[api] Morality: the importance of means

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Russil Wvong

Jan 23, 2003, 2:11:39 AM1/23/03
What's more important, means or ends? Do noble objectives justify
evil deeds? I would argue that the answer is no.

George Orwell describes the revolutionary creed in *1984*. The
protagonist, Winston, is joining a revolutionary movement known as the
Brotherhood, fighting against the totalitarian state run by the Party.

'... In general terms, what are you prepared to do?'

'Anything that we are capable of,' said Winston.

O'Brien had turned himself a little in his chair so that he was
facing Winston. He almost ignored Julia, seeming to take it for
granted that Winston could speak for her. For a moment the lids
flitted down over his eyes. He began asking his questions in a
low, expressionless voice, as though this were a routine, a sort
of catechism, most of whose answers were known to him already.

'You are prepared to give your lives?'


'You are prepared to commit murder?'


'To commit acts of sabotage which may cause the death of hundreds
of innocent people?'


'To betray your country to foreign powers?'


'You are prepared to cheat, to forge, to blackmail, to corrupt the
minds of children, to distribute habit-forming drugs, to encourage
prostitution, to disseminate venereal diseases -- to do anything
which is likely to cause demoralization and weaken the power of
the Party?'


'If, for example, it would somehow serve our interests to throw
sulphuric acid in a child's face -- are you prepared to do that?'


'You are prepared to lose your identity and live out the rest of
your life as a waiter or dock-worker?'


'You are prepared, the two of you, to separate and never see one
another again?'

'No!' broke in Julia.

It appeared to Winston that a long time passed before he answered.
For a moment he seemed even to have been deprived of the power of
speech. His tongue worked soundlessly, forming the opening
syllables first of one word, then of the other, over and over
again. Until he had said it, he did not know which word he was
going to say. 'No,' he said finally.

'You did well to tell me,' said O'Brien. 'It is necessary for us
to know everything.'

In this view of the world -- presumably based on the underground
Communist parties of the 1930s -- all means, no matter how brutal or
despicable, are justified by the revolutionary goal.

Elsewhere ("Inside the Whale") Orwell quotes Auden's poem "Spain":

Tomorrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion;
Tomorrow the bicycle races
Through the suburbs on summer evenings. But today the struggle.

Today the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necesary murder;
Today the expending of powers
On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.

Orwell comments

The second stanza is intended as a sort of thumb-nail sketch of a
day in the life of a "good party man." In the morning a couple of
political murders, a ten-minutes' interlude to stifle "bourgeois"
remorse, and then a hurried luncheon and a busy afternoon and
evening chalking walls and distributing leaflets. ....

In military affairs, Clausewitz expresses a similar view: if one
contestant is willing to use more extreme violence than the other,
he will win.

Now, philanthropists may easily imagine there is a skilful method
of disarming and overcoming an enemy without causing great
bloodshed, and that this is the proper tendency of the art of
War. However plausible this may appear, still it is an error which
must be extirpated; for in such dangerous things as war, the
errors which proceed from a spirit of benevolence are just the
worst. As the use of physical power to the utmost extent by no
means excludes the co-operation of the intelligence, it follows
that he who uses force unsparingly, without reference to the
quantity of bloodshed, must obtain a superiority if his adversary
does not act likewise. By such means the former dictates the law
to the latter, and both proceed to extremities, to which the only
limitations are those imposed by the amount of counteracting force
on each side.

This is the way in which the matter must be viewed; and it is to
no purpose, and even acting against one's own interest, to turn
away from the consideration of the real nature of the affair,
because the coarseness of its elements excites repugnance.

If the wars of civilised people are less cruel and destructive
than those of savages, the difference arises from the social
condition both of states in themselves and in their relations to
each other. Out of this social condition and its relations war
arises, and by it war is subjected to conditions, is controlled
and modified. But these things do not belong to war itself; they
are only given conditions; and to introduce into the philosophy of
war itself a principle of moderation would be an absurdity.

