Means and Ends

Consider this  principle proposed by Judith Jarvis Thomson in The Realm of Rights.  

The Sole-Means Principle for Permissibility: If the only means X has of doing Beta is doing Alpha , then it would be permissible for X to do beta if and only if it would permissible for X to do alpha.  

If the Sole Means Principle (SMP)  is correct there are  far reaching consequences and Thomson does not hesitate to use it to draw large scale conclusions about rights and morality.

Here is one of her examples.   You are standing on your  property and observe that Smith is about to walk on your newly sown lawn.   Would it be permissible for you to tell  him to stop?  Indeed,  to yell loudly at him , “Stop!”, if that’s what it  would take to get him to stop?   You might think so.  It is your lawn after all.  You have property rights and isn’t it always permissible to enforce your rights?   Shouldn’t we agree that:  

(r )  If A has a claim that B not φ  then it is permissible for A to prevent B from φ -ing.  

“No”, says Thomson.  Suppose that we change the story.  Suppose there is someone else, Jones, in the picture.   Jones is standing, not on your property, but nearby at the edge of a cliff.  As before,  Smith is about to trample your grass  and the only way you can prevent him from doing so is to yell, “Stop!”.  The thing is, Jones is so skittish that if you yell,  Jones will jump.  And if Jones  jumps he will tumble down the cliff to his death.  And suppose (somehow) you know all this.   

In that case it is clearly impermissible for you to yell “Stop!”.  You would be killing poor innocent Jones.  But given that yelling is the only means available to you to prevent Smith from walking on your lawn  it follows from SMP that it is, in this case, impermissible for you to enforce your claim.   Thus, Thomson concludes,  (r) is false.  

Now I think (r) is true.  It is a core claim of Retributive Ethics.   But I agree that in this case it would be impermissible for you to yell “Stop” because that would kill Jones.  So I agree that, in this situation, you have no  morally permissible means available to you for preventing Smith from walking on the grass.   But I  think, nevertheless that it is permissible for you to prevent Smith from walking on the grass.  You have a morally permissible end, but no permissible means to achieve it. I reject SMP.  

So let me give you seven (7)  arguments that SMP is wrong.  

1. Why should having no permissible means to do  Beta, make it impermissible to do Beta?  After all it seems there are plenty of things are permissible even though you  have no means at all to do them.   For example: Surely it would be permissible for you, right now, to eat a sandwich.  A plain ordinary sandwich.  Ham, say.  What could be wrong with that?  But here’s the rub.  Your cupboard is bare.  You have no means of making a sandwich,  permissible or not.   

It is impossible for you, in these  circumstances to eat a sandwich. Does that make it impermissible?   If not, then how would the existence of an impermissible means for you to get a sandwich make your sandwich eating  impermissible?  For notice that is what SMP implies.  

Probably your neighbor has something in the fridge.  If you snuck next door, broke in, and stole his groceries , you could have yourself a  sandwich.  So you do have a means of eating a sandwich after all!  Now, of course, you would never dream of using these means because you recognize they are morally impermissible.   Nevertheless given that burglary is your sole means for procuring a sandwich it turns out, according to SMP, that it is now  impermissible, in your circumstances, for you to eat a sandwich.   Who knew?   

How did the advent of this impermissible means  to this end render the end impermissible?  

2. Or was it that the sandwich eating was already impermissible when  you had no means at all to get a sandwich?   Should we say then  that it is only permissible to do beta if you actually have  a means–  a permissible means–  to do beta?   In which case, it is impermissible for you to do anything that you don’t have the means to do?

That doesn’t sound right.  I don’t think President Obama has the means to bring about peace in the middle east.  Must I therefore say it is impermissible for Obama to bring peace to the middle east?  

Should I, myself, take pride that I am not ending world hunger or curing cancer? After all, I’m only doing what I ought.  

3. Here is A throwing a fat man in in front of a trolley for cruel sport.  This, we all agree,  is impermissible behavior.  In contrast, here is B, also throwing a fat man in front  of a trolley, but B is doing it because it is the only means available to him to save the lives of five other people.    Many people think this is just as impermissible: that what B is doing is just as bad as what A is doing.  But it if they accept SMP it seems that they should say that, in fact, what B is doing is worse.  After all, B is doing more impermissible things that A, viz.  He is saving those five people, which, according to SMP, is,  in these circumstances, impermissible.   

