Does the end really justify the means?

It is September 1666, and the Great Fire of London has broken out in a bakery. For four days flames rage uncontrolled through thousands of wooden homes. Though few perish in the fire, enormous numbers are homeless, possessions lost, with nothing to eat and no work available. Many of them die during the winter months. Almost immediately after the fire rumours swirl that the blaze was begun by Dutch or French Catholics. Mobs roam the street demanding an arrest. The authorities fear large scale civil unrest.

Then a simple-minded man confesses. He is Robert Hubert, believed to be a French Catholic. Hubert soon retracts his confession but he is brought to trial, convicted by the jury, and the death sentence passed. It is what the crowds wanted, and they disperse. Next month Hubert is hanged.

It would seem justice was done. But it wasn’t. Hubert certainly did not start the fire. He couldn’t have because there was incontrovertible evidence he was at sea on a ship when the fire began. London had already been burning for two days before he arrived in the city. The authorities always had doubts about Hubert’s guilt, but his conviction prevented riots, and it was better that one die than many.

Why tell that story? Because it illustrates what can happen if the rightness of actions is judged by how good or useful their consequences. Philosophers have a name for that kind of moral theory: consequentialism. One kind of consequentialism is utilitarianism, which I will explain later.

I imagine you’re telling yourself: ‘I wouldn’t hang an innocent man under any circumstances – I’m not a consequentialist!’ But I’d be ninety-nine per cent sure you are a consequentialist, probably quite often. My mother was when it came time to remove a band-aid plaster from my knee. ‘If I do it quickly it won’t hurt so much,’ she’d say. That’s consequentialism – let’s do the hard thing now because it’ll be better later. And we’re consequentialists any time we pay a false compliment about someone’s clothes or hairstyle, or cross our fingers while saying we like their friends. We don’t want to hurt their feelings, so we tell them what they’d like to hear. That’s consequentialism – we’re focused on outcomes, especially happy ones.

If you’ve been following recent blog posts, you’ll know I’ve been studying the philosophical issues around (what’s called) dirty hands. Dirty hands refers to doing something bad, but we do it because we believe it’ll lead to a good outcome. The situations I’m looking at are usually a lot more serious than hurting someone’s feelings. Two posts back ( I shared an often-quoted imaginary scenario, which is this:

  • a terrorist is arrested while planting a bomb
  • the authorities learn there are more bombs, all with timers to go off soon
  • the terrorist won’t say where they are
  • if they torture him to get that information they will save hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives
  • but torture is evil and illegal, so only the most extreme of emergencies could possibly justify its use
  • might saving a thousand lives be such a situation?

That’s the standard imaginary story to explain the dirty hands dilemma. You could say it’s about doing wrong to do right, about doing a bad thing for a good outcome. But can really dreadful things like torture ever be allowed, no matter how good the goal? That’s what I’m studying, and I’m asking if there is any moral theory that has the answer.

Before going further, I recognise some are fascinated by subjects like this, and others are switched off. I’d encourage you to keep going. The issues are actually very important. But don’t feel bad if this subject is not for you.

In the last post I looked at one theory. It’s about rule-keeping but goes by the fancy name of deontology. (See:  A very famous 18th century philosopher called Immanuel Kant believed no act was right unless you could will that everyone behaved that way. For example, he didn’t believe the world could function if everyone lied, so, for him, lying was always wrong no matter the consequences. That might mean telling a murderer where his intended victim is hiding. But, the question I asked was: how could a lie be more important than saving someone’s life?

Consequentialism isn’t about obeying rules. What’s right is doing what gives the best outcomes / consequences. Therefore it seems exactly right for dirty hands issues, because they’re about doing bad things to achieve good outcomes. Hence, can you torture a terrorist if that’s the only way to find and diffuse bombs? Some think that, in these circumstances, it’s the right thing to do; others think torture is always wrong.

The first person to organise consequentialist thought was a strange man. Well, I think someone is strange who writes in his will that, after death, his head should be preserved and placed on his body, seated upright on his usual chair, so he could join meetings of his ‘disciples’ when they gathered together.

