Thoughts : Politics (Social Justice) : Creating Social Change: an “Ends Justify the Means” vs. “Means Justify the Ends” Approach

I’m starting to realize that a lot of differences in decision-making stems from the kind of (ethical) model or approach we take. I’m no philosopher so don’t expect this to be an article filled with philosophy. What I seek to share here is the result of a lot of reflection upon important public decisions that have been made from over the past couple of years to over the past century!

I’m focusing on two particular (ethical) models/approaches:

1) The ends justify the means – this model allows morally questionable actions and means to take place as long as they result in a morally good outcome. Utilitarian philosophy, with its emphasis on the importance of the ends and consequences of actions, would have no problems with this model. Therefore, in this model, it would be ok if a morally wrong action (means) – e.g. the killing of Hitler – is committed as long as the result of it is that everyone is better off and the greater good is served (end). The ends (fewer Jews would be killed and everyone would be happier and better off with Hitler dead) therefore serve as a justification for the means (murdering Hitler). The fact that the result of the action is good serves as a valid reason and excuse (justification) for the necessity of the action, eventhough the action is morally wrong.

2) The means justify the ends – this model is the opposite in placing priority and emphasis on the means rather than the ends. Here, getting the ends right doesn’t matter as much as getting the means right. Using the appropriate and (morally) right means eventhough this results in a less than desirable end is better than using (morally) questionable means eventhough a desirable end results. Actions done are those that are intrinsically justifiable, not extrinsically justifiable – that is, justified by what it does or the end it produces. Here, an absolutist ethic is preferred in contrast to a utilitarian/situational ethic promoted above. Therefore, in regards to the Hitler illustration above, while a world without Hitler (end) would have been desirable and good for all, murdering him (means) would be morally wrong and thus should not be done. Unlike in the above model, this model doesn’t allow us to participate in a morally wrong action (means) on the reasoning that it gets us a good result (end). The opposite is actually true: it tolerates an undesirable result (end) as long as the means and actions used are morally right. Ultimately, the most important thing is doing the right thing (means) not getting the right result (end).

I think recognizing that these two approaches to decision-making exist will help us better understand why individuals, societies and governments make certain decisions. It will also enable us to reflect more upon our own decision-making. Before sharing my thoughts of these two approaches, I think it’s good to see these two models in action. Below, I will reflect upon a wide range of significant events and how through applying the two approaches, one will be able understand the controversial issues behind them:

1) The Iraq War

I’ll start with one of the most contentious events of recent years. While America (or at least half of her population) and her allies initially claimed that the War on Iraq was in accordance with international law and thus justifiable and necessary, very few actually agree with that. Nor does anyone really agree now with the initial claim that Iraq and Saddam Hussein had to be taken out because they were linked to Al-Qaeda and the 9/11 terrorist acts. One is probably right to say that America and her allies wanted to get rid of Saddam Hussein for two reasons. Firstly, it’s because it’s dangerous to have Saddam Hussein in control and growing in power. A powerful Iraq under Saddam could cause great havoc in the Middle East. The Middle East is an important strategic location for America for one simple reason: most of the world’s oil – the world’s most important nature resource – is located there. Secondly, Saddam Hussein is an evil despot who kills a lot of people and cares little for human rights. His dictatorial regime therefore needs to be overthrown so that democracy and freedom can be established. Furthermore, a successful democratic regime in Iraq will cause the whole Middle East to take note and it will influence pro-democratic movements there and soon the whole of the Middle East will be democratic and they will be better off.

Now, I really think that the first reason was really the more important of the two which motivated George W Bush to start the war. However, both points are in a sense linked. America and her allies want freedom, stability and security in the world and the only way that would occur is through getting rid of Saddam and seeing democracy reign in Iraq and the Middle East. Only then would there be more stability in the world – partly also due to the fact that America wouldn’t have any problems with the Middle East supplying them oil if they were democratic and thus not under anti-American rulers. I know the issues are more complex than I’ve described it but for simplicity sake let us assume that the goal or end of the War in Iraq (i.e. the overthrow of Saddam’s evil regime and the installment of a democracy, both of which would result in less violation of human rights and more freedom in Iraq) is really something good. That is, the end result of the war is good. I think no one can doubt that. Freedom, liberty, democracy, less arbitrary killings…etc are all good things that the people of Iraq under Saddam Hussein longed for and that we would wish for them.

How about the means of getting that end? The means was war. The means was the killing of Saddam supporters yet also the death of many innocent Iraqis who died as collateral damages as well as the death of American soldiers.

Here comes the evaluation part. Those who adopt an “ends justify the means” approach would say:

It’s good that the war took place. After all, Iraq is now a democracy, people are free and few people are suffering or killed arbitrarily. Sure, many innocent Iraqis died and so did many American soldiers. Yes, the means of getting to this desired end wasn’t exactly good. No one likes wars. Nobody likes to see innocent people die. But look at the end result: millions of Iraqis are now free and happier than before. Thousands of innocent Iraqis and American soldiers may have died to achieve this end but the goodness of the result (end) dwarfs the badness of the war (means). Millions are free and thousands who would have died under Saddam’s continuing rule will now not die. Would you say this war wasn’t in service of the greater good? I don’t think so.

On the other hand, those who adopt a “means justify the ends” approach would argue:

It’s a tragedy that the war took place. Yes, Iraq is no longer an evil dictatorial regime controlled by Saddam and is now a democracy where its people are free. No one can argue that Iraq is better off now than when Saddam was in control. That, however, is not the point. We cannot forget that the war waged against Iraq was an immoral one as it was a violation of the rules and norms which guide international relations. In particular, the war was a violation of international law and it was also a violation of the just war theory. Because of its immoral and unethical nature, the war should never have taken place. Never mind the good consequence of the war. The point here is that the decision to go to war was immoral. There was absolutely no justification for this war.

Yes, there shouldn’t have been a war in the first place. And eventhough not disposing of Saddam’s regime would mean continuing oppression of the Iraqis, that would be the correct decision as it’s most important to make the morally right decision. We need to hold on to our values and not use immoral means to achieve our desired ends. If we adopt an “ends justify the means” approach to ethics and decision-making, a dangerous precedent could be set. If we start to endorse immoral means to achieve our ends, everyone will start choosing to be immoral on the basis that it’s ok as long as their ends are achieved. And that’s why we have so many suicide bombers nowadays. These people have no qualms using the immoral means of killing people to achieve their ends because they have been won over by such an “ends justify the means” approach.

As you can see, both views have good points to make. I want to add that a person holding an “ends justify the means” approach could actually come out deciding against the war:

Going to war with Iraq would prove ultimately disastrous for America and the world. Eventhough the war would result in the freedom of the Iraqis and democracy for Iraq, we have to think of the longer-term result of going to war. The truth is that it will only provoke more hatred in the Muslim world against America and the West. Many Muslims would be angry with what America has done and would join more extreme fundamentalistic Muslim groups. We may think that Muslims ought to be happy with America freeing the Iraqis from dictatorial rule and thus shouldn’t have anything against America but admiration. But reality is that extreme fundamentalistic Muslim terrorist groups will use the war to gain more support for themselves. Sure, rational Muslims probably ought to be thankful for the liberation of the Iraqis but the fact is that many Muslims are easily swayed by extreme Muslim groups. Therefore, the result of war is that these extreme fundamentalistic Muslim terrorist groups would only gain more support and therefore the world (especially the West) would be a more dangerous place to live in. Understanding that such an end is probable, we should therefore not resort to the means of war.

