Does the end justify the means? All of us struggle with this issue, and understandably so. It’s extremely important, but it’s also a tough question to answer consistently. While it may sound nice to say that the end doesn’t justify the means and that we should never do evil to achieve a good end, there are definitely times when it may seem like a good motive should outweigh the evil means we use to achieve it. So as Catholics, where should we stand on this question? Does the end justify the means, or are certain acts always wrong no matter what our motives may be?
The Catholic Answer
Both the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church give a very clear answer to this question:
The end does not justify the means. (CCC 1759)
There are concrete acts that it is always wrong to choose...One may not do evil so that good may result from it. (CCC 1761)
And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just. (Romans 3:8)
The two quotes from the Catechism are crystal clear, but the one from Scripture is a bit more difficult. In this verse, St. Paul is asking a rhetorical question. He’s asking if we can “do evil that good may come,” and he considers it such a ridiculous question that he doesn’t even bother to give it a proper answer. Instead, he just dismisses it by saying, “Their condemnation is just,” meaning that people who do evil to achieve a good result are rightly condemned precisely because the end doesn’t justify the means.
Consequently, for us Catholics, the answer is a clear and emphatic NO. The end does not justify the means, so there are some acts that are always wrong no matter what.
Everything for God
And why is that so? Why can’t we perform what would normally be a bad act in order to bring about a greater good? The answer, I would suggest, begins with a few Scripture passages:
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31)
And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:17)
These verses don’t explicitly tell us why the end doesn’t justify the means, but they contain the key to understanding this principle. They tell us that everything we do has to be done for God (at least in some sense). Now, that’s a very dense concept, and unpacking it would take us way too far from our main topic here, but suffice it to say that at the very least, this means that we can’t do anything that contradicts God’s nature (which is love; cf. 1 John 4:8, 16) or our obligation to imitate Him (Matthew 5:48). Such actions can’t be done for him; they can’t fit into a life that’s “all to the glory of God.” As Pope St. John Paul II explained:
Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature "incapable of being ordered" to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church's moral tradition, have been termed "intrinsically evil" (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances. (Veritatis Splendor 80)
In other words, it’s not enough for our lives to be ordered to God in general or on the whole. Rather, our every individual action has to be ordered to him. Every single thing we do has to be guided by his nature, which is love, but certain acts are unloving by their very nature. Take murder for example. If I murder someone, I’m not loving them, so no matter what good consequences may come of it, the act contradicts God’s nature and my obligation to be like him in everything I do. As John Paul II would say, it’s “incapable of being ordered to God,” and as Paul the Apostle would say, it’s incapable of being done “to the glory of God.”
Why Means Matter
And that’s why the end doesn’t justify the means. Certain acts are intrinsically unloving and simply can’t fit into a life lived entirely for God, so they’re always wrong no matter what. No good motive or intention can make them right, so they’re always off limits for us, with no ifs, ands, or buts.