Many of the most monstrous deeds in human history have been perpetrated in the name of doing good—in pursuit of some "noble" goal.
“The end justifies the means” has a long legacy.
Four centuries B.C., in his famous Electra, Sophocles wrote, “The end excuses any evil.” Fast forward 400 years, and Ovid, in Heroides, wrote, “the result justifies the deed.” And perhaps most famously, Machiavelli echoed this idea in his sixteenth-century book The Prince.
You can hear echoes of this sentiment in American popular culture, from former Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis’s motto, “Just win, baby,” to Charlie Sheen’s philosophy of “winning.”
But do the ends really justify the means?
Those who believe so have rampaged through human history—particularly when they have exercised real political power. This belief has motivated all manner of tyrants and would-be social reformers, who have treated those living under their power as mere means. Immanuel Kant set out history’s most famous answer to exitus acta probat. But no one has offered a better, modern rebuttal to this view than FEE founder Leonard Read.
Time and again, Read returned to the idea that each person has sovereignty over himself—the power to choose, which is indispensable to that ultimate human end: one’s own happiness and flourishing. Read constantly emphasized the importance of individual growth, emergence, or personal blooming. And he reminded us that you are not free to the extent others control you. Your potential to create moral improvements is stunted by those who would use you to create their version of Utopia.
Read’s approach reflects a widely ignored aspect of this ends-means issue: Individuals and their development are both ultimate ends in themselves, and yet their services can be the means to others’ ends. This is the essence of voluntary cooperation. As a consequence, rather than framing policy as a question of ends versus means, the principle must be that no use of individuals as means to others’ ends can violate their potential for growth as the ultimate ends of society. As Leonard Read wrote, when “the emergence of the individual … [is] our objective,” rather than pigeonholing people into some designed or utopian social structure, then “the means … must be radically different.”
When our ultimate end is the greatest development of individuals’ human potential, then any means that undermines that development is inconsistent with society’s only purpose, which is to ensure life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Otherwise, whenever violent aggression is used as an instrument of social design or control, all that human potential becomes diminished by degree.
One of Read’s powerful illustrations of his view was the redistributive State, grown gargantuan. The general view is that it benefits recipients, ennobles those who design and enact the transfers, and doesn’t “really” harm those from whom it is takes, because they are just paying their “fair share” to society. But the coercive process degrades everyone involved.
The harm imposed on those involuntarily taken from is not negated by a mere slogan with no clear meaning except that others want more of your resources for their purposes. Coercive funding deprives individuals of power over their honestly acquired income, derived from their self-ownership, based on others’ envy. As importantly, it preempts the growth that occurs as individuals engage in acts of kindness and charity.
Recipients of State transfers live on confiscated resources. And they are enticed to become non-producers wholly dependent on others for their survival. Their moral, intellectual, and social maturation gets short-circuited. Self-responsibility withers and sometimes dies. Integrity and the virtues it makes possible are put at grave risk. As Leonard Read wrote, “Unless an individual is self-controlling, his life is not truly his own.”
Along the way, those who direct the process increasingly become dictators over others’ actions, which sets up the moral corrosion and corruption that having power ultimately gives rise to. As Lord Acton reminded us, such power corrupts. No one ever became better because they acquired more power over others.
Another illustration is the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote Read cited more often than any other in his books: “Cause and effect, means and ends, seed and fruit, cannot be severed; for the effect already blooms in the cause, the end pre-exists in the means, the fruit in the seed.”
Recognizing individuals as ends in themselves and as potential collaborators means that no social goal justifies treating people as cogs in some political apparatus. When the individual “is assigned that niche or role which the political priests believe will best serve whatever societal pattern they have formulated,” damage to the core of an individual’s humanity is assured.
“However lofty the goals, if the means be depraved, the result must reflect that depravity,” Read wrote.
He argued that when individuals and their development are recognized as the ends that matter, the morality of the consequences actually generated by policies and programs—as opposed to the imagined utopian results—is implied in the means employed. “Examine carefully the means employed,” he wrote, “judging them in terms of right and wrong, and the end will take care of itself.”