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Means And Ends In Politics
By Raghawan N. Iyer
Most political and social thinkers have been concerned with the desirable (and even necessary) goals of a political system or with the common and competing ends that men actually desire, and then pragmatically considered the means that are available to rulers and citizens. Even those who have sought a single, general, and decisive criterion of decision-making have stated the ends and then been more concerned with the consequences of social and political acts than with consistently applying standards of intrinsic value. It has become almost a sacred dogma in our age of apathy that politics, centered on power and conflict and the quest for legitimacy and consensus, is essentially a study in expediency, a tortuous discovery of practical expedients that could reconcile contrary claims and secure a common if minimal goal or, at least, create the conditions in which different ends could be freely or collectively pursued. Liberal thinkers have sought to show that it is possible for each individual to be used as a means for another to achieve his ends without undue coercion and to his own distinct advantage. This occurs not by conscious cooperation or deliberately pursuing a common end but by each man pursuing diverse ends in accordance with the “law” of the natural identity of interests, a “law” that is justified if not guaranteed in terms of metaphysical or economic or biological “truths”. Authoritarian thinkers, on the other hand, justified coercion in the name of a pre-determined common end, the attainment of which cannot be left to the chaotic interplay of innumerable wills. The end may simply be the preservation of a traditional order, or the recovery of a bygone age of glory, or the ruthless reconstruction of society from the top to secure some spectacular consummation in the future.
It appears to be common to most schools of thought to accept a sharp dichotomy between ends and means, a distinction that is deeply embedded in our ethical and political and psychological vocabulary, rooted in rigid European pre-suppositions regarding the very nature of human action. Distinctions have been repeatedly made between immediate and ultimate, short-term and long-term, diverse and common, individual and social, essential and desirable ends, as also between attainable and utopian goals. Discussion about means has not ignored questions about their moral implications and propriety or about the extent of their theoretical and contingent compatibility with desired ends or widely shared values. But despite all these reservations, the dangerous dogma that the end entirely justifies the means is merely an extreme version of the commonly uncriticised belief that moral considerations cannot apply to the means except in relation to ends, or that the latter have a moral priority.
Gandhi seems to stand almost alone among social and political thinkers in his firm rejection of the rigid dichotomy between ends and means and in his extreme moral preoccupation with the means to the extent that they rather than the ends provide the standard of reference. He was led to this position by his early acceptance of satya and ahimsa, truth and nonviolence, as twin moral absolutes and his consistent view of their relationship. In Hind Swaraj he wrote that even great men who have been considered religious have committed grievous crimes through the mistaken belief that there is no moral connection or interdependence between the means and the end. We cannot get a rose through planting a noxious weed. “The means may be likened to a seed, the end to a tree; and there is just the same inviolable connection between the means and the end as there is between the seed and the tree.”1
It is not as though violence and nonviolence are merely different means to secure the same end. As they are morally different in quality and essence, they must necessarily achieve different results. The customary dichotomy between means and ends originates in, and reinforces, the view that they are two entirely different categories of action and that their relationship is mainly a technical matter to be settled by considering what will be effective and what is possible in a given situation, that the ethical problem of choice requires an initial decision regarding the desired end and the obligatory acceptance of whatever steps seem necessary to secure it or are most likely to do so. Gandhi, however, was led by his metaphysical belief in the “law” of karma―the “law” of ethical causation or moral retribution that links all the acts of interdependent individuals―to the view that the relationship between means and ends is organic, the moral quality of the latter being causally dependent upon that of the former. The psychology of human action in a morally indivisible community of apparently isolated units demands that the means-end relationship must be seen in terms of the consistent growth in moral awareness of individuals and communities and not in relation to the mechanical division of time into arbitrary and discrete intervals. If for Gandhi there was no “wall of separation” between means and end, this was because of his basic belief that in politics as in all spheres of human action we reap exactly what we sow.
