I argued here that it is entirely possible for someone to be right about a given issue and yet cause unethical and destructive results by being wrong about how one seeks to enforce the resolution of the issue. I wanted to separate two often-intertwined concepts:
- “the question of the issue”
- “the question of how the issue ought to be decided”
You could write this as follows:
- ethical truth
- (“false therefore” <– unstated, unsupported, and not-necessarily-ethical second proposition is treated as if it follows from the first when it in fact does not)
I wish to offer an example drawn from the U.S. civil war:
- slavery is wrong
- (false therefore: states therefore do not have the right to secede from the Union, if their motive is to preserve slavery)
Everyone (I hope) agrees that slavery is wrong, but the question of states’ rights should have been recognized as a separate question – and our failure to do so caused not only a terrible war, but continues to cause harm even today.
The reality is, until the war used “might makes right” to change the rules, the states did have the right to secede from the Union. The U.S. derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed. Its Declaration of Independence announces the U.S. to be within its rights to secede from Britain on the same grounds that the South argued in its secession. Today it is commonplace to argue (if anyone even thinks about it at all) that, the real world being what it is, it is simply not possible to maintain the integrity of the nations’ legitimacy. I disagree – and not only that, but I believe that we’d have a better world today if we hadn’t chosen to prioritize certain short-term outcomes over legitimacy, integrity, and founding principles.
And it’s just not true that the level of hatred in that war was necessary, or that the North was righteous. The North got carried away by the politics of revenge. The various ways in which Southerners were punished for the war was not motivated by concern for the former slaves. That was about payback based on scapegoating.
It is taught that the urgency of “the cause” justified the ethical breach, but the outcomes actually do more to disprove than prove the idea that the “ends justify the means”. Postwar U.S. race relations were the stuff of nightmares. The K.K.K. might not even exist if we hadn’t handled the resolution of the slavery issue so badly.
And the effects lingered. Hostility remained institutionalized through over half of the 20th century. A proper resolution to the situation could very well have saved or spared the lives of all the people murdered (or, worse, lynched) up through the Civil Rights Movement.
And even today, the South remains backwards in both its economic growth and its race relations.
The war itself is another example of ethically mishandled change justified by the ethical urgency of the situation:
- the South is wrong/we must win this war
- therefore Sherman’s “march to the sea” is justifiable
That “march to the sea” – and the ethical violations that were part of that – remains with us today. The “Deep South” has still not recovered from the horrific effects of those salted fields.
I was 15 years old when I moved from California to Huntsville, Alabama. It was like moving to an American compound in a backwards country. There are people there living in one room tar paper shacks. There are people who don’t get federal benefits because they are too illiterate to fill out the forms. I shudder to think what today’s South would look like if Lyndon Johnson had not specifically routed new military construction and all the big space program development toward southern states (in what I assume was an attempt to revive a dying region).
I am currently writing this from the western or “Hatfield” side of the Appalachian mountains. I say “Hatfield” in reference to the famous Hatfield/McCoy feud. Growing up, I thought the feud was something that just magically sprang up (because that’s what hillbillies do…
…or maybe Bugs Bunny had something to do with it?) but it seems the feud has roots in the civil war. So now the feud is, in my mind, linked to the stories and the “brother against brother” character of that war.
The problem with “the ends justifies the means” is that you’re borrowing short-term resolution but you’re doing it by contracting for long-term misery.