2) Singapore’s rapid development

I know this issue is a bit odd but I’ve always felt one of the factors that has led to Singapore’s rapid development is its government’s unbridled pragmatism in all it does. When I say pragmatism, I mean a way of approaching situations and solving problems that emphasizes the practical consequences. That is, it’s about solving a problem with a view that if something works, then it’s good and therefore should be done. The Singapore government’s pragmatic approach to decision-making and solving problems is thus the same as the “ends justify the means” approach.

Singapore is known as one of the four (East) Asian Tigers along with Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong. Together, these four economies are noted for their high economic growth and rapid industrialization from the 1960s to 1990s. These economies are somewhat of an anomaly in the history of development economics as they’ve been able to develop so rapidly within such a short period of time (when most other developing economies have not been successful) such that they have now reached first world GDP per capita levels. At least three of these – Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea – are also known as “developmental states”. In the World Bank’s The East Asian Miracle, we read:

Some economists and political scientists have argued that the East Asian miracle is due to the high quality and authoritarian nature of the regions’ institutions. They describe East Asian political regimes as “developmental states” in which powerful technocratic bureaucracies, shielded from political pressure, devise and implement well-honed interventions. (p. 13)

Indeed, many people believe that one of the main reasons why the three Asian Tigers have achieved such high economic growth is due to the authoritarian nature of their governments. Such authoritarianism would make sure that the government’s plans are carried out. Authoritarianism can be a force for good and evil. When authoritarian power goes hand in hand with corrupt and incapable leaders, it will spell disaster for the country. However, when authoritarianism is combined with a capable technocratic leadership, a lot of good can occur for the country. And it so happened that this was what took place in Taiwan and South Korea, and especially so in Singapore.

Authoritarianism combined with a capable technocratic bureaucracy is therefore a potent force for the good of the development of a country. But one needs to note that this kind of thinking is at odds with the mainstream (western) view of how a developing country develops. The mainstream view states that economic and social development occurs best in the context of democracy, not authoritarianism. Leaders of some developing countries (mostly Asian and in Singapore and Malaysia) were outspoken in their disagreement of this stance, claiming either that the existence of Asian values meant that the Asian culture was not compatible with Western democracy or that what was more important (than democracy) for many developing countries was stability and this would only be achieved with an authoritarian, not democratic, government. Indeed, it was claimed that giving too much freedom and democracy to the people too early in a country’s stage of development could result in political and economic instability. Lee Kuan Yew, one of the biggest proponents of Asian values and also Singapore’s first Prime Minister said:

A country must first have economic development, then democracy may follow. With a few exceptions, democracy has not brought good government to new developing countries. Democracy has not led to development because the governments did not establish stability and discipline necessary for development.

What would most of us think of such views? A country needs to be governed in an authoritarian manner for the sake of stability and discipline and until it has achieved a certain level of development, it should not be a democracy? Could we accept that? Let’s be more specific here. While Singapore is a formal democracy, the ruling PAP government has ruled authoritatively since being voted into power. For example, the opposition has been oppressed and suppressed such that the PAP has been the only party in power since independence. In the early days, they resorted to using the Internal Security Act (ISA) to arrest opposition leaders. Recently, they just sue opposition leaders into bankruptcy. Since 1963, in great violation of civil liberties, the ISA has allowed the government to detain anyone who is suspected of being a threat to Singapore’s stability without charge or trial. Furthermore, the government does not allow strikes or demonstrations, has a large control over the media and trade unions and has a big influence over wage levels. How would you feel about all this if you were a Singaporean facing all this?

Let’s face it, everyone loves freedom. We want to live in a democratic country, have our say in the direction of our country and have freedom of speech. But this has not been the case in Singapore and yet our economic and social development over the past 40 years has been nothing short of a miracle. How is that so?

I believe the reason why Singapore has grown so fast is really down to its government possessing the two characteristics mentioned above: 1) Authoritarianism 2) Capable technocratic bureaucracy. Both characteristics must go together. Possessing one only without the other will not do. Having a strong authoritarian government that is corrupt and incapable will not help one’s country grow. On the other hand, having a clean and capable government that lacks power to implement its good plans doesn’t help either. Thankfully, Singapore possessed both. Sure, we lack freedom but such a lack of freedom and the resulting imposition of the government’s will over the people have played an important role in our rapid development:

  • While the ISA act is a violation of civil liberties, we need to understand the context in which it was created. At Independence, Singapore had a majority Chinese population and was, like former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew put it famously, a “Chinese island in a Malay sea”. Thus, the threat of social instability and ethnic conflict loomed at Independence and furthermore it was only in the previous year (1964) that Sino-Malay racial riots occurred which resulted in 36 deaths and over 500 people injured. In such a context, the existence of the ISA then was probably justifiable. Therefore, while the ISA (as any other authoritarian measures) violates civil liberties and could no doubt be used to oppress people and suppress competing ideas, it can also be used to benefit the country. Singapore has been free from any major racial and religious riots since Independence because of this act and such stability has been one of the main reasons for our spectacular development.
  • The strict control over the trade unions and wages could be justified by the need to control industrial disputes and wage levels in order “to secure international manufacturing competitiveness.” (W.G. Huff). This was initially in response to the United Nations Industrial Survey Mission report that average wages in the manufacturing establishments were 20-30% too high to compete with other exporters in Southeast Asia and that Singapore’s confrontational industrial relations would be a barrier to economic expansion (United Nations Industrial Survey Mission 1961). Resulting labor controls were indeed an important cause of Singapore’s successful economic growth as MNCs flocked to take advantage of the favorable labor market situation. Therefore, authoritative measures were used to bring down wages and outlaw strikes and demonstrations but this was needed to attract investments to spur economic growth. Once again, authoritarianism was used in service of Singapore’s economic growth which enabled Singapore’s rapid development.

Put very simply, freedom was compromised in pursuit of economic growth. While we’d like both freedom and development, the leaders of Singapore knew this was not possible. They knew tradeoffs had to be made and they choose economic growth over freedom.

The person adopting a “means justify the ends” model would not be pleased with Singapore’s development model. For such a person, oppression, suppression and the lack of freedom should never have been tolerated. Indeed, democracy and freedom are values that cannot be compromised. Such ideals need to be upheld at all times. Given the choice between a poor Singapore with freedom and a rich Singapore with little freedom, he would choose the former. He would rather endure the slow development of Singapore than to immorally deny people freedom. On the other hand, the person adopting an “ends justify the means” model would be very pleased with Singapore’s leaders. He would acknowledge that the means of achieving rapid development – i.e. reducing freedom – is morally wrong but realize that if he had to endure that to become more prosperous and live more comfortably materially, then he would be prepared to do so. Ideals matter to such a person but being pragmatic is more important. If ideals have to be compromised in order for economic development to be achieved then so be it. It’s after all more important to be pragmatic and practical and do what works than to be stuck a long way off one’s goal because of the fear of compromising on one’s ideals.

(To add on here, the Singapore government’s “ends justify the means” approach to decision-making has resulted in more than just its authoritarianism. Such approach is evident too when Singapore sucks up to America in various ways – e.g. in supporting America’s War in Iraq. We do this simply because we need a good relationship with the Superpower of the world to survive. We need their military support in times of need (if there be need in future) and we also need economic favors from them – and we got it with our FTA with them, and this occurred soon after our support of their War in Iraq! Though our leaders often say they take a principled approach in foreign affairs, it’s really all nonsense. If we really cared about principles, we would take a more confrontational approach to the Myanmar issue. Instead, we feel that being on better terms with the Myanmar government, rather than isolating it through sanctions, would ultimately achieve our goals of seeing democracy come about in Myanmar. Therefore, as in all things, we take a pragmatic “ends justify the means” approach. Singapore is small and vulnerable in many ways. If we were big and powerful, we could afford to hold strong to our ideals as we wouldn’t need to fear anyone or be dependent on any other country. Because we’re not, we have to be realistic and very often have to do things that compromise our values in order to survive. Another way how our government uses the “ends justify the means” approach is in giving its ministers high wages. This will be discussed in the next section.)