Gandhi’s view of the means-end relationship may be put in the form of the following statements, which overlap and yet express several distinct ideas: “For me it is enough to know the means. Means and end are convertible terms in my philosophy of life.”2 “We have always control over the means but not over the end.”3 “I feel that our progress towards the goal will be in exact proportion to the purity of our means.”4 “They say ‘means are after all means’. I would say ‘means are after all everything’. As the means so the end.”5
The first statement rejects the notion that in our actual conduct we can make a firm and decisive distinction between means and ends. Gandhi's conception of the psychology of human action requires this rejection of a conventional conceptual habit which makes us ascribe to ourselves greater knowledge, and greater assurance, than we actually possess. The second statement asserts a contingent truth about the extent and the limit of our free will, that the individual’s capacity to determine what he can do in any specific situation at any given time is much greater than his power of anticipation, prediction and control over the consequences of his actions. The third statement expresses the metaphysical belief in the moral law of karma, under which there is an exact causal connection between the extent of the moral “purity” (detachment and disinterestedness or the degree of moral awareness) of an act and the measure of individual effectiveness in promoting or pursuing and securing a morally worthy end, over a period of time. Clearly, this metaphysical belief cannot be conclusively verified or falsified by evidence. The fourth statement is a practical recommendation that we must be primarily or even wholly concerned with the immediate adoption of what we regard as a morally worthy (i.e. intrinsically justifiable) means. This recommendation may be accepted by those who subscribe to the second statement and it is mandatory for those who share the metaphysical belief implicit in the third statement.
The closest approximation to Gandhi's view of the means-end relationship is that of Jacques Maritain, who regards the problem of End and Means as the basic problem in political philosophy. There are two opposite ways of understanding the “rationalization of political life”. There is the easier way of “technical rationalization” through means external to man, versus the more exacting way of “moral rationalization” through means which are man himself, his freedom and virtue. It is a universal and inviolable axiom for Maritain, an obvious primary principle, that “means must be proportioned and appropriate to the end, since they are ways to the end and, so to speak, the end itself in its very process of coming into existence. So that applying intrinsically evil means to attain an intrinsically good end is simply nonsense and a blunder.”6
If Maritain and Gandhi have no use for the “easier way of technical rationalization” or for piecemeal “social engineering”, this is not merely because of their rejection of an utilitarian in favour of an absolutist (or non-naturalistic) ethic, but also because of their daringly unorthodox repudiation of the so-called pragmatist view of politics and the dominant doctrine of “double standards” which requires a sharp separation between the moral consideration applicable to individual conduct and those (if any) regarded as relevant to political action.
Gandhi’s view of the morally legitimate means to be exclusively employed in furthering political ends was deeply affected by the doctrine of dispassionate action in the Gita.7 He was convinced that an intense concentration upon the task at hand can and must be combined with a degree of detachment, a freedom from anxiety about the future consequences. If we are sure of the “purity” of the means we employ, we shall be led on by faith, before which “all fear and trembling melt away”.8 Unconcern with results does not mean that we need not have a clear conception of the end in view. But while the cause has to be just and clear as well as the means,9 it is even more important to recognise that “impure” means must result in an “impure” end,10 that we cannot attain to any truth through untruthful means, that we cannot secure justice through unjust means, or freedom through tyrannical acts, or socialism through enmity and coercion, or enduring peace through war. The man who wields force does not scruple about the means and yet foolishly imagines that this will make no difference to the end he seeks. Gandhi explicitly rejected the doctrine that the end justifies the means,11 and went so far as to assert that a moral means is almost an end in itself because virtue is its own reward.12
The doctrine that the end justifies the means goes back to Kautilya in India and to Machiavelli in the West, and is connected with the notions of self-preservation at all costs and of raison d’etre and in more recent times with the attainment of a secular millennium through revolutionary action. The doctrine was implicit in Killing No Murder, Colonel Sexby’s incitement to political assassination published in 1657. This once famous pamphlet argued that tyrants accomplish their end much more by fraud than by force and that if they are not eliminated by force the citizens would be degraded into deceitful, perfidious flatterers. It is not only “lawful” and even glorious to kill a tyrant, but indeed “everything is lawful against him that is lawful against an open enemy, whom every private man hath a right to kill”. It is no doubt possible to justify tyrannicide without going so far as to say that a worthy end legitimizes any and every means. The difficulty, however, is that few practitioners would admit to holding to this maxim in an unqualified and unconditional form.
