by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.
Does the end justify the means? Can it sometimes be right to use a bad means to achieve a good end? Don't the conditions of human life require some shadiness and deceit to achieve security and success?
First, let's try to understand the sense in which the word "justifies" is used in the familiar statement that "the end justifies the means." After that we can consider the problem you raise about whether it is all right to employ any means - good or bad - so long as the end is good.
When we say that something is "justified," we are simply saying that it is right. Thus, for example, when we say that a college is justified in expelling a student who falls below a passing mark, we are acknowledging that the college has a right to set certain standards of performance and to require its students to meet them. Hence, the college is right in expelling the student who doesn't.
Or, to take another example, if a man refuses to pay a bill for merchandise he did not receive, we would say that he is justified. He is in the right. But if a signed receipt can be offered to show that someone in his family received the merchandise without informing him, the store would be justified in demanding payment.
Now, nothing in the world can justify a means except the end which it is intended to serve. A means can be right only in relation to an end, and only by serving that end. The first question to be asked about something proposed as a way of achieving any objective whatsoever is always the same. Will it work? Will this means, if employed, accomplish the purpose we have in mind? If not, it is certainly not the right means to use.
But the purpose a man has in mind may be something as plainly wrong as stealing or murder. With such an end in view, he may decide that certain things will help him succeed and others won't. While he would be right, from the point of view of mere expediency, in using the...