3) NKF and the non-profit sector

Singapore charitable organization National Kidney Foundation (NKF) hogged the newspaper headlines here during the month of July (2005), as revelations came to light that its CEO T.T. Durai received up to S$1.8 million in wages over the last three years (from 2002-2004). He earned S$25,000 per month and also received 10 to 12 months in yearly bonuses – adding up to around S$600,000 per year. Unsurprisingly, the moment Singaporeans found out about this, all hell broke loose. Singaporeans were furious mainly at his high wages but also with various other controversial revelations relating to his use of first class air travel, his family’s use of a NKF car (a Mercedes-Benz 200), his undeclared directorships outside NKF and statements about the number of patients NKF serves as well as how long their reserves would last. Within a few days, Durai and the board of directors resigned, over 30,000 Singaporeans cancelled their monthly contributions, an online petition calling for Durai to step down and more accountability and transparency in NKF started garnering over 40,000 signatures at the end of two weeks and a new metaphor entered into the conscience of Singaporeans (after the patron of NKF and wife of former Prime Minister Mr. Goh Chok Tong commented that “for a person who runs a million-dollar charitable organisation, S$600,000 is peanuts.”)

Perhaps a bit of background about NKF is needed for readers unfamiliar with this organization. NKF is the largest, most well-known and most progressive charitable organization in Singapore. Because of its size, entrepreneurial spirit and innovative practices, it’s also attracted a lot of both praise and criticisms. It’s famous for its charity shows which are televised at least twice a year on the largest television station here. Each show draws up to over 1 million viewers and raises up to S$5 million through its unique fundraising telepoll technology which attracts viewers whose hearts are softened through the dangerous stunts performed by famous TV actors as well as the tear-jerking scenes of kidney patients.

Controversy relating to NKF boils down basically to the way it is run. NKF sees itself as a social enterprise and thus believes in combining the business and the social. In a letter to The Straits Times, Deputy Director of Communications for NKF, Ms. Michelle Ang, praised the use of “commercial” strategies to achieve social ends, acknowledging “the need and benefits of operating like (a) business.” She writes:

…As one of the longest-serving non-profit organisations in Singapore, the NKFS firmly believes all charities should be able to move away from the ‘begging bowl’ approach in order to grow. It is time to seriously study the concept of social entrepreneurship and localise its implementation.

For one, non-profit organisations, especially those set up in Singapore, should not be looked upon as third-rate places to work in. An organisation that is creative, progressive and strong will be able to attract talent from far and wide. Such talent is needed – not just in business but also in non-profit organisations – to take them to the next level.

…We hope it (i.e. the Economic Development Board’s decision to woo non-profit organisations to Singapore) will raise awareness about social entrepreneurship and why non-profit organisations must operate more and more like a company. The only difference – if you can call it one – is that a company is responsible to its shareholders and a non-profit organisation to its beneficiaries.

NKF indeed functions very differently from most non-profit organizations in Singapore and even in the world. The business approach NKF takes to achieving social ends has resulted in certain practices deemed controversial for a non-profit organization like:

  • NKF employees receiving market wages or near market wages, with its former CEO T.T. Durai earning a salary of around S$600,000 a year.
  • Its use of attractive prizes like condominiums and cars in their charity shows to attract people to donate to them.
  • Treating patients in an undignifed way by showcasing them in the charity shows for the purpose of arousing donor sympathy.
  • Its use of aggressive sales techniques during their “prevention marketing” where they push hard for a donation from those who have just received their free basic health checks.
  • Its use of defamation suits against people who have spoken ill or wrongly of NKF.

What ought we to think about the NKF practices above? Again, it depends on the kind of ethical model one adopts. If one were to hold on to the “ends justify the means” model, one would have no problem with the above practices. The above practices are some of the more extreme business-inspired practices. There are, however, other more moderate business-inspired practices which I’ll mention later. For the time being, let’s evaluate the above practices. Let’s hear from an imaginary employee of NKF adopting the “ends justify the means” model as he defends the above practices:

Why pay market rate wages? To put it very simply: better pay = better talents attracted = better managed organization = more saved lives. As NKF Children’s Medical Fund Chairman Dr. Gerard Chuah said in an article by The Straits Times’ Susan Long entitled “The NKF: Controversially ahead of its time?” (19th April, 2004), “We want to get the best people we can find who will run good programmes to save more lives.” In another article entitled “Charity CEOs deserve high pay: US expert” (7th September, 2005), Ms Colette Murray, the former chair of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), was quoted as saying: “Why should a CEO of a charity not be paid the same as the CEO of a business with the same size and complexity? The marketplace is a good system to determine pay cheques.” Therefore, to save lives, we need a well managed organization and to get that we need to attract talents. And the only way to attract talented employees is through paying market rate wages. Any less and you won’t get the best.

We offer attractive prizes like condominiums and cars and we showcase our patients in our Charity Shows so that we can raise more money. People may donate out of greed for wanting to win the prizes or may donate because their sympathies are aroused. Ultimately, this doesn’t matter as much to us so long as more money is raised so that more people can be helped and more lives saved.

In regards to our aggressive fundraising during our “prevention marketing”, we make no apologies for our “heartfelt pleas”. We may put pressure on people to donate monthly but never force them to do so. Again, it’s all to raise more money and ultimately our patients benefit.

Lastly, the defamation suits are to protect our reputation. If false things are said about us and our reputation becomes ruined, people will stop supporting us and its our patients who suffer ultimately.

I understand the above concerns that many in the public have. Many may not agree with our adoption of such business-inspired practices, but one must not doubt the motive of NKF. We do the above things ultimately because we want to raise more money to save move lives. The public may disagree with our means of achieving this but we adopt an “ends justify the means” ethical approach and that’s why we do these things. Our utmost concern is to save lives and help people and if by doing the above we can save more lives, we would rather do that than adopting less controversial means but end up raising less money and saving less lives.

What would a person who adopts the “means justify the ends” model have to say?

Adopting the above extreme business-inspired practices may raise more money for kidney patients but at the cost of compromising our values. The issue of paying market rate wages is just plain wrong. It’s not the “ends that justify the means” but rather the “means that justify the ends.” The means of reaching the end is thus more important, regardless of what end is achieved. The means cannot be compromised for the purposes of achieving a better end. Adopting the above practices compromises the means. People ought to be in this business not for money but out of compassion. The spirit of compassion ought to motivate them to want to commit their lives to help people, not the attraction of high wages. Sanjit Bunker Roy, the inspirational founder of The Barefoot College who earns a mere S$77 a month in India, said, “A volunteer is one who gets a living wage, not a market wage”. Indeed, that’s something to ponder over. While such a radical practice will not work in most countries and with most people, the point to be taken is that we ought to be in the job to help the poor and unfortunate out of compassion, not for the money. Our motive should be as pure as possible, rather than being tainted with greed or materialism. A truly compassionate person will not demand more than getting a living wage – i.e. a wage to survive on. He will not demand a market wage because getting more pay from the organization means less money to help the poor. He need not be wooed from the corporate world through market rate wages simply because his heart is to help the poor anyway. Wages ought not to matter for such a person and indeed we are compromising our values by hiring a person who would only have joined our non-profit organization because of the offer of market rate wages. Do we really want to hire a person attracted by the money? Do we really want to promote such compromised values? These questions are just as important, if not more, than the question of how much we will raise for the poor. Get the means right and we should live comfortably with whatever end results. That’s because the “means justify the ends” and not the other way round.

