Summary: 27th Gentle Thinkers Debate (Ends and Means)

“When do ends justify means?
Sooner or later everyone – individuals, governments, companies – has to make choices about whether to put aside certain values to achieve a desired end. Michael Pascoe, an Australian financial journalist, has recently discussed this at

Note: This summary is interpreted from notes taken during the debate and may contain errors. Changes have been made so that it flows logically when read and does not accurately illustrate the flow of conversation. It is not a definitive text and should be used a means of sharing and developing ideas. If you wish to correct, be attributed to or contribute content, please contact me or post a comment.

More summaries can be found via the Summary Index.

  • Reading list and introductory essay by Thor May

  • This question may be the origin of how we frame and develop our moral and ethical systems.

  • One member noted that Western cultures focus on crime and punishment whereas Eastern cultures work with action and response. E.g. the principles behind karma.

  • We can’t predict the effect our actions have on others so we should consider taking responsibility for them.

  • Western society is rather black and white whereas Asiatic societies have far different values that are clouded by “face” [YouTube Video]. What we perceive as unacceptable behaviour is seen quite differently in a different culture.

  • “Face” can complicate relationships between societies and different cultures. This can make compromise difficult especially in political scenarios.

  • The UK legal system as enacted by judges is kept consistent by statute law and precedents. Consider comparing this to China’s struggle with replacing “rule by man” (corruption and abuse of power by the ruling elite) with rule by law (constitutional governance)[China Daily article] [Fair Observer article].

  • Good ends can justify dodgy means. For some, this can compromise our ethics and our ends.

  • For one member, means should be consistent with the ends. For others, not sticking to principles doesn’t mean the ends will conflict.

  • Values can get neglected in the pursuit of ends. If ends aren’t humane, people get hurt.

  • If things get out of control, we have lost sight of our values. We need to keep these in sight to stay true to ourselves.

  • For some of us in higher positions, understand how we work with others may assist in readjusting our values. Pragmatic philosophy [a definition] and relational philosophy [a definition] are models to consider when working with others. As are macro and micro forms of management.

  • Ends and means should be connected and not treated as separate items. Means often shape ends.

  • We may use terms like “better” as a way to justify our decisions if we thinking of how situations are improved. What we think of as positive and negative changes may be subjective.

  • People are hypocritical. They know they are doing wrong but will continue to do so provided it benefits them. We carry on thinking we are good despite knowing what evil exists nearby.

  • Completing ends and means make people do “strange” and “bad” things.

  • One member commented that self interest might be what is wrong with the world.

  • For some, pursuing their own interests make tough decisions easier whereas for some, the responsibility of caring for others takes precedent. Some of us are programmed to serve our own needs rather than those of others.

  • We take less care when we aren’t personally involved with a situation. It is easier to judge from the outside than from the inside. E.g. you will leap into action when a family member is hurt but may ignore fundraising for inhabitants of another country.

  • Spectrums of ethical behaviour vary between situations. We are looking at the morality of different situations. For one member, every situation is unique. We need consider the factors and make allowances depending on who is involved and what the stakes are.

  • While thinking about and engaging in ethical behaviour, we should consider some of the following:

  • Who benefits?
  • Who is disadvantaged?
  • Who will remain unaffected?
  • The level of power (or influence) we wield may sway and ease the decision making process.

  • In some societies we are freer to make changes to our values but others don’t have the choice.

  • No regime is toppled by an insider revolution (an increasing intelligent population who is able to overcome indoctrination). Some regimes collapse by themselves or get outsider “assistance”.

  • Choices may not be the result of one end or mean, they could derive from many means or ends. Corruption can occur at any point.

  • We don’t live in a hypothetical world.

  • Hypotheticals are easy to discuss, things get complicated when we attempt the theoretical in practical scenarios.

  • Values are generated or dictated by various things like culture, environment, mass media etc. The majority of people are fooling themselves into believing that we develop our own values without outside influence.

  • For some members, values are reference points for making our decisions, realise goals and maintain our ethics systems.

  • Principles can be simplistic and rigid whereas goals are more flexible.

  • People are socialised into thinking about ends or “values” depending on the dominant culture or religion.

  • Religion can be seen as stabilising factor to maintain societies’ values.

  • People need to become conscious of their values and we may need to assist others to discover them. We may also need to educate or incentivise people to do the right thing.

  • We may also need to take an outsider’s look at ourselves by stepping back and examining our values.

  • People may be “good” to maintain their self respect. This may depend on socialisation and cultural values.

–  Fear may be holding us back from speaking out despite the fear being imagined.

  • We may need to make difficult decisions and deal with the consequences.

  • People tend to change their own beliefs depending on their “actions”.

  • “We are always the hero of our own movie”. This may be the guiding principle for some people in their decision making process.

