How do the choices we make in pursuit of an end goal impact the outcome of our endeavors? If our cause is worthy enough, are we excused from ethical considerations in our efforts to achieve it? In other words, do the ends justify the means?
These were the questions on RTB editor Maureen Moser’s mind after reading Mockingjay, the third book in author Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series. She knocked on my office door recently to discuss ethics and consequences. Whether you plan to see The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 or not, I hope this post will provide some food for thought. (Possible spoilers included.)
In the Hunger Games, it’s obvious the Capitol is untrustworthy and cruel, but then the leaders of the rebellion also pull some very dirty, even brutal, tricks to win the war in Panem. If you are fighting for the “good guys,” are you ever justified in using unethical tactics to achieve victory?
I think many people, perhaps Christians especially, would say that the means should never violate the ends. That is, a sound approach to ethics means you must have a moral end and moral means to getting there.
One big challenge in war is that the nature of warfare often changes strategies. Philosophers, theologians, and ethicists can come up with a sound ethical code—but applying anything to the battlefield is difficult. During World War II, the Allies occasionally cut corners despite the American policy of not targeting noncombatants. The bombing of Dresden, for example, killed many civilians. So did the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I have sympathy for people who have to make those choices. Ethics requires a lot of thought and reflection, but in combat, you have to make instant decisions. You have a second or less to decide if you’re going to shoot or be shot. It’s not easy to know if your means is ethically compatible with your ends. I have a lot of admiration for noble soldiers because they act justly when they could be abusive. It’s easy for me, sitting at my safe desk, to criticize people on the battlefield. My tendency is to give them the benefit of the doubt whenever I can.
War is often evil, always regrettable, but sometimes it is absolutely necessary to fight—because if you don’t, the greater evil will prevail. Of course, it’s never comfortable to reason out what the least of the evils is.
The scenario in Mockingjay, of replacing the corrupt Capitol with a new government, brings up an interesting question. When you accept an ends-justify-the-means-mentality, are you building your new beginning on a history of doing things that are ethically unsound?
That’s a great point. I think it’s true that most new wars begin because of the way the old war ended. The ending of World War I caused real problems that historians suggest contributed to the onset of World War II. Also, the way the Second World War ended raised complications for the Cold War. Winners of wars, even though justly fought, must be very careful in how they treat conquered enemies.
In American history, I look at the aftermath of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln’s policy was to let the South off easy and extend forgiveness. But Andrew Johnson’s administration, which followed Lincoln’s assassination, was about as bad as Lincoln’s was good. The country has paid a heavy price for it in the form of bitterness and racial tensions. Perhaps showing mercy would have been the better policy.
What about the question, would it be wrong to lie to Nazis in order to protect Jews? In this scenario would the ends (saving a life) justify violating one of the Ten Commandments?
If you were hiding Jews and the Gestapo came to your door, most people would agree that you should lie to the soldiers about the refugees’ whereabouts. These questions have been debated for a long time. In general, there are two schools of thought among Christians regarding such scenarios.
Some people would say that lying to the Gestapo agents is something you have to repent of, but it is the lesser of two evils. So, it’s a bad thing to break the Ten Commandments and to lie intentionally—but in this case, it would be the lesser moral offense.
The other school of thought would argue that the greater good of saving a life would mean that that intentional deception was no evil at all. People in this camp would take the view, and I agree with them on this point, that the greater good principle would mean that you haven’t done anything wrong at all.
This brings to my mind the story in Exodus about the Israelite midwives who lied to Pharaoh in order to save the Hebrew male babies. And God rewarded them for it by giving them families of their own!
Yes, in such a case, I would argue that the value of life outweighs your obligation to your political leaders. Personally, I would agree that it would not be wrong to intentionally deceive an evil power that is out to crush innocent human life.
This doesn’t mean I think intentional deception is an easy thing to do; hopefully our conscience tells us that telling the truth is right. I’m thankful that I haven’t had to make that kind of choice, which also puts you and your family at risk. The Corrie ten Booms and Sophie Scholls of history have shown extraordinary moral strength.
We’ve been discussing big topics and intense scenarios. For those of us who will not likely face such choices, how might the ethics we’re talking about apply to everyday life?
I do think many of us face temptation to cut corners. There’s a moral flaw in any theory that allows you to hold an ideal, but then allows you to cheat, lie, and destroy in order to achieve that thing. We have the opportunity to live out the greater good everyday of our lives. If we’re morally strong with the small things, then the more likely we’ll be morally strong when the big things come along.
We need a morality that’s deeply grounded in some form of revelation. I think any kind of secular grounding doesn’t work; we need a broader principle to guide us—love God and love your neighbor. This means we don’t lie to our neighbors and we don’t cheat our neighbors. It isn’t always easy. The Christian life can be very challenging, but I think it’s a deeply rewarding one.
Definitely. Any thoughts you’d like to close with?
Yes, for the New Year’s resolution episode on my podcast Straight Thinking this year, I’ll be sharing a list of thought-provoking movies. I think movies are great, especially the ones that have you walking away from the theatre wondering, how would I respond to that? I hope people will choose to go see movies like that and it sounds like the Hunger Games series raises some issues that need careful thought.
- “How to Watch a Movie, Part 1 and Part 2” (podcast)
- “Reflections on a War Movie: Lone Survivor” (article)
- “Spielberg’s Fresh Portrait of Lincoln” (article)