Do Ends justify the means ever?

Does the Church teach that the ends never justify the means? Jesus did say ‘turn the other cheek’ but does that mean that during WWII, for example, it would have been wrong to assassinate Hitler?

I read about a moral dilemma recently: a man is in a concentration camp and is told to kill his own son or if he doesn’t then he himself will be killed along with the other inmates. I would think that although it would be a horrible act, it would be justified to kill the son to save the other inmates. I don’t know whether this would be likely to happen, but considering the possibility, would this be justified?
Isn’t this what secret agents and spies are doing all the time? Lying and deceiving for the ‘greater good’?

This is a tough one in my mind. The simple answer from the CCC. And this covers most stuff.

1759 “An evil action cannot be justified by reference to a good intention” (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Dec. praec. 6). The end does not justify the means.

But I have a counter example:

2309 The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

  • the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
  • all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  • there must be serious prospects of success;
  • the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

The last tenant of the just war theory is clearly, the ends must justify the means ( it actually says the means must be justified by the ends, but logically the same thing). Since there is such a thing as a just war, it would appear the ends can justify the means at times, depsite what 1759 says. I even had this tenant taught to me many years ago being described as “the ends must justify the means” win it comes to war.

Now people might say that 1759 implies intrisic evils, but it does not say that. Probably intentioally, because that would give people an “out” on too many moral decisions that cannot be justified by the ends.

I would like one of our resident trained theologians to comment on this point.

You might find the Christian ethical theory of situational ethics interesting.

-“It basically states that sometimes other moral principles can be cast aside in certain situations if love is best served; as Paul Tillich once put it: ‘Love is the ultimate law’.”

I agree that love must be the ultimate law as Christ would have it.

Personally speaking, the end never justifies the means for anything of consequence - it makes living life infinitely simpler too.

I think we must trust in God when faced with such dilemmas as presented in one of the above posts, like that hypothetical father should not kill his hypothetical son to save all those hypothetical people.

I disagree with the second sentence. War is of consequence and the church seems to be saying that the ends can justify the means in that case.

I don’t understand the point of your last sentence at all.

When you are at war as a matter of self defence that is not an evil.

“The end does not justify the means” is about about it never being justified to do an evil to achieve a good end.

Not quite right, according to the last tenant of the just war theory:

the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.

The church acknowledges the “war is hell” idea. No matter which side you fight on, the use of arms is going to produce evils according to the church, and yet the evil to be eliminated (the ends) must outweigh the evils produced by the use of arms (the means).

Such is NOT accepted by the Church…

No the ends never *justify *the means.

One may not do evil for the sake of good.

No --he may NOT kill his son. That would be murder and very grave…

It is not his fault the that he and the others will be killed. That is one the heads of the Nazi’s

Catechism of the Catholic Church 1789

*One may never do evil so that good may result from it

I don’t want this to sound like I am questionning the Lord… but…

The Devil only happens to do bad stuff because God allows him to, so that ultimately good may come from it. Does that not mean something? I have often heard that in a way, Satan has to ask permission from God before he does something. God then allows it, knowing good will come from it.

So, what about that?

God’s permissive will…does not mean the Devil goes and asks for it…

Prob. not on speaking terms…

Ok, but that doesn’t actually solve it. Permissive will or not.

The end is goodness but the means come directly from evil and the prince of darkness himself.

[quote=Bookcat]Catechism of the Catholic Church 1789

One may never do evil so that good may result from it

Here’s a less hypothetical situation: Anne Frank and 7 others hid in a secret annex behind her father’s office for two years, as the persecution of Jews increased during the Nazi regime. They were eventually betrayed by Lena Hartog-van Bladeren, one of the Dutch cleaning women for the building, and all of them die except for Otto Frank, who eventually found and published Anne’s diary.

Question: Would it have been ethical for Lena Bladeren to lie to protect the Frank family, knowing that betraying them would likely lead to all of their deaths? The legalist position says no.

Romans 3:8: And why not say (as we are slanderously reported and as some claim that we say), “Let us do evil that good may come”? Their condemnation is just.

