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August 22nd, 2011
Immoral Means, Moral Ends
photo credit: taylorsloan
This morning, the world was witness to an advance by Libyan rebel forces into Tripoli, concentrating their pressure on the dictator Muammar Gaddafi and his sons. Libyans and freedom-loving people the world over are rejoicing at the increasing chance of success the people of that nation will soon have to completely throw off their shackles and institute a form of government in which they all can have a say.
As noble and worthy as that goal is, and as cruel and merciless as Gaddafi is, this should not be happening. Yes, Gaddafi is a tyrant and should be removed from power. But it is only happening now because of the United States government and NATO, an institution funded and supplied largely by our own government. Thus, our unconstitutional and immoral intervention into a foreign country—justified on a shaky foundation of half-truths and emotional platitudes—is the catalyst for the current Libyan revolution. Without the air support and logistical assistance of the United States military, today’s circumstances would not be where they are. And that support cannot legitimately be given unless specific requirements are met, which are currently being openly flouted by the Obama administration.
This is not an uncommon situation. The government frequently employs immoral means in pursuit of allegedly moral objectives. Saving or creating jobs, sheltering the homeless, providing medical care to those in need, etc.—these and so many more policies are justified through pointing to a noble goal, though are carried out through immoral activities such as theft, coercion, and violation of the Constitution. The immorality is justified, dismissed, or even altogether ignored by the media and public at large through an emotion-driven public relations campaign in which those who dare oppose the activity in question are automatically branded as unsympathetic, unrealistic, or just plain selfish.
Immorality in pursuit of morality is especially notable in certain criminal cases, where people readily support whatever it takes (“all options are on the table”) to capture and convict somebody. The Libyan civil war in which we’ve become involved is no exception. Another recent example is the Warren Jeffs case, which likewise should not have happened as it did. Yes, Jeffs is a dirty scumbag who deserves the sentence he was given and has ruthlessly damaged or destroyed a number of lives. But nearly all of the lurid evidence used against him in court over the past few months was obtained through an illegitimate search and seizure of dubious legality of the Yearning for Zion FLDS property in Texas.
In that 2008 raid, Texas law enforcement officers were granted a warrant which authorized them to search “all buildings, temples, temple annexes, places of worship, vaults, safes, lockboxes, locked drawers, medical facilities, structures, places and vehicles at the ranch.” Their only tip was a prank phone call.
This directly violates the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which states that warrants may only be issued “upon probable cause” and when they “particularly describ[e] the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
On both points this warrant fails. Law enforcement officers had no probable cause—just a fake, unsubstantiated tip that in no way justifies what followed. And the warrant that was issued, authorizing the invasion of a community’s property (and temple!), had no mention of a particular place, person, or thing. It was extremely broad and unjustly targeted completely innocent people who found themselves subjected to the thuggery of the police state’s muscular arm. Remember also that in this raid officers rounded up every child, effectively kidnapping them under the cloak of law to interview them without their parents present, with no cell phones allowed, with no media able to talk to them. They were detained without a proper warrant, kept in protective custody, and often farmed out to shelters and foster homes, with Child Protective Services agents in many cases having to physically separate mothers from their crying children.
Rarely in recent history has such a brazen manifestation been made of deviating the law to enforce justice. And yet, just a week ago Jeffs was convicted and sentenced—a result welcomed by anybody with a brain—based on evidence obtained in that unconstitutional search and seizure. As that evidence should not have been collected as it was, it therefore follows that Jeffs’ conviction and sentencing should not have happened as it did.
To state that these (and other) events should not have occurred as they did (and thus, perhaps not at all, letting evil men go free) is to assume an awkward position against an overwhelming majority which would strongly and emotionally disagree. “We want to put bad people in jail!” “Thugs and perverts such as these deserve to rot in prison!” “We must do whatever it takes to protect the innocent!” These and similar arguments are all too common, often encountered in discussion anytime one suggests that the way in which this supposed justice was pursued was perhaps wrong.
We would be able to capture and convict far more criminals through a full-fledged police state, of course. For those who are indifferent to the alleged protections offered to the innocent as the government enforces the law, this becomes a difficult proposition. If they support the current violations of law and morality to achieve the goals they applaud, then where, if at all, do they draw the line? What about an open-search-and-seizure policy with curfews, martial law, and 24/7 surveillance? Crime would be far easier to solve and punish were law enforcement officials able to do whatever they thought best to detain and punish the evil individuals among us.
The presumption of innocence and safeguards to restrain an unchecked police state exist for a reason; deviance from these protections may yield positive results, as with Gaddafi, Jeffs, and others, but each occasion sets precedent and policy for future occasions wherein the police state expands in size and scope. We should temper our joy at seeing justice served with the somber realization that these moral ends were brought about in that way only through employing immoral means.
In a world where individuals tolerate the government committing crimes in pursuit of others who have allegedly committed a crime, morality is considered an antiquated inconvenience rarely thought of, let alone heeded. Those who solemnly pledge their allegiance to “liberty and justice for all” would do well to reject this pattern and follow through on that commitment—promoting liberty and pursuing justice only through moral means.
9 Responses to “Immoral Means, Moral Ends”
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I’ve recently been listening to a book on cd called “In the Garden of Beasts” by Erik Larson. It chronicles the events in Germany that lead to the rise of Hitler, the holocaust, WWII, etc…
It is amazing to me how the citizens of a country, who believed their country was a “free democracy”, a country that was essentially at peace with the world, allowed their country to fall quickly under the power of a totalitarian regime. It happened over the course of just a few years and it has EVERYTHING to do with the topic of this post.
We’ve all heard this statement before. It originated from Martin Niemöller, an early supporter of the Nazi regime who became disillusioned once it was too late. I think for a lot of us the statement has become a bit of a cliché, and perhaps we view it as being overly simplistic:
First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak out for me.
