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Do Ends Justify Means
Yes and No
Beliefs about how one ought to act, judged by both introspection and observation, fit into two broad categories. One is that you should decide according to what consequences your acts can be expected to produce. The other is that there are things one is not entitled to do, whatever the consequences, a position that Robert Nozick, in Anarchy, State and Utopia, put in terms of side constraints. You are entitled to pursue your objectives, should pursue your objectives, but only subject to absolute limits on what you may do in pursuit of those objectives..
Looking more carefully at my moral intuitions and other people's behavior, I conclude that the division is not as sharp edged as Nozick's description makes it sound. There are side constraints — one is not free to do anything that achieves good consequences. The ends do not, in that sense, justify the means. But the side constraints are not absolute. You may, even should, do bad things to achieve good ends if the disproportion between rights based cost and consequentialist benefit is sufficiently large. The ends do justify the means if the ends are sufficiently good and the means insufficiently bad if, for example, stealing something worth ten cents from is legitimate owner will, by some bizarre chain of causation, prevent an asteroid from destroying the Earth and killing all of us.
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I raised the issue in the second edition of my first book, The Machinery of Freedom, where that example comes from. I raised it again in my novel Salamander. Prince Kieron is a major secondary character, brother and heir of the king, the royal official in charge of dealing with magery. One of his subordinates, Fieras, uses illegal magery on Ellen. She defeats his attempt, in the process providing to several of the magisters, her professors in the kingdom's only college of magery, clear evidence of what he did. She then accuses him to his boss, whose job includes arranging for the punishment of people who break the laws that restrict the use of magic.
After agreeing to prosecute Fieras, the Prince says:
"I apologize. ... and I concede the justice of your point. The King is not above the law. Nonetheless, I will not promise never to violate bounds or law myself, nor will I promise to instruct my servants never to do so. Law-breaking is a bad thing, whether by the King's servants or anyone else, but there are worse things, some of which it is my responsibility to deal with. I will promise not to violate bounds or law save in the most extreme circumstances, and to do my best to see that my servants will not, so that incidents such as the two you have described do not occur again. If my people are charged, as Fieras was, I will do my best to see that they get an honest trial. I am sorry, but that is the most I can offer."
Later in the book, Prince Kieron tricks Ellen and Coelus, a magister who is in love with her, into his power and threatens Ellen in order to force Coelus to complete an important piece of magical research — for details you will have to read the book.
The prince is not a villain. He is, on the whole, an admirable individual doing his best to serve his brother the king and the kingdom his brother rules. He believes, reasonably although perhaps not correctly, that if he cannot get Coelus to do what he wants the likely consequence is that someone else will complete the research and use the result to kill the king and seize the throne. If his view of the situation is correct he is in the situation described above, although the disproportion between cost and benefit is not as large. As evidence of my view of him, he ends up marrying Ellen's friend Mari, the intelligent, beautiful, and high status woman he has been courting. In the sequel I went to a good deal of trouble to avoid killing him, despite the suspicion that doing so would strengthen the plot. One of my weaknesses as a writer is that I am a wimp, reluctant to kill off characters I like.
I cannot prove that particular moral beliefs are correct; I doubt that anyone can. All I can report is the content of my moral intuitions, what seems right to me, and what I can deduce about what seems right to other people from what they say and do. On that basis I do not think that either the pure consequentialist or the hard-line rights based view can be correct. Consequences are not all that matters but they are part of what matters. Rights are not absolute constraints but neither are they mere rules of thumb to be discarded whenever there is good reason to think that doing so will produce somewhat improved results.
I have put the argument in terms of constraints as rights, since that is the form in which it usually appears in the libertarian context, but the same issue arises in other contexts as well. One example is the Latin text fiat justicia, ruat caelum, “let justice be done, though the heavens fall.” As best I can tell, it is usually invoked by people who want their view of justice to prevail and are confident that it will not, in fact, bring down the sky. That fits my more general observation that people who argue for absolute constraints mostly believe that, by a convenient coincidence, obeying them will have good, not bad, consequences.
Which is why I like to put the argument using hypotheticals where they don’t.
[To be continued]
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