The use of prizes during charity shows to get people to donate doesn’t promote compassion, but rather taps on people’s greed. While this certainly gives an incentive for people to donate and increases the amount of money raised, this practice once again compromises the value that non-profit-ism is all about: compassion. Charitable organizations ought to be promoting compassion in all they do. Tapping on greed gives out mix signals as to what our values are. Showcasing patients may be a good way to manipulate people’s emotions and raise even more money yet such a practice is devoid of the respect and dignity we ought to treat our patients with. They are after all worthy human beings, not tools for the use of achieving our ends. Therefore, while pursuing an undoubtedly worthy end (of raising more money to save more lives), the tragedy is that values are being compromised in the midst of it all.

The above extreme business-inspired practices would be accepted (and admired) if one were to hold on to a “ends justify the means” model, and would be criticized if the alternative model were to be held. However, I do think a person holding to the alternative “means justify the ends” model would probably be able to accept some of NKF’s business-inspired practices which are more moderate in nature. Let me mention three such practices which I think do not compromise non-profit values and principles and thus ought to be acceptable in the light of both ethical approaches to social change:

1) NKF’s innovative “prevention marketing”. While I think being too pushy and aggressive in soliciting donations during its “prevention marketing” is due to the influence of the business sales mindset, I can’t fault the practice of “prevention marketing” when done in a less aggressive way. The practice, I think, is certainly very innovative and admirable. Susan Long, in her article on NKF (see above), writes:

Most impressive of all, notes Mrs Tan Chee Koon, executive director of the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre, is its ability to tap on the health screening it conducts for heartlanders to ensure a ‘sustained pool of regular givers’.

2) NKF’s S$5 million commercial tie-up with insurance giant Aviva. I think this is another creative practice. Many people were initially unhappy with this as they thought NKF would allow Aviva to use its database of donors and thus result in an invasion of privacy. However, NKF will not do that, but rather “recommend insurance products to those screened by NKF’s preventive healthcare team.” I think most people would still be unhappy with this because most people are weary of insurance products and there’s still great stigma attached to selling insurance. As I’ve gotten to know more about insurance and financial planning/advising recently, I’m of the belief that buying insurance and planning one’s finances are very important things to do. I’ll write more about this below but for now I’ll just note that Aviva is actually doing good by getting its “clients” to think about buying health/life insurance. If NKF were promoting something neutral or bad and earning money from it, then I think such a practice would be unacceptable to a person who holds to a “means justify the ends” approach. However, since I believe what NKF is doing here is good, I don’t believe any non-profit values are being compromised. Rather, NKF has figured out how to do more good while at the same time earning more money. I can’t complain against that!

3) NKF’s reserves of S$262 million as of July 2005. Most Singaporeans reacted with shock at the knowledge of the extent of NKF’s reserves. We know there are many good non-profit organizations who struggle to survive and yet here we have just one organization that has an exorbitant amount of reserves and yet continue to fundraise aggressively to build its reserves. I think an important point to think about is if the amount given to charities is a zero- or positive-sum game. If it’s a zero-sum game, one is right to say NKF should cease fundraising for a while so as to allow other charities to get a greater share of charitable giving. If, however, the amount of charitable giving is a positive-sum game, NKF would not be wrong in fundraising so much money. In the final analysis, I think it’s hard to say what sum game charitable giving is. I tend to think it’s more of a zero-sum game. However, a lot of how much NKF raises in total is not based on people’s charitable spirit but on their greed – when money is raised during their charity shows. If so, then such money raised would not exhaust people’s giving based on a charitable spirit – since the money tapped on people’s greed. I am of course not saying such money raised by tapping into people’s greed is correct, but just pointing out that a lot of money NKF raises does not take away from the pot of total charitable giving per year – if indeed there is such a pot, which is based on a zero-sum game worldview. This is indeed a complex issue and what I’ve said here is hardly concluding but I’ll end with saying I don’t think there’s anything greatly wrong with accumulating reserves per se – as long, I guess, as your accumulation doesn’t decrease the amount of money that can be raised by other organizations. If an organization’s accumulation of reserves doesn’t compromise the ability of other organizations to raise funds, then the accumulation of reserves can be a good thing. It’s not as though it’s somehow better for a non-profit organization to struggle to survive. Rather, like businesses, it’s better to have reserves for future use – especially to guard against a rainy day.

The above three practices by NKF are practices that people of both ethical models should not have any major problems accepting. I think all three (especially the first two) are practices that more non-profits should adopt. These practices are inspired by the business world, yet do not compromise the deeply held values that all non-profits should commit to. It takes a bit of creativity and innovation to come up with such practices and NKF is the be commended for them.

(The rationale of paying market rate wages to attract talented employees is similar to the PAP government’s rationale of paying market wages in order to attract talented and non-corrupt government ministers. I stated in the previous section that one of the two characteristics of the Singaporean government that has been instrumental to our miraculous development is its capable technocratic leadership. Yet how does the Singaporean government make sure its leadership is both capable and non-corrupt? It’s through the paying of market wages. This ensures that the best talents are attracted. The high wages also ensures its leaders do not resort to corruption to get more money. Such a rationale is based on the “ends justify the means” model.)

4) The International Development arena

International development is a field I’m very interested in and in this section I’ll just mention various events and practices in this particular arena. The “ends justify the means” ethical approach is used when development consultants as well as employees in international development organizations such as the World Bank and the UN are paid market rate wages. Not only that but alot of these people live very comfortable lives too, which I think is in contradiction to the spirit of helping the poor. Furthermore, to succeed in the international development field, one has to be pretty well qualified. It’s no longer good enough to have a heart to want to help the poor but to be hired by development NGOs, one has to possess at least a masters degree or you really won’t get anywhere. (Similarly , nowadays if you want to be a pastor or priest in a Protestant or Catholic Church, you need a theological degree. Somehow I don’t think that was the case during biblical times…) Degrees and qualifications have now taken precedence over the heart to help the poor or one’s values or principles. Nevermind the fact that people spend tens of thousands of dollars to study for their basic and higher degrees – money which could probably be well spent to help the poor. Supposedly, people who have good qualifications and degrees would do a better job and that’s more important than just having the right compassionate spirit. The ends (getting quality and effective work done) justify the means (choosing people based on qualifications as these are supposed to reflect the effectiveness and quality of people).

During the recent “Live 8” concerts in July 2005, celebrity rock stars were used to galvanize the support of the people towards the cause of the poor in developing nations. Such use of celebrities goes against the compassionate spirit that was being promoted. Rock stars live extravagant lives after all and are far from being good role models of the compassionate spirit. Many performers were probably performing more for their own ego and fame and career development than to help the poor. Furthermore, though these performers played for free, each were given goodie bags containing goods worth over US$10,000. Yet organizers still thought it good to use such celebrity rock stars as doing so would attract more people to the cause of the poor. Such is perhaps the only way to draw the attention of the majority of the world’s population who would not have cared for the plight of the poor except for their favorite rock stars telling them about it. While compromising the value of compassion in the use of rock stars who are mostly apathetic to the plight of the poor and who live indulgent and extravagant lifestyles, using them is justified on the fact that more people would get to know about the plight of the poor. The ends justify the means.