The philosopher was Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Though his wish was extremely odd, it was granted and his auto-icon (body preserved and displayed as still living) is on display to this day in the Student Centre of University College London.[1]

Bentham was a pioneer in developing philosophical method. In the 17th century Francis Bacon had brought orderliness into scientific investigation, and Bentham wanted to do the same for philosophy. His key interests were morality and justice, so he wrote a book called ‘Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation’. It very nearly never got published. He had it ready in 1780 and, as many authors do, he let his friends read it in advance so he could make any corrections. These friends were unsparingly honest with Bentham, and pointed out so many imperfections Bentham confessed he believed the book ‘doomed to oblivion’. But he kept working at it, and it was published nine years later. But – being an odd man – Bentham wrote into the book some of his own criticisms of it. Over the years he continued to make corrections for a new edition which finally came out 34 years later.

So, what was Bentham’s moral philosophy?

He considered human beings to be governed by pain and pleasure. And his principle of ‘utility’ (usefulness) – hence the name utilitarianism – approved or disapproved of actions according to how much they increased or diminished the happiness of an individual or community. If an action produced benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness, then it was right. It could also be right if it prevented mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness. He defined six circumstances which could affect the value of pleasures or pains for an individual – see the footnote below for the details.[2] Then he specified an exact way of working out whether an action tended towards good or evil when everything was taken into account. His method is amusingly or frustratingly complicated – again, see below for details.[3] He didn’t believe his process could be followed before every moral judgment, but said the more precisely his method was observed, the more the result would be exact.

You might think that’s quite enough. Not for Bentham! What follows in his book are nine pages of kinds of pleasures and pains. There are 33 different lists. I have only skim-read them, and that left me exhausted.

To be kind to Bentham, his method and lists were an attempt to stimulate legal reforms and regularise sentencing in the justice system. But he was also trying to bring a more scientific process to moral decision-making.

His attempt at a method was applauded and criticised. It was impractical, and Bentham’s focus on calculating rightness on a numerical basis left open the chance of great evils. For example, was it right that slaves and Christians were tied up in Roman arenas so large crowds could watch them torn to pieces by wild animals? Bentham’s system would seem to say ‘yes’, because for a few there was extreme pain, while for the many there was great joy and excitement. Far more had pleasure than the number who suffered pain. And that’s what Bentham said was the way to judge rightness.

Jeremy Bentham was great friends with a man called James Mill, and he tutored James’ son. That boy became an even more famous philosopher than Bentham, and sought to rescue utilitarianism from the crude versions of consequentialism. His name was John Stuart Mill (1806-1873).

His father decided that John Stuart would have a genius intellect. He was put through an immensely rigorous training, which John Stuart detailed in his autobiography. From Wikipedia, here’s how it began:

At the age of three he was taught Greek. By the age of eight, he had read Aesop’s Fables, Xenophon‘s Anabasis, and the whole of Herodotus, and was acquainted with Lucian, Diogenes Laërtius, Isocrates and six dialogues of Plato. He had also read a great deal of history in English and had been taught arithmetic, physics and astronomy.[4]

Lists of his immense learning cover several more paragraphs. It’s a massive amount and range of academic knowledge. Then, aged 20, John Stuart Mill contemplated suicide. He’d realised the direction his life was taking would not bring happiness. What brought him back from the brink was the poetry of William Wordsworth.

Mill became an MP for a short time, but he made his greatest impact through his writings on several branches of philosophy. His book ‘Utilitarianism’ continues to fascinate me.

Mill was unquestionably a man of great learning. He was also shrewd, and he affirmed, adjusted and added to Bentham’s views to make them better.

Affirmed    He agreed with Bentham’s way of deciding between right and wrong. Here’s how Mill puts it: ‘actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness’.

Adjusted    Bentham had given all forms of pleasures the same value, so critics said many of them were no better than beasts would enjoy. Mill adapts the understanding of pleasure by arguing that the quality of pleasure matters as well as the quantity. In other words, there are ‘higher pleasures’ (such as those of the intellect, morality and aesthetics) and ‘lower pleasures’ (such as those of the body and senses). That allows Mill to say: ‘It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied’. Mill’s view smacks of elitism, but allows him to elevate his utilitarianism above the crudity of consequentialism.

