Belfort Bax

The Means and the End

(8 March 1917)

E. Belfort Bax; The Means and The End, Justice, 8th March 1917, p.3.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (May 2007).

The ethical point raised incidentally by Mr. Craik, of the Central Labour College, is, as “Tattler” justly implies in his notes of January 26th, an interesting and an important one. The point is, does a good “end,” or even an admittedly not merely good, but superlatively important “end,” justify any or every “means” for its attainment? On this point I must join issue very decisively with our friend “Tattler,” with whom I am, generally speaking, in agreement. That a supremely good and highly important “end” may condone, or even justify, the use of “means” which, purely personal, or even less unequivocally good, or less important “ends” would not ethically justify – in other words, that there is a relation between “means” and “ends” in such wise that the “end” does up to a certain point justify the means, would be probably admitted by most rational persons. But even here there are further questions to be considered; (1) The relative goodness or importance of the end proposed; and (2) the impossibility of its attainment otherwise than by the means proposed.

Means which are not Justified

But (and here it is that I most emphatically dissent from “Tattler”) there are certain means I contend which no “end” whatsoever, however good and important for self, for others or Humanity in general, could possibly justify, or even condone, and that even though no other “means” could conceivably effect the end in question. Let us take one or two instances from common life. The support of a superannuated and destitute parent is generally recognised as a good and beautiful aim. But would “Tattler,” any more than the ordinary bourgeois, hold an errand boy guiltless who was discovered to have been abusing the confidence reposed in him systematically to steal the postage stamps, or rob the till of the Twentieth Century Press in order to support his invalid mother? Does he approve of the undeniably good aim of the suppression of crime being accomplished by the flaying alive of the criminal?

We want money, say, for a propaganda which is necessary to bring about the triumph of Social Democracy. But, supposing one or two ingenious members of the N.S.P should discover a means of burglary, or highway robbery with murder, by which the chances of detection were eliminated – should “Tattler,” I ask, approve of their adopting these methods to supply this N.S.P. with funds to carry on its good works?


Again, let us suppose, I am convinced that the action of a particular journalist or statesman is seriously prejudicial to progress, and that his removal would be of the greatest possible advantage to his country and to Humanity. Would “Tattler” consider that the “end” justified the “means” if I inveigled myself into his favour and affection by protestations of friendship and admiration, and while partaking of his hospitality, succeeded in introducing some septic poison, say cholera or typhoid microbes (an act which probably could not be brought home to me afterwards) into his drink? I choose this last illustration purposely to distinguish it from the question of political assassination or tyrannicide in general. Even admitting the latter as a “means” under certain circumstances, its adoption under the circumstances given should, I contend, none the less evoke the horror and indignation of every decent human being.

Political Assassination

I may remark by the way, that to pretend, whatever view we take of it ethically that political assassination is never effective politically, seems to me to be utter nonsense. Had Blind succeeded in his attempt on Bismarck’s life in 1866, the course of subsequent history would undoubtedly have been changed, and probably greatly to the advantage of Humanity. From what has been said it is plain I think that all ethically sane persons, whatever they may say, do, as a matter of fact, exclude the use of certain “means,” even for the furtherance or accomplishment of the best and highest “ends.” Those who perpetrate such acts as “means” justly excite our detestation per se, and quite apart from anything ulterior.

Means that are Detestable

Speaking generally, treachery, breach of faith, inhuman cruelty, the deliberate destruction of the innocent, etc., are equally detestable, whether perpetrated for the best or worst of “ends.” The Prussians stand condemned for the Belgian and other atrocities, not merely because they were perpetrated for a bad “end,” but because they were infamous in themselves. Again, the burning of heretics was criminal and atrocious, not because it was done to serve a bad cause, though the cause may have been bad but because it was unjustifiable and infamous to itself. It would be none the less so were we to practise similar “means” on the members of the Anti-Socialist Union, supposing their propaganda were injurious to our cause (which it so happens it is not). If we once give up the notion that actions have an intrinsic quality or value we give up all pretence to moral judgment. “Ends” may be, after all, matters of opinion, whereas general moral principles are expressions of the fundamental conscience of mankind up to date, and are valid for all human society. At the same time, I fully admit, as I stated at the beginning of this article, that it is only certain actions repulsive as such to the conscience of the normal man in general that can be absolutely unconditionally excluded as “means” in the achievement of the best “ends.” Undeniably, I repeat there are “means” which, employed for impersonal and good “ends,” are justifiable, which, for ordinary personal “ends” might not be so.

Means for Good Ends

Taking a broad view of the matter, we may I think, classify the “means” admissible and inadmissible for the furtherance of good “ends” as follows: (1) Those unquestionably admissible, under all circumstances. (2) Those admissible only in extreme cases. (3) Those admissible in no case. To the first belong all such “means” as would be universally admitted legitimate for purely personal aims, together with some others perhaps, which, employed for purely personal “ends” might be doubtful. To the second class would belong, let us say, political assassination, and generally those acts which, though in ordinary life criminal are reckoned legitimate in war. Lastly, to the third class belong treachery, deliberate cruelty, direct as opposed to incidental injury, destruction of the innocent, etc. Some such classification is practically made in the rough by every rationalist thinker of advanced views, even though he may not always consistently adhere to it. I can only repeat in conclusion that to admit the Jesuit and Prussian principle that the “end” justifies the “means” sans phrase is to part company with all ethical principle once and for all.


Last updated on 28.5.2007