A common practice of social and political activists of global and international development issues is to travel widely in order to attend various conferences and meetings held around the world. For example, “anti-globalization” activists would flock to protest at the next WTO, World Bank, IMF or G8 meetings. Often, many travel very far just to get there and protest. We also have various conferences (e.g. the World Youth Congress held in Scotland in 2005 or the World Social Forum held this year in Brazil) that draw activists from worldwide to build collaboration and networking…etc. These people who travel often spend a lot of money on their air tickets and accomodation. From one point of view, it’s a great waste of money and spending so much money compromises certain values. Indeed, people holding to a “means justify the ends” model would argue that the money could have been better spent helping the poor directly. On the other hand, those of the alternative model would state that it’s certainly not good spending so much money on travelling but it’s not a waste of money as attending such meetings would enable activists to learn from, and collaborate more with, each other. The result would be more effective political and social activism that would help decrease in poverty worlwide. The ends justify the means.

Youth Expedition Projects (YEPs) are known in Singapore as projects where youths go in groups (of at least 25) to a developing country in order to do some community development work. These are basically International Service Learning (ISL) expeditions – that is, the focus is on learning through community service in an international location. The government heavily subsidizes the cost of such expeditions. 60% of the personal expenses (including airfare, accomodation, meals…etc.) for each youth is subsidized (up to $900). The heavy subsidy by the government is a great cause for concern. One wonders if the government should spend millions of dollars to promote international service learning among youths. The money could be better used to help the poor in the developing country or in Singapore. Yet the government’s rationale is probably that the main purpose of the YEP is to inculcate servicing learning among youths – helping the poor is really seconary. The question could then be asked as to why an international service learning experience is needed to inculcate such service learning values – as such an international experience would cost a lot? The reason is probably that a local service learning experience would not be attractive enough to get students to participate and learn. In order to attract youths, subsidizing such an international experience is thus needed. A person of the “means justify the ends” ethical persuasion would disagree with the heavy subsidy by the government. Service learning is about compassion for the less fortunate and not about enjoying an overseas experience. The heavy subsidy would attract youths but for the wrong motivation. Such compromises the value of compassion and giving we’re trying to promote. A person of the “ends justify the means” ethical persuasion would reason otherwise. For him, as long as the end result is that youths start to learn about compassion and service, it’s ok that the means of “attracting youths with a heavily subsidized overseas experience” (which goes against the spirit of compassion and altruism) is used. The ends justify the means.

5) Economics, Markets and Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand”

Classical and neo-classical economic theory promotes the free market system, believing it produces the greatest benefit for society as a whole. To understand why this is so, one must understand the concept of the “invisible hand”, which is perhaps the most famous metaphor in economics. If you were looking for a concept that would best illustrate what is meant by “ends justify the means”, this would be it. Indeed, the concept of the “invisible hand” is pure “ends justify the means” stuff.

This metaphor was first introduced in 1776 in Adam Smith’s monumental work “The Wealth of Nations”. In a famous passage of the book, Smith writes:

He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it… he intends only his own security… only his own gain… and he is in this led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. (Volume 1, p. 477-478)

Basically, the concept of the “invisible hand” is that self-interest, when operating in the free market, has the unintended consequence of leading to the benefit of the whole society. This is because in a free market system where there is perfect competition, businesses are forced to invest their resources in as efficient a manner as possible or fear being out-competed by other businesses. It is self-interest that motivates business owners to make sure their businesses become more and more efficient. A more efficient business would mean making products more cheaply and would thus mean making a bigger profit margin or at least would mean a better chance of not being out-competed by his competititors. Therefore, it is in the business owner’s self-interest that he find means and ways to invest his resources more efficiently. While he does this out of his own self-interest, the unintended consequence is that society benefits as a whole as customers too enjoy cheaper products. The same can be said for a person’s skills. A person who is a poor bootmaker and makes poor boots will not be able to sell much in the context of free market and competition. He would thus make little money and is forced to do something he is good at and more efficient in. He may be good at making watches and thus does so and in the end makes more sales and profits. Not only does this benefit him but again also society as a whole as his customers enjoy cheaper and better products. Therefore, free markets and competition causes people to use resources and skills in the most efficient manner possible. Businessmen seek to make their businesses more efficient so they can earn more money and stay in business. People seek to put to use those talents which maximize their own profit. These actions are all based on self-interests. Businessmen do not seek to make their businesses more efficient and people do not seek to make best use of their talents because they want to benefit society as a whole. No, they do so for themselves – to earn more money. But the the unintended consequence is that society as a whole benefits (businesses make more profits, customers buy cheaper goods) from such decisions motivated by selfishness, greed and self-interest.

It ought to be clear how the concept of the invisible hand is based on the “ends justify the means” ethical approach. Self-interest (means) is justified because the result (end) is good: the whole society benefits. Normally, one would not advocate selfishness or greed, but in this case many would be willing to endorse it because of the good results it produces. Those who promote the “means justify the ends” approach would argue values matter and that we ought not to promote selfishness even if it achieves a good end. Many on the political left are in this camp and they decry that the greed and lack of compassion and altruism that market system (and the concept of the invisible hand) promotes.

6) The organizational, the institutional and the bureaucratic

Everyone will complain about the organizational, the institutional and the bureaucratic at least once in their lifetime. We do so when we complain about excessive rules, rigidity or red tapes. This is especially common here in Singapore where our government has been famous for its technocratic and authoritarian intervention in all of Singapore society. However, one must note (as I do in section 2 above) that Singapore’s public bureaucracy and its technocratic, authoritarian, efficient and effective nature is what has enabled us to develop so rapidly.

Max Weber has written much on bureaucracy. According to him, key characteristics of an ideal bureaucracy include formal division of responsibility, well-defined hierarchy, formal rules and procedures and impersonal relationships. In a sense, every big organization, institution and company is bureaucratic in nature: they are administrated and organized bureaucratically. In the days of Weber, bureaucracy was a clean word which meant organizational efficiency and effective centralized control. Nowdays, it’s used pejoratively to describe the inflexibility and rigidity of the an administration. I’m particularly concerned here with how it’s easy for a bureaucratic organization or institution to ignore the spirit and heart of things (i.e. the more personal and relational aspects) in preference for more impersonal and external rules and procedures.

As a Christian, I often come across other Christians who complain about organizational or institutional Christianity. I myself am very sympathetic to their criticisms. I think most complains boil down to the basic concern that Churches nowadays have become so impersonal in nature. This is especially so for big churches with a more obvious bureaucratic administration. As churches become bigger, there is a need for more bureaucracy. That is, there is a need for more formal division of responsibility, better defined hierarchy and more formal rules and procedures. We start to feel we’re part of a big organization and institution rather than part of a community of believers. Things become more impersonal and the spirit and heart of christianity and love is slowly lost. Authenticity slowly becomes a word of the past and fails to describe the relationships among church members. Impersonal programs and events take prority over real communication and relationships. Rules like one needing to go through certain formal classes to qualify for baptism, church membership and leadership positions or that one needs to attend theological college in order to be a pastor all go against the biblical criteria that it’s one’s heart and relationship with God and people that matter more than any particular qualification or attendence of formal classes. Such extra-biblical and impersonal rules are evidence of how far the bureaucratic church has compromised its values in the pursuit of efficiency and effectiveness. Indeed, the bureaucracy prioritizes the external over the internal, turning upside down what the Christianity is all about. Eventually, greatly disappointed with the bureaucratic church, many Christians drop out of going to such big churches or settle for a smaller church or even a house church. They fail to see the spirit of love and giving and the authentic community and relationships that they feel is of the essence of Christianity and prefer not to be part of such institutional christianity.