4. That seems an odd thing to say.  Which leads to a broader question of why we bother calling actions “permissible” and  “ impermissible” anyway.  One reason surely is to give people– people who want to do the right thing– reasons for acting one way rather than another.  

So here is a mad doctor.   He knows five people who need transplants and is considering killing a healthy passerby to harvest his organs and save the five.  This is the only available means to save their lives. He asks you what to do.  If you think this is impermissible and if you accept SMP then you must think that the saving of these five people is in these circumstances,  impermissible. 

So, would you cite the impermissibility of saving  those lives if you were trying to talk the doctor out of it?  I doubt it.  I suspect that you think the saving of lives, if anything,  counts in favor of killing the one, not against it.

But,  why do  you think that if, in these circumstances, the saving  and the killing are both impermissible?

5. Suppose the Mad doctor goes ahead and kills the innocent passerby.  You arrive on the scene too late to prevent him.  But now the mad doctor says, “Look, I’m sorry I killed this guy.  I agree, that was impermissible.  But why don’t you let me transplant his organs before you cart me off to jail.  After all  he’s already dead and it will save lives.”  

Presumably, if you accept SMP you won’t allow this.  After all you must think that the Doctor’s saving lives by transplant is itself impermissible because  his only means to it was murder.  And how could the guy’s being dead make the impermissibility of the transplanting go away? 

But stopping the Doctor at this point seems a moral mistake.

6. Consider the following dialog:


I’m fed up with, Charlie!  Next time I see him I’m going to club him with a baseball bat.  


You can’t do that! It would kill him!




But killing is impermissible! 


I see.


Thank goodness!


Well then…how about if  I use a gun?





One is inclined to think that Able just hasn’t got the hang of this moral reasoning thing.   Generally, unless one is in some sort of moral dilemma, when you discover that something you want to do is morally impermissible you should stop thinking about ways to do it.  Other things being equal, the fact that something is morally impermissible is  a  conclusive reason  for the moral person not to do it.  

But not if that person accepts SMP.  Applying that principle you may find something morally impermissible simply because you see no permissible method of accomplishing it.  Discovering another, permissible means to your end would reveal that the end was permissible after all.   In that case it would make sense, like Able, to keep looking.    

7. Someone who accepts SMP will think more things are impermissible than someone who rejects it.  So you would think that whether or not one accepts SMP would make a difference to how one behaves.  But does it?  

Call the things that are wrong to do only because the only means to do them are impermissible, “SMP-wrong”.  Suppose that A and B agree about the non-SMP-wrong things, but that A accepts SMP but B does not.  Question: Assuming they only do what they think is permissible, what will they do differently.  Answer: nothing.  That is because if you avoid doing things that are impermissible to do  you also, automatically avoid doing things that can only be accomplished by doing impermissible things.   

So SMP is a normatively  empty principle:  whether you include it or it’s negation as part of your moral theory  will make no difference  to what you recommend anyone should do on any given occasion.  

Now this last point might be turned back at me.  Since SMP makes no difference to what  anyone should or shouldn’t do  on any given occasion why do bother disputing it?  What is the point of saying that it is permissible for someone to do something, if there is no permissible way for them to do it?  

My answer is that I think rejecting SMP is essential to understanding the place of rights in moral theorizing.  

If there are moral rights they must at least sometimes connect with what it is morally permissible.  And they do.   Return to our original example.  It is not generally permissible to yell “Stop!” at passing strangers.   But it was permissible for you to yell at Smith because he was about to trespass on your property.  Your property right gives you a claim that others not walk on your lawn  without asking and the claim makes it morally permissible for  you to take steps to prevent them from doing so.   

If you lacked the means to  stop Smith — if, say, you suddenly got laryngitis and couldn’t yell– your claim would not go away.  Because you lack the physical means to stop the trespass doesn’t mean it that it is morally impermissible for you to do so.  Likewise that you lack any morally permissible means to  prevent the trespass does not mean that it is morally impermissible for you to do so.  

What we can physically do and what we may permissibly do  on any given occasion  are mostly dependent on the detailed and extensive non-moral facts about our circumstances.  Our moral rights are not so changeable.   If, as SMP would require,  we judge the permissibility of our ends by the arbitrarily shifting and fragile  permissibility of our means we will never be able to recognize enduring and stable moral facts embodied in principles like ( r).