I’ve never liked the expression “the end justifies the means” either in straight or ironic mode because sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. Point out to someone using it ironically that there are cases where it does apply (the means of shooting someone dead is justified by the end of protecting ones family) and they’re “but that’s different” without articulating why it’s different.
The thing that got me thinking about this was the number of times when I was talking about some policy in Realpolitik terms–what might be achievable in the short run even though it falls far short of ideal–somebody will come and look at the “deal making” necessary to get the gain, sneer at the “compromise” and smuggly spout off about “The Ends (not) Justifying the Means”. It’s usually some big-L (Libertarian) type decrying that the policy in question includes a lot of stuff we don’t want–but have to agree to in order to get something we do want and which is actually a net movement in the direction we want to go.
So the way I have generally encountered it is being used in smug sanctimony to dismiss legitimate “you do what you have to, to make the gains you can” and is why we can’t have nice things.
And it’s generally Big-L types (largely because the policies I favor universally push in the “L” direction–I don’t know of anything on a public policy position, either in place or seriously being proposed with a hope in Niflhel of being implemented, which is too libertarian).
People who know me know that I lean very libertarian. But I also have what I think is a realistic appraisal of the world and recognize that’s a minority position so I need to think more in terms of moving in the direction I want rather than magically getting my ideal society.
In my own thinking there’s three tests where (whether you call it “the end justifies the means” or not) doing something that on its own would be bad becomes justifiable in a particular situation or for a particular end:
1) The end must, itself, be something “good”. “The Holodomor was necessary to get rid of the Kulaks and enforce the collectivization of farmland in the Soviet Union” (an argument I’ve actually heard), breaks down once you recognize that “getting rid of the Kulaks” (by starving them to death) and enforced collectivization were themselves evil. Evil cannot be justified by evil.
2) The means must be necessary to the end. At the very least, one must reasonably believe that said means are necessary. There might be circumstances where I would have to perform emergency surgery on someone (stranded in the wilderness, for instance), but I can’t just cut someone who has an inflamed appendix open when the option of taking them to the hospital is available. I would include as a special case in this “is the end reasonably achievable by these means”. (No, the “end” of a “fair” society is not reasonably achievable by establishing socialism. It’s failed every time. Whatever excuses you give for “that wasn’t real socialism” the fact remains that the attempt failed. It always does.)
3) The “means” cannot be “bigger” than the good “end” to be achieved–even if we accepted collectivization as a “good” the lives lost in the Holodomor weigh far larger than any “good” accomplished. This one is a bit more complicated in some ways because how do you weigh, for instance, one person killing six attackers in defense of themselves–one life vs. six. But you can’t weigh it like that, or not only like that. Six who threaten the lives of innocents vs. one who does not seems to me a much more justifiable balance. And add in that the six are unlikely to stop with the one, that one isn’t just defending himself but himself and all who would otherwise come after.
It seems to me the “bad” examples of “the end justifies the means” (the kind of examples used to claim that it does not) fails one or more of these tests.
The thing is, people want a blanket statement like “the end justifies the means” to always be true or always be false. This leads to twisting words around to try to make it fit that desired truth/falseness when the simple truth is that blanket statements are rarely (SWIDT?) always one or the other. The real world is more complicated than that.
If you claim it’s always false, then when you have to do something unpleasant toward a longer term goal (like, say, rise in resistance to a government turned tyrannical), then somebody points out that unpleasantness and ask if you think the ends justify the means, well, then you’re left trying to explain how by using this and so definition of words that you don’t really think the ends justify the means and lose sight of the simpler question: In this case, does it? Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. I think the three tests I gave provide a good start to determining whether a particular case does or does not.