It has been argued repeatedly that any means is legitimate that is indispensable at least for internal security or to defend society against its external enemies. The sole reason for restricting the choice of means is expediency rather than principle, prudence rather than (non-utilitarian) morality. It is taken for granted that cunning and force must unite in the exercise of power. Power may he justified as a means to a higher end but in the attempt to employ any and every means to secure and maintain power it becomes an end itself. The idea that one is serving some higher entity which rises far above individual life and that one is no longer serving oneself makes one no less indifferent to the morality of the means employed than the open pursuit of naked self-interest. Alternatively, we have the straightforward Machiavellian notion that the individual agent cannot escape the nature he is born with, that as fortuna is malicious so virtu must also be malicious when there is no other way open. If virtu is the vital power in men which creates and maintains States, necessita is the causal pressure required to bring the sluggish masses into line with virtu. If there is a moral law, it must be flouted in the practice of politics and this infringement can be justified by the plea of unavoidable necessity. This line of reasoning is commoner than we like to think and is sometimes couched in such specious or emotive language that in moments of crisis many people are hardly aware of the wider implications of a doctrine that they invoke for their special pleading in what seem to be exceptional situations. Hume thought that this doctrine was so widely practised that it is safer in politics to assume that men are scoundrels even if we do not believe that all men are knaves.
It is true that thinkers like Machiavelli and Bentham have been rather unfairly accused of actually holding that there is an end justifying all means to it. Bentham said only that happiness is the end justifying all means, which is more an empty than a pernicious doctrine. Again, Machiavelli never said that power justifies all means to it, but merely that the gaining of power often involves committing some very nasty crimes. A similar defence could also be made on behalf of Kautilya. The important point, however, is not the precise standpoints of Bentham, Machiavelli or Kautilya, but the dangerous uses to which their doctrines could be put. Just as Benthamites, Machiavellians and followers of Kautilya could be charged with ruthlessness (even more than their teachers), so too Gandhians also could be accused of coercive tactics (“nonviolent” only in a very restricted sense) in the pursuit of worthy ends. But it would be much easier to challenge such Gandhians in terms of Gandhi’s fundamental tenets than to appeal to the writings of Machiavelli or Bentham against diehard Machiavellians or Benthamite planners.
The doctrine that the end justifies the means does not even require any special justification for the Marxist who accepted no supra-historic morality, no categorical imperative, religious or secular. Engels declared in his letter to Herson Trier in 1889 that “any means that leads to the aim suits me as a revolutionary, whether it is the most violent or that which appears to be most peaceable”. In his pamphlet on Socialism and War Lenin said that Marxists differed both from pacifists and anarchists in their belief that the justification of each war must be seen individually in relation to its historical role and its consequences. “There have been many wars in history which, notwithstanding all the horrors, cruelties, miseries and tortures inevitably connected with every war, have a progressive character, i.e. they served in the development of mankind, aiding in the destruction of extremely pernicious and reactionary institutions....or helping to remove the most barbarous despotism in Europe.” Whether an action is justifiable or not simply depends on what historical end it serves.
Unlike Engels and Lenin, Trotsky stressed what he called the dialectical interdependence of means and ends. He argued that the means chosen must be shown to be really likely to lead to the liberation of mankind. “Precisely from this it follows that not all means are permissible. When we say that the end justifies the means then for us the conclusion follows that the great revolutionary end spurns those base means and ways which set one part of the working class against other parts, or attempt to make the masses happy without their participation; or lower the faith of the masses in themselves and their organisation, replacing it by worship of the leaders” (Their Morals and Ours). This is clearly an improvement on Lenin, for it at least provides a criterion by which a collectivist regime or revolutionary leaders could be criticised for pushing an exclusively utilitarian creed to extremes of practical ruthlessness in perpetuating a monopoly of power and privilege.
Although Trotsky denied that the end justifies any and every means, he still insisted that a means can be justified only by its end, which for him is the increase of the power of man over nature and the abolition of the power of man over man. For Gandhi, on the other hand, the end is satya or truth, which requires no justification, and the means (ahimsa or non-coercion) must be justified not merely with reference to the end but also in itself; every act must be independently justified in terms of the twin absolutes, satya and ahimsa. It is, therefore, not permissible or possible to justify a single act of untruth or violence by appealing to the past or future possession of satya and ahimsa, though no man can wholly avoid a measure of himsa or asatya or claim to possess in their fullness absolute truth and absolute, universal love. Weakness and error are ubiquitous and inescapable, but their justification and rationalization make all the difference to our personal and political integrity. We cannot condone our untruthfulness in the present on the ground that we shall be truthful tomorrow when we are stronger or conditions are more favourable. A violent revolution cannot lead (and, in any case, cannot be justified on the ground that it is expected to lead) to a nonviolent society in the fullness of time. Further, in Gandhi’s view it is not sometimes, as Trotsky suggested, but always (under the moral law of karma) that the end changes in character as a result of the means adopted in its attainment.
