May 26, 2015

The End Justifies The Means

Calvin & Hobbes
Read this small passage from Donald E. Westlake's The Ax and let me know if you agree with Burke Devore, the speaker (note that the man's been out of work for two years and desperate to find a job):

"Every era, and every nation, has its own characteristic morality, its own code of ethics, depending on what the people think is important. There have been times and places when honor was considered the most sacred of qualities, and times and places that gave every concern to grace. The Age of Reason promoted reason to be the highest of values, and some peoples--the Italians, the Irish--have always felt that feeling, emotion, sentiment was the most important. In the early days of America, the work ethic was our greatest expression of morality, and then for a while property values were valued above everything else, but there's been another more recent change. Today, our moral code is based on the idea that the end justifies the means.
   There was a time when that was considered improper, the end justifying the means, but that time is over. We not only believe it, we say it. Our government leaders always defend their actions on the basis of their goals. And every single CEO who has commented in public on the blizzard of downsizings sweeping America has explained himself with some variant of the same idea: The end justifies the means.
   The end of what I'm doing, the purpose, the goal, is good, clearly good. I want to take care of my family; I want to be a productive part of society; I want to put my skills to use; I want to work and pay my own way and not be a burden to the taxpayers. The means to that end has been difficult, but I've kept my eye on the goal, the purpose. The end justifies the means. Like the CEOs, I have nothing to feel sorry for."

So tell me, do you agree with Devore? Do you approve of him, his reasoning?

Now would you tell me the same if you knew he'd killed off his competition to raise his chances of getting a new job?

Ah, that is a whole 'nother deal, isn't it?


  1. Thank you for quoting a nice passage from Mr. Westlake. In fact, I read and reviewed "The Ax" about six weeks ago on Goodreads. Although I do not disagree with your statement above, to me the novel (other than the fun bits about how easy, or how not so easy, it is to kill people) is perhaps about something different - in the worst stupid bumpkin's style I will quote myself that the book is "about middle-class resentment of corporate downsizing, about a hard-working man's anger at the fat cat executives and the stockholders."

    I believe that "the end justifying the means" philosophy has been with us (the so-called humanity - the term is so much nicer than its referent) for thousand of years. I am too lazy to look for examples from Homer or Shakespeare, but I remember the topic being discussed in fiction by Galsworthy and Stendhal. I do not believe the current generation is in any particular way worse (or better), morally, than the previous generations.

    I will now totally get carried away on the sails of geezerdom: The older I am the more clearly I see that people have always been basically the same. It must be pretty funny for people entering adulthood now to imagine world without internet and even without TV or radio, and they must wonder deep down there how they can have anything in common with all these people who have already died or are about to. Well, people born in 2030 will be wondering how their parents or grandparents were able to live without implanted memories, silicon brain extensions, and color pills for dreams of desired types, or whatever the New Things will be, but, still, they will essentially be the same people as peasants in 10th century Flanders or Brabant. Most of them will still be lazy, jealous, egocentric, and they will still justify the means by the ends, when things get really serious.

    It is so cool to disagree! Let me be even more contrary - the quote from Herr Nietzsche is ok, but that must be an exception. I read some major work by him a long time ago, and could not stomach it - I find the "will to power" and similar stuff totally nauseating.

    Time to shut up

    1. Hello, hello!

      I'd posted the quote here to get people to think and debate, so I just love your comment! I think that humans have been basically the same for millennia too (is it cause I'm getting older too?)! And I'll go further than your point about 10th century Flanders or Brabant... I know people keep thinking cavemen were stupid, simply because they hadn't yet invented the latest high-tech gadget around (and you scare me with your vision of 2030! I really hope it doesn't get to that... then again I feel like we are living within a scarily close to A Brave New World world.) But their brains had the same capacity as ours. So why do they have to be more stupid? That makes no sense. And yes, all the vices have remained basically the same, because humans have stopped evolving and history keeps repeating itself, even if with different tools at our hands (so perhaps a silicon brain extension might be a good idea?).

      As for Nietzche, I studied some of his superman theories before, and I generally disagree with his thoughts as well. But even if I disagree with someone most of the time doesn't mean he/she can't come up with a good thing too, once in a while :)