Elijah Nix’s First Prize Winning Essay (2020)
Means To An End
In 1945, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, bringing a swift end to WWII. This action, however, came at a cost: many thousands of Japanese citizens died from the explosion, and many more died from radiation poisoning. Today, we are still left with the questions, “Was that the right move? Were the means justified by the end?”. Regardless of any answer, there is no way to judge without a standard by which to make that judgement. If we are to determine means that truly justify the end, we must gather all information on the subject, define who or what defines correct ethics, and conclude what a true end looks like.
Good-hearted people working without information will usually yield results that contradict their efforts. Using the current pandemic as an example, we see how the lack of knowledge is impacting decision-making. Many seemingly moral people find it acceptable to engage in non-essential interactions, due to a common rationale: “I’m young and healthy so I’m not at risk of getting sick.” Perhaps they are correct in that regard, but more information might bring a change in perspective. If they knew that it is possible to spread Covid-19 to others, even though they themselves are not experiencing symptoms, and that the increased spread of the virus is burdening hospitals and impacting care for all patients— not just Covid-19 patients— they might choose to adopt a stricter quarantine strategy. This, of course, is a small-scale example. However, when considering a larger population, exponentially more information is needed to make an informed decision. When seemingly moral governors are deciding to open counties and cities in this current time, information regarding countless fronts is required. What economic problems are we facing? How will this impact healthcare? How is the environment impacted? What is public opinion? All of these queries are extensive, but are necessary questions to answer, and each query requires information to arrive at a satisfactory answer. If one side lacks moral representation due to a shortage of data, the conclusion is flawed and should be amended. To come to a perfect conclusion, one would need every available piece of information. This rarely happens. Yet even when it does, who is to say which data matter more than others?
To point the information in an ethical direction, an objective source of what is ethically correct is the next step to justifying the means. Where do correct ethics come from? Some might say that the largest group has the correct ethics. However, if this were true for every situation, the majority of Americans who supported Manifest Destiny in the 1800’s were not in the wrong for expanding on Native American territory. Of course, the modern person might find this unacceptable. Some say that nature governs ethics, but if this is true then every natural inclination which humans experience must also be permissible. This would include bursts of anger against others and affairs that could potentially break relationships. Does a higher power govern ethics? The question then becomes, “Which higher power?”. With the millions of different gods humans believe in, which one or ones would be in the right, and how could you prove so? Clearly, objective justice is nearly impossible to find, and exponentially more impossible for all to agree upon. However, if we did have an ethics compass to work with, where would the final destination be?
Correct means are only beneficial if the end is also correct. Using Covid-19 as an example once again, we find many different ways to define what the end of the pandemic would be. Some might say that the end comes when businesses are reopened or when travel is once again permitted. Others might say that the end comes when Covid-19 is eradicated or when an effective vaccine is found. Still others might say the end comes when the economy has fully recovered from the lack of commerce. Which of these ends is the best? Even when the answer is agreed upon, unprecedented circumstances may arise causing the predicted end to be compromised or unresolved. Of the three aspects of moral decision-making addressed in this paper, this one seems to warrant the most difficulty. Even with all knowledge of the present backed by a correct morality, reaching a good ending is not guaranteed. It is a predicament of lacking the ability to look into the future.
With this all laid out, we see that the question posed is truly quite difficult to answer. Not every piece of information is available, the true ethics is never a consensus, and the true ending always blurred. What, then, is to be done? It is the nature of society to disagree and make mistakes. This is how humanity has always functioned. We are by no means perfect. However, we are also capable of collectively making good decisions from time to time. When means are being produced for an end, it is up to each person to ensure that their perspective is heard. History would have it no other way.