All this doesn’t just happen in the church but very much in all types of organizations. The United Nations is a classic example of a big bureaucracy that has so many rules and so much hierarchy that it has become quite ineffective in its noble mission. As mentioned already, many big NGOs require its people to have high qualifications of at least a masters if they are to go anywhere in their career. Such a criteria means that a person who has a high level of education but who lacks a good heart would be hired over a person with a low level of education yet has a big heart for the poor. While unfortunate, this is the result of bureaucratic administration. The aim of bureaucratic administration was to administer things more efficiently and effectively, but oftentimes compromises have to be made as a result. Beyond organizations, the unfortunate consequences of bureaucracy can also be seen at home and even in movements. Indeed, any type of movement that grows and needs more organization and structure eventually becomes more bureaucratic in nature.

What ought we make of all this? What ought we think of bureaucracies? Those holding to a “ends justify the means” model would argue that bureaucracy is a necessary evil. It’s not a perfect way to organize people but it’s the best that we can have. After all, all organizations (especially when they grow bigger) are like that. Being part of small organization may be better but if you want to grow bigger, you’ll just have accept that administrating things in a bureaucratic and impersonal way, though imperfect, is the only way to handle a big organization effectively. So we just need to accept that while bureaucracies compromise certain values (the spirit and heart of things, authentic personal relationships and community…etc), we need them in order to grow bigger.The person holding to a “means justify the ends” model would disagree. He/she would rather stay away from big bureaucracies to avoid such inauthenticity and impersonality than be part of it. He/she would thus be satisfied with being part of a small organization or even be satisfied being alone.

7) Dumbing down in a mass media age

Neil Postman’s magnificant classic “Amusing Ourselves to Death” taught me how television makes people dumber. “The medium is the message” is a famous maxim from Marshall McLuhan, which Postman thoroughly agrees with. Postman demonstrates in his book how any message from the the medium of television inevitably becomes a trival, entertaining and dumbed down message simply because the medium of television always communicates its messages in an unintellectually challenging way. While reading a book challenges one to think critically because understanding of a particular passage is built on previous passages, television is often filled with context-free information (e.g. during news or during commercials) that hardly requires one to think. Reading actively involves us; television, on the other hand, requires us to be passive. Television has transformed us into human beings who would listen only if being entertained and only if we’re not being challenged too much to think. That is why most people nowadays hate reading and prefer to watch the television. After coming home from a hard day’s work, we often go to the television to relax, rather than read an article or book. The reason is that it takes less out of us (intellectually) to watch television and movies. Our generation is filled with such people who prefer to passively sit through entertainment than actively involve their minds in reading a book.

Postman insightfully compared George Orwell’s 1984 with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. While people feared that the world would become like the totalitarian world of 1984, where the state banned books and suppressed people’s freedom, Postman argues that today’s world is more akin to that portrayed in the Brave New World. Huxley’s society, unlike Orwell’s, wasn’t one where citizens were coerced into anything or where the state took away freedoms. Rather, it was a society where citizens joyously embraced a life without books or freedom – simply because they have been distracted by the entertainments and pleasures the world offers them to the extent that they have no desire to read, think or intellectually engage with one another. As Postman writes:

Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.’ In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

Indeed, this generation’s youths are totally immersed in a culture of entertainment, television and trivialization which distracts us from the things that really matter by dulling our critical thinking skills. The outcome of all this is that it will always be difficult in such a culture to successfully communicate to the masses through meaningful and non-trivial intellectual discourse. Most people will not be able to comprehend too intellectual a message because they’ve become dumber. The only way to reach out to them, unfortunately, is to dumb down.

Take for example the issue of world poverty. Those concerned about this issue wish that everyone else would understand more about it as knowledge and understanding of why there is so much poverty in this world and what can be done to eradicate poverty would hopefully lead to action and less poverty. However, it’s also clear that the people of this culture just couldn’t be bothered about serious issues like world poverty and the way to reach them isn’t to be too intellectually engaging with them or we’ll lose them. That is why the Live 8 concerts were held. These concerts sought to spread awareness about world poverty and proved quite successful. Activists knew that in order to reach people, they had to combine entertainment and music with the message. The message would obviously be dumbed down a little, but at least some awareness of world poverty gets out to the world. In contrast, if a big conference on world poverty were to be held, the message wouldn’t go out to as many people because firstly the world media wouldn’t cover the event and secondly, if such a conference were to be broadcasted to all of the world, fewer people would tune in to it as compared with the numbers who would tune in to a concert filled with the world’s biggest music stars. A conference may attract those already converted to cause of the eradication of world poverty, but will not affect the unconverted. Therefore, the best way in this age to reach out to the masses of the unconverted with your meaningful and important message is to dumb down the message a bit and make it as entertainable, enjoyable and attractive as possible.

In this age, only those with charisma can attract the attention. The messenger/medium needs to have charisma in order to appeal to the mass. The medium and messenger has become more important than the message. Therefore, in order to get the message across, you need to make sure you have a medium and messenger that can do the job. It’s not good enough to have good content; the style and form is what gurantees you the attention. That is why celebrities and famous people are so powerful and in demand nowadays. They are paid a lot to endorse products in commercials and they are used widely by NGOs to attract the attention of the masses to a good cause. Get a celebrity to speak about your cause and you’re guaranteed the masses will turn up. They do so not because of your cause or the important message you have, but because their idol will be there. This is sadly how the world works nowadays: the form/style/messenger/medium has become more important than the content and message.

A tricky problem arises when NGOs, which by nature are meant to be concerned with more serious and meaningful issues in life, resort to the use of the entertainment and trivial culture and personalities to promote their cause. It is questionable how many of the performers during the Live 8 concerts could be considered true models of the cause of poverty eradication. As I’ve already mentioned above, most celebrities live indulgant lifestyles that are hardly in line with the compassionate, giving and sacrificial spirit that NGOs seek to promote. And yet these are the people who could best help NGOs spread their important message in this entertainment age. Furthermore, it could be argued that NGOs ought to be concerned that serious discource about important social issues is being trivialized in this age. They should thus be trying to promote an appreciation of more serious discourse rather than trivializing their message in order to reach the masses.

People holding to the “ends justify the means” model have no problem with dumbing down their serious message as long as the message gets out to the masses and ultimately more people become aware of world poverty (even if such awareness is still only very shallow). They would argue that we have to be realistic and do what works best for the eradication of poverty. They also recognize that in order to reach the unconverted, they need to employ such trivial means. Those holding to the alternative model would argue that NGOs ought not to compromise their values through dumbing down their message or making use of the entertainment media and celebrities to promote their cause.

8) Miscellaneous others

Let’s take a look at other various events and practices. After Hurricane Katrina struck, doctors confessed to killing (through injecting doses of morphine) critically ill patients rather than leaving them behind to die in agony in evacuated hospitals. According to one doctor, “This was not murder. This was compassion. I had cancer patients who were in agony… It came down to giving people the basic human right to die with dignity.” The decision to allow such patients to die with dignity rather than leaving them to die in the hospital by the hurricane is one based on the “ends justify the means” approach. One of such persuasion would argue that while killing is wrong, such is justified on the fact that it’s better for the patients to die in dignity than otherwise. The person of the alternative ethical approach would stress that killing such patients in any circumstance is wrong.

