Can the end justify the means?

“The various problems that I have so far discussed can best be understood, I think, as failures of discipline caused by a profound confusion as to the functions and the relatives values of means and ends. I do not suggest simply that we fall with the ease of familiarity into the moral expedient of justifying means by ends, but that we have also come to attribute to ends a moral importance that far outweighs that which we attribute to means. As though we have arrived in our minds at a new age of fantasy or magic, we expect ends not only to justify means, but to rectify them as well. Once we have reached the desired end, we think, we will turn back to purify and consecrate the means. Once the war that we are fighting for the sake of peace is one, then the generals will become saints, the burned children will proclaim in heaven that their suffering is well repaid, the poisoned forests and fields will turn green again. Once we have peace, we say, or abundance or justice or truth or comfort, everything will be all right. It is an old dream.

It is a vicious illusion. For the discipline of ends is no discipline at all. The end is preserved in the means; a desirable end may perish forever in the wrong means. Hope lives in the means, not the end.”

Wendell Berry A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural (130-131)


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