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2.1 The Means Justify the Ends versus the Ends Justify the Means

Learning Objective

  1. Distinguish ethical theory centered on means from theory centered on ends.

A Foundational Question

In business ethics, do the meansWhat you do in order to reach a goal. justify the endsThe goals you want to reach, as distinct from what you need to do to reach them., or do the ends justify the means? Is it better to have a set of rules telling you what you ought to do in any particular situation and then let the chips fall where they may, or should you worry more about how things are going to end up and do whatever’s necessary to reach that goal?

Until recently, Eddy Lepp ran an organic medicine business in Northern California. His herbal product soothed nausea and remedied vomiting, especially as suffered by chemo patients. He had a problem, though. While his business had been OK’d by California regulators, federal agencies hadn’t approved: on the national level, selling his drug was breaking the law. On the other hand, not selling his remedy had a significant downside: it was consigning his clients to debilitating suffering. So when federal agents came knocking on his door, he had to make a decision.

If the means justify the ends—if you should follow the rules no matter the consequences—then when the agents ask Lepp point blank whether he’s selling the medicine, the ethical action is to admit it. He should tell the truth even though that will mean the end of his business. On the other hand, if the ends justify the means—if your ethical interest focuses on the consequences of an act instead of what you actually do—then the ethics change. If there’s a law forcing people to suffer unnecessarily, it should be broken. And when the agents ask him whether he’s selling, he’s going to have an ethical reason to lie.

Across the entire field of traditional ethics, this is a foundational distinction. Is it what you do that matters, or the consequences? It’s hard to get oriented in ethics without making a preliminary decision between these two. No one can make the decision for you, but before anyone can make it, an understanding of how each works should be reached. This chapter will consider ethics as focusing on the specific act and not the consequences. Theories of duties and rights center discussion. Chapter 3 "Theories of Consequence Ethics: Traditional Tools for Making Decisions in Business when the Ends Justify the Means" is about ethics as looking at the consequences instead of the act.

Key Takeaways

  • When the means justify the ends, ethical consideration focuses on what you do, not the consequences of what you’ve done.
  • Traditionally, focusing on means instead of ends leads to an ethics based on duties or rights.

Review Questions

  1. Your mother is ill with diabetes, and you can’t afford her medicine. In the pharmacy one day, you notice the previous customer forgot that same prescription on the counter when she left. Why might the premise that the ends justify the means lead you to steal the pills?
  2. Why might the premise that the means justify the ends lead you to return the pills?