I’m concerned about a better world. I’m concerned about justice; I’m concerned about brotherhood; I’m concerned about truth. And when one is concerned about that, he can never advocate violence. For through violence you may murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar, but you can’t establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate through violence. Darkness cannot put out darkness; only light can do that.
– Martin Luther King, Jr. (1967)
Something I’ve been working on personally is becoming more in control of my emotions and, more importantly, trying not to immediately respond when something makes me angry. In order to do this, I’ve found it necessary to be conscious of the anger itself. Specifically, I’ve noticed that when we get angry we tend to move into a state of mind that is obsessively focused on the source of this anger. We dwell on how we were wronged over and over in our minds like an uncontrollable movie, which then makes us even more angry. In an attempt to stop the movie and momentarily feel better about the situation, we tend to lash out. It feels good for a second, but it almost never gets you anywhere.
Anger and fear are two emotions that serve important evolutionary purposes and certainly have their place, but I’ve found neither to be productive when it comes to solutions to serious problems, or to establishing better relationships with those you care about. When one is angry or fearful the instinctual response is to do whatever might make you feel better in the moment. Allowing oneself to react from a state of fear or anger will almost always lead to poor decision making, unless you are actually in a situation that requires such a response.
I discussed this concept in May’s post, Do Ends Justify the Means?
I think many people will quickly answer the question “do the ends justify the means” without putting enough thought into it. The question is meant to be considered when it comes to premeditated voluntary actions of questionable ethics taken with a defined objective in mind. It has nothing to do with matters of self-defense, or anything in that category. For example, if someone is coming at your family with an intent to inflict harm, the ethical decision might be to harm the aggressor to protect your family despite the fact that harming another person in itself is an immoral act. Pretty much everyone can agree with this, so it doesn’t add anything to the argument of whether the ends justify the means.
What about if you’re walking down the street and you see someone come from behind an old lady, hit her on the head and then struggle with her on the ground in an attempt to take her purse. You aren’t being directly attacked, so should you intervene with violence if necessary against the perpetrator to help an innocent bystander? Again, I think the right and ethical decision here is to step in to try to help the victim if possible.
In both these cases the negative “means” of violence you might be required to use against violent aggressors do indeed justify the ends — in the first instance the protection of your family, and in the second a vulnerable old lady. Given these examples, one might be led to believe that the ends can often justify the means, but I would argue that this only holds true in extreme examples such as the ones described above, and that for a principled person, the ends almost never justify the means.
When people seriously consider whether the ends of a particular action justify the means, it’s almost never in relation to scenarios like the ones described above for two reasons. First, those are extremely rare situations that many people (in the developed world at least) will only experience a few of times in the course of a lifetime, if that. On the other hand, many of us face constant but often overlooked ethical dilemmas on a daily or weekly basis. We all face situations where we are confronted with the choice to do something we know is wrong, but perhaps do it anyway either for instant gratification or in the pursuit of a larger goal.
The point is that most of us (at least here in the U.S.) rarely find ourselves in situations where the proper course of action would be to respond instinctually from a state of fear or anger. For most of us, the best course of action is to become aware of our anger and acknowledge that it is a normal response, but to also then recognize that this state of mind must be transcended in order to come up with conscious and productive ways to overcome the root problem. This is the wisdom the spiritual masters of all faiths throughout history have taught us. Easier said than done for sure, but that doesn’t make it any less true or important.
This is part of what it means to be more conscious, or aware. It means you’ve learned to acknowledge the constant presence of the crazy “monkey mind” which tends to dominate human thought. Recognizing it is the crucial first step, taming it is a whole other ballgame, and one I am only beginning to work on.