Do the Ends Justify the Means?

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“Would you steal bread to feed your family?” The theft is wrong, but the preventable starvation of your family isn’t a great outcome either.

Morally and Ethically the Ends do not and cannot justify the Means

Interestingly, the education reformer, John Dewey, who was also a philosopher, logician, and an atheist has a clever little proof that the ends never justify the means. He points out that, in fact, the two are morally indistinguishable, and that the means ARE the ends: they are only separated by time and space, which have no bearing on ethics or morality: only intent does. In such a situation, risk vs. reward does not have a place because one is comparing apples to oranges. That would apply if one is calculating the risk of being caught + the sentence versus the outcome if he didn’t at least try.

An Objection from Knowledge

If we agree that none of us are omniscient, how can one know what the true “end” of something is? This is the basic critique that the Soviet spy and defector, Walter Krivitsky has of communism. When he saw hungry, local peasant children being purposefully denied food, he met with this reasoning:

“We are on the hard road to socialism. Many must fall by the wayside. We must be well fed and must recuperate from our labors, enjoying, for a few weeks each year, comforts still denied to others, because we are the builders of a Joyous Life in the future. We are the builders of socialism. We must keep in shape to continue on the hard road. Any unfortunates who cross our path will be taken care of in due time. In the meanwhile, out of our way! Don’t pester us with your suffering! If we stop to drop you a crumb, the goal itself may never be reached.” [Krivitsky. In Stalin’s Secret Service (Enigma: 2000), p.xviii]

He accurately comments:

“So it runs. And it is obvious that people protecting their peace of mind in that way are not going to be too squeamish about the turns in the road, or inquire too critically whether it is really leading to the Joyous Life or not.” [ibid.]

The Answer from Relative Morality

Yet, a person could easily say that feeding one’s family with stolen bread easily achieves a clear, immediate goal – saving lives. After all, you could use the above logic to say that no one should really try to do anything, including good, because you just don’t know where you’ll end up. This is a valid point, and it’s completely accurate with respect to wisdom. This is the point of economist Alfred E. Kahn’s “tyranny of small decisions” – small, immediate, seemingly positive actions can ultimately add up to a large negative one.

But in ethics, a certain physical outcome is not relevant if it’s not a moral problem. For example, if I help a friend in need with $300, the fact that I might not be able to go with another friend on vacation is irrelevant, even if it’s an unexpected outcome. In a sense, knowledge is presumed to govern ethics here – if I didn’t know my family is starving, I wouldn’t have stolen the bread. Moreover, the theistic moral model presumes that God knows the result and that the action of the human is what’s relevant, not the outcome – because it’s His plan.

Why Relative Morality is No Morality

So, can either answer to the question be justified? It’s important to note the distinctions in this topic. If we assume that physical well-being is more important (at certain times?) than moral well-being, then that’s the premise we’re working with if we say, “Yes.” Perhaps it’s not wrong to take from someone who has a lot in circumstances like these. But we have already, unconsciously or not, replaced morality with physical health in such circumstances.

I want to point out the following: would you steal poisoned bread to feed your family? Of course not, it defeats the whole point. What if there was a 50% chance of it being poisoned? Still, probably no – one would just go steal it from someone else. What about a 5% chance? What if this was the only bread within miles and it was now or never? (cf. Rom. 14:23).

The point I’m making is that we’ve already lost sight of the moral question in favor of survival. The above scenarios would be answered the same way by someone willing to steal the bread, whether the bread was stolen or being offered for free; and this is the point that John Dewey makes in saying that the “means” are in fact the “ends.”

An important point that John L. Mothershead makes in his Ethics: Modern Conceptions of Right (1955; 2nd ed. 1967), is that right and wrong aren’t true or false questions. What he means by this is not relative morality, but that one person can’t judge the moral expression and understanding of another (Rom. 14:5). If the Greeks considered burial a proper way to honor deceased relatives and friends, they can’t accuse the Persians of disrespect for leaving theirs above ground.


The way this relates to our question is to point out that, if a person is willing to steal bread, then he can claim that he’s still ethical. But nor moral. Because with respect to principles, he has placed a utilitarian value on his actions, rather than a moral one. To prove this and point out the inconsistency, we can easily ask a question in the vein of “Sophie’s Choice”: would such a person steal bread from one of his family members (who would then starve) to feed another?

This is very similar to the “Trolley Problem,” although that’s different because the action of changing the course of the trolley is debatably right or wrong (or the whole action/outcome is, which makes it an excellent example). Here, we’ve presumed that theft, which is defined as wrongful taking, is an immoral action, at least when unnecessary.

In conclusion, it’s usually difficult to speak in universals, which is why it’s wise to rarely resort to them as it can often confuse and produce inflexibility.


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