows in importance.
As stilted as this may seem, its a truth every parent has taught his or her child at one time or another:
"Just because Yankel did it doesn't make it right for you to do it. If Yankel were to jump off the roof or break a window on purpose would you follow suit?
Although debates and disagreements between Consequentialists and Deontologists may be fascinating on some ideal plane, they are both difficult and vexatious when one is faced with issues of life and death. Those who argue that America lowers itself to the level of its enemies by using torture to extract information are often labeled "soft on terrorism" or "allies of al-Qaeda." And while this "throwing of red meat to the lions" may be good politics, it totally ignores the seriousness of the charge. I believe it is written in the Gospel of Mark, "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his own soul?"
Those who engage in the "ends/means" debate when it comes to techniques of interrogation, warrantless wiretaps, legal protection for those telecommunications companies that facilitate said taps and denying protected "whistleblower" status to those who report abuses, seem to be forgetting that America is not the only country on the planet. One country's "torture" is another's "persuasive technique;" one person's "terrorist" is another's "freedom fighter."
It is terribly difficult -- sometimes impossible -- to know precisely how best to deal with the terrorist enemy. Indeed, we don't even possess a universal definition of what a terrorist or terrorism is.
According to the State Department, terrorism is "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience."
The F.B.I. has its sights set on "the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."
According to the U.S.A. Patriot Act, terrorism is defined as "acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the U.S. or of any state."
For my money, the best definition of terrorism comes from the Guardian's Brian Whitaker: "Terrorism is violence committed by those we disapprove of."
Don't get me wrong: terrorism is a grave, grave international threat. Ridding the world of mass murderers, suicide bombers and agents provocateurs is of utmost importance. And yet, if we here in America continue down the path of Consequentialism -- declaring in retrospect that whatever means we use are moral because the end is moral -- we will stand to lose a great deal more than we ever imagined possible: the very soul of our nation.
From where I stand, Deontology just makes a heck of a lot more sense.
The means don't always justify the ends.
©2008 Kurt F. Stone