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To what extent do the ends justify the means?

Fairly straight forward question, I think. I encourage you to ask for clarification though. One possible "end" that you could talk about the means for is science (touched on in the Milgram experiment). How far should our experiments go before we can justify the knowledge of the results? You can definitely use your own examples; that was just a possible route.

Possible routes:
Means: torturing someone; Ends: information for national security

  • Sep 18 2013: The Milgram experiment would seem to use ends to justify means, not the other way around. In other words, risking psychological harm to the participants (the means) is justified by what we learn about human behavior (the ends). This is an ethical problem because the ends aren't assured while the harm is being done and therefor argues that it is okay to do something harmful with only the hope of a positive outcome. Thus, the ethical question about Milgram hinges not on the actions of the experimenter alone, but on whether we think the knowledge we gained was worth it.

    Means justifying ends would work the other way around. It focuses on the quality of our actions rather than the consequences. On the one hand, this is the essential argument of all empirical research. If I do the experiment correctly then the results (whatever they are) are valid and justified. But suppose I rush to help someone who has been in an accident. I pull the victim from the burning wreckage, but in doing so cripple him. Moments later rescue personnel arrive with the proper equipment that would have allowed them to extinguish the fire and remove the victim from the wreck without doing additional harm. I might argue that because I could not know that the help would arrive in time and I was acting to save his life, then I should not be sued for the injuries I caused. Here the question of whether the means (pulling him from the wreckage to save his life) justify the ends (my causing him crippling injuries). In Milgram, it would argue that the ends (psychological harm) is justified because those harmed were willing participants in a meaningful experiment (the means).

    I dislike both propositions.

    Actions have consequences that are unrelated to intent (side effects, if you will), and we are often too eager to reduce these things to means/ends or ends/means arguments that help us avoid responsibility for the consequences of our actions.
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      Sep 19 2013: Thanks for the comment! I've recently been having some lengthy neuro-flatulence to put it nicely. I meant to put it the other way around, and just changed the question.

      Do you think that any potential knowledge gained would justify whatever has to be done to acquire that knowledge? Should unethical experimentation ever be done no matter how important the knowledge gained could/would be?
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    Oct 11 2013: One more possibility which has not been yet mentioned by anybody is to consider past examples. We often forget to investigate the past and try solving our problems using abstract ideas which are independent of time, such as giving examples of things that hypothetically could happen, but did not actually take place. However, when looking through history, we can see exactly what the consequences of such experiment where.

    In the case of the Milgram experiment I do not know how exactly did anyone profit from the information gained, or what exactly happened to the participants. Nevertheless, investigating this could lead to finding out whether it had really paid off. Armed with this knowledge one would have potential arguments on whether he/she can justify the means on an experiments he/she wants to conduct.

    I would also like to add, that whatever the ends are, the humans should be respected at most. After all, the purpose of the experiment is most probably to improve the human condition. So generally, I do not support experiments such as the Milgram experiment.
  • Oct 12 2013: I dontvthink milgram went too far. They make reality tv shows out of what some considered unethical.I agree with the fact that it showed an ugly side of humanity.I think the moral compass should be a group decision all of society and we should adhere to that
  • Sep 28 2013: Phenomenologically speaking, any means is but a series of ends. Suppose for state of the universe A(end), one must go through A1, A2, A3,....A(end-1), where A1, A2, A3,....A(end-1) represent the current state universe at each infinitely small point in time. The original questions can now be rephrased as to what extent A(end) justify {A1, A2, A3,.....A(end-1)}. Now the tricky part is in the word 'justify'. If justify is used in the sense of giving reason or validation, then A(end) always justifies {A1, A2, A3,....A(end-1)}. But if justify is used in the sense of giving justice, then this becomes a moral question which can have limitless number of answers in a pluralistic society.
  • Sep 25 2013: Any extent to save the world.
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    Sep 22 2013: It's no longer just science fiction. We are facing our own demise.... right now.

    More than 6,000 fuel assemblies now sit in a common pool just 50 meters from Unit Four. Some contain plutonium. The pool has no containment over it. It’s vulnerable to loss of coolant, the collapse of a nearby building, another earthquake, another tsunami and more.