Added    Bentham’s system involved calculating the happiness or usefulness of each act for most people. But his formula was tedious to calculate, and allowed the Roman masses to revel in watching people mauled to death. Mill, wisely, did not reject all that, but he added something that transformed it: the idea that it is not individual acts that should be assessed for pleasure or pain, but the assessment should be made of ‘rules and precepts for human conduct’. What that means is this: if a moral rule is widely accepted as good, and an action fits within that rule, then that action is morally good. For example, if there’s a rule that says ‘It’s a good thing to assist the poor’ and you take a loaf of bread to an impoverished neighbour, you no longer need to assess the moral rightness of your gift of bread because it’s already covered by the ‘assist the poor’ rule. That makes sense.

But, surely there are times when rules can’t be kept, such as the need to lie to someone intent on murder? Mill picks up on exactly that famous case I mentioned in the previous post. Yes, lying is wrong, but Mill says that even such a sacred rule has to allow exceptions. One of his examples, unsurprisingly, is that lying would be justified to ‘preserve someone from great and unmerited evil’. There can’t be rule-exceptions for self-interest, such as to avoid embarrassment, but, to save someone else from harm, a rule could be broken. Though that is a very reasonable position, Mill was criticised that he made his rules useful when convenient, but abandoned when inconvenient.

Eventually – in the late 1950s – Bentham’s views were labelled ‘act utilitarianism’ and Mill’s views ‘rule utilitarianism’. Not many today advocate the ‘act’ version, but plenty still identify with ‘rule utilitarianism’. It’s a softer, more reasonable form of consequentialism.

My special interest, of course, is whether any moral theory helps us justify a ‘dirty hands’ action, such as torturing a terrorist to find the bombs he’s planted.

A raw version of consequentialism would simply say, ‘Of course torture is justified providing more people benefit than suffer’. That’s straightforward, but no better than justifying slaughter in a Roman arena to amuse the crowd. No moral judgment is being made about the torture, only a calculation about how many gain from it.

I think Mill’s rule utilitarianism helps, but only goes so far. Here’s what I mean. Unquestionably torture would be against any normal moral rule. So, on that basis, you should refuse torture. However, you only remove the immoral action. You don’t remove the immoral consequence of inaction. By not torturing, you allow bombs to explode and many hundreds die.

So you have to resort to claiming this dreadful scenario needs one of Mill’s rule-exceptions. You could argue for a ‘supreme emergency’ exception to the no-torture rule. But who gets to define what is a ‘supreme emergency’? It’s not hard to imagine that many situations could be claimed as a supreme emergency. After all, that’s the line of thought which authorities, faced with mobs in the street, used to convict and hang Robert Hubert for starting the Great Fire, even though he was innocent.

My final conclusion will not be that consequentialism is the moral theory that resolves all dirty hands issues.

One more major moral theory to go still. It’s not remotely a religious theory, but some words of Jesus could sum it up: ‘Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit’ Matthew 7:17-18). I shall explain next time.

[1] See:,both%20in%20life%20and%20death. Understandably the head now on his shoulders is made of wax.

[2] His six are: 1. intensity 2. duration 3. certainty or uncertainty 4. propinquity or proximity, 5. fecundity (‘more of the same’ to follow), 6. purity (unlikelihood of opposite sensations following). If the issue concerned a group, Bentham had a seventh: extent (the number affected).

[3] Here’s how Bentham instructs his readers to ‘take an exact account then of the general tendency of any act’. It is to be an exact process: value each initial pleasure and each initial pain; then secondary pleasures and pains. Then total the values of the pleasures against the values of the pains. If the balance is on the side of pleasure, there is a good tendency to the act, and a bad tendency to the act if the balance shows pain. Also, consider how many people are affected by the act, and do the calculations again for each one. Then do the ‘balance sheet’ calculation again to calculate if the tendency is good on the whole or bad on the whole. Where the balance lies will show whether the act has a good tendency or an evil tendency.

[4] From:

What should Jim do?