George Kennan takes precisely the opposite view: one's *methods* are
more important than one's *objectives*.

I should like to say at the outset that questions of method in
foreign policy seem to me to be generally a much more fitting
subject for Christian concern [or more generally, moral concern]
than questions of purpose....

The English historian Herbert Butterfield has shown us with great
brilliance, and so has our own Reinhold Niebuhr, the irony that
seems to rest on the relationship between the intentions of
statesmen and the results they achieve. I can testify from
personal experience that not only can one never know, when one
takes a far-reaching decision in foreign policy, precisely what
the consequences are going to be, but almost never do these
consequences fully coincide with what one intended or
expected. This does not absolve the statesman of his
responsibility for trying to find the measures most suitable to
his purpose, but it does mean that he is best off when he is
guided by firm and sound principle instead of depending
exclusively on his own farsightedness and powers of
calculation. And if he himself finds it hard to judge the
consequences of his acts, how can the individual Christian
onlooker judge them?

All this is quite different when we come to method. Here, in a
sense, one can hardly go wrong. The government cannot fully know
what it is doing, but it can always know how it is doing it; and
it can be as sure that good methods will be in some way useful as
that bad ones will be in some way pernicious. A government can
pursue its purpose in a patient and conciliatory and understanding
way, respecting the interests of others and infusing its behavior
with a high standard of decency and honesty and humanity, or it
can show itself petty, exacting, devious, and self-righteous. If
it behaves badly, even the most worthy of purposes will be apt to
be polluted; whereas sheer good manners will bring some measure of
redemption to even the most disastrous undertaking. The Christian
citizen will be on sound ground, therefore, in looking sharply to
the methods of his government's diplomacy, even when he is
uncertain about its purposes.

He makes the same point in his memoirs.

... Was brutality ever sanctioned, or sanctionable, as a measure
of revenge? If one fought against an enemy ostensibly *because*
of his methods, and permitted oneself to be impelled by the heat
of the struggle to adopt those same methods, who, then, could be
said to have won? Who was it, in this situation, who had imposed
his methods on the other? Whose outlook had triumphed?

I recognized, at that moment [watching German prisoners of war
being mistreated], that I stood temperamentally outside the
passions of war -- and always would. I had my moments of
indignation, many of them; the days, in fact, were seldom without
them. Wherever I lived -- in Berlin, in Moscow, in Washington --
the evidences in the daily prints of hypocrisy, of deliberate
falsehood, of vindictiveness and pettiness of spirit, had never
failed, and never would fail in the future, to send me into
elaborate physical heavings, and mutterings of outraged sentiment.
The family came to know these unfailing symptoms. But it was
primarily against people's methods rather than against their
objectives that indignation mounted in those moments. Objectives
were normally vainglorious, unreal, extravagant, even pathetic --
little likely to be realized, scarcely to be taken seriously.
People had to have them, or to believe they had them. It was part
of their weakness as human beings. But methods were another
matter. These were real. It was out of their immediate effects
that the quality of life was really molded. In war as in peace I
found myself concerned less with what people thought they were
striving for than with the manner in which they strove for it.
[*Memoirs 1925-1950*, pp. 198-199]

In answer to Clausewitz's argument, Kennan describes visiting Hamburg
in March 1949:

The following day I was driven around Hamburg and given a tour, in
particular, of the bombed-out areas. The spectacle was not a nice
one to see, not a nice one to think about. "Here was sweeping
devastation, down to the ground, mile after mile." It had all
been done in three days and nights in 1943. Seventy thousand
human beings had been killed in the process. More than three
thousand bodies were estimated to be still in the rubble. I had
experienced myself the first sixty of the British raids on Berlin,
and had seen -- since the end of the war -- plenty of ruins; but
these hit me particularly hard.

[Kennan quotes from his diary:] In the ruins of Berlin, there had
seemed to be a certain tragic majesty. Berlin had been a great
cold city, an imperial city, haughty and pretentions. Such cities
invited the wrath of gods and men.

