Does the End Justify the Means?

Recently, during some news analyst program, the journalists were decrying the dishonesty of one of the major political parties in their spoken and unspoken lies being spread to bolster their position with the electorate. They basically proved that these political leaders were knowingly misrepresenting lies as truth because the lies evoke strong emotional responses from their supporters and may lead them to win in upcoming elections. This kind of activity seemed to be in-line with the philosophy that the end justifies the means – whatever it takes to win seems to be encouraged in the current American way. In another program, one political leader was asked whether he agreed with some outrageous position being spouted by one of their candidates – that unemployment benefits was unconstitutional, and responded by saying that, “he agreed with whatever it takes to win the election.”

It is not only in politics but we have seen it in our business leaders before and after the current economic crisis, in sports and in our education system. It seems that something is only “bad” if one is stupid or careless enough to get caught at it, in which case, one deserves to have the book thrown at one. In every aspect of our lives, there is a relativistic concept that a lie is as good or sometimes even better than the truth – whatever it takes to achieve a certain result.

There are many ways to approach this question, from moral, ethical, religious, or philosophical terms, but I would like discuss it from the perspective of the yogic spiritual law of karma.

Now, there may be three aspects of an action from the karmic perspective – the intent of the actor, the act itself and the results of the act. It seems from study of the relevant authority that intent seems to play a very small part in the karmic impact. We need to actually analyze the act and its results to get any insight. What we call the “means” could be a series of acts and “the end” may only be one desirable result from a series of consequences from an act. For instance, a desirable goal may be the winning of a war, but this may entail the result that millions of people may be killed and millions others suffer various hardships. The Law of Karma does not forget about the unintended consequences or the unavoidable side-effects.

There are certain acts that have been deemed a-priori harmful from a karmic perspective – they will always cause a negative karmic effect on the actor. Such are acts such as lying, harming others, stealing, etc. These are based on the accumulated wisdom and insight of past sages. So in order to accumulate good karma and avoid bad karma, one would tell the truth. In fact, it would go beyond that, since it actually mandates that one would need to make an effort to ascertain the truth because it is not enough that one thinks one is telling the truth when one is actually wrong.

It is actually easier to agree on acts that should be avoided such as murder than it is to agree on which “ends” are good or bad. In fact, it may not be possible because of so many conflicting human desires and needs – for instance, nobody would object to peace but what if your leaders tell you that it takes a war to get peace. Is this war an end or a means? While Karl Marx was concerned with the economic and political equality of the masses, he was not concerned with the proper means to achieve such equality and humanity has paid a steep price. A freedom fighter wants to achieve freedom for his people and employs terror tactics – is this justifiable?

Let us look at a simple situation. Would you lie to save the life of another person? One may be justified to say that the bad karma from lying would be outweighed by the good karma of saving a life, and one would probably be right. However, what if the person whose life was saved turned out to be a Hitler and caused the deaths of millions of innocents? Then the negative karma from the act of kindness would be very great indeed. This helps to point out a flaw in our human condition – we are incapable of being able to foresee the many consequences of even our simplest actions! This does not mean that we should then be frozen in inaction and agonize over even the simplest decision to eat or not to eat something. However, it should give us pause to examine our fallibility and this in turn should lead us to conclude that we cannot try to juggle or justify whichever means to achieve our desired ends.

If we can agree that certain acts are a-priori negative, then we should avoid those acts, regardless of whatever desired results may be achieved. This will restore to us the ability to act, without a constant consideration and balancing of possible consequences. Does this mean that we would not be subject to bad karma? Not necessarily, but it is the best that a human consciousness can achieve. If one can become a Buddha, then one can foresee all the consequences of an act and the complete karmic results, but that is beyond our scope at this time.

I’m not saying that war is never justified because it involves killing which is a-priori a negative act, but I’m saying that those who start a war, no matter how justified they think it is, should be ready to take the heavy karmic burden. Sometimes, it doesn’t take long to figure out that a particular war turned out badly even for the winning side – that the situation that one country’s leaders wanted to achieve, such as greater security or chance of world peace, was not achieved and instead, one evil was removed that enabled a greater evil to grow unchecked.

Every action has its consequences and to think that the karmic effects of a series of actions will somehow be offset by a desired objective is delusionary. One should strive to achieve one’s goals through the least harmful means and if that is not possible, then one should re-examine the goal and its desirability. If one still persists in achieving a desirable goal in spite of the possible negative acts, then one should be ready to take the karmic burden with courage.

Somehow, I don’t think that winning an election, a game or passing an exam is worth the hurt that unethical and harmful means will generate. It is only the illusionary hope that one can get away with it, that one would not be caught or that the immediate consequences of being found out would be negligible that power the ascendance of “the end justifies the means” in our society. We must try to remove this ignorance with education about the universal law of karma.