This brings us to the issue of euthanasia. Euthanasia is the practice of killing a person in a painless way in order to end their suffering. Proponents of euthanasia view such a killing as merciful because the person is greatly suffering and killing him/her would end his/her suffering. (Of course, the person who is suffering greatly ought to want to end his suffering!) Such a thinking is based upon the “ends justify the means” approach. That is, killing may be bad, but it’s justified on the fact that a good end is produced: the ending of great suffering. Opponents of euthanasia (who are normally religious) hold to the alternative approach and argue that killing for any reason is bad because it’s immoral.

Another issue the religious (right) normally takes a strong stand upon is that of condoms. Everyone is against the spread of AIDS but people coming from different ethical models would argue for a different route to solve this problem. Most people advocate the use of condoms to stop the spread of AIDS. The religious right, however, would be against that. Holding to a “means justify the ends” approach, they would argue that abstinance (from sex) is way to counter the spread of AIDS. Their reasoning is because promoting condoms doesn’t say anything about (and often actually permits) casual sex or sex outside of marriage. These are sins according to their religious values and therefore cannot be permitted. Promoting abstinance is a better way to stop the spread of AIDS because not only does it do that but it also doesn’t implicitly condone sexual immorality like promoting condoms do. The non-religious people who have no qualms about casual sex or sex outside marriage do not share similar concerns over such sins. For them, they want to promote what “works”. And they know that promoting abstinance is too idealistic and will not work. Most people are going to sleep around casually anyway so it’s better to focus on promoting condoms as a way to counteract the spread of AIDS, rather than promoting abstinance which most people would not care for. People who believe promoting condoms is a more effective way to promoting abstinance thus hold to a “ends justify the means” model.

There’s great stigma attached to selling insurance and financial advising because of the bad impression many insurance agents in the past have made upon the public. Insurance agents and financial advisors have often been very pushy and aggressive in selling their policies. The impression most of the public have is that such people are just out for their money. Indeed, commission is good in this line of work. While it may be true that many agents are out for the quick buck, there are many agents and advisors who are in this line because it’s meaningful. Having pondered much over entering such a line myself, I’ve come to understand that insurance agents and financial advisors are actually doing a social good. That is, clients who buy insurance and plan their financial lives will probably suffer less in future. The insurance helps them or their family if anything happens to them and the planning of their finances is something important every working adult should do. It’s too bad that the public still attaches great stigma to such agents and advisors. While I think it’s wrong of the public to think of such people as merely out to make money off them, it’s true that many such agents and advisors often come across as pushy and aggressive sales people. They are after all a salesperson and need to persuade the public to buy policies from them. Despite the fact that buying insurance and planning one’s finances is a good thing, most people are still hesitant to part with their hard earned money. That’s why agents and advisors often exert that little extra pressure to close the deal. Is it wrong to put pressure on people to buy one’s policies? A case could be made that since the agent’s or advisor’s pressure may result in the client buying a policy that would benefit himself/herself, such pressure could be justified. If without the pressure, the potential client doesn’t buy any policy and ends up being worse off as a result, a person holding on to the “ends justify the means” approach would argue that the pressure on the potential client would be justified if because of it the client eventually buys policies that benefits his/her life.

A few movies I watched during my student exchange in Canada illustrates very well the utilitarian “ends justify the means” model. I’ll comment briefly on two movies here. In both movies, something bad is done in order for something good to occur. As I have written elsewhere, the movie Swordfish “is about a group of people robbing a bank of billions of dollars for the purpose of… funding anti-terrorist terrorist activities! That’s basically doing wrong in order to prevent more wrong! Now, is that right or wrong?” It depends on which ethical model you hold to. In Phone Booth, a man (Stuart) who harbors thoughts of cheating on his wife finds himself stuck in a phone booth. On the other line is a man who accuses Stuart of being “guilty of inhumanity to your fellow man”. The voice tells Stuart that if he leaves the phone booth, he’ll be shot dead. To show Stuart he means business, a man is killed outside the phone booth. The police arrive and a crowd gathers, everyone believing Stuart was the killer. The voice then tells Stuart that if he wants to live, he is to confess to his wife (who is now in the crowd) that he was thinking of having an affair with another woman. We find out that the mysterious man is doing all this to Stuart as he wants “to teach you (Stuart) to obey.” Is it right for this man to do what he’s doing to Stuart? Indeed he’s hoping that through this experience Stuart would change and be a better man and more faithful husband. Yet, is it right to use such means to bring about such a change? Yes, if you believe that the “ends justify the means.”

You’ll find in the game of soccer two kinds of managers and fans. On the one hand, there are those who believe playing beautiful, attractive and attacking football is the most important thing. On the other hand, there are those who take a more pragmatic approach and who believe winning, even if it means playing boring, defensive and anti-football, ought to be the most important aim. Arsenal and its manager Arsene Wenger belong to the first category and Chelsea (and even Greece during the 2004 European Championships) most famously belong to the second. Arsenal has played free-flowing football for nearly the past decade and has been a pure joy for football fans to watch. They have, however, failed to succeed in Europe and one of the reasons has been the fact that Wenger insists on Arsenal playing the beautiful attacking way they normally play in England. Non-English European teams tend to be better tactically. They are patient, more defensive and attack only at the right times, unlike Arsenal which believes in attacking always. Arsenal’s style of attacking football is more effective and suited to playing with opponents who are willing to play offensive football too. In such a case, gaps are left opened for Arsenal to exploit, which they often do because of their attacking flair. Because the defensive and tactical qualities of European clubs are better, Arsenal has not been able to take advantage of their positive attacking football to get the wins they want. Wenger has refused to adjust his tactics to accomodate to playing in a different football envirionment there. The result is that their results in Europe have been less than impressive. Chelsea, on the other hand, has won a lot since Mourinho started managing them. He’s gotten them the results, yet at the cost of positive attacking football. Dutch legend Johan Cruyff, an exponent of “total football” – an attractive form of attacking football – once accused Mourinho of being “a pragmatic coach who fails in his duty to entertain.” Greece won the 2004 European Championships with negative and defensive football. Even my favorite team Liverpool in their 2004-2005 season didn’t play exciting football on the way to winning the European Cup. The advantage they had was in having a very good tactical brain in their manager Rafa Benitez. So it finally boils down to playing beautiful attacking football always because the “means justify the ends” or occassionally or more often playing a more defensive and less exciting style of football in order to get the win one needs – that is, a “ends justify the means” model.

Singapore continues to use the death penalty for drug trafficking. America, too, continues to impose the death penalty for various crimes. Singapore’s reason is that it serves as a deterrent to drug trafficking. While the taking of a life is not exactly desirable, the Singapore government would argue that if taking a person’s life deters drug trafficking and less drug trafficking in turn results in the saving of many people’s lives, then the death penalty is worth it and the “ends justify the means”. A similar view is held by the American government. The White House reported that “the president strongly supports the death penalty because he believes, ultimately, it helps save innocent lives” hours after the 1,000th execution in the US since capital punishment was reintroduced in 1976.

9) Conclusion

As I come to the concluding section, one thing I’m quite sure. That is, describing the practices and events where these two ethical models come into conflict is certainly easier than knowing which ethical model is the right one. It may be obvious which model I lean towards. If not, then I’ll say it now: in most cases, I lean towards the “means justify the ends” ethical model. However, I stress that this is so only “in most cases”.

Gandhi – a person I admire greatly – wrote:

They say ‘means are after all means’. I would say ‘means are after all everything’. As the means so the end.

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.

I feel that our progress towards the goal will be in exact proportion to the purity of our means.

As one can tell, Gandhi would never agree with an “ends justify the means” ethical model as he considers purity in means too important to compromise. This explains why he was against violence and rather held firm to non-violence as a means to change.