Jim has stumbled into a small South American town, and he has a problem. A squad of government troops has arrested twenty natives, and lined them up against a wall to be shot. The squad captain tells Jim there have been anti-government protests in the region, and the twenty villagers have been chosen at random for execution as a deterrent to protesters. But, the captain says, since Jim is an honoured visitor from another country, he will grant him a guest’s privilege of selecting and shooting one of the natives himself. If Jim accepts, to mark the special occasion the other natives will be set free. If Jim refuses, then there’s no special occasion and all the natives will die. What is Jim to do? He wonders if he could grab a gun and save all of them. But, he’s massively outnumbered, the rescue would fail, and he would die along with the natives. So Jim has a terrible decision to make. The men against the wall and onlookers from the village are all begging him to choose and kill one so the others can live. Should he do that? Kill one and save nineteen? Or do nothing and allow twenty to die?

I’ve sourced that story from Bernard Williams,* a noted philosopher who used this as an argument against ‘utilitarianism’. Utilitarianism’s core idea is about maximising happiness for the greatest number, so an action is right if it’s beneficial for the majority.

The Jim story is not real; it’s a ‘thought experiment’, an imaginative tool to help us work through a complicated moral issue. There are many versions of the story, and others with similar dilemmas, because moral choices are often difficult.

So, if you were Jim, what would you do?

Keep in mind all the natives facing the firing squad want you to choose one of them so the rest will be spared. Their families want that too. Surely it’s best that one dies to save nineteen?

But these men are all innocent. How can you select one, point a gun at him, and pull the trigger? It would be an unlawful killing and you will be the perpetrator. Is it then a crime? Is it a sin? Could you look the man in the eye who’s about to die and believe you’re doing the right thing? Could you live with your conscience afterwards?

The simple utilitarian response would be: ‘Of course you shoot one to save the other nineteen. That results in the greatest happiness for the greatest number.’ All that matters is the maths. Losing one is better than losing many.

However, that logic can have serious consequences. In 1666, the Great Fire of London destroyed much of the city. In the days immediately after the fire, citizens crazed with anger demanded someone be held accountable.  Mobs roamed the streets, and authorities feared riots would cause many deaths. Suspicion fell on Robert Hubert. The fact that he was a Catholic was not in his favour. Moreover, he confessed, perhaps because of the mob’s pressure. Hubert certainly didn’t start the fire. He couldn’t have because he wasn’t in the country when it began. But, despite his obvious innocence, the jury pronounced him guilty and he was hanged. His death likely saved others from dying at the hands of mobs. But did that justify a wrongful execution?

Hubert’s fate shows the problem when moral judgments are made simply by calculating the number who gain versus the number who lose. It can’t be that simple.

It isn’t that simple. Life isn’t simple. In his poem Marmion, Sir Walter Scott talked about the tangled web we weave, and tangled it is. Here are three real-life situations I know personally.

A couple watched their adult son descend into alcoholism. Some nights they roamed the streets searching for him, occasionally finding him unconscious in a shop doorway. They gave him money to pay his rent, and money to buy food and clothes, but he spent it all on drink. They became desperate to save their son. But the advice those parents were given was to stop helping, because their son had to reach absolute bottom before he’d change. That seemed too hard. The couple believed he’d die before that change would come. What was the the right thing to do?

A younger couple, with no children of their own, fostered a bright ten-year-old girl. Her background was dreadful, but for about four years they were a happy family together. Then it all changed. The fourteen-year-old had joined a bad crowd, begun staying out late and sometimes didn’t come home at all. Her foster-parents knew she was drinking and perhaps taking drugs. They were seriously worried she’d get pregnant. They tried everything to help her change, but it all failed. They couldn’t let her behaviour continue, but alerting social workers would mean their foster-daughter was taken from them into care. What was the right thing to do?

In 1999, Odisha (formerly Orissa) in India was devastated by a cyclone and super-cyclone in rapid succession.** Winds reached 160 mph, and the sea was driven inland to a depth of five to six metres for 20 miles, contaminating the land with salt so nothing would grow. Cattle and goats were destroyed, and up to 30,000 people perished. Soon after the cyclone I visited the area. The people in one of the devastated villages told me how everyone had rushed into the village’s only concrete building. They were so crammed in they had to stand upright in waist high water for three days until the flood subsided. Because they did, most lived. But, unable to plant crops, and with no animals, many would die of hunger in the weeks ahead. A team of young people was with me, and they spoke to as many as they could (with the help of a translator). They met a grandmother clutching a young baby whose parents were lost. Grandmother grabbed the arm of one of our team, and begged, ‘Take the baby with you. She’ll die if she stays here.’ For many reasons the aid worker couldn’t take the baby. Besides, why this baby? There were thousands – tens of thousands – at risk. But yet, she was being asked about this baby who, sadly, would indeed probably die. What was the right thing to do?