  • As people age and grow, they may compromise and change their values.

  • Marriage is typically seen as a period full of compromises. Couples should put their relationship first to be happier. Learning and striving to be selfless and flexible may help. E.g. Learning and practising affectionate behaviour towards one’s partner

  • Growth is important in relationships.

  • People may make different kinds relationships to compensate for others. E.g. Person A has more friends to compensate for lack of attention from Partner B.

  • Some choices (for the better or worse) are made by committee. The relationship between leaders and governing bodies can lead to beneficial and disastrous results.

  • The myth of the top down leader is just that. Reality doesn’t work in that way.

  • Everyone has responsibility in the hierarchy.

  • The relationship between leaders and the controlling groups can be positive, complicated and cumbersome towards enacting change. Look at how the US Senate and Obama work together.

  • Ends and means may have a tendency to be simplified by people. We may need to become aware of the complexities of choices and their effects.

  • Concepts like time horizon (ways of analysing short and long term risk) may be useful in teaching people how to deal with consequences of their actions.

  • Being in positions of power can enable or disable one’s ability to maintain their values and integrity.

  • We compromise our principles by having to engage in “dirty” work. One may have to compromise values to achieve success in traditional corporate culture.

  • Some of us can only survive in such environments for short periods of time before escape becomes necessary. Others become indoctrinated and can thrive.

  • It can be physically and mentally exhaustive to maintain values in tough environments.

  • When looking for work, one has to be creative to maintain their values. E.g. finding like minded people to work with.

  • There is no set of universal values that can be shared by people. Is it bad that there isn’t a universal set?

  • There are companies who try to espouse positive values and cultures. They may be using these values as market commodities.

  • Companies that give equality in pay and in the decision making process may develop into ethical and financial successes.

–  Propaganda was a neutral term until WWI. Public Relations (PR) is its contemporary incarnation. “Spin” is how we refer to the negative aspects of PR.

  • For some, advertising is feeding false values directly into the masses’ brains. Sadly many people are sheep like and are very easy to manipulate.

  • In this instance, TV can be seen as a religious icon or a false prophet. If we look over time at how people follow the common beliefs, we may find it looks like: Priests > TV.

–  For the masses, politics is about the people rather than the parties. Politicians use whatever leverage they can to sway the vote.

–  One member commented that we get the politicians we deserve.

–  People need the skills to identify problems with themselves and society.

–  Some people take the easy or lazy way out because they don’t want to face the consequences.

–  Skills of debate and enquiry aren’t favoured by our current education system which would assist with the growing number of “sheeple” or blindly faithful masses.

–  Change can be costly for us and we still haven’t developed successful ways of tracking the effects change has on societies.

Interesting questions posed by the group

Should we kill all psychopaths?

Do we have faith in humanity?

How do we treat our fellow tribe members and those on the outside?

What do we really value?

Can we separate ends and means?

Can the American President declare war by himself?

Should we compromise our values?

Do we take dodgy means?

Can we maintain our values if each instance is unique?

What is the difference between making compromises and comprising one’s values?

Has anyone followed their values (to the best of their ability)?

How can we “bend” our values?

Are principles the same as values?

Are values programmed into us or do we discover them naturally?

When is it justifiable to do bad things to reach good ends?

At what point do people stop compromising?

Is marriage an end?

How much can propaganda influence people?

Have our tools to combat blind faith developed in tandem to PR and mass media? How can we equip people to fight?

Can we teach people to change their part of the world?

How do we de-program people in the long term?

Is it easier to cover up everything now days or is it more difficult to extract the truth?

Why do politicians lie?

If we were in a position of power, would we act using our personal values or the ones that the community favours?

What is going on behind the scenes of politics?

How difficult is it to enforce a change to policy?

Are we focusing too much on the front man or personality rather than the policies and beliefs of political parties?

Additional Content

Environmental policy in China

World War I and II

The US Constitution

President Barack Obama



Puppet rulers

The banality of evil as proposed by Hannah Arendt [Wikipedia] [Guardian article]

Corporate culture and power (especially American companies)

Social responsibility of companies

The Trolley problem [Wikipedia] ) [Philosophy Experiments]

Omission bias [Wikipedia] [Blog entry]

Synthetic malaria treatment [SciDevNet article] [New Scientist article]

Edward Bernays [Wikipedia]  and his book “Propaganda” [Website]

9/11 conspiracy theories

United Airlines Flight 93 and Shanksville, Virginia

Building Seven

Gulf of Tonkin

Origin of the term conspiracy theory

Australian Mining tax

Corporate owned media

Culture clones

Pension Age

Sex at Dawn [Website] [Wikipedia entry]


More summaries can be found via the Summary Index.

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