I’m quite inclined (more or less) to believe that another one of my heros (and my savior!), Jesus Christ, would hold to similar views. I believe Christians are called to be obedient. Many times we do things for God and people and don’t see the result we want or expect. But because we believe God is in control, we ought to leave the results and outcomes to Him. We’re really called to be faithful and obedient and to leave everything else up to Him. We really aren’t called to get the right result or end, but to do the correct thing. In fact, one could argue that seeking to get the right result and end (through any means) is showing a lack of faith in God and is really taking things into our own hands rather than acknowledging that God is in control.

I’d like to end this long section discussing the two ethical models in relation to an issue that has always been close to my heart. It’s probably been the issue that has been closest to my heart in the past few years, and maybe even forever. That is the issue of poverty and suffering.

I’ve written about poverty in relation to the two ethical models already here. The difficult question that has occupied a lot of my thoughts is, “How should we help the poor?”. Which model ought we to adopt? The person holding to an “ends justify the means” model would be ok using less than moral means to accomplish the end of poverty alleviation. Means would not matter as much as the fact that the end of poverty alleviation is achieved. The contrary is true for a “means justify the ends” person. To him, one ought to do what is absolutely right, even if the end result is less than desirable and that less poverty is alleviated through such “purity” of means.

Bunker Roy is probably one such person who holds to the latter view. I first got to know him when he spoke in 2004 at the NUS Social Entrepreneurship Forum. What I heard amazed me – and also greatly encouraged me! Here’s an old guy who still retained his radicalness and idealism. He was not just the main speaker at the forum but also the most inspirational one. What he spoke of so passionately, I think, greatly embarrassed the other speakers and the hosts. Besides arguing strongly against formal education, Bunker Roy also said that a volunteer is one who gets a living wage, not a market wage. And, by the way, he lives out that belief: eventhough he founded a world famous organization (Barefoot College) that aims to help the poor, he only takes back S$77 per month as income. “I have absolutely no money, ” Bunker Roy once said. “It’s very empowering to have no money. I don’t understand its value.”

I think we can safely substitute “volunteer” with “a person who truly wants to help the poor”. I’m sure he has his reasons why he insists that a volunteer ought to get merely a living wage. Here’s what I think he means. I think his point is that there are so many poor people out there and if we really want to help the poor and if our heart really feels for the poor and if we really want to do the right thing, we shouldn’t be demanding more than a living wage. Certainly not a market wage! There are so many organizations that exist to help the poor. And in so many of these organizations, the people are paid much higher than a living wage. If in fact we desire to really help the poor, we would not demand a wage higher than a living wage. More wages for an employee of an organization that seeks to help the poor means less money for the organization to use to help the poor. If one is really concerned about the welfare of the poor, then one shouldn’t demand a wage above what is needed to merely live. If so many can’t afford to live, and if we claim to want to help these suffering people, we really shouldn’t demand much for our wages. We should be instead giving away the portion of our wages that we don’t need to live.

Of course, the above sounds totally absurd! It’s radical and it’s idealistic! It’s crazy! But I think, ultimately, it’s the correct way of looking at things. That is, I don’t think anyone can claim to have a heart 100% for the poor and at the same time live a luxurious life, or a life that is way above the way the poor lives. The simple reason is if your lifestyle is way above that of a subsistence lifestyle, you’re really not giving all you can to help the poor but rather using money that could be used to help the poor on yourself. Not only does Bunker Roy believe this, but I’ve already written a lot about Peter Singer’s view of the way we ought to live in the light of poverty.

I would classify Bunker Roy (and also Peter Singer) as holding to an ethical model of “means justify the ends” because to them, living a non-luxurious simple lifestyle is the correct and moral thing to do in the light of great poverty in the world. Such people stubbornly place values above all else. They live by principles rather than have their life dictated by what produces the best outcomes. This would be in contrast to those who argue that what’s important is the end of poverty alleviation and therefore if someone were to live a luxurious lifestyle but ultimately contributed more to poverty alleviation, such would be more desirable. These are the people who would justify their lifestyles and the money they spend by pointing to the end product. They see no wrong in living a relatively luxurious lifestyle as long as that enables them to help the poor. Perhaps they may argue that rather than going to the third world straight away or helping the poor immediately by giving most of their money to help them, they ought to spend their money to get a better degree so that equipped with a better education they would be able to help the poor more effectively. Or maybe they will say that they need to live a relatively rich lifestyle in order to mix with the elite of society so they can influence them to contribute more to the poor. For them, it’s not about how one lives one’s life as much as what one’s life results in.

Needless to say, my thoughts are more inclined to the view of Bunker Roy and Peter Singer. The thinking of Peter Singer has been one of the greatest inspirations to me, while the life of Bunker Roy and people like him (e.g. Archbishop of Buenos Aires Jorge Mario Bergoglio) not only greatly inspires me, but also encourages me in my idealism. It’s so easy to be influenced by the 99% of the world’s population who live pragmatic lives and that’s why it’s os refreshing and challenging to know people out there living radical and idealistic lifestyles.

I think Jesus and the Bible also calls for radical living, and yet so few Christians understand how counter-cultural (counter-pragmatic living) Christianity is. For example, nobody follows Acts 2:44-45 or Acts 4:32-35 nowadays – verses which, by the way, affirm Peter Singer’s and Bunker Roy’s thinking. The beatitudes calls for extremely radical and counter-cultural living. Indeed, Christians ought to be people that are so different from the world that they attract the world. God is clearly portrayed in the Bible as being inclined towards the poor, suffering and marginalized, yet Christians and Christian leaders nowadays are much more comfortable with the rich, elite and powerful of society. True greatness, according to Jesus, is not about being rich or powerful or hanging around with the elite of society. It is not about being famous or respected or looked up upon by the world. Rather, it’s about serving and being a slave of all. The first shall be last, and the last shall be first. And it’s only when we’re weak in our power, then we’re truly strong in God’s power. Such thinking could not be more contrary to what the culture nowadays tell us! Indeed, I truly doubt Jesus would advocate an “ends justify the means” approach to eradicating poverty. Such an approach often implies conforming to the world’s standards. To get things done, we often have to conform our values and principles to that of the world. Sure, we may help more poor in the end, but I think as Christians, our call is to be radical and counter-cultural. Our call is to live according to kingdom values, without compromising. The end result, we leave to God.

More can be said, more ought to be said, the above piece could have been written more clearly, more thinking needs to be done, but i’ll leave it at here.

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3 Comments

  1. It is a beautiful articulation of a dilemma we are often placed in our life; the author has placed various comments in a very interesting manner and the article is not only thought provoking but also paves a way to better thinking. Thanks

  2. About Jesus going about helping the down and out the lepers, the blind, the demon possessed and always quick to scold the hypocrites of their religiosities and their rituals blah blah blah – we need to re-think about the kingdom of God – yes its nothing unclean about the rich people but if all they gravitate around is extending their own kingdoms, it is sad for them, not for those who believe that it is more blessed to give than to receive. We receive in order to give, not in order to get rich. Yes we receive because part of the finances go to our own basic needs, repeat basic needs not WANTS. SO when the time comes for me to start a fellowship I will remember about “does the end justify the means?” discussion. Would to God that many other young men like you be raised up in all parts of the world and they can unite so that the voice of grace and mercy not only rings loud but starts to be interpreted into real works to benefit mankind.

  3. yes Jonathan i would like to have the book “Amusing ourselves to death” this is what I believe is eroding the values of our youths and even senior adults.

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