Jim’s story and these other stories bring home two truths to me.

Life is messy and difficult. It’s complicated. Over the years I’ve been privileged to listen to many who shared the hidden parts of their lives, things most would never know about them. A disturbing number were told by a parent, ‘I hate you. I wish you’d never been born.’ How does anyone say that to an eight or ten-year-old? It leaves a dreadful legacy. Another legacy lives permanently in those who experienced sexual assault as a child. For others, the secrets were current. Some had health problems that would seriously shorten their lives. Or depression, that robbed every day of colour or joy. Or tension in their marriage that might soon cause it to fail. Or debt from which they could see no escape. Not everyone’s story is dramatic, but everyone has a story which includes hard challenges. When my wife, Alison, studied sociology of health, the lecturer said that most people think everyone else is so much healthier than they are, but they’re not. That’s also true about life. We assume most people are having an easier time than we are, but they’re not. Life is messy and difficult.

Answers are not obvious. I’ve known people with ready-baked solutions for almost everything. They have no uncertainty; there’s only a right way or a wrong way. They’d have instant answers for Jim and everyone else I’ve mentioned, and they’d be certain their answers were right. I can’t share their certainty. I can’t pronounce an obvious right way through wretched problems because often there isn’t an obvious right way. A lot of the time we simply don’t know the right thing to do. Accepting that is an important first step, because a pre-determined, formulaic answer may be entirely unsuited for a complex problem.

Jim faced a wretched dilemma in the South American jungle. Who would want his choice? The author behind the story – Williams – hints at his own answer by suggesting we’re responsible for what we do rather than what others do. That makes sense to me, but I can’t imagine I’d ever feel comfortable with either decision.

I’ll finish, then, with a World War II story in which someone took personal responsibility at great cost. This is a true story, told in Ernest Gordon’s moving book Miracle on the River Kwai.*** Gordon and many other allied POWs were made to work in Thailand on railway construction by their Japanese captors. Their conditions and treatment were brutal and appalling. Yet there were many examples of great heroism among the prisoners.

An Argyll soldier had laboured all day on the railway. He and the rest of his work detail were marched back to camp, tools were laid down and counted by a guard. (There was a suspicion that prisoners might sell tools to local Thais for food.) The guard shouted that one shovel was missing. He screamed with rage, worked himself into an out-of-control fury and shouted that the guilty man must step forward. No-one moved. The guard lost control and shrieked that all would die. He readied his rifle, and pointed it at the first man in the line. Then one prisoner stepped forward. The Argyll stood to attention and quietly said he’d done it. The guard’s rage exploded in extreme violence. He kicked and beat the soldier, but still he stood there. Infuriated, the guard lifted his rifle by the barrel, and crashed it down on the Argyll’s head. The prisoner fell to the ground. He was clearly dead, but the guard continued to pound on his body until too tired to inflict any more retribution.

The other prisoners picked up the Argyll soldier’s body and their tools and returned to their camp. At the guardhouse, the tools were counted again. None were missing. The guard had miscounted. The Argyll had given his life to save his fellow prisoners.

Did that soldier do the right thing? If love for neighbour was that man’s guiding principle, I believe he did. Was it an easy decision? No, I suspect it was very hard. After all, none of the rest of his squad moved. But, on that day and in that situation, the Argyll made a decision he believed in. I try to make decisions I believe in. I suspect that’s all any of us can do.

*Smart, J., & Williams, B. (1973). A critique of utilitarianism. In Utilitarianism: For and Against (pp. 75-150). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511840852.002

**There’s a Wikipedia page about that super-cyclone.

*** Gordon, E. (1965) Miracle on the River Kwai, Fontana, London.