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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


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  • 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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