The ends justify the means — Is this biblical? Do the ends justify the means?

When a person says "the ends justify the means" they are saying that if the end result is noble enough, it will justify whatever measures are taken to achieve that goal. For example, if your goal is to save lives, it's okay to cheat, steal, and lie to accomplish your goal. More often, the scenario is something less drastic, such as exaggerating one's skills on a resume in order to get a job that will provide for one's family.

The reason that "the ends justify the means" is such an ethical dilemma is that it allows small immoralities to take place in order to achieve larger moralities. Who cares whether you exaggerate some data, if it means your family will have food to eat? Who cares about stealing from the rich if you can give to the poor? A very common question in ethical debates on this issue is, "If you could save the world by murdering someone, would you do it?" Murder is wrong, as we all know. But saving the world is a good and moral thing. But what kind of world are we saving if we save it by murdering someone? Wouldn't that open the door to a world where more atrocities are justified?

The problem with the "ends justify the means" philosophy is that it puts the law into the hands of human beings, and makes the law subjective. Most men and women are geniuses when it comes to justifying our behavior. We can rationalize any action if the motivation for the goal is strong enough. That is exactly why the ends cannot justify the means—it is a recipe for complete chaos. Its logical outcome is that each person, or group of people, decides what is moral or immoral, based on the situation. The opposite situation is where a set of morals and principles are agreed upon by everyone. This is how healthy societies operate—by setting rules that everyone must follow, and then punishing offenders.

But what about personal morality? What if we encounter this dilemma in a personal situation that does not involve the law of the land? Perhaps we feel we need to lie to protect someone's feelings. Maybe we feel we can cheat on our spouse because they've made us unhappy. Maybe we're okay with running up our credit cards because the goal is to buy Christmas gifts. It is quite likely, if we each were to examine our lives, that we would see ourselves justifying the ends with the means all over the place. Does the Bible address this kind of thing? What does God think?

God is holy, just, and good. Those who follow Him are called also to be holy in our conduct, reflecting His character (1 Peter 1:15–16). The law of God, as seen in the Bible, is clear about what is moral and immoral. And since even people who have never encountered the law know generally what is moral and immoral, we can assume that the Bible is simply describing a law that exists already in the human heart, rather than arbitrarily saying "this is good" or "this is bad." We all know right from wrong. That doesn't mean, of course, we are capable of always doing what is right. There are always motivations to do what is wrong, in order to gain something. Here we see why the philosophy "the ends justify the means" sprang into existence. It gives us an excuse to do something we know is not right.

The ultimate reason for justifying sin is fear. We are afraid that we will not survive. We are afraid that God will send us to hell, so we delude ourselves that He doesn't exist. We are afraid of physical pain, emotional torment, hunger and poverty and illness, so we steal, cheat, and lie. We are afraid that we will live meaningless lives, so we puff ourselves up with pride, or pursue material possessions, or become self-absorbed. The answer to all this dysfunction is to trust God (Proverbs 3:5–6). If we trust Him, He will take us safely through life and into His kingdom (Matthew 6:25–33; John 3:16).

Related Truth:

What is the philosophy of ethics?

How does applied ethics work?

What does moral absolutism say about ethics and morality?

What does moral relativism say about ethics and morality?

How does Christian ethics define morality?

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