    Overall, more than 11,000 fuel assemblies are scattered around the Fukushima site. According to long-time expert and former Department of Energy official Robert Alvarez, there is more than 85 times as much lethal cesium on site as was released at Chernobyl.

    Our house is on fire, what are we doing?
  • Sep 20 2013: long as the means is ethical e.g. within law of the countries. the ends benefits and encouraged. if mean is non ethical e.g. against law or your believe the ends is harmful. there are always alternative method to getting the result without being unethical. I believe as we evolve and time passes we will become more and more ethical and have high standard to follow when doing the experiment. for example few decade ago the use of animal experiment was bad, we can do anything to it. however now we have greater standard. as time progress our standard will be higher, however our knowledge and technology higher as well. alternative method that is ethical is will be available.
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    Sep 20 2013: We've seen self acclaimed or self proclaimed 'freedom fighters' who have ended up doing the same things they've sometimes condemned when they gained their 'freedom'.
    It is not uncommon for sinister folks to claim that their use of violence and dodgy or shady means, is for a good cause.

    If you are to fight for a good cause, you fight a good fight. If your fight is sinister, it can not birth a good cause.
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    Sep 19 2013: "A violent war begets a violent peace" as (I think) Gandhi possibly said.
    Means and ends will always be the same in terms of, well, their means! The means are ultimately of the same order as the end; the means "carry" their energy into the end. One cannot therefore do A, to get B, where A & B are hoped to be fundamentally different. If you do A (as a means) you will end up getting merely more of A, amplified as an end. What you practice is what you get (or have).
    If this be the case, then your question, I think, ends up being limited to judging the means as ends-in-themselves. Perhaps "do no harm" is a good starting point, as Barry Palmer noted in his comment below.
  • Sep 19 2013: When I face this kind of deep-thought problem, a lot of pieces of ideas spread out of my head. Everyone might have their own standard which was set by their personal values. End could not be justified when it does harm to others. Because nowadays we are living together so we cannot think of being alone since all people are interconnected. It is impossible to take apart from one another.
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    Sep 19 2013: To me, the means are limited by core-believes and values with no exceptions.

    And as core-believes and values aren't static, maybe with some exceptions, so are the means.
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    Sep 18 2013: first i didn't notice that you have it reversed. this is a harder question this way, and the original answer is "in no way", since acceptable means can lead to anywhere. acceptable means are, in my view, the necessary condition for the end to be justified. if an end can not be achieved by acceptable means, it is an invalid end. but what if we employ means that are acceptable in themselves, but the end is awful. like everyone sitting around and allowing some disaster to happen. who to blame? if nobody, does that make the disaster scenario acceptable? i'm inclined to think that yes it does. it might seem awful, but it was the legit choice of many people.
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      Sep 19 2013: Thanks for the comment! I didn't even realize I switched it until I read these comments.

      Have you looked at the Milgram experiment? The means gave much psychological stress to the subjects, but it did gather information on how obedient humans are to authority figures. I think by designing and carrying out experiments with only "acceptable means", we will be undoubtedly withholding knowledge. Now this brings up question like "Can an experiment still be acceptable, without following basic morals?" and "Can the need for knowledge outweigh fundamental morals?"
  • Sep 18 2013: I agree with Nadav Tropp, that each case must be judged individually.

    But the simple rule of thumb, do no harm, should be applied whenever possible.

    Duping people in the name of science might be justified if no harm is done, but if any harm at all is inflicted, it is unethical and fraudulent and should not be done. When a person gives permission, pricking their skin with a needle is ok. Without permission, the same act is criminal assault.

    "Scientists" have been robbing graves for centuries, an act that is almost universally considered immoral and usually illegal. IMO, nothing gained from these robberies justifies disturbing the dead.
    • Sep 18 2013: Your example brings forth another problem to consider. Who decides what's OK?