If the doctrine that the end justifies the means is invoked in the attainment of the good society through a single, violent revolution, it could also be made to justify repression in the aftermath of revolution.
In Abram Tertz’s The Trial Begins we have the following dialogue between Rabinovich and Globov. Rabinovich holds that “every decent End consumes itself. You kill yourself trying to reach it and by the time you get there, it's been turned inside out. These Jesuits of yours made a miscalculation, they slipped up.” Globov answers: “They were right. Every educated person knows that the end justifies the means. You can either believe it openly or secretly but you can’t get anywhere without it. If the enemy does not surrender, he must be destroyed. Isn’t that so? And since all means are good, you must choose the most effective. Don’t spare God himself in the name of God.....And as soon as one End is done with, another bobs up on the stage of history.”
Similarly, when Rubashov in Darkness at Noon points out that violence starts a chain of cumulative consequences, Ivanov replies that no battalion commander can stick to the principle that the individual is sacrosanct, that the world has permanently been in an abnormal state since the invention of the steam engine and that the principle that the end justifies the means remains the only rule of practical ethics. It is ironical that while this doctrine is increasingly taken for granted by some Benthamite planners and Kautilyan diplomats in Gandhi’s India, it has been openly questioned even in the most powerful society that has adopted Marxism as a State religion. Tile Russian poet, Yevgenv Yevtushenko, has stated, in a remarkable article, that Stalin was forgiven much in his lifetime because Soviet citizens were led to think that his acts were necessary for some higher purpose. “They steadily impressed upon us that the end justified the means. A great pain gives birth to a great ‘flow of energy’, as Stalin once declared. But even as we lamented him, many of us recalled our kin and our friends who had perished in the prisons. Naturally, to lock up such an enormous number of people required a truly prodigious amount of ‘energy’. But people did not ponder on the fact that the aim itself may cease to be great, if one strives after it only with great energy and without paying much attention to the means. We realised that the means must be worthy of the end. This is an axiom, but an axiom that has been proved through much suffering.”
Gandhi’s way of combating the doctrine that the end justifies the means was by asserting not merely that unworthy means could belittle a great end but also that evil means can never, as a matter of fact, lead to good ends. Like the majority of Russian Populists, Gandhi was horrified by the advocacy of Machiavellian tactics and he thought that no end, however good, could fail to be destroyed by the adoption of monstrous means. His reason for believing this to be wholly and always true was his metaphysical conviction that the whole world is governed by the law of karma, that there is a moral order (rita) at the heart of the cosmos. Those who do not share this conviction, which is common to all the great religions and is especially prevalent in peasant societies, may well think that a lesser evil could lead to a greater good. This latter belief, which is no less non-empirical than the former, is taken for granted by many contemporary intellectuals, power holders, leaders of organizations and evangelists (whether theological teleologists or secular historicists). It is hardly surprising that Gandhi who even earlier than Benda recognised the betrayal of and alienation from the masses of narrowly based classes of intellectuals and power-seekers, appealed over their heads to the toiling masses to find recruits willing to dedicate themselves to the Constructive Programme and the development of a new social and political ethic.
Gandhi did more than base his view of ends and means on a metaphysical faith in the moral law or his account of the necessary as well as contingent connection between satya and ahimsa, truth and nonviolence, tolerance and civility. He also rejected the moral model underlying the sharp dichotomy between ends and means. Moral life was not for Gandhi mainly a matter of achieving specific objectives, nor was politics like a field game in which a concrete objective is given in advance and known to all. No doubt, he regarded satya as the supreme common end for all men but its content cannot be known in advance. For Gandhi, as for the ancient Greeks, satya refers to the highest human activity rather than an imposed and pre-determined target. He evolved his political and social ethic in terms of a theory of action under which all our thinking and activity can be corrected and justified only by reference to satya and ahimsa, which are good in themselves and not merely the means to a higher good. It is only for the sake of these goods―in order that as much of them as possible may at some time exist―that anyone can be justified in undertaking any social or political activity. They are the raison d'etre of virtue and excellence, the ultimate test of human endeavour, the sole criterion of social progress.
In stating that Gandhi rejected the sharp dichotomy between ends and means, it is obviously not suggested that the distinction is entirely false and useless. Surely, everyone (including Gandhi) would agree that it is often possible to distinguish between ends and means, and also useful to do so. The distinction is most easily made when we are considering some particular purpose that a man might have in mind before embarking on a specific action. But if, like Bentham, we say that what a man wants is to get or to maximise “happiness” then it becomes much more difficult to make a clear distinction between the end (the greatest happiness) and all the various things said to be means to it. For a man’s conception of happiness depends largely upon his desiring the things said to be means to it. It happens to be true that the things usually held up as supreme ends of human endeavour (happiness, freedom, welfare, etc.) are empty notions, apart from the things said to be means to them. We must distinguish between men’s goals and their principles, the rules they accept. Sometimes, of course, their goal is to inculcate a principle or to observe it themselves or get others to do so, but they have many other goals. But it seems to be more realistic to think of men as having a variety of goals, some of which matter more than others, than to think of them as having a supreme goal to which all others are subordinate, either as means to it or being willingly sacrificed whenever they conflict with it. The distinction between ends and means becomes misleading and dangerous when we dogmatize that there is a single supreme good or even a fixed hierarchy of goodness.
Gandhi did not lay down the law for all men or impose on nature a rigid, teleological pattern of his own. He merely argued from the proposition that all men have some idea of truth (satya) but no adequate conception of Absolute Truth (sat) to the prescription that society should regard the pursuit of satya as a common end. He further pointed out that in seeking the truth, we cannot help being true to our “real” natures (identical with that of all others) and this means exemplifying a measure of nonviolence in our attitudes and relations towards others. It is possible (though questionable) for people to argue that the unhappiness of some is required to maximize collective happiness, that individual citizens have to be coerced for the sake of general freedom, that the maintenance of public virtue sometimes requires subjects to choose (or support) privately corrupt but efficient and outwardly respectable rulers. It would, however, be difficult to contend that the collective pursuit of truth is compatible with the adoption of dishonest devices or the condoning of untruth. This could be advanced if a pre-ordained, collectivist conception of truth is imposed on the members of a society. A dogmatic ideology may be propagated by dishonest and ruthless methods.
Gandhi explicitly believed that no person or group could speak in the name of sat or Absolute Truth for the very reason that all are entitled to their relative truths, to satya as it appears to different people. As truth in this conception is identical with integrity (fidelity to one's own conscience), Gandhi could claim that no man can pursue greater integrity as an end by adopting means involving a sacrifice of the integrity he already has. The test of one's immediate moral integrity is nonviolence, it is a test of one's genuineness in the pursuit of truth (i.e. of intellectual integrity) through one's actions in the midst of society. If we understand the concept of satya and accept its pursuit as a common end, we cannot make a hard-and-fast distinction between this end and the means towards it that we employ. On the other hand, it is particularly if we regard the promotion of happiness as the whole duty of man that one become careless about the means and violate the “laws of morality”. “The consequences of this line of thinking are writ large on the history of Europe”, said Gandhi in his introduction to his paraphrase of Ruskin’s Unto This Last. For Gandhi the polis is nothing more or less than the domain in which all men are free to gain skill in the art of action and learn how to exemplify satya and ahimsa; the arena in which both the individual quest could be furthered and the social virtues displayed among the masses of citizens in a climate of tolerance and civility; a morally progressive society in which neither the State nor any social organization is allowed to flout with impunity the sacred principle that every man is entitled to his relative truth and no one can claim the right to coerce another, to treat him as a means to his own end.
1 . Hind Swaraj, p, 115.
2. Young India, December 1924.
3. D. G. Tendulkar, Mahatma, Volume 5 (1st edition), p. 366.
4. Ibid, p. 256.
5. Harijan, February 1937.
6. Man and the State, p. 55.
7. See Edwyn Bevan’s comparison between the Gita and Stoicism in Stoics and Sceptics.
8. Harijan, February 1937.
9. D. G. Tendulkar, Mahatma, Volume 7, p. 204.
10. Harijan, July 1947.
11. D. G. Tendulkar, ibid, p. 254.
12. Letter to Carl Heath, January 1941.