Does The End Ever Justify the Means?

Brian Kinsley
4 min readApr 23, 2021

The end always justifies the means but it does not justify any and all means. The phrase, “The end justifies the means.” is attributed to Niccolò Machiavelli but not exactly in this formulation. In his book ,The Prince, dedicated to the Medici family, Machiavelli argues that it is unwise to attempt to try and thwart the ambitions of a powerful ruler as they have all the resources to resist. He goes on to say;

“For that reason, let a prince have the credit of conquering and holding his state, the means will always be considered honest, and he will be praised by everybody because the vulgar are always taken by what a thing seems to be and by what comes of it; and in the world there are only the vulgar, for the few find a place there only when the many have no ground to rest on.”

If this is the origin of the expression, it is more subtle and is applied to those in power.

“What’s more, it’s not clear that Machiavelli is being completely serious here. Philosopher and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau long maintained that The Prince was a work of satire that sought to expose the cynicism of one-man rule. This doesn’t sound that far-fetched when you consider that Machiavelli was arrested and tortured by agents of the Medici family,. ..and there’s no denying that Machiavelli had an impish streak; during his later years, he wrote several popular — and politically stinging — satirical comedies for the stage. Eoin O’Carroll (

However the modern formulation, “The end justifies the means” has considerable currency, even though it is usually placed in a pejorative context. It is directed at people who justify a particular end by engaging in unjust means, arguing that the end is so important that you can use any means to get there. But taken at its face value it is simply a truism. Any action (that is means) you take should be undertaken to achieve an end. I set off on my bicycle to get some exercise, to do some shopping or to enjoy the summer flowers. In each of those cases, I have a means (not the only means) and an end. To have no end would seem irrational, like Sisyphus rolling his stone endlessly up the hill only to have it roll down the otters side.

Let me illustrate with a personal story. When I was in high school in Flin Flon I was driving home with a friend and we noticed the car ahead of us was caught in the rain gutter at the side of the road and moving very slowly. Suspicious, we pulled up beside the driver and asked him to stop. He did. We determined he was drunk. We had three reasonable options (means): stay there while one of us went to a home nearby and called the police; tell him to move over and drive him home or do what we did. We told him to drive the few blocks to his home while we followed him to make sure he did not hurt himself or anyone else. We did not even consider hauling him out of his car and beating the pulp out of him, just. to teach him a lesson.

The important point: the end always justifies the means. That is, without a means there is no end. However, not all means are justified. Under most circumstances, your means should be reasonable and moral as should your ends. We did not compound the problem of encountering an illegal act of drunk driver by committing an even more serious offence.

Are there times when there is only one method of achieving an essential end even though the means might be deadly? Some years ago a man was working in his second floor office and ignored the doorbell because he did not want to be disturbed. He then heard the window break in his door. He grabbed his shotgun and proceeded to the top of the stairs where he saw a man with a crow bar proceeding towards him. He shot and killed him. While it was considered a justifiable homicide, he has had nightmares for months and regrets his action, so not even he felt the end justified these means.

In both Canada and the U.S., more often than in the past, police officers are coming under more scrutiny and being charged if it is deemed that they used unreasonable force.

From my point of view, first and foremost, the end should be moral, that is it should not needlessly or deliberately harm others (see my discourse on The Golden Rule). Second, an immoral means should only be justified if it is the only means and the end is justifiable.