Having listened to the above-mentioned book I have to say that it really was that simple. People were going about their lives, going out on weekends having a good time, going to dinner, going to a show, etc, and all the while the nazis were committing atrocities all around them.
The people chose to ignore the most basic principles of liberty and justice because the ends supposedly justified the means. For instance, between June 30 and July 2, 1934, Hitler and the Nazis carried out a series of political executions. The event came to be known as “The Purge.” All-told, the nazis admitted to murdering over 80 people. By some estimates the true number was closer to 1,000.
Whether 80 or 1,000 though, the people knew that it had taken place. They knew that due process was not followed. They knew that according to the most basic principles of law and justice, the killings amounted to cold-blooded murder. But they did nothing. In fact, when Hitler addressed the public and claimed that the killings were done to preempt a consiracy to overthrow the German government, the people generally supported the action.
Nevermind that no such conspiracy ever existed. The fact of the matter was that the overwhelming majority of those killed were bad men. Many of them were, themselves, guilty of committing ruthless atrocities. They were scum, just like Warren Jeffs, and just like Muammar Gaddafi.
“”that it is better [one hundred] guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer.” — Benjamin Franklin
Thanks to unprecedented levels of secrecy in both the Bush and Obama administrations, we can’t even find out everything our government is doing in our name. There’s also an ongoing, unprecedented crackdown on the few courageous whistle-blowers who represent our only source of information they don’t want us to know.
The presumption of innocence and safeguards to restrain an unchecked police state exist for a reason; deviance from these protections may yield positive results, as with Gaddafi, Jeffs, and others, but each occasion sets precedent and policy for future occasions wherein the police state expands in size and scope. We should temper our joy at seeing justice served with the somber realization that these moral ends were brought about in that way only through employing immoral means
This sums things up pretty well. Our culture is too complacent with authority figures donig evil with good intentions. This country was set up to prevent the government from doing just that. No one will stand for a government who oppresses in the name of evil, but the majority will for a government who oppresses in the name of good.
I generally agree that most of the things mentioned in the column are themselves immoral, but not that this immorality stems from the government of America’s violation of its Constitutional restrictions. Even as something of a libertarian who believes that limiting the federal government to its constitutional framework would be immensely beneficial, I believe this because of the reason I believe the Constitution exists: as a practical document designed to restrict centralized tyranny and abuses of power.
The Constitution is not an immutable statement of morality, but a practical set of restrictions and abilities granted to Congress in order to execute a particular model of restrained government. When our government incites and supports revolts in other nations, waives the rights of people on an FLDS compound, or provides specific benefits to businesses with lobbyists, it is acting illegally, not necessarily immorally. By my own personal metric, at least two and probably all three of the things in that list are also immoral, but the government’s step away from its limiting principles is an incident of its violating its own rules, and not some tablet-carved standard of morality. It is, nevertheless, something that ought to be (and is not) taken extremely seriously by those in the business of electing officials – the citizens of the United States.
“violating its own rules”….
I understand what you’re trying to say with your comments, but I think there is a slight misstatement that makes the actions seem much more innocuous than they really are.
The way you said they are violating their own rules implies that the federal government exists and operates because of its own inherent right to exist and operate, and that it would have the right to operate in any way it chooses. As though the federal government, by its own volition, chose its own Constitution. In fact, the Consitution is not “its own rules”, but rather the standard set by the states and ultimately by the people, the people being the sovereigns unto themselves who actually have those inherent rights, and who have only granted any authority to the federal government under the explicit terms set forth in the Constitution.
A comparison would be that you allow me to stay at your house for the weekend and you provide me a list of “rules”. I can’t eat all your food or pee in your pool, or whatever. Then once I have become accustomed to staying there every weekend I start breaking the rules and say, well it’s not so bad, I’m just breaking my own rules.
The rules applying to an organization being their rules in the colloquial sense, of course.
Great article Connor! “The ends justify the means” philosophy is held by most of society. In a letter to the Romans, Paul shed light on a false teaching attributed to him—“Let us do evil that good may come” (Romans 3:8). Yet many Christians, even today, rationalize some degree of evil committed by themselves, governments, businesses or others because of the “greater good” which supposedly comes from their questionable methods.
Government welfare, offensive warfare, intentional/negligent collateral damage, torture, punishing vices through force, embargos, supporting the lesser of evils… The list can go on and on. There’s always some great cause and we are supposed to believe that we should get there by any means necessary. This philosophy is not new. Look at the crusades- “it is better to force people to accept Christianity than to let them die unsaved.” And for you LDS readers- Satan’s plan was about focusing on ends at the expense of means…”Not one soul would be lost”…but we wouldn’t have agency either.
Elder F. Burton Howard gave an excellent talk in the April 1991 General Conference called Repentance where he completely destroys the myth of the ends justifying the means. Please read it.
If any warmongering, welfare-loving “saint” still believes the ends justify the means fallacy after reading this talk than convincing them otherwise might be hopeless.
I mainly agree with you on the fourth amendment. But on the international issue… should France have intervened in our American Revolution? Should we have rebuilt Japan and Europe after WWII?
Would you allow one penny of my tax money go to a foreign land to save the life of a million people?
What if the only infrastructure in place to help is the Government? Our drinking water-producing navy ships helped Indonesia after the tsunami. There were no private sector ships that could provide that service. Does that mean, “Tough for Indonesia?” They should have died of thirst because it’s a publicly owned ship? Clinton ordering navy ships to stand between China and Taiwan when Taiwan was being threatened. These are examples of very few of my tax dollars saving many lives.
I’m okay with it if my tax money may have to help someone in trouble.
I am looking for genuine answers. I used to be a Libertarian and these are some reasons why I am not any more.