The ends don’t justify the means, but there are some instances in which a less desirable means must be chosen in order to achieve a certain good. Sometimes, love is best served by doing things that are not in themselves loving. For example, telling a lie or yelling at or blowing off a friend in certain circumstances.

However, those means must never be evil in themselves.

For example, it would be wrong to kill a child in order to save the mother.

Basically there is not contradiction in the Catechism or mortal theology on this point.

In a just war…good means must still be used. The ends can NOT justify the use of evil means.

A country has a right to defend itself…just as a person has a right to do so.

However this must be still done using “just means”…for example one can not be bombing innocent civilians as the target in some battle…

Now sometimes there can be an unintended side effect…this would involve the principle of double effect…

here is Fr. John Hardon on this principle

now one of the aspects of this principle is that one may not use an evil means…

any unintended evil side effect …must not be the means to the good end.

Hope that helps

Your responses are very insightful, thank you, but I am still a bit confused. I asked this question because a friend told me about how he was in the South African Army. Basically what happened was that he was with 3 other soldiers and they noticed a little boy following them and they knew that the boy was sent by bandits to find out where they would set up camp so that they could kill them. Usually they would kill the boy but the soldier who was chosen to do it couldn’t so they decided to let him live. Then the boy ran back to the village where the bandits were and they sent 6 bandits to kill the 3 soldiers. The soldiers on the other hand ambushed the 6 who had come to kill them. I think it is pretty obvious to assume that they were justified in killing those 6, because of self defense.
Unfortunately the bandits at the village heard the gunshots and killed the entire village, including that buy who had followed the soldiers and other children too.

SO if killing that boy would have saved the entire village, and the evil of killing the boy is outweighed by the saving of other lives, would that be justified?

Just war theory, at least in my perception, is based on the principles of self-defense and of least harm (i.e., if people are going to die, generally speaking, it is better that fewer people die.)

The problem with your scenario is this: one does not know in any given situation whether a particular result is likely to follow from a particular action. In other words, if they shot the boy, it could happen that the bandits murder the entire village anyway.

In this particular scenario, I think it shows remarkable love and courage to allow the boy to live even though it places the soldiers themselves in harm’s way. In reality, they could not have known that the entire village would be murdered. I think the course of action as you described it was, perhaps, the best, morally speaking.

Conversely, to shoot the boy and save oneself might be morally justified assuming that the soldiers knew what the boy was doing and that it was absolutely guaranteed that they would be assaulted by the bandits because of the boy. However, as it is clear, this is not the best moral choice and, depending on the circumstances, potentially immoral.

This is a tough one. Do we condemn WW2 resistance fighters in Europe who killed Nazi soldiers?

The ends justify the means or not justifying the means has to be used in context. For example, I may think that borrowing $10,000 would not be a sensible thing to do in order to buy a sailboat. The end, having a sailboat, does not justify the means, borrowing $10K.

OTOH, if my child were ill, and I needed to borrow $10K to pay for treatment, then I might say, the end (treating my sick child) justifies the means (borrowing the $10K).

In terms of morality, there is *no end *which justifies committing an *intrinsically *evil act, such as directly killing an innocent person.

WRT war, the ends must justify the means: applying the just war theory, if people had a plan in place so as not to end up with chaos in the nation, then killing Hitler, who was not innocent, where there was no alternative recourse, etc., the ends (getting rid of someone who was dragging his own and other nations into war, etc.) justified the means (assassination). In this case, assassination would have fallen under self-defense where there was no other alternative available, altho one cannot actually will the death of the person (ie, a person who was mad at Hitler because he’d seduced his wife couldn’t use the other stuff to cover up his own desire to simply see the seducer of his wife dead).

It’s difficult using war as an example in this discussion because taking the life of a human person in a morally neutral act, which war may or may not be. War has it’s own standard of morality, which I believe someone already posted. Taking the life of an innocent human person, though, is intrinsically evil and can never be tolerated as a means to an end however good.
In your specific question, killing the boy could have been justified as self defense and therefore a good act, so this senario would not have been an exception to the eternal law that an evil means never justifies a good end.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit