25 June, 2022


The Doctrines Of Necessity And The End Justifying The Means

By R.M.B Senanayake

R.M.B. Senanayake

R.M.B. Senanayake

The Opposition has leveled various allegations of corruption and financial irregularities against the President, The President has not responded to them but instead at the recent Momentum Forum argued that he should be judged only by results- the results of the development activity he engaged in. He also added that corruption was a necessary part of the process of development. Do we accept this view?

Should the individual be sacrificed for the good of the society?

This view holds that for the good of the society the individual’s happiness must be sacrificed. But this is the view of the Fascists and the Communists who believed that the interests of the State are above that of the individuals who compose it. This is the collectivist myth. The State is only the instrument of the people to protect the individual from any violence or depredations imposed by other individuals. The State is required only to maintain order and peace between the individuals in a society; since the alternative is to allow all individuals to use force to settle their disputes which would lead to chaos. The establishment of the State by giving it the monopoly of the use of force, is man’s prudent innovation to maintain peace and order among human beings. The State did not exist before the individuals that comprise it. So there can be no interests of the State except the interests of the individuals that compose it. The same applies to society. We could say that the interests of the society are the interests of the individuals who form it. There is of course an issue when the interests of individuals differ and minority versus majority emerge.

What about economic development? Should the State be excused for corruption and waste of resources in the name of development. Economic development is an exercise in using scarce resources for maximum benefit whether such exercise is by the State or the private sector. In the case of corruption and misuse by the private sector such enterprise will fail in the face of competition.

Are all Moral Values Relative?

The second issue is with regard to the morality of corruption. Some would say all moral values are relative. But there is a core of moral values essential for any society to function. This core of fundamental moral values are set out in the Ten Commandments and the Dhammapada. This core doesn’t change and is needed for the very existence of society. Are these moral values absolute? Leave that to philosophers to debate.

Basil 1The collectivist myth assumes that the end justifies the means. It has caused great death and destruction in the world and still does. The civilized world does not agree that the end justifies the means. The individual cannot be sacrificed for the good of society and honesty is a sine qua non for a society.

Economic development must maximize the use of resources. Corruption militates against it. The end cannot justify the means however noble it may be. Hitler, Stalin and Mao Tse Tung did so. They murdered millions to achieve the good of society. Ultimately the Communists failed as did the Nazis. There is no good of society apart from the good of the individuals’ and no human being can be sacrificed for an assumed greater good. In the words of Ayn Rand “man is a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute”. –

“Man, every man, is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life”.

Machiavellian ethics

The philosophy of ‘the end justifies the means’ is derived from the political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli glorifies the instrumentality of state building. Violence may be necessary, says Niccolo, for the successful stabilization of power and introduction of new legal institutions. Force and military might may be used to eliminate political rivals, to coerce resistant populations, and to purge the community of other men strong enough of character to rule, who will inevitably attempt to replace the ruler?” President MR is invoking this Machiavellian principle. But it is not acceptable to any civilized being.

The Defence Secretary once justified the wanton killing of known criminals ignoring the due process of the law, because they were a social evil. Many ordinary people justified it because a social evil was being eliminated for the good of society. But if the government becomes a law breaker, it breeds contempt for the law: it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy. To declare that in the administration of the criminal law the end justifies the means is to declare that the government may commit crimes in order to secure the conviction of a private criminal” Louis D Brandeis’

“The end cannot justify the means for the simple and obvious reason that the means employed determine the nature of the ends produced” Aldous Huxley. Changing human nature via the MEANS of force assuming that Might makes Right will eventually lead to total destruction of our civilization and probably the civilization of the entire plane.”

Reforming the world

Many socialists are people of goodwill who are appalled by the poverty of the poor and the wasteful extravagance of the few who are rich. They are upset by humiliating working conditions, and resent the greed and the lack of cooperative spirit among people. Socialists want to eliminate these evils. But how could this be done? Not by force surely? The great religious teachers did not think so. The goals however noble do not justify killing the rich. So many humanists, who are not socialists while agreeing with the socialists that there are serious social evils in the market economy, cannot subscribe to the use of violence against the capitalists advocated by Marxists in order to eliminate these social evils. Different groups of people may have different values but the civilized people who subscribed to the UN Declarations of Human Rights and the International Covenants do not accept this doctrine of the end justifying the means not even in wartime. So the President and some Army officers are accused of killing civilians and murdering the enemy who came to surrender bearing white flags. Necessity does not justify it, if it was true.

But those with a dictatorial frame of mind routinely defend such political measures on the sole basis that they will bring about some good consequence that supposedly outweighs any costs from their perspective. In all these cases, those who set the government policy seem to think that all they need do is identify a consequence be it economic development , as the “greater good” and the discussion is over. The end justifies the means.

But there are always costs to—and therefore victims of—any government action. Corruption is not a victimless crime. Its costs are borne by the people and borne for a long time- be it a white elephant like the Mattala airport or the high cost expressways. These costs have to be recovered from the people by way of tolls and when the costs are excessive the tolls have to be higher than necessary. Further, apart from the capital cost there are regular maintenance costs which also go up and have to be recovered to maintain their economic life. So all the costs have to be unnecessarily high because of the excessive costs due to corruption or inefficiency. “All those who are forced to bear the costs are treated by the government and the special-interest groups it empowers as mere means to other people’s ends—that is, they are treated as less than human for whose benefit- for those in power who are responsible for the corruption and inefficiency. When I am in a queue somebody pushes me aside and takes my place. Is it justified? No, although it satisfies his needs which may even be more pressing than mine. The proponents of such measures never tell us why the benefits they aim for are more important than the benefits other people must do without. But of course they couldn’t tell us. The alleged benefits are incommensurable.

Many who oppose the principle would sympathize with the notion that, sometimes sacrifices have to be made for the greater good. But they duty seek to persuade the people to accept the need of the situation as when Churchill persuaded the British people to undergo much sacrifices to win the war. But to sacrifice one set of people for the good of the rest is not acceptable, as Hitler used to justify the killing of 6 million Jews. Similarly Stalin killed millions of Russians because they opposed the collectivization of their farms. There are norms to be followed. Would you torture a terrorist suspect if he could reveal enough information to prevent a ticking time bomb from exploding in a big city? Last week the use of torture by the CIA was revealed . Can it be justified? What if the man was innocent and did not really know anything to be extracted during a torture session. No torture, no corruption can be justified on the ground of necessity or for the greater good.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    I say old fellow, I like your thinking. You seem to be a rare bird. I have not met anyone else who thinks like this.

  • 3

    R.M.B Senanayake,

    You, Shamini Serasinghe and Kusal Perera are three Sinhalese concerned about the moral deterioration of the society, others appear not to be concerned.

    • 2

      “Different groups of people may have different values but the civilized people who subscribed to the UN Declarations of Human Rights and the International Covenants do not accept this doctrine of the end justifying the means not even in wartime.”

      These principles and several civilized norms have been violated by Sri Lankan regimes ever since independence: It has become glaring now only because it has been snowballing over the years and the society accepts it like frogs in slowly heated water; it has reached the boiling point and the frogs are getting cooked, while some try to jump out, literally!

      The Sinhala society accepted the mass killing of Sinhala youth in two murderous waves, and most recently they even applauded the mass extermination of Tamil civilians in the war.

      Who will cure the sick society? Not even Sirisena may be able to do it because this malignancy is like a cancer that pervades the whole society.

  • 1

    Just a correction, Mr. Senanayake:

    Buddhist phenomenology contradicts your assertion on the supremacy of the individual.

    According to Buddhism, existence is anatta (no self), anicca (impermanence) and dukkha. There is no “I,” “me,” “being” or “individual,” etc. All sentient “beings” are composites of pancaskhandha– rupa, vedana, sanna, sankhara and vinnana.

    Thus, there is no static entity called the individual, contrary to Western philosophical thinking reflected in Ayn Rand, Adam Smith, Kant, Hegel and others.

    Buddhism dissociates itself from the concept of self because no static self is possible when everything else is in a state of flux. Belief in self (ego) is the cause of tanha and upadana–the root causes of all the dukkha.

    If you understand Buddhism, you would not have written such a misleading interpretation of the supremacy of the individual. So follow the Middle Path and assume that the welfare of the “being” and the society are both important. Both are coterminous.

    The part and the whole are inextricably linked.

    • 1

      Village Green Guy

      “The part and the whole are inextricably linked.”

      So are compassion and wisdom.

      I see you are void of both without which you cannot call yourself a follower of Buddha.

      “There is no “I,” “me,” “being” or “individual,” etc. All sentient “beings” are composites of pancaskhandha– rupa, vedana, sanna, sankhara and vinnana.”

      If that is what you understand and believe there is no you and there is no me, then why don’t you part with all your possession and transfer everything to me where I don’t exist.

      PS: You can keep your wife who will help you liberate yourself from cycle of life, Nibbana.

      His Holiness the Dalai Lama says:

      “Nirvana [liberation from the cycle of uncontrolled rebirth] may be the final object of attainment, but at the moment it is difficult to reach. Thus the practical and realistic aim is compassion, a warm heart, serving other people, helping others, respecting others, being less selfish. By practising these, you can gain benefit and happiness that remain longer. If you investigate the purpose of life and, with the motivation that results from this inquiry, develop a good heart – compassion and love. Using your whole life this way, each day will become useful and meaningful.”

      “Every human being has the same potential for compassion; the only question is whether we really take any care of that potential, and develop and implement it in our daily life. My hope is that more and more people will realise the value of compassion, and so follow the path of altruism. As for myself, ever since I became a Buddhist monk, that has been my real destiny – for usually I think of myself as just one simple Buddhist monk, no more and no less.”

      Another quote from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, from The Compassionate Life”

      “Compassion without attachment is possible. Therefore, we need to clarify the distinctions between compassion and attachment. True compassion is not just an emotional response but a firm commitment founded on reason. Because of this firm foundation, a truly compassionate attitude toward others does not change even if they behave negatively.

      Genuine compassion is based not on our own projections and expectations, but rather on the needs of the other: irrespective of whether another person is a close friend or an enemy, as long as that person wishes for peace and happiness and wishes to overcome suffering, then on that basis we develop genuine concern for their problem. This is genuine compassion.

      For a Buddhist practitioner, the goal is to develop this genuine compassion, this genuine wish for the well-being of another, in fact for every living being throughout the universe.”

  • 0

    I have to admit that I do not know Buddhism sufficiently and in depth. So I accept your comments about the denial of the individual self in Buddhism. But this to me poses a problem for freedom in a Buddhist society. If there is no individual can there be human rights for the individual ? Can there be freedom? Western liberal economic philosophy differs from the Buddhist view. Buddhism urges abolishing selfishness and greed- something practically impossible to do if the individual lives in a society. Where is the case for economic advancement in Buddhist society then? To the extent that a Buddhist society follows this tenet it militates against the pursuit of economic advancement and growth. Where it is unsuccessful as it is in Sri Lanka it seems to provide a hypocritical disguise for the ruthless pursuit of selfishness of the powerful who exploit the weak- for example the traditional exploitation of the lower castes, women or less fortunate people. What counts in the world perhaps is that societies which adopt the right institutions and values to turn greed and selfishness to motivating people to seek prosperity for themselves bring about prosperity which spreads to all. The poor today in developed countries have more comforts than our ancient kings. Ensure personal individual freedom and you reap prosperity
    One other point to correct Thiru. I was closely associated in the campaign against the JVP insurrection in 1971 and I must say there was no wanton killing under Sirimavo.Only combatants were killed and the large numbers arrested as participants were released with no punishments unless there was evidence of criminal offences. The leaders were tried in court and I myself gave evidence. It was not so in 1988.

    • 0

      “Buddhism dissociates itself from the concept of self because no static self is possible when everything else is in a state of flux”

      This is nothing more than the process perspective arising from science. I doubt it has anything to do with buddhism. The individual perceived as a dynamic process is in no way less entitled to its rights than the individual perceived as a static entity or object.

  • 1

    dear Native Vedda:

    The Four Noble Truths constitute the crux of Buddhism- whether it is Theravada or Mahayana. The ti-lakkhana–anicca, anatta and dukkha–is a derivative of the Four Noble Truths. They are the ultimate truths that Buddha discovered after many spans of rebecoming.

    The Buddha conceded the difficulty of many people to understand the difference between conventional truth and the ultimate truth. –what you can readily see and what you can perceive only through mindful experience.

    The Buddha did not deny the conventional identity of an entity that people saw as Native Vedda. But the absolute truth was that he is not the same entity from moment to moment because the five elements of which everyone was a composite were in a state of flux. Language was not rich enough to provide a word to identify such a changing composite. This is why the Buddha said that existence has no self.

    The Buddha said that dukkha is coterminous with cyclic existence (samsara). A “person” can escape the samsara only by attaining Nibbana–a state of sunyata. He provided a roadmap –the Middle Path — to get there. Panna (wisdom and compassion) that the Dalai Lama mentions is part of that roadmap.
    Another part is Sila (right action, speech and livelihood), which Native Vedda seems to ignore.
    And the final part is Samadhi (particularly mindful meditation) through which a”person” can understand the veracity of the Four Noble Truths.

    • 1

      Village Green Guy

      Thanks for your comment and am happy to respond some other time.

    • 0

      Village Green Guy
      I say no.Somebody else says ‘Yes’.Where does that leave you?

      If Sunyata state is the goal, then to achieve that goal implies struggle,battle,effort, will that is all.
      There is no guarantee of reaching that goal.
      The goal is an assumption which you have devised or better still invented merely to give you hope.
      But hope means tomorrow, not for today. The whole process is a never ending cycle,
      Is it a purposeless goal then?

  • 1

    Dear Mr. Snanayake et al:

    Buddhism is not a religion but a phenomenology. It adumbrates the virtues of harmonious co-existence of all sentient beings and their natural environment by recognizing that everything in the universe is interdependent and interconnected because all conditioned things are composites of the Five Aggregates. Therefore, by harming others you harm yourself. Thus, it takes care of human rights, animal rights and natural rights by suggesting the five precepts as the minimum prescription for the laity.

    The Five Precepts are common to all the major religions though expressed in different words. (I refer to the Ten Commandments of the Abrahamic religions in particular.)

    Human rights aren’t the brainchild of Western thinking. But in Eastern thought rights must accompany concomitant responsibilities. In the United States, some of the most vociferous human rights proponents do not oppose the gun lobby! They accept hunting as fair game.

    The Noble Eightfold Path provides the pathway to non-existence (Nibbana), the ultimate happiness. There’s nothing beyond Nibbana. Therefore, it is the joy of reaching Nibbana that really matters.

  • 0

    It is not the moral precepts that was referring to. Yes there is a core of moral precepts common to all religions. I was referring to Buddhist metaphysics where critics have pointed out to me that the individual self does not exist.

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