But poor old Hamburg: this comfortable, good-humored, seaport
community, dedicated, like so many of our own cities, to the
common sense humdrum of commerce and industry -- for Hamburg, it
seemed a great pity.

Here, for the first time, I felt an unshakable conviction that no
momentary military advantage -- even if such could have been
calculated to exist -- could have justified this stupendous,
careless destruction of civilian life and of material values,
built up laboriously by human hands over the course of centuries
for purposes having nothing to do with war. Least of all could it
have been justified by the screaming non sequitur: "They did it to

And it suddenly appeared to me that in these ruins there was an
unanswerable symbolism which we in the West could not afford to
ignore. If the Western world was really going to make valid the
pretense of a higher moral departure point -- of greater sympathy
and understanding for the human being as God made him, as
expressed not only in himself but in the things he had wrought and
cared about -- then it had to learn to fight its wars morally as
well as militarily, or not fight them at all; for its moral
principles were a part of its strength. Shorn of this strength,
it was no longer itself; its victories were not real victories;
and the best it would accomplish in the long run would be to pull
down the temple over its own head. The military would stamp this
as naive; they would say that war is war, that when you're in it
you fight with every means you have, or go down in defeat. But if
that is the case, then there rests upon Western civilization,
bitter as this may be, the obligation to be militarily stronger
than its adversaries by a margin sufficient to enable it to
dispense with those means which can stave off defeat only at the
cost of undermining victory.
[*Memoirs 1925-1950*, pp. 436-437]

Stanley Hoffmann expresses the same view, while discussing the Vietnam War:

... often the greatest threat to moderation and peace, and
certainly the most insidious, comes from objectives that are
couched in terms of fine principles in which the policy-maker
fervently believes, yet that turn out to have no relation to
political realities and can therefore be applied only by tortuous
or brutal methods which broaden ad infinitum the gap between
motives and effects. What matters in international affairs, alas,
far more than intentions and objectives, is behavior and results.

If we accept the importance of means as opposed to ends, there's two
kinds of limits that apply. One limit is imposed by the principle of
proportionality: the harm done by one's actions should not be
disproportionate to the concrete benefits you're trying to achieve.
(This is a very strong argument against the use of nuclear weapons,
for example, or any other kind of weapon of mass destruction; what
possible benefit could justify their use? It's also an argument
against terrorist attacks on civilians, given the poor record of
terrorist groups in achieving political goals.)

The other limit is imposed by the standards of civilized behavior. My
view is that torture, for example, should *never* be used, no matter
what the benefits would be. (But civilized societies have used
torture in the past, so I can't claim that this is a universal
standard of behavior.)

One final point: it's extremely dangerous to justify brutality by
saying, "But it's different when we do it, because we're the good
guys." *Everyone* sees themselves as the good guys. Hans Morgenthau,
gives one example in *Politics Among Nations*, p. 274n:

To what extent the profession of universalistic principles of
morality can go hand in hand with utter depravity in action is
clearly demonstrated in the case of Timur, the Mongol would-be
conqueror of the world, who in the fourteenth century conquered
and destroyed southern Asia and Asia Minor. After havig killed
hundreds of thousands of people--on December 12, 1398, he
massacred one hundred thousand Hindu prisoners before Delhi--for
the glory of God and of Mohammadanism, he said to a representative
of conquered Aleppo: "I am not a man of blood; and God is my
witness that in all my wars I have never been the aggressor, and
that my enemies have always been the authors of their own

Gibbon, who reports this statement, adds: "During this peaceful
conversation the streets of Aleppo streamed with blood, and
re-echoed with the cries of mothers and children, with the shrieks
of violated virgins. The rich plunder that was abandoned to his
soldiers might stimulate their avarice; but their cruelty was
enforced by the peremptory command of producing an adequate number
of heads, which, according to his custom, were curiously piled in
columns and pyramids...."

Russil Wvong
Vancouver, Canada
alt.politics.international FAQ: www.geocities.com/rwvong/future/apifaq.html

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