Short Take: Is It A Principle?

In a discussion yesterday with a certain very tall Germanic-type fella, the question was raised whether “the end justifies the means” is a principle, such that social justice advocates are principled in their approach. I was of the view that this is not principled, but am I wrong?

I took the position that this was the antithesis of principle, where one chooses the outcome one prefers, then sets about rationalizing it. It may be a logical basis or just a matter of feelz, but it is not grounded in a consistent and overarching adherence to a position. For example, I support the First Amendment, which means that protected speech spans speech with which I agree as well as somebody calling me names. That’s the price of principle.

My figuratively little shit Bentham-licker replied by noting that this was the foundation of utilitarianism.

  • the doctrine that actions are right if they are useful or for the benefit of a majority.
  • the doctrine that an action is right insofar as it promotes happiness, and that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the guiding principle of conduct.

Put aside whether this is limited to the greater good, or the majority, as it appears that everyone claims that mantle largely because it can’t be proved they don’t. Much as I am of the view that many of the putative goals of social justice serve the greater good, such as racial equality, the devil is in the details.

Having already explained my Bastardized Herzberg Theory of benefit and detriment, the ends sought exceed the eradication of detriment and go well beyond, demanding the majority accept detriment for the sake of those who suffered historic discrimination. That’s not going to fly. People will not take the food out of their children’s mouths to give to someone else. They surely won’t do so because others shriek at them.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not a principled position, even if the outcome always ends up being whatever their feelz dictate. So, I pose the question: Is it principled to embrace the ideology that the ends to achieve whatever one believes to serve the greater good are all that matters? Or does principle apply to the means, and the ends will be what the means demand?

Or to put it differently, did I just get schooled by my German son?

29 comments on “Short Take: Is It A Principle?

  1. Keith

    At the root of the “means justify the ends” argument is selfishness. You truly know that ‘what you feel is the desired outcome’ is most important. In another situation, the rules may be diametrically opposed if the same outcome will result.

    The root at the end of the utilitarian philosophy is maximization of happiness, without a selfish hook. Sacrifice, as part of the utilitarian ethos (if you draw the short straw), will never exist in its purest form, for the means-ends justifier.

  2. Jeffrey Gamso

    Philosophy 101:

    If you want to know whether something is green, you have to start by deciding what “green” means. Ditto for “principle.”

    The first definition from the good folks at Merriam Webster: “a comprehensive and fundamental law, doctrine, or assumption.” And the first part of the second definition: “a rule or code of conduct.”

    So yes, Utilitarianism – Mill’s version or some misapplied or bastardized form – can be a principle. So can pure selfishness. Or white (or green) supremacy.

    1. Keith

      In light of Jeff’s comment, I’d edit my comment above to say that it can’t be a “universal” philosophy.

      Selfishness can only be a personal philosophy and as Locke discussed at length, it would probably get you killed eventually.

    2. Nihiles (f/k/a Miles)

      Merriam-Websters has taken hold on the internet as the dictionary of record, but their definitions are often watered down, generic or too vague to provide useful guidance. If their definition of principle can be applied to anything, then it’s not much of a definition.

      I believe I win because whatever I decide it right is, obviously, right, and anyone who disagrees is, naturally, wrong. Thus spake Nihilism.

  3. REvers

    Utilitarianism sounds great until you start to ponder who gets to decide what the principle-of-the-month is.

  4. Mike G.

    My belief is that principles are a set of “rules” that one goes by, even if/when they fly in the face of the latest “conventional wisdom.”

    For instance, Classical Liberals have a guiding set of principles based on the Constitution and the BOR.

    SJW’s as a rule, don’t have a set of guiding principles, unless its “might makes right.”

    In my opinion, screaming and hollering until you get your way isn’t a principle, its a bunch of spoiled children who’s parents didn’t say no enough.

    SJWism is a first world problem. And if you’ve noticed, most SJW’s come from upper middle class families and really don’t want for anything. People who are out there busting their humps to make a living and feed their families, don’t have time for that crap.

  5. Hunting Guy

    Not a Heinlein quote.

    “You should never believe a thing simply because you want to believe it.”

    Tyrion Lannister

    1. PseudonymousKid

      Dear HG,

      Heinlein might disagree. I certainly do. I’ll think what I want, thanks. There’s no principled reason for it whatsoever, and that feels swell to me. It makes civilization and thought more of an accomplishment than an inheritance and more worthwhile for it. I’ll let the man speak for me:

      “I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do. I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.”

      You grok?


      1. Fubar

        Heinlein might disagree. I certainly do. I’ll think what I want, thanks. There’s no principled reason for it whatsoever, and that feels swell to me.

        I believe what I want without fear,
        Mundane, or exotic and queer —
        Whatever I find
        Has entered my mind.
        I believe now that I’ll have a beer!

    2. cthulhu

      I prefer Diax’s Rake: “Never believe a thing simply because you want it to be true.”

  6. Richard Kopf


    Literally, Bentham lives sorta. Creepy though. Dare I say German creepy?

    All the best.


    1. SHG Post author

      Now that I think about it, the whorehouses in München bear a striking resemblance to the Panoticon.

  7. Austin

    I’d refer him to some Mills’ Utilitarianism — particularly chapters 3-5. (Which sport titles such as ‘Of what sort of Proof the Principle of Utility is Susceptible’, and ‘Of the Connection between Justice and Utility’).

    I occasionally forget Benthan is considered the founder of utilitarianism, as (for me) Mills’ treatment is so far superior it’s what I associate with the term.

  8. Patrick Maupin

    “The end justifies the means” is a principle, and one universally understood by three year olds. A large portion of good parenting consists of teaching that, due to the ends desired by others and even our own future selves, not all means are acceptable and not all ends are achievable.

  9. B. McLeod

    “The end justifies the means” is a formulation of uncertain application. Ofttimes, it is used to excuse rigid adherence to principle where that adherence would cause a harsh outcome (e.g., a “white lie” or “letting someone off with a warning”). This is something we have probably all indulged in at one time or another, and amounts to an acknowledgement that sometimes, principles should be moderated in particular contexts, usually in order to not breach other principles.

    But sometimes (and by some people) “The end justifies the means” is very differently employed to posit that the desired end is so important that it justifies ANY means (e.g., murder, treason, robbery, faithlessness, etc.). I see this as very different from the “white lie” scenario, and basically, a form of fanaticism.

    So, as I see it, to judge whether “The end justifies the means” is a principle, and if so, what principle it is, you need to know which of the constructions the proponent of “The end justifies the means” is placing upon it. For me, this determines whether I move toward them or away from them on the “Group W” bench.

  10. Bijan

    To a large extent I would argue that principles are effectively statements of value whereas something like the ends justifying the means is more about how values will be compared and the largest problem with the ends justifying the means is that it basically means once you have decided you want something you will no longer consider the costs to get that thing.

    I myself am a fairly firm believer in a modified version of statement – “The ends may not always justify the means, but they are the only thing that can.” This basically sums up what I had originally understood the statement the ends justify the means to mean but is probably actually closer to the opposite of how most people use it.

  11. Morgan O.

    Being a faithful subject of Her Majesty, I reject your inferior Merriam-Webster, and choose the Oxford. Putting aside the first definition, which speaks of morality, the definition is : “based on a given set of rules”. So, if the rules are set in advance and you adhere to them, you are principled. Your rules may include “kick a puppy daily”, though, so your mileage may vary.

          1. Morgan O.

            What I really need is a link to a montage of Imperial officers saying “Rebel Scum” with maximum disdain…

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