Commentary

The ends never, ever justify the means

Originally Appeared in : 9816-8/2/18

Almost 50 years ago, when I was nearing the end of my undergraduate studies at Their Majesties’ Royal College of William and Mary in Virginia—as it is still officially known—I inadvertently became somewhat of a connoisseur of graffiti in the men’s room stalls. Please pardon my indiscretion in mentioning such matters in mixed company, as we used to say, way back when. For example, I recall reading what we would now call a post, and then should have called a graffito (but we probably didn’t) that read “God is dead—<signed> Nietzsche” and penciling in my contribution, as a zealous convert to Catholicism: “Nietzsche is dead—<signed> God.”

 

Another of my undergraduate witticisms was to add to a graffito or “post” that read “Hell is other people—<signed> Sartre.” As an already experienced student of French literature, I couldn’t resist adding my postscript, “Hell is Sartre—<signed> Other people.” The quote from Sartre is a line from his play, Huis Clos, in which people die and go to a dead-end street in Paris.

 

In 1948, Sartre wrote and produced another play, in seven acts, called Les Mains Sales (“The dirty hands”), which included this passage in Act 5, Scene 3 (in English translation): “I was not the one to invent lies: They were created in a society divided by class and each of us inherited lies when we were born. It is not by refusing to lie that we will abolish lies: It is by eradicating class by any means necessary.”

 

Sartre’s phrase, “By any means necessary,” is “generally considered to leave open all available tactics for the desired ends, including violence, however, the ‘necessary’ qualifier adds a caveat—if violence is not necessary, then presumably, it should not be used.”

 

This phrase entered the American lexicon through a speech given by Malcolm X in 1965: “We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.”

 

This phrase is rooted in the dictum that “the ends justify the means,” first expressed, by Niccolo Machiavelli’s in "The Prince" in 1513, a work considered scandalous by contemporary Christians, including princes. This dictum “is interpreted by some to mean doing anything whatsoever that is required to get the result you want, regardless of the methods used. It does not matter whether these methods are legal or illegal, fair or foul, kind or cruel, truth or lies, democratic or dictatorial, good or evil.”

 

Because certain politicians and celebrities seem to be propagating the Realpolitik of Machiavelli and Sartre to a new generation, I have been pondering what a Catholic response to it should be. I have found it clearly expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

 

Paragraph 1753 states, “A good intention (for example, that of helping one’s neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just. The end does not justify the means.” Paragraph 1759 cites Saint Thomas Aquinas, “An evil action cannot be justified by reference to a good intention.” And Paragraph 1761 adds, “There are concrete acts that it is always wrong to choose, because their choice entails a disorder of the will, i.e., a moral evil. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.”

 

So whenever you hear those fomenting or condoning violence, the suppression of free speech, and the disruption of other peoples’ lives, on the grounds that their ends or goals can justify these means or that these ends or goals are so important that they must be achieved “by any means necessary,” run as far as you can from them, to not give them any support, for therein lies both physical and moral danger.

 

The ends never, ever justify the means.

 

Father Douglas K. Clark is pastor of St. Matthew Church in Statesboro.

 

Go to top