      Personally, I find grave robbing for anatomical research and training of medical personnel perfectly justified. The dead don't mind, and while their families might take offense, the knowledge gained and people trained (surgeons mostly) can help save lives of people who haven't died yet and still care quite a bit. This sort of information didn't use to be as widely available as it is today, and hands on experience with a corpse could be the only way to learn.
      The act of stripping the corpse of all valuables in the process may be frowned upon though (even if I never could figure out why people feel a need to be buried with valuables). Just another reason to legalize and regulate it at the time it was still an issue, though again, the practice is no longer necessary nowadays.
      • Sep 19 2013: You are trying to make your argument based on generalities, and I do not consider that legitimate when dealing with real cases where real harm is inflicted on real people.

        "The dead don't mind, and while their families might take offense, the knowledge gained and people trained (surgeons mostly) can help save lives of people who haven't died yet and still care quite a bit."

        You seem to be implying that since the dead don't mind, their wishes, while still alive, deserve no consideration whatsoever. In that case, we should all agree that human dignity no longer exists, and pass a law that human remains must be recycled like any other organic waste.

        It is not just the families that take offense. Human burial grounds are considered sacred by many cultures and religions. Entire populations would take offense at your disregard for their values and traditions. Wars have been triggered by this kind of thinking.

        It is impossible to determine beforehand whether disturbing a grave will provide any new knowledge whatsoever. This is not really a matter of scientific knowledge, it is just simple curiosity, which does not justify disturbing the dead.

        I was taught that if something is not mine, I should leave it alone. If someone wants to be buried with their valuables, those valuables are their property to do with as they please.

        I do not consider your questions difficult to answer. Harming others without their specific, expressed, informed consent, cannot be justified by any potential scientific benefit. The fact that some scientists have already done this does not make it right.
        • Sep 20 2013: To be perfectly frank, I don't see any real reason why human remains shouldn't be disposed of in the same manner as any other organic waste. Make of culture and religion what you will, but there is no practical reason to the whole business.
          It used to be a person, true, but its not one anymore. Nothing but dead flesh, hair and bone, of no value to anyone except the emotional attachment of the people that used to know the deceased.

          During the time when corpses were still dug up, useful information and training of personnel was never in doubt. They always discovered something new or gained hands on experience--discoveries are only hit or miss once most of the blanks are already filled out; in an unexplored field, like human anatomy used to be, they're pretty much certain.
          We know enough about the human body today and have good enough simulations that we don't have to dig up dead bodies anymore. Its easy to point back in hindsight and say how wrong it was, but the truth is, that the information gained saved countless lives over the generations.

          In short, human dignity belongs to the living. The dead are beyond caring, and their needs and wants should not be prioritized over the living's.
      • Sep 21 2013: Regarding your opinions about the dead, I generally agree with you.

        However, there are many cultures and religions that disagree with us, and we should still respect their beliefs Those beliefs are slowly fading away, and the peace and harmony that result from mutual respect are worth the price.
  • Sep 18 2013: Seeing as you can never know the results ahead of time, you make a cost-benefit analysis and decide whether or not its worth to roll the dice, same as in anything else. Cost can be more than financial after all, and so can benefit.

    There is no definitive, universal answer to how far you should go in the name of science, an ideal, profit or one of the other many things that motivate people. You judge every case for its own merits.
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    Sep 18 2013: I do not understand this question: "How far should are experiments go before we can't justify the knowledge to the results?" Could you rephrase this question? Are you asking whether an experiment might not be worth doing because the knowledge that would be gained is not worth the cost of the experiment? There are various "awards" given annually to real research projects that appear to be investigating questions of trivial importance
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      Sep 18 2013: Let me use an example, but your "Are you asking whether an experiment might not be worth doing because the knowledge that would be gained is not worth the cost of the experiment?" is a fairly good rephrasing. For any test on human behavior or psychology, the humans are usually altered psychology. In the Milgram experiment, humans are led to believe they may have killed someone in the name of science or at least severely hurt another human in the pursuit of finishing the experiment. Of course, none of this is true, but some people debate that the experiment may cause permanent psychological damage and find that the experiment is unethical. That debating primarily inspired that subquestion in the description: what are or should there be any ethical boundaries for scientific experiments?

      You can address the general question as well. Restated: Should there be limits on searches for knowledge? In more of an extreme question: Can killing other humans be ever justified by the goal/predicted ending? (Sort of leads into morality/ethics of war.)