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Philosophy Question

Is it better to take an action that is [right | proper | harmless | honest | etc.] yet results in a bad outcome, or to take an action that is [wrong | improper | harmful | dishonest | etc.] yet results in a good outcome?

(To answer the obvious question, no, this entry is not reflective of any moral dilemma I face at the moment.)


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Er ... that's sort of the whole question of moral philosophy right there :)

Bon chance!

It would take some time to unpack this dilemma. These are just initial thoughts.

I feel Wittgenstein on my shoulder, demanding the that definitions must be converted to a logical formula before we can proceed, and but the analytic philosopher in me wandered off sometime ago. He went into another room, to check if 2+2=4 in there, also.

If I were to consider this question in something of the frame of mind of, say, something like game theory, I'd recommend you take the second choice, because games are usually about winning, or at least about not losing. As outcomes are given more weight of preference than actions, it seems reasonable to ensure the desired outcome, even if the actions that enable them are bad.

Then, of course, there's the whole question of how much bad and good on either side of the action and the outcome? If the bad actions taken during the process to enable good outcome are bad enough in and of themselves to negatively match the weight of the good outcomes, this would seem to balance the equation and cancel the problem.

And then, there's an associated problem of time and knowledge. The question itself implies a prevision, or preknowledge (which some call clairvoyance, while others call it faith). To return to the question of outcomes: how can they be known to be good or bad before they take place?

With the benefit of hindsight, one would probably choose the bad actions that lead to good results in one's present time. Wow. That's a selfish theory, isn't it?


It has been my personal experience that no good outcome ever comes out of being wrong/dishonest/harmful/improper. But that begs for a definition of "Good". If the ends always justify the means then if you benefit from doing a wrong/dishonest/harmful/improper act then it would be "good". But what about the people, place or thing that the "wrong" action was done to? Is that a "good" outcome for them?

And then there's that whole Karma thing.

An extremely unsatisfying answer is "It depends..." Machiavelli proposed that, for the statesman, the latter option is the correct course. The military prioritization of "Duty, [before] honor, [before] country" implies that, in certain circumstances, these values may be mutually exclusive.

A strict moralist would maintain that one should always do the "right" thing, no matter what the outcome.

So it depends on your definition of "good" and "bad" ( or evil ), as well as your definition of "better." It may be "better" for the country for a statesman to lie, cheat, and steal (examples abound). It may be "better" for a military officer to violate his/her personal honor to better perform her/his duty. It may be "worse" to (for example) report a crime to the authorities that ultimately results in the death of the criminal.

Since a philosophical discussion is often connected with a religious position, I feel justified in using a Biblical reference: Judas' betrayal was the utterly necessary prerequisite to the passion of Christ. To a Christian, Jesus' death and resurrection are the ultimate and unquestionable evidence of God's commitment to man and the basis of his/her faith. Was it better or worse for Judas to have performed the despicable act of betrayal that resulted in the foundation of a major religion? One would assume that if you think that Christianity is a "good" thing, Judas' actions had a "good" outcome. A non- or anti-christian might believe that Judas' actions were wrong, and no "good" came out of it. The sanhedrin no doubt believed that Judas had justifiably provided the legal justification to remove a dangerous political adversary. Judas did not come to a good end, recognizing belatedly the evil of his own actions.

My personal answer to your question is that I endeavor to take the best action to attain what I hope will be the best result, to attempt to recognize, acknowledge, and correct my mistakes when I fail, to ask for forgiveness, and to retain the ability to look myself in the eye in the morning mirror. I believe that I'm successful most of the time -- others may disagree.

We can't know in advance the ultimate results of our actions. To almost quote Terry Pratchet: Sometimes, there is no good or evil, just a place to stand.


Stewart Butterfield got an MPhil in Philosophy from Cambridge and all I got was this lousy t-shirt saying, "Er ... that's sort of the whole question of moral philosophy right there :)"


Alan Dershowitz proposed last year that we should consider legalizing the use of torture under certain circumstances. In an interview on CNN, Wolf Blitzer summarized his case:

Professor Dershowitz talks about [a hypothetical case] in one of his articles and one of his books. There's a terrorist attack. A lot of people have just been killed in New York. They capture one of the terrorists, who says, "Guess what, there's another bomb out there, it is going to kill a lot more, but I'm not telling you where it is."
Dershowitz's point was that if a reasonable person would say, yes, we should use torture in such a case, then instead of pretending we never do, let's legalize it and put strict controls on it.

My problem with this is that legalizing it makes it -- well, legal. Torture is inherently a very wrong thing. If it is viewed as a tactic that is sometimes legal, then it will inevitably be used more often.

Having said that, could there be certain circumstances where its use might be justified by the greater good? Sure. If I was absolutely convinced that a captured terrorist possessed information that could lead to the immediate preservation of many innocent lives, I would probably authorize the use of torture to obtain that information. But -- and this is the big but -- I would expect to be held accountable for my actions. I would expect to be put on trial for them. I would expect to be judged by a jury of my peers. I would be willing to live with the consequences.

I don't think there are any easy answers to this question. Do the ends always justify the means? No, I don't believe that. Do the ends sometimes justify the means? Yes. But when we do something bad to achieve a good result, we have to think of the greater good, of how our fellow humans will judge us, and accept the consequences of our actions.

Not having read anything by Dershowitz, but knowing his reputation, I'm surprised by his advocacy for leagalizing anything that might violate the rights of the accused. I can't imagine any interpretation of the Constitution's framers intent that would consider such an act to be legal, but I've been surprised before. Perhaps he was being facetious?

There was a case recently where a military Colonel used questionable intimidation methods to gain information from an Iraqi captive. I think he's been forced to resign. I confess I'm not very knowledgeable of the case. However, in his position, I might have acted the same way to protect myself and my command, but as you say, I would expect to be held accountable for my actions. The laws of armed conflict are supposed to define behavior under these conditions for every military person, and the structure of our military is such that a violation is punishable by courts-martial. I don't know if any laws were violated in this case.


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